‘2009 marked a significant departure in music disability studies as the journal Popular Music devoted a special issue to this topic’—M. Celia Cain (2010) ‘Of pain, passing and longing or music’. Disability & Society, 25:6.
Inaugural professorial lecture, UEA: ‘Pop music and the disabled body’, March 8 2016
Watch the film of my inaugural lecture at University of East Anglia, which includes clips from films and music videos of artists from Robert Wyatt to Israel Vibration, Ian Dury to Gene Vincent, Connie Boswell, Graeae at the 2012 Paralympics, Cyd Charisse and First Edition. Here is the abstract:
The wonderfully ephemeral world of popular music is not always thought of as an inclusive space for the disabled artist. Through a discussion of music, media, song lyrics and performances, Prof George McKay (School of Art, Media and American Studies) looks at ways in which pop and rock singers and bands have explored the experience of disability, and acted as advocates and activists for disability campaigns. Learn more about UEA public events here.
‘Cripping subculture: punk rock and disability’
I was really pleased to have been invited to contribute a chapter to the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies (Neil Lerner, Joseph N. Straus et al eds., Oxford UP, 2016). There are over 40 chapters, an extraordinary achievement by the editors to bring all that together. Here is my chapter abstract:
This essay is focused on (post)subculture and disability and specifically on punk rock. It aims to extend our understanding both of punk itself and of subcultural theory, adding to ideas around postsubculture by cripping it (see McRuer 2006), that is, by identifying the sounds and styles and bodies of the disabled, who are the neglected already-present of punk, and whose presence disrupts subculture theory, even while such theory exists in large part to understand the disruptive potential of gesture, music, youth, fashion, attitude, and modes of walking and talking. Here I concur with, and seek to develop, the observation by David Church that “disability has been one of the most foundational—and yet, one of the least explored—representational tropes of the punk milieu” (2013, 28). The essay contains two main areas: an initial discussion of subculture and counterculture in terms of theory and of disability and a focus on the original British punk scene of the late 1970s and three major artists, varyingly disabled, from it. [These are Ian Dury, Johnny Rotten, and Ian Curtis / Joy Division.] It concludes with a view of punk’s “cultural legacy” (Sabin 1999) in the disability arts movement.
… anything that rhymes with ‘me’! — Kevin Coyne, ‘Fat girl’ (1976)
My recent major research output is a monograph called Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability, published by University of Michigan Press in its Corporealities: Discourses of Disability series in late 2013. Further information about the book, and brief chapter-by-chapter extracts, are available here. You can read the catalogue blurb here. Lots of lovely reviews here—I can’t deny that this is one of my several favourites: ‘ a brash, brilliant, and fist-pumping book that will inspire and entertain audiences for years to come’ (Popular Music & Society).
The book was made possible by an Arts & Humanities Research Council research leave scheme grant (£37,584; 2010) for a project entitled Spasticus: Popular Music and Disability. (BTW you may be interested to know that the shift in title from the research project’s Spasticus to the book’s Shakin’ was at the suggestion of the US readers’ reports on the proposal, but I completely agreed.) The research questions of the project were:
- In what ways does popular music obscure and accommodate the presence of people with disabilities in its cultural practice? I consider bodies in performance, voices in delivery, pop lyrics and music, gendered expectations. Which particular disabilities or impairments does pop prefer?
- How have popular musicians articulated the experiences of disability (or sought to pass), or used their cultural arena for disability advocacy purposes?
- What role has the industry played, and how has it changed? Do pop industry pressures and temptations themselves disable pop’s cultural workers?
- How can popular music itself be (understood as) disabling? In what ways do specific forms of popular music embody or suggest the fascination or fear of disability? The uncontrollable pop bodies of early jazz, or 1950s rock and roll, or 1970s punk rock, figure here.
- What theoretical contributions from disability studies are most helpful for the analysis of culture? Is the political imperative within disability studies confirmed via cultural analysis?
- How is the critical understanding of popular music altered by the recent development of cultural disability studies?
- How can the scope of cultural disability studies be extended by detailed critical consideration of popular music?
Alongside the AHRC award a matching university sabbatical gave me a year’s leave to write Shakin’ All Over, which also draws on my published research below, in particular from the Popular Music special issue on disability I edited in 2009.
Click above to read the full text of my piece about this show, which I saw in February 2012 in Ipswich. Here’s an extract:
… What a show! 13 people on stage throughout—actors, musicians, signers, facilitators—and a big busy set that’s a cross between a rock gig stage and an Essex pub, with a drum kit centre-rear and a pool table at the side, with a slide show overhead showing all the lyrics, captioned dialogue, and some fun animations. Oh and bunting and strings of lightbulbs round stage and stalls to give a salty flavour. (Dury contracted his polio in the seaside town of Southend.) A great cast in ensemble, and some terrific musicians too. In authentic punk style, the show’s joins and edges—its rips and torns—as well as the raw and obvious emotions of youthful anger and desire are all on display….
