Friday, October 9, 2009

Thoughts on Urban v. Rural, pt. 1

I have the rare opportunity to be teaching a course that thinks about musical cultures through the lens of urban studies. Doing this in a place so remarkably not urban forces me to consider what it all means. Thus, I have decided to write a series of posts contemplating how music from urban centers considers the rural and vice versa. We'll see what this turns up. Thus I present: a blog post in bullet points on rural v. urban academia.

• I've been reading many academic discussions of world/global cities and their role in globalization. Theorists like Saskia Sassen contend that urban centers like New York, London and Tokyo are the main conduits of globalization to such an extent that nation-states are no longer dominant. Fun stuff! It's strange to be thinking so strongly about such megalopoli while living in a rural part of the country. It's even stranger to be discussing different genres of music that romanticize rural life but are, in essence, city born. I'm thinking of the folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s in NYC, the university Forró craze in São Paulo, and the modern mariachi sound from Mexico D.F. This doesn't even begin to approach the hybrid genres that accompany these revivalist movements or transnational transformations of folk genres (like cumbia)... What is it about urbanity in the americas that promotes such romanticizations and reinventions? The easy answer might be the legacy of 19th century nationalism with its idealizations of the land. My instincts tell me that it is probably more complicated. Many of these genres also have to do with social class and sometimes persons celebrating the working class from a position of power leads to gross generalizations and vulgarizations. Think of what John Wayne pictures did to generalize the "American Frontier." Thomas Turino contends that urban, middle class appropriations of rural folk music has to do with a lack of participatory music making (see his Music as Social Life) and a larger lack of marked culture. My mind is spinning...

• On a related note, many of my colleagues commute close to 4 hours a day just so that they can live in a reasonably-sized city and work in the country. Other colleagues commute from central Maine to NYC and even Washington D.C. every weekend. They love their urban lifestyles and their research so much that they will do anything they can to stay connected to it. This seems to me to be the polar opposite of the economic factors that drove urban growth during the last 150 years where people migrated from rural to urban spaces for work. But for this particular group of academics, urbanity is such an integral part of their lifestyles that they go through great lengths to maintain it. I would be traveling with them if I had the time to spare and the money to do it. Alas, I do not and I am getting used to life here in central Maine. Odd that.

• Many of my students have great difficulty imagining urban life that isn't like Boston or New York. As a southern California native I feel like I am at a distinct advantage for understanding the newer geographic formations born in Los Angeles that serve as the template for global megacities (a la Soja and Mike Davis). For the first time in my life, I am thankful that I resided in LA for 10 years and not elsewhere. It really does help when I try to explain why people in these global centers would rather stay home than sit through hours of traffic...

On a related note, I miss good cycling weather.