comments for fletcher award luncheon, undergraduate research office, northwestern university, 08 december 2017; revised and expanded, 10 december 2017.
…the project is less focused on the usual audio qualities associated with and researched through records, and more concerned with the physical, the visual and the semantic information each record and its accompanying notes contain. — Brock Stuessi, WNUR Underground Archive Project
Brock Stuessi’s award-winning digital history project on the WNUR Rock Show’s music collection serves as a reminder that historical artifacts are all around us. Not only do they accrue in official archives of governments and corporations, but they also collect in unexpected places—such as the working library of a college radio station.
In his time working at WNUR as station manager, Brock spent hours with the vinyl recordings housed at the station. He noticed an untouched wealth of historical information. Here were rare, often out-of-print vinyl recordings, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s, with much information about that time lodged in their artwork, liner notes, and of course in their grooves. But that was not all Brock noticed. On the sleeves of the recordings and in logbooks at WNUR were also copious annotations and comments by previous DJs and program directors at the station. As Brock puts it in his words, these “cross-generational conversations on the sleeves of many records that point towards evolutions in taste and priorities within underground college radio.” There was much more here than just a scattering of old recordings. There were also the traces of a lively subculture developing its shape and form, its institutional practices and modes of personality and style, its aesthetics and its politics.
As Brock pointed out to me the first time we discussed his research idea, contemporary modes of distribution in the music business—downloadable digital MP3s, streaming audio services—put these material artifacts of the vinyl era in danger of disappearing; with the WNUR Underground Archive Project, however, Brock found a way to turn the tables: he would use the digital to preserve them rather than replace them. And not only to preserve them, but also to enhance our understanding of them through digital tactics of analysis that might enrich our understanding of the historical information present in the vinyl archives of the WNUR Rock Show’s collection.
Brock originally wished to work as a research assistant on my own Berkeley Folk Music Festival project, which digitizes and analyzes Northwestern Library’s collection from this understudied event that took place annually on the Cal campus from 1958 to 1970. As he discussed his own interests and what made him interested in the Berkeley project, it became clear that he already had a research project of his own to pursue! Consulting with me, Peter Civetta and his staff at the Office of Undergraduate Research, and with librarians and technologists at the Northwestern Library, Brock eventually adopted the popular Omeka platform to create a rich, searchable, explorable, interactive database of over 1000 recordings. He scanned images, assembled metadata, and preserved the texts of annotations written on these artifacts and as well as in other WNUR ephemera such as program logbooks.
This act of preservation alone is a marvelous example of how digital technology (along with a lot of laborious human spreadsheet data entry!) can extend access to history for broader publics, creating spaces that link together specialized scholars with interested individuals and communities in new ways. This is a noble act, bringing an archive forward for use when it was, in its prior form, concealed and hidden.
One can imagine participants in this college rock radio history joining the conversation, adding knowledge and information to the digital platform. Teachers might use it to give students a taste of this developing world that understood itself as an underground, even as it was ensconced at elite institutions of higher education. Future musicians and artists might use it for inspiration. The act of digital preservation that Brock completed is a magnificent accomplishment, and the sheer labor involved in what he did in a short period of time is not to be underestimated.
But Brock did far more than merely digitally capture and preserve these artifacts for display; he also made his own intensive analyses of his empirical data by using digital tactics of interpretation in creative, thoughtful, and intellectually generative ways. He geocoded, read textual data computationally, and began to arrange his story into a narrative using the audio podcast format. It’s worth diving deeper into his findings, and from them, proposing a sense of the implications of what he discovered.
First, Brock geocoded his data, no small feat for over 1,000 the recordings to examine them spatially, revealing the global networks of underground rock during these decades. One of his findings was the extent of the international reach of American college rock in the 1980s and 90s. Previous literature has tended to position this emerging music scene as almost exclusively a domestic cultural response to the Reagan years, but the transnational aspects of American mattered too, in ways we do not entirely understand yet. There was, of course, the residual influence of genres such as 1960s rock and 1970s punk, with their robust transatlantic exchanges (think British Invasion and the impact of the Sex Pistols on “underground” American music). But in Brock’s geospatial presentation of his data, we also see glimpses of the emerging importance of places such as Japan and other parts of Europe beyond the UK. These are very intriguing findings, and they open up paths for further inquiry.
Brock not only geocoded his data, but also used “distant reading” tools such as Voyant, created by Stéfan Sinclair & Geoffrey Rockwell, and a simply written Python program of his own creation to analyze patterns in the WNUR annotations and logs, mining from the textual data intriguing implications, meanings, and interpretations. For instance, conventional phrases of appreciation dominate the comments, recurring in a way that reminds us how language structured and institutionalized the supposedly subjective, qualitative experience of listening to music. Even avid music aficionados such as WNUR DJs struggled to endow their individual musical experiences with specific, meaningful linguistic meaning. Working as programmers at the station, they turned to recognizable linguistic signals of approval, developing cultural codes not through innovative, original language, but rather through repeatable, quotidian, almost banal langauge. Phrases such as “good stuff” appear repeatedly in the annotations, Brock noticed. This perhaps, as Brock put it, suggests “the loss of words many experience when trying to describe or justify quality judgements surrounding music,” in this case even among “a body of writers with a higher musical intelligence than your average listener.”