Review in New Formations of Alex Lubet, Music, Disability, and Society, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011 (vol. 73, 2011, pp. 136-137)
If it is the case that music has come late to the table of what is being called cultural disability studies—behind case studies of performance, literature, or media, for instance—it is also arguable that the wait has been worth it. Once one gets past his introduction’s tiresome pops at jargon-laden cultural studies and at the poverty of ‘scholarly writing about music by nonmusicians’ (I wonder if often enough such academics are actually musicians who just don’t work in music departments—why not, is a good question for another day), Alex Lubet’s new book offers a provocative and wide-ranging set of readings which undoubtedly progress—or usefully and creatively muddy—thinking in the field. Lubet’s musical examples are sweepingly and impressively international: from African-American jazzers to western and Egyptian orchestras, Ukrainian minstrels to Taliban music-haters. The book will I think fascinate readers in music and disability studies alike.
It does though display a largely American focus in its theorising and its legal frame of reference. The latter is important for Lubet. He makes a valid point about the ways in which disability is defined; what for a musician may be a career-halting impairment may for someone else not even be evaluated as a disability. Finely controlled dexterity across eight fingers and two thumbs is pretty handy for a pianist, say, but not quite so essential for a speech therapist or park warden. (This works in reverse, too: ‘within numerous worlds of music, blindness—so often the stuff of much grim metaphor—is little or no impairment’.) But it is curious here to read how he illustrates his argument with ahistorical conjecture about whether or not the 19th century German composer Robert Schumann would have qualified as disabled in the terms of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, for example.
Initially music is presented as an ability or a special talent, and then considered for its enabling or limiting capacities. From the musics chosen (the heavily body-centred form of popular music is largely absent) jazz is understood as enabling, its ‘essence is the embrace of difference’. Lubet tentatively suggests that, as a music of black origin rooted in transatlantic slavery, jazz and disability function as a kind of socio-cultural ‘coalition of the oppressed’. The western classical tradition, on the other hand, which, as Lubet notes, includes the very kinds of music departments he has spent his career working in (one answer then to my question above?), is largely a ‘crip-free’ zone, its orchestras ‘sonic Spartas that eliminate’ those unable (for whatever reason) to be good enough. This is a damning view of classical music’s institutions, lightened by discussion of the repertoire composers have produced over the years for one-handed pianists.
The book’s most ambitious chapter (Lubet effectively tells us this is so) aims late on to offer a counter-intuitive reading of music which undercuts many of our and his preceding assumptions. Now music is not simply culturally open or closed to the disabled, but, in certain social circumstances, music is itself a disability. Lubet argues that what we assumed was an ability is, for societies like the Taliban or some ultra-orthodox Jews, a source of disability. In such societies ‘musicality has become a disability’—and practising or listening to it is the very source of one’s exclusion and punishment, even death. Although I may not be entirely convinced—disability here becomes a metaphor of cultural oppression, removed from the specificity of corporeal experience into a new form of social model—I am provoked and made to rethink my view about the relationship between music and disability.
MeCCSA 2011 conference, University of Salford
We hosted this year’s Media, Communication & Cultural Studies Association conference in January 2011, at the Lowry, Salford Quays, and one of the features was a focus on cultural disabilities studies—to mark and to raise the profile of the recently-established MeCCSA Disability Studies Network. I was lead organiser for the conference. We were delighted that one of our keynote lectures was given by Professor Colin Barnes, founder and longstanding director of the Centre for Disability Studies, University of Leeds.
[For the full interview transcription and Rohoman biography click on blue link above] … Those successful years proved to me that if you have the determination, the drive, then you can achieve almost anything. Who dictates what the norm is? And being with Ian [Dury] in Kilburn and the High Roads, just made that feeling even stronger. That band was an intimidating and powerful collection of very unusual people, disabled, freakish, frightening I suppose for some of the audience. There was Ian at the front, me behind the drums, short little Charlie [Sinclair], great big tall Humphrey [Ocean], and on sax, yes, Davey Payne who you never quite knew what was going to happen with, always a bit of edge. [Laughs] No one else but Ian could have gotten that sort of bunch of musicians, those characters, to play together. It says a lot about his I suppose man management, not necessarily what you usually think of with Ian. He chose each person not only for their musical ability or inability, but as though he was making a painting, a mosaic. I think he’s done a lot for disabled people: he’s made ‘normal’ people realise that being short, or having something wrong with your leg, doesn’t stop you playing your instrument….
