Stepping Up to the Mic

On Wednesday, I take prelims. I read a bunch of books, select members of my dissertation committee offer prompts related to those books, I get six-and-a-half hours to answer those questions with notes in an essay format, and if all goes well, I successfully defend those essays and move on to write my dissertation proposal. I’ll be done at the end of the month. Prelims demand synthesis. There is an emphasis placed on what you, John or Jane Grad Student, will do with these concepts and theories. How will you animate them? How will you revise them? How will you produce something original out of them?

Janelle Monae

For grad students, prelims are the transition point between course work and dissertation. In your last year of course work, you put together reading lists for four subject areas relevant to your dissertation project (or, what you think will be relevant, because part of the process is to evolve with the work you read, which means you will either discard work that isn’t relevant to you or you will be changed by work you hadn’t anticipated being relevant to you; good scholars don’t have preconceptions that can’t be wrenched loose). You then spend the summer reading through your lists. My brother-in-law asked if the prelims are the hard part or if the dissertation is more of a challenge. In media and cultural studies, it’s not so simple to answer that question. Mine is a field based on ambivalence, struggle, and process. Our “milestones” reflect that. These exams are not an end unto themselves; they are both the entry point toward our dissertations and an extension of the demonstrations of knowledge we’ve done in seminar. It’s little surprise that we have to write through our ideas as evidence of comprehension at the end of a period of knowledge acquisition. It’s also little surprise that you’re not “done” once you complete the oral defense following your written exams. You are at once at the beginning of a new project and continuing a project you’ve spent several years immersed in, a point that’s true even if you changed research topics.

This summer, I’ve spent most of my time reading and gathering notes. Upon occasion, I’ve revised a few pieces of written work for future publications and conferences (including the page proofs to a short piece in a prominent journal in my field #notsohumblebrag). I think about my work this summer in terms of listening. Really, I think of my whole life in terms of listening and what comes with it–exploration, recognition, empathy, embodiment, presentness. This is how I’ve conceived of my time. I took my lists seriously. I took my readings seriously. I took my marginalia seriously. I built my summer around this process. I’d like to spend the remainder of this post talking about what I did, why it mattered to me, and how I envision making sense of my time moving forward.

Music Supervisors Guild

As far as I can tell, there’s no shortcut to reading through a list comprised of roughly 12 books and 12 articles multiplied by four. You just commit to it every day. You put in the time. You talk it out. You put it away and pick it back up again. For me, it also requires giving myself time to process. Procrastination makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t feel as though I have enough control over my time. When it comes to reading, the urge is too great to skim. I didn’t want to skim. Granted, sometimes I skimmed. But I wanted to dwell in the literature this summer. Of course, I had the privilege to dwell. I was already a graduate student in an influential program in my field. I already finished course work. And I decided not to take on additional paid work this summer. I had set money aside from my previous life as a paraprofessional. I was able to do this because I didn’t accrue student loan debt as an undergrad. I was also able to quickly pay off the loan I took out while I was a master’s student in Austin because I paid in-state tuition and worked full-time up until the last few months of my studies. I was able to do this because I have parents and in-laws who are financially comfortable and generous. I also have a partner who was promoted to full-time employment after a lean, long period of part-time work and was willing and able to shoulder the additional expenses while I prepared. I am grateful for all of this. I hope that I will pay it all back by producing exacting, meaningful work in the next two weeks as a student, the next few years as a dissertator, and for the rest of my professional life as a feminist media scholar.


I also had the conviction of what I would write about for my dissertation, which its own privilege. My main research areas were always gender, labor, and music culture. So I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to write and read and wrote papers that reflected those interests. Early in the summer, I thought about taking up the subject of backup musicians as a dissertation topic. But best to save that for a later project. A dissertation becomes a book, which–icky though this may be–makes it a commercial property as well as an intellectual endeavor; it’s not The Great American Novel into which you funnel all of your thoughts and risk losing momentum.


