‘I talk about Aretha Franklin a lot’
This, I found, tends to be the ‘in’ to explaining my thesis to polite strangers on a plane.
‘Really?..you can study that?!’
It hits you then. This huge wave, where intense enthusiasm meets imposter syndrome, which in turn meets an odd sense of guilt at the privilege of spending my days analysing Aretha Franklin’s vocal performance!
My entire second year of studying Music at PhD level can be characterised by a swing between those three states of being. But after a year of grappling with the theories which underpin the (at times unwieldy) beast, I’ve got myself to a point where my thesis and I are pretty smitten.
It turns out that this is well-and-truly foregrounded when you meet a couple from Colorado on a plane bound for Reykjavik from Seattle. As they tell me about their 40th wedding anniversary plans, an epic trip across Europe which they have organised with the most detailed itinerary I’ve ever seen, I find myself explaining why and how I find myself travelling around the world sharing my thoughts on Age, Gender, Sexuality, Race, and Popular Music.
I explain that I had decided fairly early on that my second year of study would be dedicated to expressing interest in, and hopefully being invited to speak at, international conferences. What I don’t tell them is that having organised a conference and done a fair amount of teaching prior to starting my PhD, conferences left a bit of a gap in the things employers are apparently looking for in a postgraduate CV.
Over the past couple of months I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to attend and participate in three conferences in three different countries. With the encouragement of my delightful supervisory team, I applied to speak at events where, to my mind at least, I was punching substantially above my weight!
My selection method for choosing which conferences to go for is highly scientific: ‘is there at least one Rock star keynote speaker?’
The GeMus conference in Örebro, Sweden answered with a resounding ‘Yes’, with Jack Halberstam, Stan Hawkins and Susan McClary all confirmed. So, too, was the EMP Popcon in Seattle with vocal performance royalty in the shape of KD Lang, Valerie June and Merrill Garbus; rock critics Carl Wilson and Ann Powers; not to mention academics whose work I’d either admired for a while or just discovered – Emily Lordi, Daphne Brooks, Tavia Nyong’o and Karen Tongston.
Looking back, I’ll admit that my understanding of what a conference is was wrong. Coming from a music performance background – had I just signed up for a tour with nothing but a PowerPoint presentation and a laser pen for company? I don’t even own a laser pen.
I did a lot of nodding, non-beard stroking and made pseudo-affirmative noises to Freya, my supervisor, when she told me that I needed to stop thinking about it like a gig, that in fact ‘it’s all about the conversation after really…about the questions your paper generates’.
‘Poor thing’ I thought, she has no idea, and I continued to quake with terror in the lead-up to that first outing of the paper at GeMus. What I hadn’t counted on was Halberstam, Hawkins and McClary being in the ‘audience’ when I spoke.
Somehow, panic didn’t set in and about half way through what I thought was a performance, I started to realise that Freya was right, that I was sharing some ideas and that it was amazing to have this room of people to share with. And it wasn’t just about those Rock stars but all the other wonderful speakers I’d talked with over the course of the conference. I wasn’t frightened anymore and I couldn’t wait to get to the end because I wanted to have the conversation so my thesis would be challenged in a really positive way.
I was a little bamboozled by jetlag the time I arrived at Reykjavik. Waving goodbye to my very-well-organised fellow travellers, I came to realise that I felt that much more relaxed about the task in hand. I had been invited by my dear friend and PhD colleague, Daphne Hall, to be part of Iceland’s first ever Pop Music Studies symposium, representing the UK alongside IPM post-doc researcher Aine Mangoang and Nick Prior from the University of Edinburgh. I actually started to think of the work as a real treat. That is certainly not something I thought I’d ever said prior to my little tour!
Two weeks on and I still talk about Aretha Franklin a lot. Only this time I feel ever-so-slightly less of an imposter.
Huge thanks to the NWCDTP (via the fieldwork and conference fund) and to the University of Liverpool (via the School of Arts PGR support fund). Also to Freya Jarman and Sara Cohen for their continued cheerleading. This was an extraordinary experience for which I’m extraordinarily grateful!