Reflections from a
Sociologist of Popular Culture
by Oliver Wang, California State University-Long Beach
In the mid-1990s, I embarked on three distinct paths that continue to this day. In 1993, still a sociology undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, I started disc jockeying—notably, following in the footsteps of several graduate students who moonlighted as DJs. When I graduated in 1994, I began writing professionally as a music journalist and critic; that has since blossomed into a rewarding freelance career with various outlets, especially NPR. And in 1996, I entered Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies PhD program; currently, I am in my fourth year as an assistant professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach, specializing in issues of race/ethnicity and popular culture.
Early in graduate school, I described my journalism and DJ work as "part of my other life" and an advisor, Deborah Wong, admonished me for characterizing these pursuits as belonging to separate worlds. She felt the three roles—DJ, writer, and academic—inherently informed one another and that recognizing those intersections would enhance my growth as a scholar. She wasn’t wrong, but it is the integration between the three activities that proves challenging.
Even Simon Frith, the most pre-eminent sociologist-cum-music critic in the world, has admitted, "I don’t doubt that my academic position undermined my credibility as a rock critic and that my journalism undermined my status as an academic." Indeed, my pursuit of popular culture scholarship can, at times, be met with polite condescension; my favorite example comes from an old classmate: "you wrote your dissertation on disc jockeys? I should have gone to graduate school!" Likewise, I have found that when cultural criticism is described as "sociological," it’s usually a backhanded way to suggest a writer is overly invested in social questions and neglecting aesthetics.
Despite this, I find that working as writer and scholar enriches both endeavors. As a critic, the pressures to stay abreast of current cultural trends invigorate my research interests. For example, my academic publications on hip-hop, ethnic identity, and race relations trace back to topics I originally pursued as a journalist. Sometimes, ideas that begin in journalism jump straight into academia; when I first heard of Los Angeles’s growing community of haute catering trucks, I thought of it as a potential news story, but it blossomed instead into a culture review written for the ASA journal Contexts. Practically speaking, years of working with publication editors has taught me the value of economy and efficiency in my prose. In a time where academic publishers are stressing "readability," these skills have obvious utility.
The influence flows in the other direction as well. I first learned interview-based, qualitative research methods as an undergraduate and these skills enhanced my interviewing acumen as an arts journalist (which then fed back into my graduate interests in ethnography and oral history). Equally important, the kind of rigor demanded in academia pushes my journalist work to value comprehension over speed. Most of all, I embrace the idea of my writing being sociological insofar as I am interested not just in aesthetics, but in the relationship of those aesthetic objects and auteurs to society and vice versa. (Discovering Howard Becker’s Art Worlds was especially transformative in this regard).
All this symbiosis aside, it often feels like arts journalism and sociological scholarship are competing interests, and to paraphrase the adage: It can be difficult to serve two masters. Committing to an academic career has often meant forgoing "outside" writing opportunities, at least in the short-run. Blogging fills part of that void, but it’s no proxy to the rewards of well-edited, long-form journalism. I am certainly not the first professor to face this challenge and I believe, over time, I’ll be able to achieve a better equilibrium and/or synthesis between these two pursuits. At the very least, I am thankful to be a professor where the craft of writing still matters deeply.
As for where DJing falls into all of this, most obviously, my dissertation (now a book-in-progress for Duke University Press) is focused on the Filipino American disc jockey community in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was a topic I originally came upon as a journalist but having been a DJ gave me informal insights—as a participant observer—into understanding the pull and rewards of the craft.
Ideally, I would have liked to end this article with some clever metaphor of how I approach scholarship "as a DJ," deconstructing and reconstructing ideas and concepts in the same way I mix different records. In reality though, if there is any osmosis of skills from DJing into academia, it is certainly not done consciously. What I can say is that DJing offers a tactile way to engage a passion for music that undergirds all my juggled interests. What DJing, writing and scholarship share in common is a core desire to share/discuss music and explore its social effects. It has been a privilege to indulge that interest in many myriad ways.
Oliver Wang is currently completing Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile Disc Jockeys in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to teaching, he writes on music and culture for NPR, the LA Weekly, Wax Poetics, and other publications and hosts several blogs, most notably Soul-Sides.com (music) and Poplicks.com (culture and politics). He also DJs weekly at the Shortstop in Echo Park, Los Angeles.