popular music, music criticism, writing studies, interdisciplinarity

New Book Explores the Difficulties and Rewards of Writing about Music

September 01, 2022

By Joel Heng Hartse

The first time I wrote a book about pop music, I didn’t tell anyone about it – not anyone in my PhD program, anyway. I was working in a field (Teaching English as a Second Language) that had nothing to do with something I’d spent my whole adult life doing “on the side” ; namely, writing about popular music. The whole time I was in graduate school, I was writing for magazines, newspapers, and web sites about (mostly) rock music, and often the intersection between rock music and religion.  Thanks in part to working in SFU’s broad and diverse Faculty of Education, I feel more confident letting people know that I’ve written another book about this stuff.

My 2010 book Sects, Love, and Rock & Roll is maybe a memoir, or at least a series of personal essays, about living in the thick of the evangelical Christian rock music scene of the mid-1990s. If the combination of words in that sentence is unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone. This is probably more of an American phenomenon than a Canadian one, and this niche subculture that I devoted a great deal of time to as a young teenager – attending sweaty, crowded, ear-splittingly loud concerts in church basements, scouring the discount CD bins at Bible bookstores, and listening to punk bands as a source of spiritual direction – is much less prevalent across the world than it was 25 years ago.

Still, for decades now I’ve remained interested in the connections between music, meaning, and spirituality, and my new book, Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do: Writing about Music, Meaning, and the Ineffable, is in some ways a personal “greatest hits” collection: it sums up two decades of writing about music and wrestling with big questions about it. This book is a little more serious and academic, in that I try to bring to bear some things from my scholarly training to the questions of what writing about pop music is, what exactly it does, and why we do it: I use ideas from sociology, aesthetics, philosophy and theology, rhetorical and linguistic theory, and a handful of other disciplines to get at these questions. The book isn’t just theoretical, though; there’s a good deal of “practice,” in that the second half of the book collects pieces I’ve written over the years in a variety of genres: album reviews, interviews, personal essays, poetry, and straight-ahead music journalism.

I’ve been heartened by the diverse scholarship on display in our Faculty, and I no longer feel that if I do intellectual work in an area that’s somewhat outside my discipline of applied linguistics, I should bury it on my CV. (In fact it was an email from my colleague Celeste Snowber that encouraged me to be more confident about talking about this book!) If we conceive of “Education” broadly, I can say that probably the most formative pedagogical experiences of my life have come from listening to indie rock records, playing in bands, going to concerts, and allowing my life to be shaped by the strange, wonderful, human-divine construction that music seems to be. This book attempts to explain why trying to capture the power of music in words – something that has been alleged, as the old saying goes, to be as useless or futile or absurd as “dancing about architecture” – really is a reasonable, and maybe even vitally important, thing to do.

About the author:

Joel Heng Hartse is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. His work has appeared in the Journal of Second Language Writing, Across the Disciplines, English Today, the Journal of English for Research Publication Purposes, among other journals. His books include Perspectives on Teaching English at Colleges and Universities in China (with Jiang Dong, TESOL Press) and Dancing about Architecture is a Reasonable Thing to Do (Cascade Books). He is currently president of the Canadian Association for Studies in Discourse and Writing.