Nadine Hubbs playing a yellow guitar

 

How might we interrogate the sociocultural dimensions of music through queer, class-conscious, and anti-racist frameworks? How can teachers of all subjects use music to tackle challenging topics like race and class politics in the classroom? How can incorporating a creative practice improve scholarly research?

In episode 85 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with musician and scholar Nadine Hubbs about why American classical music owes its existence to gay social networks; how Latinx millennials are showing that American country music is also Mexican; how dedicating serious time to a creative practice can actually help you get tenure; and why teaching students about the powerful community-building power of music is how Nadine imagines otherwise.

Guest: Nadine Hubbs

Nadine Hubbs is a historian, theorist, and musicologist-critic of popular and classical music. She is a professor of women’s and gender studies and music, and faculty affiliate in American culture, at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where she directs the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative.

In her writings, Hubbs listens closely to musical sounds and worlds to produce new perspectives of groups marginalized by sexuality, gender, class, race, and immigration. Hubbs is the author of two award-winning books: The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (University of California Press, 2004) and Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (University of California Press, 2014). She is currently co-editing (with Francesca Royster) a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies called Uncharted Country: New Voices and Perspectives in Country Music Studies and her new book project is titled Country Mexicans: Sounding Mexican-American Life, Love, and Belonging in Country Music.

Hubbs has long worked to broaden engagements with musical-social scholarship, across disciplines and publics. She works frequently with journalists, and her research has been featured in outlets including The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, the BBC, NPR, and Pacifica Radio.

We chatted about

  • The role of queerness in the history of American music (02:10)
  • Nadine’s recent work on queerness in country music (07:59)
  • Mexican American communities’ reclamation of country music (12:11)
  • Nadine’s creative practice as a musician (13:53)
  • The intersection of Nadine’s research, artistic work, and social justice vision (16:36)
  • Imagining otherwise (18:42)

Takeaways

Critically studying American music in new ways

“What got me interested in studying the social and cultural significance of music was the fact that I had navigated the world as a queer person, a female person, a working-class person and the people and the worlds that I knew best were also working class and queer and often of color. The logics and languages I knew came from these worlds and they were vivid to me and powerful….I was driven by the lack of musical discourse on some of the worlds and experiences that I found compelling and sometimes brilliant. I wanted to speak from these worlds, into these worlds, and the worldviews that I knew and inhabited, which I saw as often unrepresented or misrepresented.”

Queerness in country music

“Being a music scholar, I have written about homoeroticism in [Dolly Parton’s song] ‘Jolene.’ I’ve written about the sheer normalcy of so-called female masculinity in country songs like Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City,’ Gretchen Wilson’s ‘Redneck Woman,”’and Carrie Underwood’s ‘Before He Cheats.’ I’ve also written about Garth Brooks’s call as early as 1992 for the ‘freedom to love anyone we choose’ in his top-10 country hit ‘We Shall Be Free.'”

Why American country music is also Mexican country music

“There are lots of Latinx and especially Mexican American country music lovers, and they’re one of the fastest growing country fan groups in the United States. This fact alone challenges dominant views of country music, which is typically seen as quintessentially white, working class, Anglo American, and even bigoted culture. It also pushes against assumptions that Mexican Americans’ musical engagements are exclusively with music from Mexico, when in fact the story is far more complex and transnational.”

The importance of finding a creative practice

“So many times I’ve heard people express regret for giving up music. I have never heard anyone who wished that they hadn’t kept playing or singing. When I was under some of the most intense stress of my career—writing my first book, which I needed of course to get tenure and to keep my job, all of which was on a very short timeline—I spent hours each week rehearsing and performing and often goofing off with my band at that time, the Pittsfield Ramblers. We all love being together and and loved playing together. We played Cajun, zydeco, and some classic rhythm and blues, and that kept me sane. Sometimes I’d go to rehearsal thinking, ‘What am I doing? I don’t have three or four hours to spare!’ But by the end, I was grounded, energized, and ready to face another week.”

Imagining otherwise

“I want a world where artists, performers, and musicians can support themselves and don’t have to choose between making art and having a home or basic necessities or health or a partner or a family. I want a world with far less inequality and a sane distribution of wealth and resources. I want a world in which we can sit with difference of many kinds.”

