I’m investigating Big Feelings using three interdisciplinary frameworks: affect theory, cultural studies, and musicology. I also aim to supplement these views with some interviews, so I can see if my ideas about Big Feelings resonate or not with fans of the music.
Affect theory is a weird, capacious body of scholarship that tries to think about how forces that are very often not consciously recognized by the people experiencing them nevertheless affect things in powerful ways. A classic example is that of a slamming door: before we’ve even had time to realize what the source of the sound was, our bodies have already reacted, perhaps jumping or making us feel like our hearts are up in our throats. When we have time to consciously realize what happened and register a feeling of shock, that’s us giving name to an affective experience. The affective experience itself happened when our body reacted, out front of our conscious minds.
In music studies, scholars have used affect theory to think about how people use and experience music in ways that go beyond or even contradict its overt content—in other words, affect studies tries to think about why a song about dancing at a club gets used as the soundtrack to a political protest, or why sad songs make us feel better. According to affect theory, the significance of music is not exhausted by its most apparent intention or subject-matter. This helps me to think about Big Feelings as music that can feel oriented towards a particular experience or viewpoint, even if its songs don’t talk about that perspective outright. I am using affect theory to think through how so much of this music feels oriented toward a feminist political position, even though the songs themselves usually do not broach political topics directly.
Cultural studies is a broad umbrella term I’m using to include perspectives from feminist theory, queer studies, critical race theory, American studies, and other disciplines that bring questions of identity into conversation with questions about knowledge—that is, each of these fields is in their own ways concerned with studying how our identity positions affect how we understand what counts as knowledge, or our experience of the world. One basic argument I’m trying to advance is that Big Feelings music is significant in part simply because women, queer, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming artists are the ones making this great rock music. Cultural studies fields give me language to talk about how identity matters.
Musicology has traditionally been understood as the discipline that investigates music history. However, this field was shaken up a couple decades ago by the so-called “new musicologists.” These scholars started to argue what people like Amiri Baraka and Angela Davis had already been saying: that musicologists were too focused on the mechanics of “the music itself” and needed to start paying attention to the facets of social life that cause music to be interpreted in certain, specific, and culturally-informed ways. Music, they argued, is not some abstract object that exists outside of the realm of human affairs, but is rather caught up in all of our messiness. Studying the messiness of people is therefore important for understanding how music comes to matter in our society. I take this perspective with me when I’m thinking about Big Feelings, and trying to bring musical analysis into conversation with the social theories I described above.
Finally, ethnographic methods are those that were developed for interviewing participants in whatever culture one is trying to study. It is important for me to hear from other fans of this music (besides my friends!) so that I can more thoroughly understand what it is about the music that grabs people (and what kinds of people it grabs). This website exists in part to give me another way to talk to people who care about the artists I’m studying.
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