Research Western

Norma Coates: Rock and Role

Studies related to rolling stones, magnetic fields or T-Rex might be common on university campuses, but they don’t usually refer to band names. By researching the influence popular music has on life, society and culture, Norma Coates hopes to change that.

Cross-appointed to the Faculty of Information & Media Studies and the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Coates has been fortunate to turn a lifelong passion into her job. “I have been a music fan since I was nine years old,” she says. “When I discovered a graduate program in cultural studies, I wanted to figure out how popular music works, particularly from the perspective of gender.”

A fan of 70s punk, Coates is particularly interested in how gender roles are reproduced in popular music – in terms of both participation and audience. “I care less about the number of women participating and more about what they’re doing in music,” she says.

Some of Coates’s work has looked at the ‘feminization’ of particular instruments, the role women play in bands and their portrayal in the media.

“Male-dominated rock culture has been taken up in shorthand and has perpetuated a lot of damage,” she explains.

Despite the increased involvement of women in music, many questions remain unanswered.

“Why do we all cringe when we hear certain bands and ghettoize them as ‘pop’ rather than the more ‘credible’ – and predominantly male –‘rock’?” for example, Coates wonders.

Digital technology has in essence removed music’s traditional gatekeepers, thus helping to create a musical middle class. “The Internet facilitates this discovery, puts the agency back to the user and provides opportunities for people who have been marginalized in the music world,” Coates says. It also provides important new avenues through which musicians can connect to global audiences and better communicate with fans.

The relationship between music and television is fraught with similar complexity.

Coates has analysed television’s roles in constructing the image of ‘teenyboppers’, perpetuating standard rock clichés and packaging music for children. Historical footage, however, is often limited. “It wasn’t deemed to be important and much of it has disappeared,” says Coates, whose future plans include a project comparing music programming in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Music plays an important role in constructing who we become and draws upon so many areas of life that it can help us better understand the world. “Studies of popular music help us learn about what’s important in our culture and point

out prevalent norms – both good and bad,” Coates says. “Why, for example, in commercials do you generally see the father in the minivan turn on the rock music, while women remain generally disassociated with music?”

With such questions to be answered, the next study you come across about rolling stones might actually be about The Rolling Stones.