More from Nadine

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 85 and my guest today is Nadine Hubbs.

Nadine Hubbs is a historian and theorist and a musicologist-critic of popular and classical music. She is a professor of women’s and gender studies, music, and American culture at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where she directs the Lesbian-Gay-Queer Research Initiative.

In her writings, Hubbs listens closely to musical sounds and worlds to produce new perspectives of groups marginalized by sexuality, gender, class, race, and immigration. She is the author of two award-winning books: The Queer Composition of America’s Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity (2004), and Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014).

She is currently co-editing with Francesca Royster (who I interviewed in episode 71 of Imagine Otherwise) a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies called Uncharted Country: New Voices and Perspectives in Country Music Studies.

[01:18] Her new book project is called Country Mexicans: Sounding Mexican-American Life, Love, and Belonging in Country Music.

Hubbs has long worked to broaden engagements with musical-social scholarship across disciplines and publics. She works frequently with journalists, and her research has been featured in outlets including The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, the BBC, NPR, and Pacifica Radio.

In our interview, Dean and I chat about why American classical music owes its existence to gay social networks; how Latinx millennials are showing that American country music is also Mexican; how dedicating serious time to a creative practice can actually help you get tenure; and why teaching students about the community-building power of music is how Dean imagines otherwise.

[to Dean] Thanks so much for being with us today, Dean.

Nadine Hubbs: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Cathy: So your research in general and your two most recent books, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound as well as Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music show that queerness has really fundamentally shaped American music—what counts as American music and how American music circulates both inside the country as well as globally. What got you interested in studying the cultural aspect of music in this way?

Nadine: I should probably credit my graduate training in the field of music theory for being miles away from the kinds of questions that I have pursued in my work. My training was focused exclusively on classical music and formalist methods for analyzing it—in other words, how the notes and phrases and sections were put together in canonical masterworks.

[03:00] So the total absence in my training of questions about what the notes were doing out in the world combined with my interest in those questions drove me desperately to look for other methods. I was lucky to enter the profession at a moment when feminist and gender work was exploding in music studies and a certain group of us were just starting to talk and write about queerness.

Queerness in music, particularly classical music, was huge. The classical music world was not only thick with queers, but they were prominent and influential. Queerness was actually constitutive of that world, whether or not all the straight folks knew it. At the same time, race was also becoming an important realm of inquiry in music studies. I would say that class analysis still hasn’t really happened in music studies or in a lot of other fields.

[04:11] Another thing that got me interested in studying the social and cultural significance of music was the fact that I had navigated the world as a queer person, a female person, a working-class person and the people and the worlds that I knew best were also working class and queer and often of color. The logics and languages I knew came from these worlds and they were vivid to me and powerful.

For example, the multiracial, queer, expressive logic and language of camp as well as working class codes and logics of collectivity or “sociocentrism,” as one scholar calls it—even of the working class “bullshit detector.”

So I was driven by the lack of musical discourse on some of the worlds and experiences that I found compelling and sometimes brilliant. I wanted to speak from these worlds, into these worlds, and the worldviews that I knew and inhabited, which I saw as often unrepresented or misrepresented.

[05:23] I gave the first queer studies paper to the Society for Music Theory in 1994, which was a scary thing to do. The Society for Music Theory was focused on formalist analysis of music so things like queerness were hard to wedge into the discussion. But they actually took it pretty well.

I published an essay from that paper called “Music of the Fourth Gender” about Morrissey and the ways his music, lyrics, and persona were fabulously queer and at the same time, definitely ambiguous. I also wrote about what that might mean in the 1980s context of forced outing of artists and public figures and the dawning of queer visibility politics.

Soon after that, I wrote about how the musical codes of 1970s disco worked to create an ecstatic queer, multiracial social space in the margins.

Eventually I also wrote my first book, The Queer Composition of American Sound, which identifies a circle of very influential mid-twentieth-century American classical composers, people including Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein, Ned Rorem, Mark Blitzstein, and a few others who manage to create a long awaited American sound in concert music despite being queer artists in the most homophobic period in US history.

[06:38] In that book, I argue that these composers—who were all talented and ambitious and crucially white and male—succeeded despite their social status as sexual outlaws and actually because of that status. People on the margins, as we know, have been known to form pretty tight networks. And these guys were all kind of networked. They were friends, hookups, mutual influences, rivals, teachers, pupils, musical collaborators who programmed and performed each other’s work, critics who wrote about one another’s performances, colleagues and commiserators, and others sharing contacts and shrinks and resources and so on.

