Theses Doctoral

Brooklyn Country: Class, Culture and the Politics of "Alternativity"

Hohman, Anne Kathryn

This text is based on more than two years of ethnographic research among country music fans in New York City. It specifically addresses what I, and many of my interlocutors call the "Brooklyn country music scene" (or sometimes, the "Brooklyn Country music scene"), a particular nexus of country music activity that was in existence during the time of my research, between the spring of 2005 and the winter of 2007/8. I explore the ideas, themes, practices and social structures that characterized this scene during the time of my participation. And I look into the lives and histories of individual participants, as well as the larger social context(s) in which they, and the scene, operated.

Indeed, although this scene of musical practice is at the center of my research and this text, I view it in the widest terms as an entry point into thinking about the unique set of subjects involved, their lives and positionings, their broader ideas, experiences and practices, and where all of this fits in to a larger picture of contemporary American life. Throughout, I am centrally interested in the ways in which this scene represents not only a set of creative contemporary social and cultural practices, but also a complex engagement with an already symbolically laden social and cultural form: "country music."

A review of the scholarly literature on the genre reveals that country has had a complex and often embattled existence in the United States. With a long history of mixed social and symbolic ties to some version of the rural, white, working class(es) (often, but not always, Southern), country has long been a source, and agent, of both longing and dread, from a wide range of subject positions and historical emplacements. Variously configured as an emblem of (or conduit for) "authenticity," "tradition," and "the folk," or, on the other hand, "commercialization," "backwardness," and "trash," country music has been engaged in range of complex, often highly ambivalent negotiations that speak to a number of different social and cultural conflicts.

These have included, according to the literature, those pertaining to race, place, and gender, religiosity and nationalism, and more broadly, modernity, postmodernity, and the progress of global capitalism, among other things. But class has tended to be the persistently central figure, according to this work. In looking at this particular scene then, I argue that in engaging with country music, the people and music involved also engaged with this complex discursive history, and particularly this discourse about class. In this sense, I suggest that for participants in the scene, country music was a source for articulating a broad range of meanings and values, for working through a number of different experienced positionalities and conflicts, but that in a central way, it was a source for thinking about, working on and representing class-related experiences and meanings. Specifically, I suggest that it was a source for negotiating the increasingly fraught category of "middle-class-ness," and I explore the ways in which this scene provides a revealing example of "alternativity" as a distinctly middle-class structure of feeling, and tactic in the late/neoliberal capitalist United States.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ortner, Sherry B.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 23, 2012