American Studies Professor Wins Award for Best Book on Popular Music

From the August 2016 Desktop News Dr. Eric Weisbard, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies, has been awarded the 2015 Woody Guthrie Award for the most outstanding book on popular music for his book Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music.

The prize is given annually to the best English language monograph on popular music, said Dr. Elizabeth Lindau, chair of the 2015 Woody Guthrie Award committee for the U.S. branch of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, which created the award.

A dozen books were eligible for the 2015 award. The committee members chose Weisbard’s book because it’s a comprehensive history of commercial radio formats—the first of its kind—that they believe will be cited by pop music scholars for years to come.

“This book makes popular music fans and scholars rethink our allegiances to particular genres of music, and why we talk about genre so much in the first place,” Lindau said. “It also makes us rethink our collective tendency to dismiss radio-friendly music released since the 1970s. Why are we sometimes suspicious if something gets popularized by radio?

“The whole committee—myself, Robert Fink and Loren Kajikawa—was also bowled over by the amount of vivid detail in this book. It seems like every sentence is packed with facts, citations, and song references that show Eric’s painstaking research and deep knowledge of popular music. That’s one thing that impressed the whole committee.”

Weisbard said he was thrilled to receive an award on his work from an organization that has done so much in the United States to encourage popular music studies.

“This book was close to a decade in the making, representing my move in mid-career from journalism and museum work to academia, so the validation for the time I put in and the shift in trajectory is just hugely affirming,” he said. “Finally, getting the Guthrie prize puts me in the company of some of my favorite books in recent years: Karl Hagstrom Miller’s Segregating Sound, Steve Waksman’s This Ain’t the Summer of Love, and Guthrie Ramsey’s Race Music.”

Most popular music scholars have focused on such genres of music as pop or hip hop. Top 40 Democracy, however, is a retelling of American popular music history through formats, which are “constructed mainstreams” designed to target specific populations distinguished by class, race, gender, and region.

Since the 1970s, Lindau said, the format of top 40 commercial radio has played music from different genres. Music genres were mixed together to appeal to a wider audience—R&B for black Americans, rock for hippies, country for southerners, etc. This mixing caused some devoted fans of popular music genres to dismiss artists whose music was played on top 40 radio as “going mainstream” or “selling out.” But in his book, Weisbard challenges music fans to rethink that widely held perception.

“Eric’s book is exciting because he says, ‘Let’s look at the center, let’s look at music that’s often dismissed as watered down,’” Lindau said. “It’s about inverting our value systems as devoted fans and scholars of popular music, which often focus on how people fit into, or exemplify particular genres. If you’re being eclectic, you’re sometimes critiqued for infidelity to your genre. Like Dolly Parton—one of the artists profiled in Top 40 Democracy. She ‘crossed over’ into pop and adult contemporary markets, but this seemed a betrayal of her country roots to some. Weisbard shows us how Parton rode the waves of these musical styles to craft a career of extraordinary longevity.”

Weisbard has been at UA since 2009. He’s also been a contributing writer and editor of Spin magazine and the Village Voice.

He received his doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008.