“You are beautiful, no matter what they say”
Sentimental Ballads in Popular Music
Getting goosebumps while listening to “I Will Always Love You”, being moved to tears by “Un-Break My Heart”, being carried away by “Beautiful” – the sound of ballads may evoke affective as well as physical responses. Such somatic interactions with popular songs are apparently based on a common ground of cultural production of affect that parallels the cinematic “body genre” of melodrama (Meier 2008).
How are sentimental affects in ballads by, e.g., Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and Christina Aguilera produced aesthetically and performatively? How are songs by, for example, Celine Dion, Robbie Williams, or Lana Del Rey contextualized in movies, series, video games, or commercials? How are they visually staged in music videos or live performances? What everyday role can they play for recipients, for example, for mood management via Spotify playlists? Can ballads be political or even used for populist purposes? And to what extent must ballads (and their popularity) also be considered as a means of successful capitalist coproduction of feelings and commodities (Illouz 2018)?
Ballads are among the most popular song forms of popular music across genres as their chart success, streaming and click numbers show. The research project “Low Pop” investigates discursive evaluations of sentimental ballads within the Cooperative Research Center 1472 “Transformations of the Popular” at the University of Siegen. With this symposium, we would like to take a multiperspectival look at the song form ballad and thereby also reflect on the discrepancy between its enormous popularity and the low scholarly engagement with the particularly popular. We do not only view ballads as a (historical) phenomenon of cultural exchange between the USA and Europe in the Global North as which they are often regarded unmarked. Instead, ballads can be situated both as part of a cosmopolitan pop-rock music with globally interpreted songs such as “Is this love” by Bob Marley or “7 seconds” by Youssou N’Dour & Neneh Cherry, as well as with their occurrence in specific local aesthetics in the Global South, “Holding Hands in Public” by Ghanaian musician Ria Boss being a case in point (cf. Regev 2013; Hicken 2010).
A brief definition of ballads in popular music at Grove Music Online simply refers to their slow tempo and a sentimental topic. Although often equated with love songs, pop ballads include several subjects often associated with great emotion, such as jealousy and mistrust (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”), separation and death (Kansas, “Dust in the Wind”), depression and addiction (Staind, “It’s Been a While”), racism (Bruce Hornsby and The Range, “The Way It Is”), or war (Spandau Ballet, “Through the Barricades”). How do these topics relate to sentimental aesthetics? What ideas of (romantic) love do the songs convey? What effect do such ideas of love, as well as musical and visual aspects, have on a possible evaluation of songs as kitsch? How are musical performances of sentimentality related to aspects of gender, age, race and class?
Even though melody and voice usually occupy a significant position within ballads as crossgenre markers, as does a continuous escalation in the case of power ballads (Metzer 2017), ballads create tensions between popularity, affective responses, and accompanying valuations that may be related to genre and gender connotations. Richard Middleton, in a visualization of popular music genres, depicts the ballad as having stereotypically feminine connotations (Middleton 1995). How is a resulting discursive feminization of male performers used as a queer strategy?
We would like to invite discussion of such and related questions at the symposium. Contributions from different disciplines and on diverse aspects are welcome. We welcome individual presentations (20 min.; abstract: max. 300 words) as well as panels (individual scheduling up to 90 min.; abstract: max. 300 words per panel contribution + max. 300 words to frame the panel), and alternative formats (e.g. performance lectures). Proposals of the latter should be marked as such. Please submit an abstract of your proposed paper no later than February 28th, 2023 (11:59pm, CET) via email to: theresa.nink(at)uni-siegen(dot)de
As we want to promote a stimulating international exchange, the conference language willbe English. We kindly ask you to bear this in mind for your abstract and presentation.
Notifications of acceptance will be sent no later than April 1, 2023.
We look forward to numerous exciting contributions!
The organizing committee,
Florian Heesch, Theresa Nink, Marta Primorac
Hicken, Andy. 2010. “The Wishes of Your Parents”: Power Ballads in Tana Toraja, Indonesia. Journal of Popular Music Studies Vol. 22, No. 2: 198–218.
Illouz, Eva. 2018. Wa(h)re Gefühle: Authentizität im Konsumkapitalismus. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Meier, Leslie M. 2008. In Excess? Body Genres, ‚Bad‘ music, and the Judgment of Audiences. Journal of Popular Music Studies Vol. 20, No. 3: 240–60.
Metzer, David. 2017. The Ballad in American Popular Music: From Elvis to Beyoncé. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Middleton, Richard. 1995. Authorship, gender and the construction of meaning in the Eurythmics’ hit recordings. Cultural Studies Vol. 9, No. 3: 465–85.
Regev, Motti. 2013. Pop-Rock Music: Aesthetic Cosmopolitanism in Late Modernity. Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.