CfP: Roots & Routes: Movement, Statis, and Rootedness in American Popular Music (University of La Rochelle)

AFEA American Studies Conference – Popular Music Workshop
“Roots & Routes: Movement, Statis, and Rootedness in American Popular Music”
May 27-30, 2015 – University of La Rochelle
Deadline: December 20, 2014

While writers such as Adam Smith and Heinrich Heine have argued that music is an immaterial and non-referential art, the discourse on American popular music is fraught with references to specific places whose function goes beyond the mere fact of locating or categorizing music. The styles that make up “American popular music” – by which we mean the “mass-reproduced and disseminated” genres that emerged from the late 19th century to today and which belong neither to the classical nor the folk categories (Star & Waterman, 2007, 2) – have been defined, analyzed, and evaluated in connection with their places of origin for as long as there have been music journalists. Such geographical references range from streets and neighborhoods like Memphis’s Beale Street or Storyville in New Orleans to regions or states, through more relative notions such as the local (for example, the “hood” in rap). The musical discourse also operates through carefully structured binary oppositions: North vs. South, East vs. West, or city vs. country, just to name a few.

The names of the genres themselves reflect the geographical nature of the American musical discourse. Terms such as New Orleans jazz, urban blues, Southern soul, San Francisco sound or West Coast rap pop up much more often in the pages of music magazines than their non-geographical counterparts traditional jazz, electric blues, deep soul, psychedelic rock or gangsta rap. Yet appellations are only part of a more comprehensive geomusical value system through which American music is defined and evaluated based on its geographical rootedness. In the context of cultural industries, claiming a place of origin counteracts the inevitable commercial and standardized dimension of music in that it fosters trust in an artist’s legitimacy through his or her involvement with a cultural community. Consequently, artists and labels have used places as signs of authenticity – be it “cultural” or “personal” authenticity, to use Barker and Taylor’s categories (2007) – to establish their music’s value. Conversely, it will be hard for an artist hailing from outside a musical style’s established place of origin to achieve cultural legitimacy.

We will welcome papers that address the construction of musical authenticity in relation to a place identified with the essence of a musical genre, as well as presentations on geomusical anomalies – artists trying to make up for their lack of geographical relevance.

This workshop will aim at exploring the rich and complex relationship that ties popular music and the American landscape together. While American music is the means of expression of cultural communities rooted in specific regions (the Mississippi Delta for one of the earliest blues styles, the South and Appalachia for country music), cities (Seattle for grunge or New Orleans for hot jazz), or types of neighborhoods (e.g. inner cities for rap), music produces place and shapes geographical identities at least as much as it is born from them. In the early 1960s the Beach Boy’s music spread the myth of the “California dream,” later perpetuated by songs such as Tupac Shakur’s “California Love.” The making of musical territories reached an apex with rap, whose logic is predominantly one of reppin’ or representing. Rappers champion their city or their ‘hood by turning it into the very material of their songs: for instance N.W.A.’s Straight Out of Compton greatly contributed to putting that Los Angeles suburb on the musical map as a major cultural and geographical landmark.

In addition to “cultural authenticity,” geomusicality can be connected to “personal authenticity” through the concepts of “keeping it real” (in rap music) and “knowing your roots” (in country music). Emphasizing one’s geographical origins (through open references to an area code, a city, or a state) enables artists to pay homage to the cultural context of their formative years, and to maintain a relationship with their local following. References to personal history and pride in social and geographical origins also help the artists who have reached celebrity status to garner and sustain legitimacy. In some cases, this ideology has led some artists to stay in their hometown or region and to work exclusively with local labels. Behind such strategies lies a “folk” ideology that confers value to music by denying that success changes an artist’s artistic and social commitment.

We will also consider how musical genres shape locations and draw fans to specific landmarks. Fans flock to Haight Ashbury, dream of visiting the Delta to look for traces of the blues musicians of the 1930s, or gather in Seattle to pay tribute to the 1990s grunge scene and its martyr saint, Kurt Cobain. Musical places put fans in motion and promise them authenticity and inspiration: countless artists admitted to have found inspiration for a song in a special place. These effects bring to mind the law of contagion theorized by James Frazer, according to which sacred places hold the power of magically cleansing the pilgrims that cares to visit them. More pragmatically, one of the effects of these migrations is to build stylistic groupings that bolster preexisting geomusical associations.

Finally, we will reflect on the promotion of the musical heritage of cities and regions through public policies. City governments look at music festivals and scenes as driving forces for the local economy and value them as signs of cultural vitality likely to attract businesses. This musical heritage is crucial when it comes to bolstering local tourism. The commercialization of musical history has played an important role in the economic development of several American cities, and it has become the keystone of the economy of some cities of the rural South that have few other sources of income. Clarksdale was the only city in Mississippi to witness a significant increase in tax revenue in the early 2000s thanks to the influx of tourists drawn by the newly-built Blues Museum and the famous crossroads between Routes 61 and 41 – where blues legend Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil. This illustrates the concept of applied geomusicality: because of their musical value, landscapes are altered to fit fans’ shared image of them. The production of the touristic musical image then derives from a search for authenticity and is likely to be equally manipulated. However, a place’s shaping after its musical image may raise more questions insofar as it might clash with local residents’ use of urban space and interfere with the formation of local identities.

All proposals (under 300 words), in French or in English, and a short biography must be sent to David Diallo ( and Elsa Grassy ( before December 20.


Barker, Hugh and Yuval Taylor. Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. New York: Norton, 2007.
Heine, Heinrich. ‘But What is Music?’ (1837), The Works of Heinrich Heine, vol.4, University of Michigan Library, 1891, 242.
Smith, Adam, ‘Of the Nature of That Imitation Which Takes Place in What Are Called the Imitative Arts’, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, in William P. D. Wightman et J. C. Bryce (Dir.), Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. III, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982, Liberty Fund online,, accessed November 4, 2014.
Starr, Larry and Christopher Waterman. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3. Oxford University Press, 2007.

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