But it also does more than that. Brock has revealed how reliable conventions and signals of approval emerged to communicate taste. In a sense, “good stuff” works not by naming the qualities of aesthetic appreciation themselves, but by simply directing the ears of others: this is worthy of attention. Sometimes language is for distinguishing special experiences of pleasure and beauty in lyrical, vulnerable ways; in this case, a working shorthand of where to turns one’s ears was how language functioned. To scrawl “good stuff” on a recording sleeve was to share one’s pleasure and, at the same time, to assert one’s authority in an emerging subculture of cool.
In this way, Brock’s findings give us a window into how, at the boundary between individual listening experiences and institutional structurings of taste, identity, and subcultural capital, conventional language becomes key. “Good stuff” says so little, and yet, when put in context, it is doing enormous work. To write “good stuff” is at once to spread the word and to mark one’s subcultural turf. This doubled process occurs through vague rhetoric and its silences as to why something is “good stuff” rather than through a practice of cogent, overt expressions of musical value translated into critical prose. “Good stuff” becomes a gateway, graffitied onto the entry point of an album sleeve, into a subcultural orbit and all that it involved in terms of personal identity, shared belonging, and oppositional attitudes toward mainstream culture—articulated, we should remember, within an elite institution of higher learning that was, and remains, very much a part of reproducing the hierarchies and values of that mainstream culture.
As you can see, there was more to “good stuff” than just the good stuff. Brock’s “distant reading” tactics suggest that there is value, as literary scholars such as Franco Moretti have contended, in moving back from the granular level of language to reveal larger forces at work: not necessarily the archival traces of moments of singular beauty, although those appear too in Brock’s materials, but rather overarching patterns of institutional structuring that were lodged in, and operated through, language in the WNUR Rock Show annotations and logs.
Other findings of Brock in his computational textual analysis remind us just how much non-sonic elements of musical culture matter. Music, especially popular music (or what critic Robert Christgau calls the “semi-popular” music of genres such as college rock), is about more than just the sounds. In his project, Brock asks how past programmers and DJs created a sense of coherency and order out of the messy, sprawling world of musical creativity and expression in the college rock world of the 1980s and 90s. Similarities of sounds mattered, but he discovered that a sort of intuitive network analysis emerged as a crucial way that WNUR programmers made sense of the releases flowing into the station. They paid close attention not only to the sounds themselves but also, in their annotation systems, to producers, labels, and other aspects of musical production and distribution.
These extra-musical details gave essential organizational order to their listening experiences as they revolved from individual reception to institutional knowledge. They made associative lists of examples that prefigure the recommendation algorithms of Internet consumer platforms such as Amazon. “In a sense,” Brock writes, “this was the job of the college radio music director: to piece together some cohesive view of the fractured and divided underground rock music scene for station listeners.” The underground, it turns out, is also an institution; the subculture a space of developing official positions and orderings. In short, the underground itself was an archive emerging, a structured space of attitudes, tastes, associations, and signaled value. The governance was informal. There was space for dissent. There were arguments to be had. Democracy was possible. But it was not a free-for-all. It was a network of people and sounds and knowledge taking shape through myriad annotations on sonic experience.
Attention to who was making the music was a way for WNUR staff to create a map of the world in which they listened to and broadcast music, and to develop a key for navigating the sonic and cultural terrain of college rock they were helping to shape at the time. “If record labels and producers were responsible for creating these isolated scenes,” Brock observes, “the music director’s job involved using the work of these various emblems as guiding points in a wild connect the dots of music and culture.”
It was also, of course, a way to signal that one was in the know: knowledge of the music makers behind the sounds distinguished college rock as a subculture from the floating, purely aural world of pop writ large. Whereas top forty hits just were there, relentlessly on mainstream radio, their sounds attached to a celebrity superstar but usually nothing more, college rock brought consumers closer to the means of production, as it were: to the producer, whether that be the sound engineer, overseer of the recording process, or consultant on the making of the music; or to the record label as arbiter of taste.
To know about these connections, to learn about them and be able to write down your knowledge literally on the commodity object itself was, particularly in the days before the Internet, to assert a kind of mastery over them, and thereby to gain access to a kind of secret society of cool; it was to accrue subcultural capital; it was to seek belonging in a subculture that offered community, affiliation, identity, and differentiation from mass culture. Knowledge equaled power here, inscribed in conventional words on unconventional objects, left in this undiscovered archive for a scholar such as Brock to recover, process, interpret, and share for further inquiry.
