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What Do Your Tunes Say About You? First Music Professor Takes a Closer Look

August 8, 2006

What Do Your Tunes Say About You? First Music Professor Takes a Closer Look

There’s a lot more to the study of music than whether a song has a good beat and you can dance to it.

“I use music as a way of thinking about identity,” said Professor Kevin Fellezs, who’s starting to teach here this fall. “We’ll talk about how music helps us form and shape our identities and represent those identities.”

Race, class, age and culture all play a part in how people perceive music and those who listen to it.

Fellezs is a perfect example. People might assume a music professor would only be into classical tunes. In fact, Fellezs is an accomplished jazz pianist with plenty of live performance experience. He’s also a headbanger.

“I still love metal,” he said. “Metallica, Slayer …”

In fact, part of his teaching involves “disturbing people’s assumptions.” He wants students to learn about the history of the music they enjoy while learning to think about their listening habits and understand their music’s heritage.

“The musicians themselves are drawing on history and legacies,” Fellezs said.

Most music departments don’t concentrate on pop music, Fellezs said. Musicology, the study of music in its historical and social contexts, usually focuses on the structure of music. But on this campus, Fellezs wants to see a new paradigm.

Newness attracted him to UC Merced in the first place. Fellezs said he feels a kinship with first-generation students who grew up with hardship, because he came from a disadvantaged background.

“In many ways, I shouldn’t be here, holding a doctorate,” he said. He lived in housing projects in San Francisco, surrounded by gangs and drugs.

But he lived four blocks the public library, and his mother nurtured his love of reading. Eventually he got his bachelors from CSU San Francisco and his Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz. He’s writing a book on 1970s rock-jazz fusion and eventually wants to research the “accordion culture,” from polka to tango.

Fellezs is also a pop-culture fan who takes lessons from students about what’s current.

“It’s hard to keep up with all the changes,” Fellezs said, “but that’s what makes it interesting.”