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History and American Studies Professor Sandy Zipp can completely alter the way you see pop music.
What is American Studies?
American Studies is an interdisciplinary program. It usually brings together literature and history under the umbrella of cultural history or cultural studies. It goes back to the late '30s and the postwar era, when a number of American historians and literature scholars wanted to find some way to make an interdisciplinary attempt to understand American culture. So they created these American Studies programs that became bankrolled by the State Department, who wanted to find ways during the Cold War to sell America abroad. I'm basically a cultural and urban historian.
What music-related classes do you teach?
The first one is called "American Popular Music and American Culture Since 1950." It's basically a survey of pop music. It starts with a look back to the roots of American popular music in things like minstrelsy and racial conflicts of the 19th century. Then it looks at the four great American musics of the early 20th century—Tinpan Alley, blues, jazz, and country—and sees how the roots of American popular music in the postwar period are found in those four forms. Then its starts looking at early R&B, the birth and rise of rock & roll. I talk about Elvis as a cultural figure and as a symbol of the social and cultural transformations in American society in the '50s—transforming gender relations, androgyny and gender ambiguity—the way he sort of redefines manhood, and his appropriation of black music style. Then I move into soul music and rhythm and blues and a discussion of the civil rights movement, the British Invasion, Bob Dylan and the folk revival in the '60s, funk and heavy metal, other '70s things like punk, disco, and the beginnings of hip-hop. I end with some stuff about postpunk and hardcore in the '80s and '90s, hip-hop in the '80s and '90s. Right now I'm teaching a class called "Cities of Sound, Place and History in American Pop Music." That's basically a class that tries to bring together the musical history and urban history, and to think about the social and cultural relationships between the development of certain cities and certain musical forms. I started with a lecture on New Orleans and early jazz. I did a lecture on Memphis and American music, then Los Angeles and the Central Avenue scene—jazz and R&B in the '40s—then Washington, D.C., and punk in Washington. Then I'm teaching a class on the culture and politics of the '60s, which will of course bring in a lot of stuff on music.
What's your personal musical background?
I grew up in the '80s in Washington D.C. My first intense musical experiences come from the D.C. Mod scene. From the time I was 14 or 15 until I was 18 I was really into rhythm and blues, soul, ska, garage punk and everything sort of mid-'60s, hanging out with people who rode Vespas. We wore skinny ties and Italian suits—the whole deal. It was pretty comical. That was my first introduction to the world of subculture. I got really interested in musical history. That started me on getting interested in lots of different forms of music—punk, jazz, free jazz, and avant-garde music a little bit later on in college at Northwestern University, when I was a college radio DJ. At the same time I got interested in American Studies and American history, so I was always trying to bring them together.
What's the student response to your classes been like?
It's all about trying to connect all of these things that people have as their own affiliations, their own culture, to a larger story, a larger history. Students really seem to like that. They seem to get into the idea that there is more to this than simply thinking about it as a kind of entertainment. That's what's been important for me. The most important things in music to me have been the kinds of things that take things to another level and suggest that there's more to it than just entertainment, more to it than just fun. But there's plenty of that, too.