When I moved to a town called Gießen in 2006 to start a PhD, I was surprised to learn that it had a self-identified music and culture scene. I had heard that a then-popular band called “Juli” had formed in Gießen in the early 2000s, but I had still to find out how a local scene had contributed to the early, and more regional, success of the band and how the university’s “Applied Theatre Studies” as well as individuals and bands like, for example, “DJ Muttermilch” or “SOLiLOQUY” had dedicated creativity, time, and money to create this sense of a pop-cultural scene in Gießen. To me, honestly, the very idea of a scene felt outdated and decisively unhip at the time. For much of my time spent in Gießen I could not stop wondering about the relationship of that scene to Frankfurt’s musical and nightlife scenes and how Gießen’s student-driven music scene related to other small university towns across Germany – was it representative of small-town university settings or outstanding?
Grace Elizabeth Hale’s recent monograph Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture similarly revisits the author’s student days in the town of Athens, Georgia, which – as the title claims – “launched alternative music and changed American culture”. Obviously, Hale does not hold back. She is decisively open about her nostalgic relationship to the object of inquiry and about the cultural significance she ascribes to the town of Athens and the bands that emerged from there. Hale argues that at a time when punk music’s energy was slightly fading in the late 1970s, Athens became the first American town (and the only scene outside of New York City) to respond with a set of unlikely individuals and bands, among them “the B 52’s”, “Pylon”, and “R.E.M” to prove that a small, Southern town could instill a self-identified “alternative” music into U.S. pop music. Ultimately, then, Hale argues that what happened in Athens in the 1980s provided a blueprint for (white) American pop music and would happen even more powerfully again in Seattle in the 1990s with grunge music and bands like “Pearl Jam” and “Nirvana.”
Beyond the fact that Hale embraces the fact that she had been there as a witness to the scene and member of a band called “Cordy Lon”, her approach is rather conventional: in the course of five well-written and well-researched chapters she chronologically delineates the beginning, rise, and ultimate re-rooting of the scene in Athens. The first chapter focuses on the general cultural climate, the impact of Warhol’s “The Factory” on pop culture in the U.S. and the relationship between New York City and Athens. Jerry/Jeremy Ayers embodies this latter aspect in Hale’s narrative, as he had been a regular at “The Factory” and returned to Athens in the 1980s to make “Athens the place to be a star” (p. 16, emphasis in original). Athens itself achieved early cultural visibility with the national and international success of “the B 52’s” beginning in 1979 and throughout the early 1980s. Hale convincingly reads “the B 52’s” as representative of a (pop-)cultural nostalgia in the early 1980s, which the four members of the band made accessible in their self-reflexive, and self-reflexively queer performances of guitar-based rock music.
The remaining chapters (2 through 6) focus mostly on the impact of the art school on Athens pop musical scene, the scene’s continuing solidification during the mid-to-late 1980s, and “R.E.M’s” ascension to national and international stardom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, specifically. The success of “R.E.M” enables Hale to read Athens’ own success at solidifying a cultural scene even to this date and under dramatically changed social and political contexts in the South and the nation at large. Hale repeatedly reminds her readers of the significant sense of community in Athens’ pop music and art school scene (p. 91, p. 147). In Hale’s narrative, “R.E.M” simultaneously embody what made the scene in Athens so vital, while they serve as the all-too-diligent outsiders (p. 100) in a scene based on and steeped in the DIY-attitude and practice of punk music and pop art. At the same time, however, Michael Stipe’s bohemian aspirations and his sexual orientation spoke to two crucial elements of Hale’s reading of the Athens-scene: the scene in Athens progressively conceived of itself of an avantgarde pop scene and continued the performative interrogation, and the queering, of an American pop mainstream and Southern culture imagined as boring, white, conservative, and straight.
Strikingly, Hale’s account reproduces one of the complexities of the scene she inquires, as her text deals rather differently with questions of identity pertaining to sexuality than it does with questions of race. The clear queer trajectory of the Athens-scene allows her to write a successful coming-of-age story of a local culture scene with the decisive ambition to critique and dismantle the heteronormativity of a bland pop cultural mainstream. At the same time, however, the exclusive whiteness of Hale’s protagonists and the general whiteness of the culture scene in Athens could also make this a rather different story, when we consider the entrenched and lasting histories of racism, cultural appropriation, blackface, and racist violence that Southern and U.S. cultural production is based on. Hale herself acknowledges this complexity.
As a consequence, Hale dedicates one of her most critical sub-chapters to what she calls “R.E.M’s” “Alt-White[ness]” (pp. 197–206) and the racial politics of the scene in Athens. Here, her overly affirmative tone changes for once and she draws the conclusion that “[T]he culture that so many of us loved was not enough of an alternative to the long history of American white supremacy.” (p. 206) While the effort is laudable, the nine-page intermezzo on the racial politics in an almost 300 page-long inquiry of a significant pop musical scene in the small-town South speaks to how Hale still bonds with the individuals, bands, and the town at the heart of her story – no matter the messy, entangled racial politics at the very heart of her story. While the city of Atlanta is mentioned here and there, New York City’s white musical club and music scene remains the most crucial point of comparison for Athens’s scene throughout Hale’s text. What, one is left to wonder, would happen to Hale’s story, if she were to compare Athens’ scene with the vibrant African American art and music scenes which by the late 1980s and early 1990s had – along with New Orleans and Miami – emerged as an absolute hub of hip hop music’s “Dirty South”? Would we have to more forcefully think about the continuation of pop musical segregation in the 1980s, a fact that the troubled history of segregation in the early days of MTV’s rise to the cultural fore powerfully underscores?
All in all, Hale’s monograph is a beautifully written and outstanding book: part scholarly and oral history, part pop-musical memoir, part call to keep trying to improve the world through creativity. It truly succeeds in analyzing the specificity as well as the lasting impact of the music scene in Athens and it does so in the memorable voice of a lifelong member of the scene at hand.