Julia Ehmann is originally from Germany. She joined the Popular Music Research Unit in 2013 and completed her PhD studies in July 2016. Her thesis title is ‘Radiohead and the Uses of Genre’.
Tell us about your research project.
My PhD deals with conceptions of style in the music of Radiohead and argues for a relevance of discourse-based approaches for the study of popular music genres. It explores the idea of genre as a multidimensional system of meaning that allows for a number of different, yet equally valid, interpretations based on the varying listening conditions of different audience groups. A central aim of my work is to provide a new methodology for studying issues of musical categorisation and interpretation, which is available to people with varying musical backgrounds and from different disciplines.
Genre is a controversial and ambiguous concept that plays an important role for the ways in which popular music is perceived and evaluated on a daily basis. Informed by a vast number of individual perceptions and opinions, popular music genres are complex constructs that are subject to constant processes of change and progression. At the same time they also hold great descriptive value and are often used to convey particular sets of connotations within audience discussions and journalistic discourses.
In my research I explore the possibilities of a study of generic diversity in individual musical oeuvres and specifically in the music of Radiohead, which is based on a combined analysis of text-based characteristics and critical discourses. Both approaches can be useful as they highlight two different but often complimentary sides of generic meaning – the intended meaning originating from musicians, composers or producers as well as the perceived meaning on the side of the audience. Therefore, by looking at genre discourses, one can gain valuable insights into the various uses and functions of genres as well as their influence on the contents of particular discussions and perceptions.
Over the years since their formation Radiohead’s music has become the subject of a particularly wide and varied discourse on genre that has influenced journalists and wider audiences alike. In the popular music press the band has been assigned a multitude of different genre categories ranging from labels such as post shoe-gazing, progressive rock and post-rock, to ambient, dance or electronic music. It is this generic diversity that I am particularly interested in. My research aims to explore how these different interpretations of genre can originate from the same musical work and to what extent their study can be useful to achieve a better understanding of the nature of genre during the course of music analysis.
My research topic is based on previous work undertaken during my MA studies and my time at Brookes has given me the opportunity to develop some of my ideas further by exploring the relevance of genre as a way into music analysis. In 2011 I graduated from the University of Hamburg with a BA in Historical Musicology and History. While my undergraduate studies were largely focused on the methodologies and debates of classical music, they also allowed me a first glimpse at popular music studies as an academic discipline and opened up new perspectives on the various ways in which these different kinds of music could be approached and analysed. My history studies in particular made me aware of the considerable impact discursive sources and oral histories can have on the study of musical matters and soon led me to develop a new fascination with the possibilities of integrating reception-based methodologies into my work. This, paired with my long-standing interest and previous involvement in music-journalism, gave me a new outlook on music interpretation and the different ways in which the study of individual listener accounts can contribute to the understanding of music and popular music in particular.
While studying for my MA degree at Goldsmiths, University of London, which I completed in 2012, I had the chance to focus on the subject of popular music as my main research area. My MA dissertation allowed me to explore some of the ideas that have influenced my PhD studies so far. It also gave me the opportunity to explore new methodologies on a more individualised basis and develop strategies for the inclusion of journalistic sources into the study of popular music, which have served as a starting point for my current research. In particular my time at Goldsmiths prepared me for dealing with the differences and difficulties that studying in another country often seems to present, while also presenting me with the invaluable experience of encountering my chosen area of study from the new and very interesting angle of a different academic environment.
While the study of popular music in the UK developed over the course of the last thirty-five years, in Germany the discipline is still evolving as part of the wider field of music related studies and so is slightly less academically established. During my time at the University of Hamburg, my class was one of the first to be able to choose popular music modules from an otherwise classical musicology degree curriculum. Thus having been able to study popular music subjects and methodologies in both countries I have gained incredibly interesting insights into the different perspectives and development stages involved. It has allowed me to form a more all-encompassing and transnational view of the discipline. Additionally it prepared me to deal with different or contradicting approaches and methodologies in my research and made me aware of the many ways in which these different perspectives could be beneficial for my explorations of popular music genres. Finally it has given me the chance to conduct research on a topic and work in a discipline that is still very new in the academic environment of my country, which is one of the reasons why studying at Brookes has been a very unique opportunity and fascinating experience so far.
While studying in a different country and language can certainly be a daunting prospect, it also presents a challenge that can be very valuable for the development of one´s academic abilities. Personally it has helped me to explore new perspectives and utilise the knowledge gained during my previous studies in differing ways. During my time as a research student at Brookes I furthermore had the opportunity to attend a number of conferences, study days and workshops focused on popular music subjects that have given me new and interesting insights into the current developments of my subject area. Most recently I also had the chance to present my current work in front of different academic audiences, which has been one of the most interesting and valuable experiences as a research student.
Having completed my PhD studies in July 2016, I can say that I have enjoyed and benefited from my time spent as a research student in the music department at Oxford Brookes University. In October 2016 I started a one-year fellowship at the University of London´s Warburg Institute, where I am conducting research for a postdoctoral project that will eventually be situated at the University of Hamburg. My work is concerned with listening behaviours in popular music audiences and I am particularly interested in exploring retrospective processes of music reception. I am currently working on an essay that will be based on my research on retrospective music scenes in London and I am also planning to publish my PhD dissertation as a monograph.
This academic year we welcome Joe Turner, who is studying for a PhD within the Popular Music Research Unit.
Before you came to Brookes, what did you study and where?
I specialised in music composition at the University of Birmingham and then the University of Southampton. I had originally planned to pursue a career in composition but instead was lured to the dark side of Popular Music Studies. I have always been deeply involved in popular music as a fan and a musician, but I used to have quite a snobby attitude towards PMS, preferring to study “art music” instead. I’m glad I dropped that stupid attitude.
What made you choose Brookes as a place to study?
It seems incredible to me how overlooked PMS is still in some university music departments. Having decided to make the switch from composition to PMS I wanted to study somewhere that takes it seriously, not as an afterthought. The existence of PMRU at Brookes was one of the big selling points for me. Plus, I grew up near Oxford and know the city well so the idea of studying here was very appealing to me.
What are your main research interests?
I’m currently researching issues of genre and authenticity in black metal. It mainly involves transcribing Darkthrone tracks to Sibelius.
Do you have plans to take your research interests further?
At the moment my research is an end in itself – and there’s a long way to go before I’m even close to that end! That said, Metal Music Studies is a growing area of research and it is fun to be a part of that. My ever-patient and wise supervisor Jan would tell you that I went through about three or four different research ideas before settling on my current topic, so there’s certainly no lack of ideas I could pursue further.
Do you have any related interests outside academia?
When I’m not studying or watching the Simpsons I’m usually playing or writing music. As well as singing and playing guitar and drums in a number of bands I play fiddle, banjo and concertina, sometimes with others and sometimes solo. As much as I enjoy my research, writing and performing music was my first love and I always make plenty of time for that side of things. Basically, I want to have my cake and eat it!
Do you have any advice for prospective students of Popular Music?
Come to Brookes! The staff know the subject inside out and are lovely people to boot, plus there are few cities in the UK with more going on musically than Oxford. And don’t forget, pop music scholars are pop music fans too – the two should always go hand in hand.