I am a historical musicologist who focuses on American popular music after 1945. My work uses a wide range of methodological approaches, incorporating elements of critical race studies and popular music studies with old-fashioned empirical research techniques. While seeking to account for people, identity, and bodies, I value historical records and find paper and media archives to offer a wealth of perspectives to my work.
I spend a lot of time writing, thinking, and teaching about the music of Motown Records, the most important and successful R&B-oriented independent record company of the post-War era. My book, I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B (Michigan), considers Motown as an agent for crossover within a highly segregated music business. Focusing on issues like the “Motown Sound,” the rise of soul and the politics of region and class, internationalization, visual media, and loss of brand specificity, this study argues that Motown was central to the growing interplay between racially coded music markets in the United States during a three-decade period from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. As per my interest in archival materials, this work was bolstered by a vast collection of rare primary sources, including corporate studio paperwork and unreleased multi-track vault recordings.
I am also an expert in the history of rock music, and co-author of the industry leading textbook What’s That Sound: An Introduction to Rock and its History (W.W. Norton 2012, 2015, 2018). This knowledge of a variety of musics popular during the post-War period often intersects in interesting ways, broadening my work to span issues of race, class, region, and style.
An interest in Motown is part of a larger strain of my work that focuses on corporate agency and record production within the music business. My recent research about Decca Records and the formation of R&B genotypes during the 1940s makes arguments about the interplay between black musics during an earlier period. As a corporate consultant, I have investigated the work of record companies firsthand by working as a reissue producer for Motown on several large projects, further informing my ideas on this topic from an insider perspective.
As an expert on Motown’s tape archive (working closely with digital replicas of a wide variety of Motown master tapes) I have spent a lot of time thinking about audio production. This has led to a number of research projects. One is an article entitled “Marvin Gaye as Vocal Composer,” which details Gaye’s method of composing melodies and lyrics in an asynchronous manner in the recording studio. Another article on the topic, “The Ballads of Marvin Gaye,” considers Gaye’s work on cabaret material and standards.
My interest in audio technology is also evident in my article ““Fandom and Ontology in the Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’,” which considers the history of an complex, ill-fated recording project from the 1960s that was kept alive through, and eventually modified by, fan-oriented bootlegs over a twenty-year period. A different sort of fan-oriented recordings are central to the argument of a recent research project called “Liveness and the Grateful Dead,” which reads the historical significance of this group through their contributions to (and experiments with) sound reinforcement, fan interaction, and a number of other factors stemming from their role as a performance-oriented group.
I have a number of works-in-progress that engage issues of race, technology, record production and performance practice. In one, I examine the role of early electronic experimentalists in the history of rock music and their work to create stomp boxes, the modular effects units used by most electric guitarists to alter the sonic properties of their instrument.
Another expands this stomp box research into a large scale project on perversion as a primary character of American musical invention, focusing on topics like distortion, prepared piano, tape music, turntables, synthesizers, and novelty effects in recording to reveal a consistent theme of creative misuse in many of the most important musical developments in twentieth-century American music.
My most significant current project is a large-scale two part creative biography of Marvin Gaye. Using my extensive knowledge of the Motown tape catalog, and more than a decade of research into Gaye’s performance, television work, and studio techniques, I am writing a comprehensive study of his creative career. The first part considers Gaye’s work from 1957 to 1970; the second spans the inception of What’s Going On in 1971 to his tragic death in 1984.