Counterculture becomes canon at the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music
John Covach leads the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music, which aims to build credibility for rock and roll and other genres.
Photos by Lisa Hughes
In a 1981 biography cowritten with Paul Nelson called Rod Stewart, Lester Bangs writes, “I have always believed that rock and roll comes down to myth. There are no ‘facts.’”
Professor John Covach would stand up and firmly disagree. As director of the University of Rochester’s Institute for Popular Music, he is helping elevate the study of rock and other genres to a subject worthy of the world’s most hallowed lecture halls.
“There is not an institution like this at any university with quite our reputation for research excellence,” Covach explains. “We can make administrators at other universities aware that the research of our colleagues should be taken just as seriously as classical music or jazz.”
Covach’s manner is relaxed, yet focused. When he speaks, he smiles broadly and gestures with his hands to drive home his point. His thoughts tumble out rapidly, yet coherently, even as they range across many eras, genres, and disciplines. Deftly, he avoids the hagiography of fandom with its endless hype churned out by the mass culture factories of New York, London, Los Angeles, and Nashville. In his classroom and in less formal settings, Covach puts myth under the microscope.
Inside the rockers studio
Covach’s approach is on display the day Steven Page, former lead singer for the Canadian group Barenaked Ladies, appears on campus as part of the institute’s In Conversation series. In a ninety-minute interview much like James Tipton’s famous Inside the Actors Studio, Covach draws Page into a wide-ranging discussion. An acoustic guitar rests on its stand nearby.
At one point, Page describes the unusual challenge Canadian bands face as they strive for lasting success. “In Canada, there are not many cities to play in, and the population of each city is relatively small. It’s easy to dry up. In the United States, there are always pockets of fans who can support you. We could do a tour of Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, and Dayton. Each would have its own radio scene, promoters, and fans.”
In the late nineties, Barenaked Ladies built its American following one small venue at a time, including “every SUNY campus in New York,” says Page. While the band gained popularity with live audiences, heavy MTV rotation plus the might of a consolidated radio and record industry—something Page would ordinarily rail against—put the band’s 1998 single “One Week” at the top of Billboard magazine’s charts. Page left the band eleven years later.
Rather than lead Page to discuss the tabloid fuel of the singer’s divorce and drug arrest, Covach asks a gentler question, one every successful rock group must face: “What would you say is the natural lifetime of a band?”
Page describes a drift toward serving the needs of the band’s record company—and away from the spontaneity of its early years.
“We began doing a lot of corporate shows that were not necessarily a celebration of the ticket-buying public. We did a Christmas record because the company knows that album can be resold every year,” Page says. “Our management had a great understanding of the marketplace, but I was troubled about the way that marketplace dictated the kind of music we could create.”
Soon, Page takes up the guitar from its stand. Covach had prompted him to demonstrate his creative process—a slow and agonizing lurch toward coherence that once involved bandmate Ed Robertson, with both artists just staring silently at each other.
“Sometimes when I’m not writing, I forget how much I hate it,” jokes Page as he begins strumming a riff. He sings a snippet of a song that eventually became the chorus for “A New Shore,” a 2010 song about his split from the Barenaked Ladies.
I set a course for a new shore. It looked the same as the one before. And I forgot what I’d been sailing for. And why I thought this time would be different.
A nautical theme emerges, which the verses of the song hammer home.
As captain of this band of merry sailors, I’m a black mark I’m a failure. So before you watch me drown, I’m relinquishing command for something I don’t understand. This man’s about to turn his whole life upside down.
And finally, a soaring, triumphant bridge:
Land ho! Land ho!
A musical head start
Researchers are still developing their understanding of pre-twentieth-century popular music because those songs were sometimes not written down—except when composers like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Dvo Dvorák wove folk melodies into their works. The modern era of pop was ushered in by increasingly available sheet music families would play on mass-produced pianos and other instruments as they sang along. Starting in the twenties, vinyl records and radio stations transformed popular music from something to be learned to something to be passively consumed.
“One thing we’re faced with as music educators is to get people back into that active listening mode,” he says.
Covach is always interested in when people’s taste in music solidifies—usually between the ages of fifteen and eighteen—and notes a recent generational shift. Once kids embraced rock and roll to rebel against their parents’ tastes. Today, kids and parents bond around pop music, a phenomenon that gives Covach a valuable head start.
“I don’t have to explain who the Beatles are. I don’t have to say ‘They were these four guys from Liverpool who became very popular in the sixties.’ Most of the music I teach was made before any of my students were even born. They know this music because they’re rooting through their parents’ music collection. It’s stuff they listened to on family trips in the car. It has a romantic attachment.”
Covach’s textbook, What’s That Sound?, ends at the turn of the millennium thirteen years ago. Any newer material is usually still current, subject to industry spin—with reputations still in flux and stories still unfolding.
“We’ve gotten far enough away that I feel like we’re settled on the eighties. The nineties, I think are okay, too—up through Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, or Green Day. After that, I’m not sure,” he says.
“There will come a time fifty years from now when we have to remember why people today like the Beatles so much. We’ll have to explain all the cultural factors that made it happen, and people will have all kinds of varying theories. Now, it’s so in the air that it seems like an idiotic thing to even explain it.”
Music classes for the masses
This year, Covach made his two-part History of Rock and Roll class available to Coursera, a free online service that presents hundreds of college courses throughout the world. Class sizes can balloon to the tens of thousands with most enrollment coming from outside of the United States.
The course includes the genres and youth culture that gave birth to rock and roll; the dominant influence of Elvis, the Beatles, and Rolling Stones; the marketing pressure upon artists; the evolution of technology in the studio and at home; and rock and roll’s diversification into the genres of folk rock, motown, southern soul, psychedelia, disco, punk, heavy metal, rap, and grunge.
Students watch Covach’s streamed lectures and also jump into online discussion forums and Facebook conversations.
University of Pikeville
University of Pikeville (Ky.) music professor Janean Freeman is a student in Covach's online courses this summer.
Janean Freeman, a music professor from Kentucky, signed up for the first part of Covach’s course this summer to refresh her knowledge for the the rock and roll history class she teaches at the University of Pikeville.
“I wanted to enroll to make sure my instruction is on par with other institutions of higher education and, most importantly, to experience the course as a student.” she says. “I believe taking the course will make me a better teacher.”
Freeman notes that Covach is an expert and a true fan of the musicians he covers. “He not only understands the history but also knows stories behind the artists and their music. Sharing those stories helps thread together the development of the music, making the content that much more interesting.”
The six-week second part begins July 18, and Covach plans to repeat the classes in the fall. You can find the listing by searching for “Covach” at coursera.org.
Mark Gillespie is editor-in-chief of (585) magazine.