Paula Harper, AB’10, is an assistant professor in Music. Her current book projects are “Viral Musicking and the Rise of Noisy Platforms” and the coedited volume “Taylor Swift: The Star, the Songs, the Fans.”

The notion of cultural contagion has a long history. The idea is that a contagious force is taking over the bodies of those perceived to be vulnerable and valuable in society—so oftentimes children, especially White children in this country. Viral things have an ambivalence to them. They’re dangerous, but they’ve got some kind of appeal. People are excited about participating in virality, be it a jazz craze or the “Gangnam Style” dance.

One of my books is about the history of things going viral online. I’m looking at platforms that might not immediately intuitively register as musical platforms. What does Twitter or Reddit or Tumblr or TikTok have to do with music, with the music industry, with the way that music circulates? All these platforms are contributing to the broader musical ecosystem in some way. When I’m using the word noisy to describe these platforms, I’m thinking about noisiness that might not be explicitly sonic but is based on ideas of attentiveness, of tuning in and tuning out, of foreground and background.

Both the generative and toxic sides of fandom have been afforded and amplified by digital platforms. Some of the earliest internet communities are fandom communities. These have been in some ways a lovely, productive, generative space for geographically dispersed fans to find one another and to bond over shared interests. They also almost universally have instances of infighting and the development of hierarchies. So you might have a certain status in the Taylor Swift fandom if you’ve been to x number of concerts or if you got a picture with Taylor Swift. Indeed, celebrities are now encouraged to perform this accessibility—to perform parasocial relationships with their fans—in ways that can be leveraged by the fans and monetized by the star.

The book on Taylor Swift is pulled mostly from participants at a two-day virtual conference that I co-organized in 2021 with speakers from disciplines including literature, sociology, and musicology. There had not, at that point, been much concerted academic work around Taylor Swift, although she was at the center of cultural conversations about fandom and social media, copyright, relationships between artists and labels, gender and race, songwriting, and celebrity and branding. We advertised the conference widely, and we were interested in getting an audience of folks who were not necessarily academics.

During the final session, we said that if anyone wanted to stay on and chat, we could. We had been talking about the problem of being a female pop star and the necessity of perpetually changing one’s brand. This person came on Zoom and was like, “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I am in the amateur wrestling world. I have a Taylor Swift–based wrestling persona, and so I’m constantly thinking about persona and how it is crafted and used in storytelling.” It was a magical, brain-opening moment. I had not considered Taylor Swift as the articulation point between pop music and wrestling. But now I think about it all the time.

Michael Bourdaghs is the Robert S. Ingersoll Professor in East Asian Languages and Civilizations. He is coeditor of Sound Alignments: Popular Music in Asia’s Cold Wars (Duke University Press, 2021) and author of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical History of J-Pop (Columbia University Press, 2012).

I always want to be cautious when we use the word reflection. Popular music certainly does reflect social feelings, social ideology, and social trends, but it also generates them. If you think about something like punk or hip-hop, popular music can range from affirmation and celebration to complete and direct condemnation of the world it’s in—and oftentimes it’s both.

My book [Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon] examines the tense relationship between the United States and Japan from 1945 into the 1990s, beginning with the defeat of Japan in World War II by the United States and the occupation of Japan. In some ways this is viewed as rescuing Japan from fascism, restoring democracy in Japan, rebuilding Japan. But it also has a strong feeling of subordination to the United States through geopolitics and popular culture. It produced a strong resistance, a strong desire to get out from under the shadow of America.

In 1960 the US-Japan Security Treaty, which essentially made Japan a junior partner in America’s security strategies, came up for revision and renewal, and there was a massive popular uprising with millions of people out in the streets. There was a real fear that Japan was being dragged into World War III by the United States and its Cold War policies. US military bases in Japan were used during the Vietnam War, which the vast majority of Japanese opposed. In one manga set at that time, one of the great superheroes of Japanese culture, Tetsuwan Atomu [Astro Boy], gives up his life—temporarily, of course, because he never really dies—to protect the North Vietnamese against the colonizing American military.

The book traces tensions like these through the early postwar surge in what was called jazz music—really swing jazz—in the late 1940s, the introduction of rockabilly and early rock and roll in Japan in the 1950s, and this genre called enka that is portrayed as the heart and soul of Japanese culture (often compared to country and western in the United States). And it looks at how the political struggles of the 1960s morphed into a more ironic postmodern expression in the 1970s. The narrative ends in 1990 with the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble, shortly after which people started using the word J-pop to describe a kind of music introduced in Japan that would give birth to categories like K-pop, which became dominant a few years later.

There’s a really influential Japanese rock band from the early ’70s called Happy End, which at the time sold very few records. The comparison that’s always made is to the Velvet Underground. Discovering them was like coming across a masterpiece that I’d somehow never seen sitting there. Their music was very conscious of its relationship to America, trying to reject and acknowledge the influence at the same time. At the end of their career, their record company paid for them to go to Los Angeles and record their last album with a group of American musicians, including the members of Little Feat. They called the album Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon, as in, “We’re done with both.” That was irresistible as a book title.

Photo Creds: 
Photography by Paul Smith © 2012 / Alamy