Guest Post by George McKay

George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, UK, since 2005, and found of the Communication, Cultural & Media (CCM) Research Centre at the University of Salford, is the author of a recent book on music and disability, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2013). The following guest post by Professor McKay is a discussion of the themes and topics discussed in the book, which are relevant to studies of music and disability, especially those of popular music and culture. A press release for the book is attached to this guest post. For more information on McKay’s work and scholarship, please visit his web site.

Introduction: Cultural disability studies and the cripping and popping of theory

Well, my hands are shaky and my knees are weak / I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet / Who do you thank when you have such luck?—Elvis Presley, ‘All shook up’ (1956)

The out-of-controllability of the pop body has been a persistent feature since its early days.  From ‘All shook up’ in the United States 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 (Stras 2009). 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. Popular music has always been about corporeal transformation or excess and the display of those—there has always been ‘a whole lot of shaking going on’—and reading that shakiness in the context of the disabled body is the starting point for opening up fresh insights into both popular music studies and cultural disability studies.)

Chapter 1. ‘Crippled with nerves’: polio survivors in popular music

This first chapter is the most historically situated of the book, as well as in some ways the most medically restricted. But it is also intended as something of an overview, to give a sense of the scope of how disability figures in popular music and rock, and it opens some key areas and artists for further discussion later. It focuses largely on the rock and roll generation of polio survivors: children and young people from the late 1940s to the early 1950s who contracted poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) during summer epidemics in the last few years before reliable vaccinations were widely available (in the west). In using polio as the focusing device I am aware that I may seem to be privileging the medical condition and its consequent disabilities over the people, the artists concerned, and their cultural products. But I am interested in the historical specificity of the disease in the postwar west. The introduction of the vaccines that successfully eradicated polio within a few years made that generation dramatically the last (in the west), while the chronological coincidence of the rise of pop culture would lead in a decade or two to a remarkable generation of pop and rock musicians who had been shadowed by ‘the crippler’, as polio was known colloquially in the USA—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Steve Harley, Donovan, and others. I discuss these, and go on to look at the work of Ian Dury (1942-2000), who was for some years the highest profile and most outspoken visibly physically disabled pop artist in Britain.

Chapter 2. Vox crippus: voicing the disabled body

There’s a lot more to singing than just opening your mouth. It’s a very physical act, and the power and control you need to hold a note, to protect your voice, to growl, to shout, even to sing very softly all depend on a finely balanced interplay between your vocal cords and the lungs, the diaphragm, and the muscles of the chest, abdomen, and back….—Teddy Pendergrass, Truly Blessed (1998, 232)

I know, the chapter title is Dog Latin. We’ll chase that tale later. In this chapter I explore ways in which the voice has sung the disabled body in pop and rock. Simon Frith has pointed out that ‘[s]ingers use non-verbal as well as verbal devices to make their points—emphases, sighs, hesitations, changes of tone; lyrics involve pleas, sneers and commands as well as statements and messages and stories…. It’s not just what they sing, but the way they sing it that determines what a singer means to us and how we are placed, as an audience, in relationship to them’ (1989, 90). It’s not just the relational meaning of singer and audience either, but also—particularly, one might argue, in the context of consumption of recorded rather than live performed music, when the voice is present and the body absent—a meaning of the body itself…. The body is integral even in the terminology of singing—we speak popularly of a ‘head voice’ or ‘chest voice’, for example. The sung voice presents in its pure and perfect—and, as we will see/hear, impure and imperfect—sonicity a corporeal identity and hermeneutic. A new theoretical idea is introduced—mal canto—to articulate the singing practices of the disabled. From falsetto to stutter, to lyrical and grammatical damage of song words, and other sonic vocal experiments …

Chapter 3. ‘Bodies!’ Performing disability in pop and rock

Melos: Greek for ‘limb’, hence ‘melody’.—Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1987, 228)

In this chapter we look at ways in which other pop and rock musicians have performed and articulated—or been defined by (not least by me)—their visible physical disabilities and symptoms. Unsurprisingly, in society more widely ‘quantitative studies support the theoretical and qualitative work that suggests that physical disability has a negative impact on body image’ (Taleporos and McCabe 2002, 974), but what are the implications of that for cultural workers in a creative industry in which body image is both a transactional and expressive category? Rosemary Garland Thomson explains the operation of the ocularcentric pleasure of the performed text:  ‘the visibly disabled performance artist generates the dynamic of staring, the arrested attentiveness that registers difference on the part of the viewer. In the social context of an ableist society, the disabled body summons the stare, and the stare mandates the story’ (Thomson 2000, 335). We will narrate and critically discuss some of these stories, and we will complicate others. There is particular reference to ways in which some successful musicians with a pop profile negotiated their public transformation, as a result of adventitious disability, to a stigmatised identity, an embracing of what Erving Goffman has termed ‘undesired differentness’ (quoted in Siebers 2008, 102)….  Here I discuss Curtis Mayfield and Teddy Pendergrass. We will also look at a key experience within the neurodiverse, across two generations of stars and musics, with particular reference to the neurocognitive medical state of epilepsy and the role of some of its more dramatic and frightening symptoms in the onstage performance of rock. These are Neil Young and Ian Curtis.

Chapter 4. Johnnie-Be-Deaf: one hearing-impaired star, and popular music as a disabling (deafening) culture

They come out to see what the freak is like.—Johnnie Ray, on his audiences, 1952 (quoted in Whitefield 1994, 133)

We turn now to look at the one key star of deaf pop, a singer, songwriter and pianist whose hearing impairment was visible, present and negotiated throughout his extraordinary career, in a ‘queercrip’-informed (McRuer 2006) analysis of the pre-rock and roll figure of Johnnie Ray. We then go on to explore the terribly ironic cripping capacity of pop and rock as a deafening mode through music-induced hearing loss, the other symptom of which is mature regret. Here a number of rock artists are discussed, in particular from later life, when the occupational hazards of a career in the reckless and excessive industry of loud music have presented as medical symptoms. We will also discuss the hearing loss of fans in relation to music technology (amplification, personal stereos).

Chapter 5. Crippin’ the light fandango: an industry that maddens and campaigns

Now put your hard-earned peanuts in my tin.—Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981)

Through this book we have uncovered and interrogated some capacities of both pop and rock to function as themselvesdisabling cultures, with the profoundly ironic place of loud rock and dance musics as contributors to musicians’ and fans’ hearing loss at the heart of the discussion…. Let us complicate things a little further. In this final chapter we look at two important extra-musical aspects of the subject, which may seem each in turn critical and praiseworthy. That is, together they offer the opportunity for a dialogic consideration of the positions of pop and rock regarding our question of disability. As suggested, they are focused less on the music, voices and bodies of the stars and fans than on the contributory role of the industry itself, and its relation with disability. As constituents of a cultural industry, pop and then rock music—and then, as it emerged, the music-media end of celebrity culture—have developed certain practices of behaviour and lifestyle, of business engagement and (let us be in no doubt that we are uncertain—a rhetoric of) social advocacy, for instance. These have become so embedded in the industry that they have become a behavioural expectation or norm. And these industry practices and pressures matter particularly when we introduce disability to the discussion, when we crip ‘em….  First, we will consider the relationship between the trope of rock madness—cognitive impairment—and the pressures and temptations of the industry as themselves disabling….  Second, we will look at the roles of disability advocacy and activism as cultural intervention within the realm of popular music. The argument in part is that disability campaigning in the mid-twentieth century set the template for much of the recent and current work around pop activism….

Shakin’ All Over press release December 2013