Academics Gather To Study Phish, Man

May 19, 2019
Originally published on May 20, 2019 12:47 pm
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now for a story about an academic conference. But wait, wait. Stay with us because, as Deena Prichep reports, Oregon State University is hosting a meeting that's got more than name tags and networking.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Over 200 people will spend this weekend attending the first Phish Studies Conference. And this is not...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER BUBBLING)

PRICHEP: ...Fish like green biology. It's Phish...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHISH'S "YOU ENJOY MYSELF")

PRICHEP: ...Like the jam band from Vermont that's often compared to the Grateful Dead. Fifty presenters from across the country will be discussing the band and its obsessive following.

JACOB COHEN: Why study Phish? Why study anything?

PRICHEP: Jacob Cohen is a musicologist on the conference program committee. He says studying Phish teaches us about more than just the intricacies of their musical improvisation.

COHEN: These popular culture practices are places where we can learn about philosophy and construction of identity and race.

PRICHEP: And at this conference they'll be talking about all of that - the psychology of the fans who follow Phish across the country, a structural analysis of set lists, race relations among the predominantly white concertgoers. Philosophy professor Stephanie Jenkins is the conference organizer.

STEPHANIE JENKINS: It is only a very recent phenomenon that the way philosophers communicate their ideas is through argumentative essays.

PRICHEP: So a Phish conference featuring live music and fan art - it's part of a fine tradition, she says. Because Socrates wasn't delivering dry papers, he was talking with people in the public square. And he was criticizing society, a tradition continued by philosophers like Michel Foucault.

JENKINS: So Foucault has done a fantastic job of laying out the roadmap for how disciplinary institutions and practices create the sorts of people that we are. But what it doesn't come with is a practice of freedom.

PRICHEP: The way we can transform ourselves to break free of unspoken rules. And for Jenkins, Phish embodies that transformation - a sort of public philosophy.

JENKINS: The Phish community, for me, has created a space of freedom or what Foucault will call a heterotopia - another space.

PRICHEP: That is, admittedly, fairly lofty academic terms to describe the band your stoned roommate kept blasting in the dorm room. So could these same sorts of insights - about society, about community, about freedom - come from a conference about Beethoven or Beyonce?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES (PUT A RING ON IT)")

BEYONCE: (Singing) All the single ladies. All the single ladies.

PRICHEP: As philosophers like Jenkins would argue, that's an empirical question. But does it matter? Musicologist Jacob Cohen can go on about Phish's chromatic and dissonant tones, use of Lydian mode, establishment of place - and trust me, he did. But that's not the only reason he's here.

COHEN: I write about what I like. That doesn't mean we can't also analyze it and approach it critically and objectively. But I like Ives - Charles Ives. I like Aaron Copeland. And I like Phish.

PRICHEP: And he clearly does. Cohen estimates he's attended about 180 Phish concerts. And this weekend, he can rock out and geek out with a lot of other people who feel the exact same way. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHISH'S "YOU ENJOY MYSELF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.