There is no small irony, of course, to the fact that participants in college rock during the 1980s and 90s often saw themselves as opposed to global corporate capitalism, sometimes in overtly political or economic terms, but just as often in loosely cultural terms. The irony is that the modes of Do It Yourself annotations and reviews that linked individual aesthetic experiences to systems of knowledge prefigured the digital world of customer reviews and algorithmic recommendation systems that now dominate musical experience on websites such as Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and other digital entities. Little did college rock programmers of the 1980s and 90s know that their work would lead to a different sort of programming. Scrawling notes in felt-tip analog that sometimes looks like the hand that made it was quivering with excitement, DJs were unbeknownst to themselves, feeding the machine, as it were, creating practices that would in many respects feed the ideologies of DIY corporate capitalism as they scaled into the digital platforms which were to be, in some respects, the undoing of the 1980s and 90s college rock radio underground itself.
Brock does not “go there,” as they say. But he is alert to patterns and associations and surprises not only in his data, but also in the way his digital tactics manifest data. A great example of this is his use of Voyant’s TermsBerry tool, which displays relations between words in his data in little circles that, when you scroll over them, illuminate other terms used close to them in the annotations and logs. On the analytic level, there are many discoveries here, as well as confirmations. For instance, one might consider the topic of gender in 1980s college rock, which replicated the larger misogyny of American culture yet also set the stage for 1990s movements such as Riot Grrrl. The word “female” appears seven times in Brock’s analysis. Six of those seven times it appears alongside the word “vocalist,” a reminder that Riot Grrrl was very much about who was playing the non-vocal instruments of guitar, drums, bass, and on what terms. This kind of analysis confirms suspicions about the reinscription in the college rock world of larger assumptions structuring identity and social power in terms of gender, race, class, and region.
But there are surprises as well: for instance the intriguing associations of the word “free” not only with jazz, but with the genre of country—what is that about, exactly, one wonders? Brock’s digital analysis creates new launching pads for inquiry, or to flip the metaphor, new diving boards to leap into the murky waters of the past.
And then, there is Brock’s eye toward digital modes of representation. As he slyly notes, “Stepping back a moment from the task at hand, and focusing on the purely visual renderings of Voyant, taking the process of data visualization as less of a means to an end, but rather a process for further discovery, I cannot help but notice the way all of the term-filled circles begin to look like small records.”
Here, fittingly, was a digitized radio program about the history of a broadcast radio program. Brock brought together his own script with the sounds of these recordings themselves, knitting together information from the sprawling network of data in his Omeka archive into a coherent story. In particular, Brock noticed crucial moments of rupture: the shifting of taste and differentiation that erupted in the early 1980s as a new group of students pushed away from mainstream rock of the 1970s, positioning themselves as arbiters of something new: an emergent “underground” blasting out from punk rock’s explosion in the late 1970s.
How do we explain this shift? There is more work to do, both on this topic and on digital history methods as a whole; in the meantime, Brock’s project serves as a reminder that history does not march along to a steady beat or rise up on glorious harmonies alone; like the experimental sounds that moved to the center of WNUR’s Rock Show programming in the time period Brock studies, history too is filled with speedups and slowdowns, with a seemingly freeform stream of events and recordings and set breaks that have connections but also discontinuities, paradoxes, and contradictions. History, like the sounds of the Rock Show, is dissonant and surprising and mingles intentional efforts to change the world at various levels with unexpected factors and outcomes.
Brock sets us on our way to noticing these somewhat unaccountable and mysterious patterns. He begins to organize this past into interpretations, arguments, and evidence-based narratives that link the story of college rock radio at one station to a larger landscape—one that is a soundscape as much as anything else—of cultural, political, economic, and social change and continuity, of accelerations and decelerations. History crunches the past into the future through a distorted electric guitar signal, creating all kinds of overtones and undertones, hammering out power chords and screeching off into surprising squeals, sequences, repetitions, and—then it appears: something new and nascent in the world, a possible new direction. What was that sound? How do we follow it as it blasts into the future, fades into the past?
Overall, Brock’s project is a wonderful example of how digital technology can both extend and expand this sort of historical knowledge and its implications for contemporary life. He not only brought to light a lost world of artifacts from a neglected archive, but Brock also goes much further: he offers guidance, interpretation, and analysis using digital tools and platforms. Here is a sonic and visual and textual door into questions of aesthetics and politics, of the odd relationships between elite institutions such as Northwestern and the underground youth cultures they could sustain without even quite knowing they were doing so; of vexing issues of race, class, gender, and regional identities as presented in sound and iconography and commentary; of patterns of production and consumption in 80s and 90s America.
Brock’s work is groundbreaking, both in focus and method. It is a remarkable accomplishment, and one of the best—if not the best—digital history project I’ve seen emerge yet from Northwestern at any level, faculty or otherwise. Congratulations Brock, and I hope you will continue to develop and advance this project after you graduate. It is already a great success, and has enormous potential to grow into an even more robust digital history archive and interpretive analysis of why music and culture matter to history.