Review in Times Higher Education of Terry Rowden, The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009 (8 July 2010, pp. 54-55)
From the title on—with its echo of W.E.B. Du Bois’s founding text of African American consciousness, The Souls of Black Folk—this book explores the relation between race, disability and popular music. While the blues musician B.B. King famously declared that ‘To be a blues singer is like having to be black twice’, Terry Rowden extends that to three times othered: black, blues, blind. It forms part of an exciting recent development within the emerging discipline of cultural disability studies—at the forefront of which has been performance/theatre studies, and theory—as popular music research has begun to critically discuss the impaired or damaged pop body and voice, finding their presence to be surprisingly widespread in a cultural practice more readily associated with the youthful and sexual pleasures of the ideal body.
This is a very useful and highly readable contribution to cultural disability studies, of real value also to popular music and American cultural history scholars, covering popular piano and ragtime, blues and gospel, jazz and soul since the nineteenth century. Contemporary hip hop does not figure because visual impairment is a decreasingly common disability today—a medical situation which, as Rowden points out with little further comment, explains why newer members of the long-established gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama ‘have not been blind’.
Rowden argues that few blind musicians have explicitly referenced their experience of disability, preferring to ‘deflect attention away’, or to ‘lyrically pass’ (singing words that suggest the capacity to see, as in Blind Blake’s ‘Early morning blues’: ‘When you see me sleepin’ baby don’t you think I’m drunk / I got one eye on my pistol and the other on your trunk’). This seems a remarkable absence in a form like the blues, which is predicated on an autobiographical lyric of suffering. One or two explicit songs (like Blind Gary Davis’s ‘There was a time that I went blind’) are identified and discussed, but, curiously, Rowden overlooks key musical moments when some of the musicians he focuses on have actually sung of their lives. I very rarely think this of academic books—but The Songs of Blind Folk is too short. It needs another fifty pages. Readers would surely benefit from Rowden’s informed treatment of Sleepy John Estes’s 1948 ‘Stone blind blues’, in which he sings: ‘Now, when you lose your eyesight, your best friend gone’. Or of jazz multi-instrumentalist Roland Kirk’s 1968 album The Inflated Tear, the title track of which tells the story of Kirk being blinded as a result of a hospital error when a small child. Interrupting the music, Kirk, voicing a nurse, shouts in frightening panic: ‘Help him! Help him! Please! I don’t know what’s happened…. I’m sorry’.
One of the book’s strengths lies in its interweaving of musical, social and medical history, as when the cultural choices and social mobility options of blues street singers in the South in the 1930s are discussed in the context of white doctors’ medical reports on their conditions. Another is in the intriguing comparisons the book offers: it opens with Blind Tom, multiply disabled nineteenth century child prodigy pianist billed as ‘the wonder of the World’, and closes with Steveland Morris, ‘probably the most famous blind person in the world’ today, writes Rowden, aka twentieth century child prodigy keyboardist Stevie Wonder. Of course, as Rowden shows, the experience of each as a blind black man making music was as profoundly different as we would expect from their societies’ respective attitudes towards race and disability. But he also shows how the entertainment business could accommodate and market its African American disabled stars employing sometimes not so very different strategies.
The uncontrollability of the pop body has been a persistent feature since its early days. From ‘All shook up’ in the US and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ ‘Shaking all over’ (1960) in Britain, songs about uncontrollable neurological tremors, as physical symptoms conflating the ecstasy of sexual attraction and of dance, are heard from rock and roll on—and are themselves prefigured in the pleasure and fear of the transcendent body in the jazz and dance musics of the first half of the 20th century as well. There are identifiable and powerful links between popular music and the damaged, imperfect, deviant, extraordinary body or voice, which can be, and surprisingly often is, a disabled body or voice; these links have been overlooked in much critical writing about popular music. The purpose of this special edition of Popular Music, then, the articles in which come from a call for papers I put out in 2006, is to explore the common cultural and social territory of popular music and disability, which has been a hitherto neglected topic. This edition of the journal is situated at a nexus of disciplinary or sub-disciplinary concerns: disability studies, popular music studies (including musicology), cultural studies, performance studies, gender studies, and theory. It is intended as a timely musical contribution to the critical dialogue of recent years around disability culture, as one corrective to popular music studies’ relative silence here….
