Experienced in the context of our day-to-day lives, pop music can seem ephemeral at best, crass at worst. It’s what we hear blaring from the windows of passing cars, what kids listen to when they’re getting ready to go out on a Friday night. Blair School of Music professor Jim Lovensheimer knows better. If there’s one thing this musicologist wants his students to learn, it’s that the music they’ve loaded onto their MP3 players—be it Taylor Swift or Ke$ha or Vampire Weekend—is inextricably linked to a complex, endlessly fascinating cultural history that stretches across centuries and continents.
“I don’t think of ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture in hierarchical terms,” says Lovensheimer, who is assistant professor of music history and literature. “I think of it all as being very informative. We have learned that popular culture tells us much about ourselves, perhaps even more than ‘high’ culture.”
At the heart of Lovensheimer’s teaching is not just an eagerness to embrace all forms of cultural expression, but a drive to make real sense of them.
As a result, he has earned a reputation as an enthralling lecturer, in 2008 receiving both the Ellen Gregg Ingalls Award for Excellence in Classroom Teaching at Vanderbilt and the Chancellor’s Cup, which honors a Vanderbilt faculty member’s contributions to undergraduate student-faculty relationships.
“There’s always a point to what he’s saying,” says Cynthia Cyrus, associate dean of the Blair School of Music and associate professor of musicology and affiliated faculty in women’s and gender studies. “He doesn’t just present a set of facts, but facts tied together to make a bigger and more interesting picture.”
Whether he’s talking about 18th-century folk ballads, 19th-century minstrelsy, 20th-century classical music, or 21st-century hip-hop, Lovensheimer treats his course material as a way of getting at the very essence of one’s identity. “In my class on American music, we look at the whole expanse of music in this country and how it’s related to everything from Supreme Court decisions to cultural trends and fads. My students may not expect to learn about Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education, but these things and many others play into musical moments.”
This all-encompassing view of history and culture figures just as strongly into his work as a researcher, which focuses on the American musical theater. To be published by Oxford University Press in August, Lovensheimer’s book, South Pacific: Paradise Rewritten, explores the myriad ways in which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s enduringly popular 1949 musical both embodied and responded to American attitudes about race, gender and colonialism in the postwar era. Already, Lovensheimer’s work on this topic, which grew out of research he originally did for his dissertation, has earned attention and respect from his colleagues.
“He brings a compelling mixture of rigor and creativity to the research he does,” Cyrus says, “and he’s been able to bring old techniques to new repertoires. His work on Rodgers and Hammerstein draws on archival documents and in-depth analysis of compositional process. There is a respect for the music in that decision: The techniques one uses to study Beethoven can be used just as helpfully to understand the legacy of American musical theater.”
Lovensheimer’s forthcoming book is so compelling, in fact, that Oxford University Press has decided to use it to help launch a new scholarly series titled Broadway Legacies. “Because my book takes the approach of looking at this music in a broader context, it’s going to serve as a template for what the publisher would like the whole series to be,” he explains. “Other work out there deals with the theater in terms of source study and textual criticism, but I’m also looking at South Pacific as a cultural document. No prior works have actually put those two approaches together.
“This holistic approach is going to inform my next research project, which will be a biography of Oscar Hammerstein for the Broadway Legacies series. Where it will wind up, I don’t know. Once I start looking at his work, it may take on a life of its own.”
Not so long ago, musical theater was considered something of a redheaded stepchild in the academic world. In fact, Lovensheimer says, this still remains the case at some institutions around the country. “Musical theater has been thought of as frivolous because it’s commercial, it’s show business, and many people who do research in this area often feel that they don’t get institutional or peer support—none of which I feel. What I would like to leave with my work is the idea that the American musical theater provides us with a deeper understanding of who we are.
“Look at a modern-day musical like Legally Blonde,” he continues. “No one would take it seriously, and yet it’s a very problematic piece in the way it deals with gender and gay and lesbian issues. It’s very much a product of its time, and there’s much to be gleaned from looking at it.”
For Lovensheimer, who initially pursued a career as a performer and writer for the stage, academia has provided him with the ideal profession. “I’m very much a person of the theater, so being able to make that my central area of research and writing makes me very happy. I’ve always had this idea that somehow musicals are of their time and place in very specific ways, and my work has been a constant revisiting of that idea.”
As a teacher Lovensheimer finds that constantly revisiting the curriculum is essential to keeping his classes meaningful both for his students and for himself. Since he first started teaching at Vanderbilt in 2002, he says, “I’ve become much more focused in what I try to accomplish in each class. When I started out I was trying to do everything, but I quickly realized that focus is the most important part of being good in the classroom. Every semester I reinvest myself in the material: I do more research, I add more readings. It is a continual process, which is part of the excitement of academia for me.”
Ideally, every undergraduate student takes at least one course during his or her college career that proves to be a life-changing experience. For Vanderbilt senior and Student Government President Wyatt Smith, Lovensheimer’s American Music Survey was that kind of class. He attributes this, in part, to the blend of passion and compassion that Lovensheimer routinely brings to the classroom. “He genuinely cares about his students, regardless of their backgrounds or interests, and that concern emanates from the way he carries himself,” Smith says. “For instance, he pledges to reply to every email you send him within 24 hours, regardless of how mundane.”
Just as significant, Smith adds, is Lovensheimer’s ability to discuss the course material in vivid, real-world terms. “He talks about some concepts that may seem distant, but he explains them in a way that connects very directly with our everyday experience of music. For me, as a student with a background in human and organizational development and political science, being able to learn about the ways in which music played a role in the Civil Rights Era has opened my view to a whole new dimension of that struggle. That’s something I had no awareness of, and it’s another building block in what I’m hoping to do when I graduate from school.”
Students respond not only to Lovensheimer’s engagement with the course material, but also to his candor. He makes a point, for instance, of being open about his sexuality because he believes it’s important to create a comfortable environment when the classroom discussion turns to gay themes in the history of popular culture. “I’m not embarrassed by it, and I don’t want them to be uncomfortable. But it’s not an agenda—just because I’m mentioning the problems that a composer encountered as a result of his sexual orientation doesn’t mean I am promoting something; I’m trying to show that it’s an important aspect of the bigger picture.”
At the very end of the semester, Lovensheimer also reveals to his students that his career as a university professor was preceded by a battle with alcoholism that effectively destroyed his burgeoning success as a stage actor. “It’s a motivational talk about how they have powers of regeneration they didn’t know they have,” he explains. “I want to show them as an example how I have turned my life around, when 20 years ago no one would have thought it was possible. It’s my hope that when they’re faced with something challenging in their own lives, they’ll reflect back on this talk.”