English Ph.D. Student Turns Her Critical Eye – and Ear – to Country Lyrics
When Grammy Award winner Kacey Musgraves takes to the Paramount Theater stage in Charlottesville on October 16 to perform her “Country & Western Rhinestone Revue,” Annie Galvin, a doctoral student in English will be there – not just to enjoy the young singer-songwriter’s music, but also to critique her song lyrics.
Galvin is pursuing her two passions: working on her Ph.D. dissertation, which focuses on contemporary global literature, and writing reviews of popular bands from Alabama Shakes to Maroon 5, with country music in the mix. She thinks lyrics in pop music are important because millions of people across the world listen to this music, she said.
Three other critics and Galvin recently talked about the lyrics of Musgraves’ songs on her second album, “Pageant Material,” on a podcast, “Pop Unmuted.” The singer is performing these songs on her current tour.
Although Galvin quickly stresses that her No. 1 priority is her academic work, she said she also hopes to keep writing about music.
“I love working in a university and working on long-term projects that involve a ton of research and careful thought, so that’s my goal,” she said. She’s also a teaching assistant for the course “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality,” working with half the class – 60 students.
At the same time, she finds writing music reviews “enormously energizing. It allows me to share the learning and experience that I’ve been privileged enough to have gained in graduate school with a broader audience.”
Going to Yale University affirmed Galvin’s desire to pursue an academic path. (Incidentally, her adviser there was Caryl Phillips, who’ll visit UVA in April as the Kapnick Writer-in-Residence.) While she always knew she wanted to major in English, her high-school dream was to be a music journalist.
“I’ve always been obsessed with music, and in high school, my dream was to be a music journalist like Patrick Fugit’s and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characters in [the movie] ‘Almost Famous’ – minus the drugs and the terrible gender hierarchies,” she said. “When I was living in D.C. in 2009, a friend working at the Washington City Paper gave me the opportunity to cover a few live shows, and suddenly there I was at a Pogues show, being jostled around by sweaty punk fans, taking notes on the back of my ticket because I forgot to buy a notebook.”
In addition to record reviews and a few feature articles, she also covers festivals like South by Southwest and more recently, the Americana Music Festival. “That’s when I feel closest to living my high school dream – when I’m pounding the pavement with a press pass and a notebook, hustling my way into venues to see up-and-coming bands I’m excited about and want to share with other people.”
Galvin approaches music from a literary studies background, so naturally she focuses on lyrics. “Good lyricists are poets,” she said. “They understand meter, rhyme, figurative language like metaphor and symbolism, and how to embody a specific voice or point of view. Also, how to surprise listeners, which is something that Musgraves does really well.
“The thing is though, songs are different from poems in many ways. In a song you can get away with a lot more verbal slack because there are so many other formal elements in play: melodic design, harmonies, vocal performance, instrumentation and especially nowadays, studio production.”
In the podcast, Galvin talked about Musgraves’ ability to twist a cliché in a surprising way in songs that are personal and challenge cultural expectations. Talking further, she said, “An artist like Kacey Musgraves is really important, I believe, because she writes these very specific, detailed songs about what it’s like to grow up as a woman in an economically straitened area of the country. Her debut album was called ‘Same Trailer, Different Park.’”
Galvin said the new album, “Pageant Material,” deals with the same subject matter as the first, but approaches it differently, with the new title pointing to a shinier surface.
Part of the chorus of “Pageant Material” goes: “I ain’t pageant material/I’m always higher than my hair/And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace/But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage.”
For Galvin, “The reason why I think lyrics are important has to do with a belief that representing the self – in all its complexity – is a political project. This comes to some extent out of feminist theory and race and sexuality studies. For example, the rapper Kendrick Lamar and the transgender singer/writer Laura Jane Grace of ‘Against Me!’ are other musicians who are confronting political and social issues in their lyrics.”
Politics also comes into play in her dissertation, in which she’s focusing on contemporary global authors from the past two decades who write in English. Their novels “concern situations of political violence – sectarian conflict, state-sanctioned violence and economic deprivation, which I consider a form of violence – that by nature are difficult to understand, visualize and apprehend, particularly in their historical contexts.”
Her work took this direction when she went to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland for her master’s degree. Ireland has a long tradition of interweaving politics and art. “The  Easter Rising was led by poets! Being immersed in that tradition awakened me to how literature can have a serious stake in political life,” she said.
UVA’s English department was perfect for her, she said, with faculty members who are strong in global Anglophone literature, including her dissertation director, professor Jennifer Wicke, as well as associate professor Mrinalini Chakravorty and professor Victor Luftig.
Galvin said she knows other graduate students in the Ph.D. and Creative Writing programs who also write for popular publications. She’s also not the only one who appreciates popular music.
She and several other English graduate students formed a band a few years ago. It’s a casual arrangement because they’re so busy with school, but they’ve played a few house concerts and a wedding this summer. They like to play classic folk and rock and to come up with creative arrangements of contemporary pop and ’80s songs, including those of Rihanna, Lorde and the Backstreet Boys.
“We’re called ‘Better Off Read’ because we all love reading,” Galvin said. “Our ‘fans’ are called Read Heads.”