On a Sunday afternoon in October 2008, when I ought really to have been writing this introduction, I was instead flicking through the Sunday newspaper over a late breakfast, trying to avoid the finance pages. I picked up one of the free magazines, the Observer Music Monthly, and read an interview with polio survivor Neil ‘Shakey’ Young, which included a photograph of him with polio survivor Joni Mitchell; I glanced at a short photo-feature on rock ‘n’ roll suicide Kurt Cobain and at another on 1980s Smiths-era Morrissey; I read an article on the thirty-year career of visually impaired Malian couple Amadou and Mariam, in which they talked about how ‘music gave us the strength to overcome the blindness’; I read a review of a new Robert Wyatt album, which included a photograph of Wyatt smoking a cigarette in his wheelchair, and a review of a Hank Williams compilation; skimmed an article that mentioned polio survivor Ian Dury’s album Do It Yourself, and another in which Wyatt was referenced again. All this in one unthemed magazine. While I thought I was not doing my research on popular music and disability, here I was doing it all the same.
The point is one that disability studies has taught us compellingly: the moment we begin to look for, to discuss disability (in popular music), we find it everywhere. Whether in its focus on bodies perfect and deviant alike, the romantic appeal in rock lyrics and lives to tropes of suffering or cognitive impairment, its damaged voices, its continuing status as expressive vehicle for emotional autobiography (from artists and audience members), its intermittent fetishing of enfreakment, or in the place of pop repertoires in music therapy or disability arts, in fact pop is a profoundly dismodern cultural formation and practice. My hope is that the essays in this special edition of Popular Music will continue the process of illustrating, understanding and interrogating that important observation.
[Essay included in the Popular Music special issue, above; just click on the link for the full text of published article]
…To conclude, with the song ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ the polio and pop generation I have charted and discussed moves most powerfully and demandingly outside its own cultural and corporeal concerns to challenge and to populate a wider, more ambitious territory—the entirety of Normal Land. Critics confirm for us the power involved, as popular music’s infectious nature extends the discourse of disability. In a 1962 review of Ewan MacColl’s radio ballad about polio, The Body Blow, the Sunday Telegraph caught the neuro-muscular condition: ‘I doubt whether a listener with full attention on this programme can avoid sympathetic agitation in his own muscles. At a playback for the press last week we all had trouble breathing’. A more excitable piece from the pop press in 1973 described Dury’s band Kilburn and the High Roads in terms of impairment, or corporeal defect: ‘Dancing to the Kilburns is like being on the verge of shitting your pants and enjoying it! You can’t stand still so you jerk around uncomfortably for a while, then you develop a system of easy flowing constant motions to keep your bowels from evacuating’.
How should we read that generation’s cultural work overall? It is in part an achievement, the familiar and comforting disability narrative of overcoming, which draws on isolation or instrumental training as therapy as routes towards expression. Here we have seen that songs of childhood memory are not innocent or idyllic, but painful, scar(r)ed, and angry. Nor is overcoming always comforting, and the rejection of victimhood here is sometimes uncompromisingly stated. It is a performance, which capitalises on popular music’s intermittent capacity to value images of deviancy or enfreakment. Here related subcultural styles and attitudes can contribute acceptability and access. It is too a political act, of advocacy, consciousness-raising or campaigning.
Musical approaches vary: there are the adaptive instrumental techniques employed by some musicians (Joni Mitchell, Carl Perkins, Horace Parlan), the damaged grammar of self-styled Cockney Rebel Steve Harley, even the potentially alla zoppa reggae of Israel Vibration. (Alla zoppa: a musical term meaning, as Lerner explains, ‘“limping” or “halting” in Italian … this rhythmic figure is part of the instrumental tradition of representing physical impairments’. In this context, alla zoppa invites us to reconsider reggae’s characteristic off-beat rhythm guitar and keyboard, as well as its sometimes out-of-time echo dub practices, as less lilt, more limp.)
That generation’s music may be part of pop, but it needs to be acknowledged that it can seem quite unpopular: CeDell Davis with his ‘out of tune’ guitar-playing, the ‘damaged voice’ of Neil Young’s song of polio and experience (or, earlier, the non-musicality of Connie Boswell’s singing), Dury with his ‘deafening’ screams and the single that bombed and was banned, for instance.
My aim has been to uncover and explore the polio and pop generation, and to show how the work of Ian Dury sits at the impressive heart of it. That most public of his songs about disability, the 1981 single ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, closes with a number of male and female, normal and impaired voices proclaiming each in turn ‘I’m Spasticus’. I have argued that the song is directed outwards, to the inhabitants of Normal Land, as a piece of cultural advocacy. But it is also directed inwards, in its closing collective gesture of self-identification and -empowerment. To achieve both, in a single pop song, makes it in my view a compelling challenge to what Marc Shell has termed the ‘the paralysis of culture’ that surrounds polio survivors.