Dorothea Gail, Weird American Music: Case Studies of Underground Resistance, BarlowGirl, Jackalope, Charles Ives, and Waffle House Music (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 413 pp.
The category of “the weird” has been used in multiple—at times mutually exclusive—ways. It is a “capacious category,” according to the dust jacket of Dorothea Gail’s monograph, Weird American Music: Case Studies of Underground Resistance, BarlowGirl, Jackalope, Charles Ives, and Waffle House Music; an assessment with which one must agree, for better or worse. The polyvalence of the term can be productive and fruitful, but, in this case, it can also turn a specific argument about U.S.-American music (sub-)cultures into an affair of hit or miss. That is to say, either the category fits the case at hand or it is used in a colloquial manner, when speaking of some type of pop- or subcultural music being “merely weird,” as in “strange” or “awry” (this latter use can be a helpful way of coming to terms with certain cultural phenomena, but it can also appear random and, thus, misleading). Both cases—that is, either an innovative interpretation of a given situation in music culture between the 1980s and the mid-2010s, or an overextension of the category to a point where a useful connection between topic and concept is undone—can be witnessed in Gail’s book. What should be clear, at the outset of the discussion of Weird American Music, however, is the importance of recognizing a few key understandings of “the weird” in American cultural history and criticism, including: (1) Greil Marcus’s notion of “weirdness” from his pathbreaking book on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes—Invisible Republic—which would depict what he called the “old, weird America” (Marcus 89); (2) H. P. Lovecraft’s concept of weird storytelling, in which, as the author himself put it, “there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers” (Lovecraft 108); and (3) the abovementioned, more colloquial usage of the term that simply denotes something strange, awry, or eccentric. The problem with Gail’s book is not that she does not critically engage with each of these understandings of the term. She does, in fact, engage with Marcus’s conception, while more frequently delving into the more colloquial use that equals the weird with the strange in American culture (Lovecraft is mentioned, too, but his concept of the weird is not discussed sufficiently). The problem with the argument of Gail’s book, which concerns the dialectical relationship between the construction of authenticity and its appropriation of marketing dynamics in the unlikely grouping of Underground Resistance (abbreviated as “UR” in the book), BarlowGirl, Jackalope, Charles Ives, and Waffle House Music, is that the category of the weird does not seem be the best choice when it comes to homogenizing these very different trajectories of Detroit Techno artists, Christian Rock musicians, an ethnically marked pop act, an experimental classical music composer, and a jukebox music genre, respectively. Is calling each of these types of musical culture “weird” simply the last resort in order to make a study on an array of very different themes and contexts work in the first place? Sure, these are case studies and not what has been called a “single-author study” or a “musical biography,” but why choose weirdness as the common denominator, conceptually speaking?
Take Gail’s description of what she intends to do in the course of her highly detailed genre crossing (in terms of scholarly writing) between cultural criticism and musical anthropology, in which she channels Marcus’s reading of Basement Tapes mysticism, itself built around the cultural currents of Harry Everett Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music:
The “weirdness” of Bob Dylan’s basement tapes is not just an effect of the weirdness of old folky styles filtered through his own personal weirdness; rather it comes through the combination in these basement tapes of the old with the new, of dreams of revived authenticity combined with the forward driving force of the market […]. My investigations deal with such conflicted and “weird” musics. […] The weirdness arrives among us through the category of “in-betweenness,” a tense unstable field lying between the concept of authenticity and the concept of the market, between inherent if subjective experiences of identity and the conscious commodification of identity. (3)
There are several things one can take from this passage in order to come to terms with Weird American Music: the weirdness Gail is concerned with is neither that of Dylan’s (or rather Marcus’s) “old weird America,” since the dynamics between the construction of authenticity and the commodificatory force of the market is not, initially, specific to the folk imaginary of what has also been termed “Americana culture”—however awry and uncanny that culture may be, especially for those on the outside. Even though, this dynamic is certainly key in any reading of American folk music in the late twentieth century, this aspect of “the authentic” versus “the commodified” is crucial, too, in any narrative about subcultural music in the United States and elsewhere. In other words, the construction of sincerity and the power of capitalist business models is decidedly not specific to “weird American music.” What is more, to equate the notion of weirdness with the category of “the in-between” is to disregard what both the weird and in-betweenness do signify in the particular contexts in which they, in fact, have been used: genre fiction and poststructuralist theory. This is not to say that there is no common ground between these terms. But to state that “weirdness arrives among us through the category of ‘in-betweenness,’ a tense unstable field lying between the concept of authenticity and the concept of the market” (3) is to rob either term of its specificity and usability. The weird, for one, works etymologically on a different level from the in-between, in that it denotes fate, becoming, and strangeness, while the in-between denotes, among other things, the undecidability between terms. Therefore, to have the weird be explained via the in-between does not seem to work in favor of the book’s argument; nor does the claim that “the connotations around ‘weird’ have shifted towards that strange in-betweenness of folk and commerce” (330) that Gail must assume in her discussion of Southern Waffle House music—that is, chapter six—and elsewhere in the book. In actual fact, preceding case studies of UR’s ethnic invisibility in the context of “the interplay between authenticity and the market” (37), BarlowGirl’s musical embodiment of a “conservative Christian subculture […] with authoritarian, patriarchal stereotypes of traditional morality” (103-05), or even Jackalope’s “ethnic fusion” or aesthetics of what Gail—at this point, unsurprisingly—terms “hybridity” (171) are not really dependent on a term such as “weirdness” or “outsider art.” I write “even Jackalope,” because in Gail’s readings of the duo’s oeuvre and aesthetic set-up, there is a passage that delineates the Chicano/a notion of rasquachismo, which, “in common usage can mean poor, ridiculous, or even vulgar,” but which can also signify the act of “using whatever is at hand to create art, to effect change in society, and to transform one’s environment” (204). I argue that even in this cultural framework that supposedly suggests a “critical weirdness of rasquachismo” (204), a different conceptual choice would have been better. The works of UR, BarlowGirl, and Jackalope, but also the experimentalism of Charles Ives, who joins the unlikely company of these subcultural groups and artists, are no more “weird” than they are what Sianne Ngai has termed “cute,” “zany,” or “interesting,” and which, on her reading, are “best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism” (Ngai 1). Indeed, Ngai’s 2012 work Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting would have been very beneficial, on the face of it, in any of the case studies at hand, given that they are all concerned with precisely those conditions and their determination of the way music cultures in the United States construct authenticity.
Finally, while calling the monograph Weird American Music has turned out to be misleading, as the book is not fulfilling its apparent promise to demonstrate the cultures of weirdness American music is truly capable of (from the practical sound studies of Harry Partch, via Sun Ra, all the way to the New Weird America of early twenty-first century folk music), the abovementioned stylistic mixture of cultural criticism and musical anthropology is refreshingly innovative in the context of (German) American Studies. Furthermore, the rich detail in the respective discussions of the particular artists and acts is nothing short of astonishing. It seems that apart from it trying to homogenize a remarkably heterogeneous cast of primary material via the catchall term of weirdness, this monograph could have made for an exceptionally important study of late twentieth-century American music and the struggle for an imaginary authenticity constantly neutralized and revived along the lines of use and exchange value.
Julius Greve (Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg)