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In Concert: The History and Harmony of Live Music

What happens in a live music setting that doesn’t happen elsewhere? What relationships exist between performers and audiences? And why do concerts matter to our public lives? These are questions that music professor Steve Waksman seeks to answer with his latest research project.

/ Published May 15, 2013

What is it about live music that brings different kinds of people together? That’s what Steve Waksman wants to know, and he has dedicated the last three years to investigating it. A professor of music at Smith, Waksman has undertaken what he believes to be the first scholarly and historical survey of how live music influences American culture.

His intellectual analysis forms the foundation for a new book, tentatively titled Live Music in America: A History, 1850–2000.

For Waksman, the research strikes a personal chord. He loves music. He has played the guitar since the age of nine. His collection of record albums, CDs and MP3s spans heavy metal, punk, jazz, rap, country, blues, techno and salsa, among other genres. He regularly attends concerts, and he’s devoted his professional life to the study of music. “In any kind of live music situation, people are experiencing very powerful things,” says Waksman. “They’re experiencing something that I would describe as a sense of community; they’re trying to find a place where they are connected to something.”

Waksman is interested in researching the history of American popular culture, especially music, during the 19th and 20th centuries, and how race and gender intersect through music. In writing Live Music in America, he addresses a number of questions, including, What happens in a live music setting that doesn’t happen elsewhere? What relationships exist between performers and audiences? And, why do concerts matter to our public lives?

Waksman’s investigation begins in 1850, when Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind came to America at the invitation of P.T. Barnum. Known as the Swedish Nightingale, Lind was the kind of performer that America hadn’t yet seen, and her visit was front-page news for months before she arrived. Her concerts were heavily and widely promoted, and when Lind finally set foot on stage, she was greeted by crowds more massive than any other touring artist had experienced at that time. Everywhere she went, Lind attracted audiences of mixed age, gender and class. Her story matters, Waksman says, because she was one of the first defining figures of mass culture, someone who appealed to Americans across class. Her U.S. tour of more than 90 cities was a turning point “in the way that music occupied public life in the U.S.”

Lind’s popularity also offers an early glimpse at the way gender operates in mass culture, Waksman says. In the 1850s, women were expected to live humble lives out of the spotlight, so Lind faced challenges in the way she presented herself to audiences. She achieved widespread appeal and popularity partly because her promoters worked tirelessly to present her as respectable, moral and virtuous. “Women were seen as being more rightly placed within the private sphere. So in order to be a woman who was more public, she had to have a very strong sense of virtue attached,” says Waksman. “There were certain things that had to be done to make sure she maintained her respectability.”

Jenny Lind was one of the first defining figures of mass culture, and her 1850 tour was a turning point “in the way that music occupied public life in the U.S.,” says Steve Waksman.

Ultimately, Lind’s fame proved to be quite progressive.

By contrast, Waksman says, women today occupy a different space on the public stage, and the concept of respectability has shifted. “Women are just as likely to be rewarded for highlighting their eroticism as for suppressing it,” he says. “On some level, the change is progressive, insofar as women have room to have their desires represented more openly than they did in earlier times.”

Lady Gaga is only the latest in a succession of female artists who, according to Waksman, have coupled a strongly sexual image with a willful ability to reinvent themselves in ways that expand the bounds of “acceptable” femininity. “In her concerts, Lady Gaga puts on a kind of arena-sized spectacle indebted to male hard rockers like Queen as much as female predecessors like Madonna—almost as though she is creating her own gender-bending tradition with each performance.”

In his current study, Waksman also considers the issue of race and the extent to which rock music challenged racial segregation in the U.S. He argues that the genre of music you listen to places you in a distinct community with at least a modicum of common values and habits. This, he contends, can have heightened consequences when you add factors like race to the equation. For example, at many rock ’n’ roll concerts in the 1950s, black and white artists were showcased side by side. Pioneer radio deejay Alan Freed organized a particularly groundbreaking series of package concerts in Cleveland and later in New York that defied the racial status quo, featuring black artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley alongside white counterparts like the Everly Brothers.

Although audiences were not always racially integrated, these live music performances were, in some ways, an impetus toward challenging the racial segregation of public spaces at the time. Yet the circumstances surrounding these concerts raise as many questions as they answer: Did black and white concertgoers respond to the music in the same way? Did their shared taste imply some ability to temporarily suspend the racism that shaped their lives outside the concert space?

“We often forget that the ear is a physical organ, after all, and any sounds we hear have a sensory impact.” There is a difference, however, in sharing these sensory impressions in public, with a group of people, rather than in private. “Think about a group of people dancing in a club, moshing at a punk show, headbanging at a metal show or sitting quietly while listening attentively to a classical music performance,” he says. “In all of these instances, people are responding to music and acting in ways that suggest a shared social code, a set of values that they may not be able to articulate but that frames their experience and gives it meaning.”

Waksman teaches courses in both music and American studies, exploring how music affects our culture and, more specifically, how music in public settings—and in the wider public sphere—creates a sense of either belonging or exclusion.

As the public sphere continues to diminish in its influence and the role it plays in people’s lives, music festivals like Tennessee’s Bonnaroo provide public spaces where people can forge connections.

He references the work of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas and his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry Into a Category of Bourgeois Society (The MIT Press, 1989). Habermas raises important issues, Waksman says, about “what happens when the public sphere starts to diminish in its influence and the role it plays in people’s life. A lot of the people who do work in more contemporary culture in the U.S. and abroad have observed that our lives have been privatized to a significant degree. So that means, on one hand, that the U.S. is a place where it is kind of hard to find a genuinely public space in which you can hang out and forge connections with people.”

On the other hand, live music environments are still providing those public spaces, such as current giant music festivals like California’s Coachella or Tennessee’s Bonnaroo.

“I think that there are things that happen in a live music environment that haven’t been well studied or well understood, but, even more so, I think that live music as a phenomenon isn’t well understood in any kind of historical sense,” says Waksman. “And I intend to keep investigating.”