Musicologist Paula Harper joined the faculty of the University of Chicago Department of Music as Assistant Professor in Music and The College, this quarter. She is a musicologist who researches music, sound, and the internet. She is interested in putting digital ephemera and oddities into broader context, in hearing the musicality of online meme cultures, and in tracking music’s creation and circulation across digital platforms and communities.
Learn all about Harper below and get her thoughts on viral videos, Taylor Swift's newest album, and more.
You’re currently co-editing the volume Taylor Swift: The Star, The Songs, The Fans. What are your thoughts on Taylor Swift’s newest album, Midnights?
Oooh, this question feels like bait to get me canceled by Swifties. It’s not my favorite of her albums (1989 and Reputation are my eras of choice), but I think that some of the choruses are absolute bops, and I’m really fascinated by the way that they’re being (re)interpreted on TikTok and other platforms. I’m also intrigued by the ways that she’s signaling a genre pivot to indie (while still maintaining almost-unrivaled pop dominance), and I’m very curious to see what comes next in her evolution as an artist and brand.
You research and write about virality as it exists in online spaces. What is one of your favorite viral videos of all-time?
I have a soft spot for early-2000s flash videos, like "The End of the World," "Charlie the Unicorn," or the "Badger Song"—they’re absurd and banal, and I still quote them or occasionally get their soundtracks stuck in my head. But I’m also a massive fan of the (increasingly convoluted) ways that people continue to Rickroll, fully two decades into the 21st century. I love it when I can see a Rickroll coming, and I love it even more when one takes me by surprise—when suddenly a several-minute-long video of a Rube Goldberg machine falls into that familiar opening drum fill, or when it’s revealed that a months-long twitter thread project has been spelling out the lyrics the whole time. Commitment to a bit, on the small and large scale! Not to mention a shocking durability in the often-ephemeral span of internet obsessions.
Having earned your AB in Music and English from UChicago, what did you look forward to the most when returning to campus as an Assistant Professor?
Can I say dollar shake day?
My more earnest answer is a bit of a metaphor, or maybe a synecdoche - the index entries that are painted on the walls inside some of the quad buildings. I’ve always found them really magical. They’re enigmatic, located in stairwells and tucked-away corridors, and finding one feels like finding a treasure or secret signal. The one I see most often is the one on a second floor landing in Classics:
varying, imperfect, incalculable, 52
When I pass it, or any of the others, I’m reminded of all of the things I first loved and still love about this institution - the shared delight in words and books and writing; the joy and curiosity towards everything, including weirdness and ephemera; the interdisciplinary linkages and connections and potential for discovery.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love going for walks and hikes, singing choral repertoire (that, importantly, has nothing to do with my scholarly work), and cooking complicated dinners and desserts. For example, I just made a batch of Claire Saffitz’s recipe for Oat and Pecan Brittle Cookies, which requires you to a) make a whole dang brittle b) drag out the food processor to blitz your own flour mixture and c) chill the dough so long that you can’t even eat the cookies on the day you do all the work—but ultimately the process is fun and the results are incredible.
What is a musical memory or experience that had a big impact on your life?
When I came to UChicago and was considering being a music major, I was really self-conscious about my lack of piano/keyboard skills—I didn’t grow up with a piano in the house, and piano lessons had never been in the budget. It was hard to conceive of myself as a music major, with what felt like such a gaping hole in my experience—I figured I’d just be an English major instead (and just fill all the possible extra space in my schedule with music classes). But then, in a class in the Theory sequence, the professor went to demonstrate something at the keyboard and…wasn’t an absolutely virtuosic pianist. Later in the quarter, though, that professor brought in his guitar—his actual primary instrument—to demonstrate something. It was spellbinding. I was absolutely blown away. I’d never heard guitar played so skillfully before. It’s possible I cried. But the long-term game-changer for me was the absolute crystal-clear thought: “oh. There are other ways to be a musician.” The definition opened up to include me that quarter, and it totally changed the way that I thought about strengths and weaknesses, expertise and vulnerability, in the classroom and in the field.
What is something that you read, watched, or listened to recently that you enjoyed?
I went to see the movie Tár with some friends and colleagues a few weeks ago, and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It is a movie about a fictional female conductor, and—even in this age of algorithmic curation and recommendation—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something that feels so exactly tailored towards myself and members of my peer and social groups. I kept wanting to pinch myself, because Cate Blanchett was onscreen being luminous and terrible and specific to my field. Afterwards I was immediately consumed by a desire to read thinkpieces about it, discuss it in seminar, like the best kind of homework.