Professor Early ended his overview of the course syllabus today with an interesting remark, one that I have been mulling over. He was talking about taste communities—groups of people joined by a common appreciation, whether of music or film or fashion or (presumably) any number of human endeavors. Professor Early sees taste as an essential part of our cultural DNA, and it is not something he takes lightly. “Don’t let anybody tell you popular music is not important. It’s extremely important,” Early said, near the end of his remarks.
But why are taste communities so important? Why is popular music so important?
As I thought about this a little more tonight, certain examples occurred to me. I thought of the ways that popular music has been used by political campaigns to appeal to taste communities and, in a sense, draw them into the fold. The Clinton campaign used Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” in 1992 to appeal, one imagines, to all the baby boomers who had cut their teeth on Rumours in the seventies. More recently, Barack Obama turned the tables on the Clintons when he alluded to Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” while making a speech in the primary season. Obama was making light of the Clintons’ attacks on him, positioning himself as someone who could rise above petty political tricks. His Jay-Z reference—legible only to the taste community that was aware of this well-known hip-hop tune—also positioned him as someone worthy of that community’s respect. We have also seen various popular musicians who have objected to the use of their music by politicians with whom they disagree. In essence, these musicians are resisting the co-optation of the taste community with which they are associated. Even more recently, many commentators have noted the influence and importance of hip-hop in the events and uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring. In this case, again, it seems as if taste communities correspond to some degree with political movements—or, perhaps, that taste communities and political movements can feed off each other.
Professor Early seems to suggest something akin to this process in the introduction to One Nation Under a Groove when he writes about how “Motown, an extraordinary success in the realm of mass culture or popular culture, actually helped to bring into clear definition the taste and urges of a middle-brow black audience whose existence helped to create such middle-brow black conceptions as Afrocentrism, the name African-American, and the mythology of the black community” (5). This passage is rather tricky to parse, though—and the more I look at it, the more I think Early’s point should not be reduced to the idea that taste communities can be activated politically. Instead, the larger point is that taste communities and popular music can be used as exceptionally sharp lenses that can help us understand the ways that people think of themselves politically, culturally, demographically; and the ideas people have about themselves and the world in which they live. Studying popular music and the taste communities associated with it, according to Early, can “bring into clear definition” aspects of our lives and our national history that might otherwise remain opaque.