As I was reading, I thought about Pauline Oliveros’ concept of deep listening. This is the idea that the music one hears in a live or recorded context is not just the notes themselves. Deep listening requires attention toward the players, the environment, the audience, and the music itself. To me, this brings to mind Richard Johnson’s circuit of culture model, a central concept in media and cultural studies that accounts for the relationships between texts (music), producers (musicians), audiences (listeners), and context (a porous yet historically bound word that accounts for the venue, the hum of the air conditioner, the city the venue is in, how you got to the concert, whether you paid for tickets, and any number of cultural influences that inform the other three elements). Deep listening is also a feminist idea, because Oliveros believes that all of these elements coexist non-hierarchically and thus can radically transform how we understand the act of listening as perspectival, relational, and communal. Listening to music is listening to each other.

Pauline Oliveros

I began reading on May 20, the Monday after I helped administer the final exam for the class I TAed last year, celebrated my partner’s birthday, and spent the weekend showing my best friend around Madison. I read at a steady pace from here until last Wednesday, alternating between groups of thematically organized articles and chapters (which I should have meted out more judiciously) and books. I also posted what I was reading each day on Twitter. First, I should note that graduate students should not feel required to live-tweet about prelims, as one of my committee members phrased my activities. Last spring, I sat on a panel for a joint colloquium on academic blogging. One scholar stated that young scholars need an Internet presence. Thinking on this statement in retrospect, I would counter that most young scholars already have an Internet presence. We are in departments with Web sites and most (if not all) of the people in attendance that afternoon use social media because Facebook and Twitter are ideologies. With that in mind, I think it’s always necessary to question the integration of social media usage rather than take it as a given. I care about the “why” question over the “how” question. But that’s a somewhat disingenuous response. I’m typing this recollection into a blog. I posted pictures of books and articles on Twitter, cataloged by day. Why?

The loaded response is that Twitter is part of my process. I started using Twitter when I started blogging and very much link the two together. I don’t use Twitter to crowd-source or spitball so much as I use Twitter because it requires me to be declarative and economical with my language. I’ve never met a tangent or an aside that I didn’t think was productive and I still bury my thesis statements in paragraphs of observation. In addition, internalizing years of post-structuralist writing lead me to equivocate. I actually take pride in this because any time I see an essentialism, I anticipate a counterargument. But this can lead to a lot of “should” language that, unless carefully applied, can weaken your argument. Twitter helps me to own and not waste my words.

See how I accommodated Twitter’s character limit in that last paragraph? I didn’t ask why the character limit exists, offer alternatives, or break from it. I accepted it and integrated it into my daily life. That’s how Twitter is ideological. I could get into the resources available that allow you to shorten URLs to work around the site’s character limit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Knife 1

I tweeted about my readings for two reasons. For one, it allowed me to make visible a process that can feel abstract and immaterial. You can’t see the thoughts you’re forming as you read. Even printing and marking up my list or endlessly stacking and restacking books didn’t make it feel tangible. I need to be careful with my words because I’ve read enough literature to trouble the immaterial-is-to-invisible analogy. But tweeting allowed me to see the prelims process for myself. And it also potentially made it visible to colleagues and friends who might wonder why I wasn’t blogging or reliably answering email, as well as current and future grad students who might have some questions. Prelims are shrouded in mystery until you’re preparing them. Honestly, they’ll probably be mysterious long after my defense too, if my friends’ recollections are any indication. You wonder: Did I read the “right” books? Am I doing this “right”? To some extent, these are unanswerable questions. When I was putting my lists together during my last semester of course work, I tried to summon information from friends who went through this. Acquiring information is an uneven process. Some folks were very forthcoming and willing to share valuable information (tip of the cap to Myles McNutt, who was especially candid in this regard). Others were less so, for any number of reasons. But at a certain point, you have to let all of the “right” questions go when you’re putting your lists together and when you’re preparing. Posting my readings was a gesture toward letting those anxieties go, an articulation of my choices as a scholar, and a commitment to those choices.

