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Singing at Death's Door: Late Style, Disability, and the Temporality of Illness in Popular Music


This dissertation investigates musical expressions of temporal alterities in works created by popular music artists, identifying their aesthetic responses as their bodies become ill, disabled, and they become more aware of mortality. I propose a critical, hermeneutic, and theoretical method drawn from Edward Said’s appropriation of Adorno’s expression “late style” that I have designated ill style, a form of creativity within a temporality of illness. Late style is discernable in works produced, paradigmatically, at the end of one’s career in “old age,” but late style may also be understood as an influence on artistic output at any stage of life if the subject is experiencing untimeliness and a disruption in access to the communal understanding of futurity and time, a possible consequence of factors other than age. I contend that late style, accelerated by illness, disrupts Western cultural attempts at ignoring precarious and finite nature of existence; the resulting expressions of lateness ask audiences to do the same. I offer a way in which to think more critically about what scholars consider late style, how it functions in popular music studies and society, and how it intersects with the fields of disability, gender, queer, and critical race studies, and the social sciences.

This work critiques and expands late style as a critical construct, and brings popular music into the lineage of musical traditions where late style has historically been examined. This study focuses on artists for whom late style is contingent upon illness and illness-induced disability, rather than the accepted path of aging and resulting bodily decline. The value of recognizing ill style and the temporality of illness lies in its potential to expand listeners’ understanding of illness as a state inherent to the human condition. If a listener can hear these sounds of illness or suffering in musical works, it helps integrate disability and illness into our concept of normative human experience.

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