Make a difference: Support jazz online

Support All About Jazz Your friends at All About Jazz are looking for readers to help back our website upgrade project. Of critical importance, this project will result in a vastly improved design across all devices and will make future All About Jazz projects much easier to implement. Click here to learn more about this project including donation rewards.

5

Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disbaility

Ian Patterson By

Sign in to view read count
Shakin' All Over: Popular Music and Disability
George McKay
230 pages
ISBN: #978-0-472-05209-7
University of Michigan Press
2013

Given the vast quantities written about popular music culture it is perhaps surprising that so little critical space has been given to disability and popular music. Despite this anomaly, author George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, argues that there exist identifiable and powerful links between popular music and the "damaged" body or voice: "The moment we begin to look for, to discuss disability (in popular music) we find it everywhere," he posits. In five lucid, thought-provoking chapters McKay explores the common cultural and social territory of popular music and disability, inviting us to reconsider how music is mediated, manipulated and packaged for public consumption.

Focusing mainly on popular music from 1950s American and British rock 'n roll onward, McKay examines the relationship between disability and popular song, the pop industry, live performance, mediation and marketing, the voice and fans. In the process, the author challenges our understanding of an important and ubiquitous aspect of mass culture usually taken for granted (the entertainment industry) and illustrates convincingly how popular music can "resound" disability studies.

McKay's cross-disciplinary though non-musicological approach draws from the lean but growing body of literature on disability and its manifestations in cultural spaces. Quoting Professor Tobin Siebers from his book Disability Theory (University of Michigan Press, 2008), the author underlines that "performing difference, when that difference is a stigma, marks one as a target, but it also exposes and resists the prejudices of society."

To this end, in examining the hurdles that disabled artists have encountered in an industry that celebrates beauty, talent and above all marketability, McKay's study also encompasses identity politics and issues of gender and sexual stereotyping within the industry and in society at large. The author describes "the lamentable limits of audience or industry acceptability and inclusiveness toward the disabled."

McKay acknowledges that women with disabilities get the short end of the stick and their lack of protagonism in these pages merely reflects a wider trend in the world of pop and rock. The notable exception is singer Connie Boswell, a star of 1930s and 1940s radio and film. A polio sufferer, Boswell appeared on stage and on set in a disguised wheelchair, or sat on a bar stool enveloped in a voluminous dress. It's difficult to think of many high-profile disabled female popular musicians/singers in the next 70 years, a gender imbalance, the author suggests, that raises questions as to the music industry's attitudes towards specifically female bodily impairment, and perhaps audiences' attitudes as well.

Analyzing male musical celebrities such as Neil Young, Hank Williams, Robert Wyatt, Ian Dury, Ian Curtis and Curtis Mayfield amongst others, McKay examines how polio, epilepsy, stuttering, and accident-induced paralysis have been manifested vocally and bodily in song and performance. In a chapter dedicated to polio survivors the author illustrates how the illness was not only a route into music—as prescribed therapy in the case of saxophonist David Sanborn—but how it encouraged innovative adaptive responses—Joni Mitchell's alternate guitar-tuning technique—that provided "the very route away from the commonplace toward the individual."

In a sense, "disability" is seen to been an enabler in the aforementioned cases, and indeed much of McKay's drift is towards highlighting the relationship between popular music and disability as a positive and empowering one. Jazz drummer David Rohoman—physically disabled at birth—played with rock band Kripple Vision in the early 1970s and Ian Dury's first main band, Kilburn and the High Roads; in an interview with the author he affirms: "Those successful years proved to me that if you have the determination, the drive, then you can achieve anything. Who dictates what the norm is?"

Dury, whose songs voice issues of disability, enjoyed notable success as the leader of the Blockheads despite the worst intentions of the BBC who banned his 1977 single "Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n Roll." The BBC also imposed a 6pm watershed on 1981's "Spasticus Autisticus," Dury's protest song—in the UN's International Year of Disabled Persons—about the place of the disabled in what he termed "normal land." For MacKay, Dury's "screaming music" was "an uncompromising voicing of the experience, the reality, of pain, on a pop record." The BBC may have decided "the norm" in Dury's heyday, but the singer had the last laugh—posthumously—when "Spasticus Autisticus" was performed in front of a global TV audience at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics 2012.

Tags

Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Good Morning Blues Book Reviews Good Morning Blues
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: January 11, 2018
Read The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums Book Reviews The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
by Roger Crane
Published: December 19, 2017
Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read "The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966" Book Reviews The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 19, 2017
Read "All That's Jazz" Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read "Softly, With Feeling" Book Reviews Softly, With Feeling
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: October 24, 2017