Music Issue: Understanding why we love that ‘punk rock thing’

Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.

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Norma Coates’ first powerful childhood memory is a quick glimpse of the Beatles performing at Shea Stadium in 1965 on her TV.

“I remember a very vivid image of Paul McCartney’s face. Then my sister changed the channel,” she said with a laugh.

Recalling powerful images related to music is natural for Coates, who transformed her passion for music into a career as a popular music scholar. At Western, she is a professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music, jointly appointed with the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Growing up in a suburb near Boston, Coates immersed herself in songs by the Beatles, Monkees and Rolling Stones. While these bands were popular with many Baby Boomers, listening to music was more than just a pastime for Coates.

“Listening to music made me feel special,” said the self-described nerdy, smart kid. “It was comfort – it was like having a blankie. It was a way to know that I wasn’t alone.”

Although Coates was aware of her love for music at a young age, it wasn’t until she spent eight years working in the software industry that she decided to pursue her passion and study popular music and culture academically.

“I ran screaming away from business. I couldn’t live up to the expectations of image or behaviour,” Coates said. “I was literally told I had to ‘stop the punk rock thing.’”

But rather than giving up, Coates pursued a master’s degree in liberal studies at Simmons College in Boston in 1992. She was only in her third week of the program when she read the book Understanding Popular Culture by cultural studies writer John Fiske.

“My head exploded. That was exactly the way I thought,” she said.

Coates began teaching. Then, she completed a doctorate in media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 2002.

Arriving at Western in 2005, she now devotes her research to popular culture and music. Some of her current academic interests include studying Lady Gaga’s political work, examining why society tends to “put down” popular teenage bands like One Direction and analyzing MTV and its role in making music a visual medium.

Although Coates still enjoys listening to “old stuff,” as an academic, she now looks at music differently.

“There’s a lot you can learn by studying what you love in depth,” said Coates. “Sometimes you might feel it can make you love it a little less – but it’s going to enrich your life.”