How did you end up researching this subject?
“During my research master’s in Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts, I found out that things I enjoy in my spare time – like heavy metal and rock – can also serve as interesting research topics. For the very reason that they also relate to broader social themes like inequality or social cohesion. So I choose themes like this for my papers. Take gender and heavy metal, for example: why do so few women play metal? I ended up publishing a book about the subject with my colleague Pauwke Berkers in 2018. The fun thing about a research master’s is that, if you’re driven and have enthusiastic lecturers, certain projects can develop into articles. That set the ball rolling.
“That same colleague, Berkers, had this subject on the back burner. He had already submitted several grant applications for this research – to no avail. In the final year of my master programme, we jointly rewrote the application, and I was awarded the grant in 2012.
“The focus of this study is whiteness rather than ‘the other’. When researchers examine music and inequality, the subject is usually hip hop and how marginalised groups use music for empowerment. Rock is a very ‘white’ music style – something that people within the genre hardly seem to be aware of. The paradoxical thing is that rock has become a white thing, while many of the pioneers of rock ‘n roll were African Americans – and many of them women, besides.”
“Yes. Rock came out of a fusion between the country music and rhythm & blues played in the American South of the 1950s. Artists like Fats Domino, Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe played rock ‘n roll, which drew its inspiration from both black blues and white country. It was very rebellious; it went against the established order. In those days, everything was still segregated – including record labels. Rebellious music was popular among young white people. Combined with the introduction of television and independent radio stations, this created a new market. But due to racial segregation, the demand couldn’t be fulfilled by black music. Artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley were able to fill this niche since they also played rock ‘n roll. They owed a lot of their popularity to music written by black musicians. Ultimately, this led to the idea of an authentic rock identity, integral elements of which are masculinity and whiteness. Blackness went to soul music and other genres that came up together with the Motown record label.
“My sociological question is: why is this still the case? Even though we’ve gone through all these emancipation movements and everyone can access the same music. Why is it that at a rock concert, you usually see white men up on the stage, and are surrounded by other white men – while women and non-whites are viewed with some scepticism?”
Was this already your impression before starting on your research?
“That’s how I saw it, sure. Sometimes explicitly, but more often implicitly. But when I embarked on this study, my idea was that it didn’t have to do with race or gender. Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary started piling up, and I’ve tried to identify this in my dissertation.”
How did you do this?
“I compared Atlanta and Rotterdam, since the US is the cradle of rock. Within this comparison, I examined the respective audiences: critics, rock fans and the general public. I held an association test among one thousand general music lovers. This clearly showed that white is associated with rock; and black with rap.
“Critics often point it out when a band or specific band member isn’t white. This can be a good or bad thing, but whatever the case: they draw this distinction. In addition, on average they score albums made by non-white bands, or bands with at least one non-white member – who could also be Asian, for example – 4 points lower on a scale of 100. On the other hand, you do see they can be very enthusiastic about non-white musicians participating in this scene, so I definitely wouldn’t call it conscious exclusion.
“In addition, I interviewed 27 fans and held a test. This made it clear that femininity in particular – and, to a lesser extent, being from a non-white background – is often considered at odds with rock. Fans refer to ethno-racial characteristics when validating people as authentic rockers – sometimes without being aware of it. In the case of six respondents, mostly from the States, who are heavily involved in themes like feminism, I got the exact opposite results.”
But most rockers are white men. So it’s hardly surprising, right?
“One aspect of sociology is that you actually question and try to debunk your ‘common sense’. It’s OK to say ‘that’s just the way it is’ when you’re making conversation. But is it what people actually think? For example, I didn’t expect the result to be exactly the other way round with some of the fans. Starting on a new research project I try to be as open-minded as possible. But you’re right: based on the literature this is what you’d expect. What I did discover talking with the fans is that this process of exclusion is usually unconscious. This runs counter to the prevailing idea. During the test, some respondents even drew this conclusion themselves: that they had strong preconceptions.”
Is it a preconception or simply the status quo?
“We ask people questions – not because something is a bad thing, but because we want to know how something works. When the study first started in 2012, Obama was President and the US had supposedly gotten over the issue of race. The key question posed by the jury when I defended my research proposal was: Why is this relevant – surely we’ve left racism behind us?
“That’s precisely why I wanted to study ethno-racial inequality in something like music, which a lot of people consider trivial: personal taste and entertainment. Inequality is about jobs and education. But taking a closer look at personal taste gives you a very interesting avenue to research the mechanics of inequality. I also wanted to get rid of this idea that rock concerts are full of nasty racists who are bent at keeping everyone else out.”
“Everyone I talked with is very welcoming towards everything and everyone in the rock scene. Nevertheless, white people would say things that could implicitly contribute to exclusion – by saying that it was a welcome surprise to see non-white people attending a rock concert, for example. Indeed, that’s something that non-white respondents run into now and then. But a far bigger problem for the latter group is the resistance they run into within their family and among co-ethnic friends. You hear terms like ‘bounty’ and ‘race traitor’. This is a far more nuanced picture than simply saying that white people are keeping the door shut. For example, one of the two Muslim girls I spoke with stopped attending rock concerts due to the resistance she encountered within her family – that shows what kind of impact this can have.
“The good news is that among young fans, the frames within music seem to be becoming less and less important. And it helps that there is interaction between all sorts of genres. This could be a sign that things are changing.”