The Knife 2

I also tweeted because I wanted to create a context for my readings. It’s important to remember that readings already have a context. Reading lists have a context. Each book you pick up, download, and leaf or scroll through has a context. This is why the most important thing you can read in a book is the acknowledgements section: its disclosures let you know what institutions, resources, and people were responsible for the finished product in relation to your own politics of citation. But again, reading can be isolating. No matter how much you try to have a social life–and you should have a social life, one with friends and exercise and food and a few free weekends–the daily practice of getting up and reading a book all day until you’re finished can be alienating. You start to wonder if you’ll ever get the differences between discourses, assemblages, and constellations (I’m getting closer) or the political utility of “always already” (I’m fiddling with it like a Rubix cube). You start talking to yourself (I’m a textbook only child). You start worrying that you can only talk about this in social settings (talk to your friends, talk to your friends about their lives and other things in your life; call your mother and your BFF(s)). You start to worry that this thing you’re doing to yourself will make you agoraphobic (go outside; it’s summer). By tweeting my readings, I found out other people’s opinions about them. I found out who assigned them and for what purposes. If I @-tagged the authors, I sometimes entered into conversations with them about their work and other things (scholars love being @-tagged). I developed contexts for myself about what I read.

Now there is the matter of applying what I read this summer. I am preparing to prepare a dissertation on music-based intermediary labor and identity politics in the contemporary media industries. I’m still working through the “how”, but the “why” is very clear to me. I am particularly interested in the metaphors of visibility and audibility that are mobilized when we think about how the work of booking agents, promoters, licensors, and music supervisors bear traces. I am also interested in how or if they think of their work as point of contacts between different media and media creators, as a means of addressing intended audiences, and as a means of understanding their own relationships to music as fans and as workers. I anticipate I’ll also use the words “booking,” “promoting,” “licensing,” and “supervising” as metaphors to animate power dynamics between industries, producers, audiences, and texts, as the best work I’ve read this summer productively meditates and expands on words like “producer,” “franchise,” “format,” and “brand” beyond their immediate industrial definitions.

Tegan and Sara

When I was a kid, I got a copy of John Gruen’s Keith Haring biography for Christmas. One anecdote that stays with me is Kenny Scharf’s recollection of Haring playing the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” on a loop while he painted. Music has always been a part of my creative process, a way to imagine when I’m deeply immersed in my work. I also tend to carry Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic” as a source of comfort when I embark on something new and uncertain. Delivered by Kathleen Hanna in stream-of-conscious monologue hovering between spoken word and song, “Stepping Up to the Mic” is about hearing women’s voices and, as a result, committing one’s life to the bottom-up, grassroots power of articulation. This is my primary concern in the weeks and years ahead. I’ll always dwell in the politics of women’s utterances. I close by sharing a collection of songs that I intend to play while I work. I’ve organized this collection of songs thematically by reading area.

My first prelim question will address critical media industries studies and production studies, two approaches that theorize how studying both industrial structures and professionals will shape our understanding of media. Issues like creativity, authorship, and struggles over power and autonomy within industrial contexts loom large.

My second prelim question concerns the historical, legal, industrial, and cultural ways in which digital media is integrated and assumed normative in practices and products. This affects matters of format and copyright, as well as how users seek to incorporate or destabilize digital media through sampling and social media integration, which in turn influences the work of intermediaries.

My third question concerns matters of intertextuality and intermediality. Music-based intermediary labor is inherently intertextual. Their work is defined by appealing simultaneously to the needs of televisuality and musical aurality, and with it the intended address of audiences for various media properties. Below are two songs that have been licensed for Girls and Orange is the New Black.

I conclude with the “intervention question,” which will address issues of gender in relation to labor. For me, the “so what” of music-based intermediary labor is mobilized by identity; the identities of the worker, the identities governing the work worlds they enter into and dwell, and the identities of the audiences hailed by the texts in which their work is featured. In particular, I am interested in the productive tensions between liberal feminism, cultural feminism, and postfeminism. Gender is my lens, but my definition of gender is intersectional. I am not interested in using “gender” as a synonym (euphemism?) for “white women.” Built into considerations of gender are intersecting appeals to and subjectivities shaped by race, class, and sexualities.

In addition, I included a few tracks that speak to the mental state I anticipate occupying while I type. Admittedly, I’ll probably loop the Knife’s “Networking” because it’s a word that applies to each reading list, because it’s an instrumental track and is thus easier to write to, and because I love the Knife’s music and politics in equal measure. These songs are articulations of community, bravado, and future-making. They are the works of imagination, and I hope they inspire me to write some words that forge a path forward and continually remind me of the work still left to do.

One comment

  1. Nora

    Great post Alyx! Sending you a shining orbe of light for good luck as you embark on this quest, you rock, and I know you will conquer the prelims!

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