The composers were motivated in part by their queer stigmatization. I was driven to write the book in part by the slow burn that I felt from reading as a young scholar those smug pronouncements of elite tenured academics who went into print saying that a composer’s sex life had nothing to do with their music or why we discuss them and hence had no place in musicology, which in fact had actually spilled a lot of ink on narratives of heterosexuality

Cathy [07:49]: I’d love to turn to some of your more recent work on country music, which is a genre that’s often assumed to be at best indifferent to queers, trans folks, and people of color broadly and at worst pretty toxic. And that narrative is often routed through some pretty classist assumptions and ideologies. Your work really challenges that easy narrative. You show the ways that Mexican Americans, queers, Black people, women, and gender nonconforming folks have actually been really central to the genre throughout its history. What are some of the biggest myths or assumptions about country music that you want your scholarship to help address and break down?

Nadine [08:50]: Yeah. Country music and the people who’ve been most associated with it—working class, non-urban, non-coastal white folks especially—are often relegated to America’s “bigot class,” class as I call it in Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music. And there are problems with that easy narrative, including not only glomming people together as if working class or rural people are all of one mind and stereotyping them as bigots but also the way those narratives let powerful middle and upper-class people off the hook in our histories of white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny.

It’s important to recognize that those influential people are the ones who get to tell all the stories—everybody’s stories. I call them the “narrating class.” They are often not the most reliable authorities on working-class life, or rural life, or country music for that matter. Powerful white folks also benefit from the scapegoating of poor and working class white folks while they also stifle antiracist progress.

[09:51] I can see that my reason for writing Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music was to try to bridge the gulf between what the dominant culture was telling me about queerness in working-class and small-town life and my own everyday experience as a queer working-class kid growing up in a very small Rust Belt town where I heard Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash at home, Freddy Fender and Tanya Tucker on the jukebox at the dairy bar where I worked and everything else on the magnificent country music jukebox at my aunt and uncle’s beer joint in a one stoplight town that was surrounded for miles by corn and soybean fields.

In leaving my hometown in Ohio to navigate unfamiliar academic worlds, what was really scary for me—this was in the 1980s—was the menace of middle-class homophobia. I had encountered homophobia certainly in my working-class life, but it seemed mild by comparison to what I might face if middle-class people—the people in charge, the arbiters of propriety, and at that time the strict enforcers of gender normativity—caught wind of my queerness.

[10:54] I really hadn’t encountered stories about that. And years later with Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, I wanted to write about the social logics of queerness in working-class worlds, which I found in certain ways to be more amicable and less restrictive, less punitive, than the rather different middle-class social logics I lived under in the professional world.

So being a music scholar, I have written about homoeroticism in [Dolly Parton’s song] “Jolene.” I’ve written about the sheer normalcy of so-called female masculinity in country songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” and Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” I’ve also written about Garth Brooks’s call as early as 1992 for the “freedom to love anyone we choose” in his top-10 country hit “We Shall Be Free.” And I wrote about the outlaw country artist and ex-con David Allen Coe’s 1978 underground track “Fuck Aneta Briant” [not a typo—Anita Bryant’s name is misspelled in the song’s title]. I read it as a pro-gay anthem that is misread as homophobic by listeners who are unversed in country music’s ethos of hillbilly humanism and Coe’s anti-bourgeois, anti-euphemistic codes.

Cathy [12:11]: So I know your new book project is also on country music, the one that you’re working on right now. It specifically talks about Mexican American communities in relationship to country music. Can you give us a little bit of sense of what that new project covers?

Nadine [12:25]: Yeah, it covers the fact that there are lots of Latinx and especially Mexican American country music lovers, and they’re one of the fastest growing country fan groups in the United States. This fact alone challenges dominant views of country music, which is typically seen as quintessentially white, working class, Anglo American, and even bigoted culture. It also pushes against assumptions that Mexican Americans’ musical engagements are exclusively with music from Mexico, when in fact the story is far more complex and transnational.

This book is still in progress, but I have been conducting fieldwork talking with Mexican American country fans in South Texas, southern California, northern California, and the Midwest.

