Amy Coddington is a visiting assistant professor in the music department. She majored in math and music at Macalester College and received her doctorate from the University of Virginia in the Critical and Comparative Studies program.
Q: How did you begin pursuing your area of study?
A: I was a math and music major in undergrad. While I was [at Macalester College] I did an honors thesis on the singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, analyzing her music to think about the musical things she does to express the lyrical content of her songs — how the sounds of music back up what she’s talking about. From there, I graduated and was a choir conductor and a math teacher for about three years. At that point I decided to go back to graduate school because I just wanted to teach older students. My research deals with Top 40 radio and the mainstream of hip-hop. The reason I got interested in that subject is … I wanted to think about the way in which racial identity is expressed through music. Singers, rappers, you name it, have for the last 100 years, at least in America, really thought about their music as expressing racial identity. Simultaneously, it’s also been sold that way, and the relationship between how music is sold and how music is intended is … always fraught with complications, especially in terms of hip-hop. Hip-hop is thought of as — especially in the late 1970s, early 1980s — black music. It’s almost always described that way. It’s sold as black music, marketed as black music, and yet, somehow by the early 1990s, just 10 years later, most of its audience is white. So my research deals with the way in which audiences are conceived of and how audiences were sold hip-hop — how they came to the music and how people thought that they might enjoy it.
Q: How did you find your niche in hip-hop?
A: I wanted to write about race and popular music, and, especially in the last 35 years, hip-hop has been the main sound of blackness in popular music. It is the most influential genre today, easy, all over, across the world, no question about that … Racial identity has complicated American racial identity in these really interesting and really provocative ways.
Q: How did you come to Amherst?
A: I was really interested in teaching at a small liberal arts school because I went to one, and Amherst was a really exciting place to teach because of the diversity of the student body, and also in this music department. Professors in this department are interested in a very wide array and have really open minds about what are classes that should be taught in a music department and what are classes they want to encourage being taught in a music department. Many music departments teach Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Wagner [and] stop. They stop at the end of the nineteenth century. This music department does not do that, and that’s really exciting to me — a music department that values contemporary popular music as something worth really studying in depth. Not just doing a survey class and calling it quits, but … asking students to really study it in depth.
Q: Can you talk a little about the classes you’re teaching this semester?
A: My “Hip-Hop History and Culture” class is … not really a lecture class, because I don’t lecture necessarily, but the class is starting in the 1970s and moving forward, investigating how hip-hop has changed throughout its … 40-year history. Students in the class do a variety of different projects in my class. In almost all of my classes I ask my students to make podcasts. Students have to in that class write an album review and in that class we do a combination of kind of thinking about hip-hop as a product of its historical circumstances and also thinking about it as art. So really taking the music seriously, listening deeply — learning how to listen deeply to music is one of the things I stress in that class. And then in my other class, which is a 400-level seminar, “Sounding Race in American Popular Music,” that class talks pretty specifically about three historical areas. So we start in the early twentieth century, just as American popular music as a genre, is born. In the early twentieth century … is when the music industry was born. The music industry, as it’s created almost immediately, decides that certain music should be sold to white audiences and certain music should be sold to African American audiences. And since the 1920s, music has more or less been sold that way. So in my class we start at the end of the nineteenth century, early twentieth century, thinking about music — what did American musical culture look like, and then how did the music industry’s idea of selling music to select racial demographics change the way that popular music was thought of? We’ll move from there to rock and roll and soul in the 1950s and 1960s, and spend a little time thinking about one of the first moments of musical integration. And then, we end the class thinking about now — 1990s to present — and asking questions about what about hip-hop’s musical language makes it sound black, makes it express blackness? What about country music sounds white? … And then also thinking about the impact that globalization has had on American popular music more generally … so that different sounds are being incorporated and American identity and racial identity is being spread out throughout the globe.
Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: I love the outdoors, so I like going hiking. I like spending time at lakes. I’m excited about the snow and getting to ski, and I like gardening and I love cooking. Also, shoutout to my cat, Klaus!
Q: What song or soundtrack has been most influential in your life?
A: Stevie Wonder has this album called “Songs in the Key of Life” that I love. And it’s instantly the thing that pops to mind. Stevie Wonder is … an amazing musician, but a generous person. I saw him perform. He did this … tour a couple of years ago, and he gave almost as much stage time to his backup singer as he had. I mean he really is a generous spirit. For me, that album teaches me all the time about both musical beauty but also about ways to live and ways that I want our world to work. It really teaches generosity of spirit and kindness and love and peace and all things that I want.
Q: What do you want to contribute to the college during your time here?
A: The way that I think about my job is that I teach music classes, certainly, but my main goal as a teacher is to make students think about culture more generally as a product and as something that has meaning. That comes from somewhere — comes from the culture. Art comes from social and historical circumstances, but it also does things to people. So for me, one of the things that I like to impart on my students is a sense of knowing how to think about culture as both embedded in its moment but also as able to be taken and used for social change.