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Listening to the Queer Archive — a conversation with Marion Wasserbauer

The current issue of the OHR invites diverse authors to share their experiences listening to and learning from LGBTQ lives. This week, we bring you a short interview with one of the contributors, Marion Wasserbauer, whose article “‘That’s What Music Is About—It Strikes a Chord’: Proposing a Queer Method of Listening to the Lives and Music of LGBTQs” suggests that music is an integral tool for listening deeply to a narrator’s voice.

On her project website, Wasserbauer explains “One way to acknowledge the participants’ agency and really giving them a voice, is to let them construct their own story with the help of music and musical memorabilia they prepared beforehand and bring along to the interview. I am interested in whether musical key moments or key musicians/ musical styles correspond with key moments in the identity formation.” Each oral history includes a musical playlist.

Load up a playlist and enjoy the music as your read her responses below. You can also check out the rest of the special issue, which is available online until June.

Many oral histories use a “life history” approach, which aims to capture a broad scope of a person’s life in the recorded interview and transcript. It seems like you’re going beyond that, by creating a sort of mini-exhibit for each of your interviewees. How has the final product shaped the way you conduct interviews?

Music, LGBTQ identities, and the connection between both are the subject of my research. As music and musical memorabilia are central topics to the oral history interviews, it was a very natural choice for me to use music and musical memorabilia as access points to the narrators’ life histories. How we tell about our life reflects how we perceive now what we experienced in the past. Music is able to evoke memories and feelings in the narrator, and it helps to convey these experiences to me as a researcher and other readers/listeners as we learn about music and identity in the narrators’ lives. While transcribing and analyzing the interviews, I make a personal playlist and a small queer archive accompanying each life story. These archives contain the playlist, photographs of memorabilia, excerpts of my field notes and fragments of the interview. According to each narrator’s wishes, some archives contain more details, and others simple feature a playlist.

 How we tell about our life reflects how we perceive now what we experienced in the past.

The online archive is therefore an ongoing project, forming an audiovisual companion to my academic work. Where my academic papers are fragmented, focusing on various topics within all of the life stories, the queer archives provide a way to get to know more about the narrators and to get a more complete insight their life (stories).

What difficulties have you found with your archival methodology?

The interdisciplinary character of my research, situated between media studies, LGBTQ studies, sociology of music and history, informed by feminist scholarship and pop music is a wonderful opportunity to explore all of these fields, but at the same time makes it very complex. Inspired by theories of the queer archive, my archival approach adds yet another layer to my already very open and broad research.

Admittedly, it is rather time consuming to make the individual playlists and archives. However, I really enjoy getting to know my research narrators through the music and memorabilia they share with me. These are often vital elements to their narratives, so it only seems fair to spend time on making them accessible. I believe that these mini-archives are a way to not only add vital visual and audio information about the narrator, but to acknowledge their whole life story.

How did you get started?

When I was accepted as PhD student to work on the role of music in the lives of LGBTQ people, I soon decided that I wanted to work with life stories in a creative way. First, there are the theoretical and methodological starting points: A winter school by oral historian Selma Leydesdorff introduced me to oral history, and I got acquainted with Halberstam’s and Cvetkovich’s work on the queer archive through my interest in queer studies. The idea of the queer archive, stressing the importance of ephemera and seemingly irrelevant material in making and telling queer history, really resonated with me.

Also the collaborative character of the queer archive as described by Halberstam struck a chord: “[t]he archive is not a simple repository”, but “it is also a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory, and a complex record of queer activity” (Halberstam 2005: 169-70) and the researcher becomes a co-archivist rather than a mere observer. This is how I, as a queer researcher and member of the LGBTQ community, need to approach this project on music and LGBTQs. I believe in listening to people’s stories, and in the co-construction of meaning by talking with each other. The idea of the queer archive ties in with the ethics of oral history, although it could be argued that the queer archive has greater attention for affective and subversive dimensions of the narrators’ lives.

 I believe in listening to people’s stories, and in the co-construction of meaning by talking with each other.

I think it is vital that in research like mine, focusing on music and identity, audio and visual elements should not be minimalized and only mentioned in the form of written text, but be acknowledged within academic work.

Second, and most importantly, I started talking to LGBTQ people about music and their lives. In most interviews, music and memorabilia naturally provide a guide for the life stories. Most narrators appreciate receiving their playlists and see their archive online – in that way, the queer archives are a token of gratitude for sharing their stories with me.

You mention that the article is part of your dissertation project. Can you give a sense of how the dissertation project will take up or move beyond the ideas you talk about in the article?

In my article, I provide a general discussion of my methodology, focusing on the theoretical and ethical backgrounds and providing first insights into what putting the theory into practice looks like with several narrators. At the moment, I have collected 22 LGBTQ individuals’ stories, and am looking into a diverse range of topics related to music and identity. In my dissertation, each of these narrators gets introduced thoroughly, before I analyze these topics in different chapters, for example exploring sexual fluidity in women, what being a fan means for my narrators, and how music works in trans* individuals’ lives.

This thematic focus arose from the life histories, as there are clearly musicians, styles, experiences and feelings that are shared by several of the narrators. The thematic focus also enables me to structure what we learn from the life histories. For each topic, I focus on parts of the stories, and here the queer archives come in to provide an insight into their whole story.

Featured image credit: “SCOTUS APRIL 2015 LGBTQ 54663” by Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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