It has yielded already some fascinating insights. I talked with a couple of groups of millennial country music lovers in the borderlands of south Texas. They were saying, “How would we not be into country music? This music has so many connections to our lives and culture.” They named cowboys, cowboy boots, belt buckles, cowboy hats, ranch life, rodeo, and certain musical elements. These are reminders for Mexican American listeners that country is Mexican.

Cathy [13:53]: In addition to writing about music, you also play music and it seems like that has a really significant role in your research and in your life more broadly. A lot of the guests we’ve had on the show have some kind of artistic practice in addition to their scholarship and I’m personally very fascinated by how people bring those together. There’s a bunch of different ways to do that. In your situation, how does your playing of music shape your research or vice versa?

Nadine [14:21]: Well, my playing and singing allow me to go deeper and more technically into the musical dimensions of my research. And my research, in turn, allows me to play music more lightly and with abandon.

Cathy [14:38]: That’s really fascinating actually. Is that because it gives you a broader context to maybe not take a particular session so seriously so you can kind of get more free or you can get more loose with it?

Nadine [14:52 ]: I think that is part of it. [There is a big] contrast between research and writing, which puts you very much in your head, and the embodiment of playing and singing music.

Another thing that’s always been really important to me is that music is a place where we can get away from words and their tyranny. And if there’s any place where we are under the tyranny of words, it is in academic work.

Cathy [15:26]: Indeed. Do you have any advice or lessons learned for other scholars who want to better interweave their creative practices with their scholarship or their research?

Nadine [15:40]: I would say find a way. So many times I’ve heard people express regret for giving up music. I have never heard anyone who wished that they hadn’t kept playing or singing.

When I was under some of the most intense stress of my career—writing my first book, which I needed of course to get tenure and to keep my job, all of which was on a very short timeline—I spent hours each week rehearsing and performing and often goofing off with my band at that time, the Pittsfield Ramblers. We all love being together and and loved playing together. We played Cajun, zydeco, and some classic rhythm and blues, and that kept me sane. Sometimes I’d go to rehearsal thinking, “What am I doing? I don’t have three or four hours to spare!” But by the end, I was grounded, energized, and ready to face another week.

Cathy [16:36]: How do you see your work across all these realms—your playing, your artistic practice, as well as your scholarship and your teaching? How do you see these connected to your interest in social justice or social change? How do these things come together for you?

Nadine [16:51]: We often attribute special powers to music and I think music does have some special powers, whether or not I think they’re as mysterious as we often make out. Here are some that I’ve noticed.

First of all, people engage difficult subjects like class and race relations more willingly through music. I think it’s because music cushions and allows for a more oblique angle of engagement. People open themselves to music starting at their ears. They open their minds in the presence of music and I think they lower their barriers. And locally in the moment, I think music does create community. A room full of people who are listening together breathe and move and feel together, and they delight in sharing stories of their experiences with each other.

[17:54] Also, we see in history that music has served as a life raft for marginalized people. Think of children and adolescents and people will stigmatized by race, religion, disability, gender, sexuality, and other things. Think of the American music world in the twentieth century, that century when jazz and then rock and roll stunned and electrified the entire world. At that time, American music was disproportionately populated by African American, Jewish, working-class, and queer folks.

I use musical and historical and social inquiry to understand and appreciate the lives and concerns and the contributions of queers, women, people of color, immigrants, and working-class people. I have the privilege of sharing this with readers and with very smart, passionate, committed students who importantly will carry the work of social justice into the future.

Cathy: So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks that gets at the big why behind all of your work and that’s the world that you’re helping to build when you step in front of a class, when you play music with your band, when you create research that shows all of these different connections. What kind of world do you want?

Nadine [19:04 ]: For one thing, I want a world where artists, performers, and musicians can support themselves and don’t have to choose between making art and having a home or basic necessities or health or a partner or a family.

I want a world with far less inequality and with a sane distribution of wealth and resources.

I want a world in which we can sit with difference of many kinds.

I want a world where we understand that people will do whatever they can to feel respected and that the lack of that causes damage so deep that it can even alter DNA.

Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of the kind of creative and musical ways that you imagine otherwise.

Nadine: Thank you so much for having me, Cathy.

Cathy [20:03]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]