Growing up in Palos Verdes, Jessica Schwartz began music lessons at the age of 4 — first violin, and then piano. She began playing guitar at 9, and after her mother gave her an electric guitar at 13, she quickly became enthralled with punk rock. When she wasn’t practicing in her garage or, later, performing in bands, she immersed herself in all aspects of music scholarship. At New York University, her dissertation research sparked a life-changing expedition to the Marshall Islands for two years, where she documented “bomb songs” that were created in response to nuclear testing between 1946 and 1958.
In 2014, after earning her Ph.D. at NYU and serving a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University, Schwartz began teaching at UCLA. Her winter 2015 course “Music History 13: Punk: Music, History, Sub/culture” featured panels with well-known punk musicians in the manner of Inside the Actors Studio. Committing full-force to the power of music as a catalyst for change, the assistant professor of musicology also pounds out guitar riffs for L.A. queer noise punk band Trap Girl.
What inspired you to move from New York City to the Marshall Islands?
I was planning to do a dissertation about punk communities throughout the world, when my adviser, Jairo Moreno, said I needed to look at critical resistance and understand the history of where rock music comes from. I started reading about the ’50s and came across this song “Sh-Boom.” The story goes that a band called The Chords wrote the song because they saw the “Castle Bravo” explosion at Bikini Atoll from the 1954 nuclear test detonation on TV and went, “Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to incorporate that intensity in a song, in a sound like ‘Sh-Boom!’”
I thought that was wild, and through my own involvement in the punk scene, I picked up on the idea that the bomb is foundational, not only in punk but also in rock ’n’ roll. As I continued reading, I kept coming across Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons. I started wondering, “What was their musical response to nuclear testing?” And that’s how I ended up going there.
What did you find most revelatory about the bomb’s impact on the culture?
In terms of cultural anthropology, the throat in the Marshall Islands is akin to the heart in the Western world — it’s the seat of the soul. About nine years after the 1954 Castle Bravo explosion, people started getting nodules and had to have their thyroids operated on. The destruction of the throat through these incisions and extractions was so damaging on the cultural and physiological level, and therefore on an intimate psychological level, for the women especially, because they were more affected than the men. When the women would sing, they heard themselves differently. They’d tell me they heard themselves as “bomb people,” because when they would try to sing, they were unable to harmonize or sing as they wanted. The bomb disrupted their communication and ability to share with others.
How did your experiences on the Marshall Islands affect your work back in the States?
In 2013, I co-founded the Marshallese Educational Initiative with April Brown, a history professor at NorthWest Arkansas Community College. We established this nonprofit group to create educational opportunities for Marshallese youth, to increase cultural and historical awareness of the Marshallese, and to educate non-Marshallese populations about what happened in the islands. I’ve been able to speak about my experiences with the Marshallese and share their music and stories as a way to frame [the issue of] nuclear testing for other Americans. It’s been very powerful to see people open their eyes wide and say, “The United States did this? Sixty-seven nuclear weapons?”
What drew you to UCLA?
In UCLA’s musicology department, a lot of critical work is being done that combines historical and ethnographic work to deal with how we can learn through music. It’s a very humanistic approach. Also, UCLA has a strong focus on diversity and inclusion, as evidenced by the environmental humanities, disability studies, outreach programs and so forth. And in Southern California there are many different specific islands of population. For example, there’s a Marshallese population in Costa Mesa, and that attracted me.
Historically, how has punk culture informed the way you look at the world?
It’s difficult for me to say, “This is punk, that is not.” I first heard the rap group NWA’s album Straight Outta Compton when I was living in Albany, California, and I remember thinking, “This is punk. This is resistance. This is a kind of defense against police brutality and racial profiling.” That attitude, that energy, that kind of creative dissent inspired me. At that time, I also liked bands that I heard at 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley, such as Area 51, Blatz and Econochrist, which all relate personal issues to larger political, systemic injustices. I was interested in bands that had Marxist critiques of how the economy and production inform people’s feelings about themselves.
Do you see any similarities between your role as a rock guitarist and how you “perform” in the classroom?
In my guitar playing, I like thinking through how to put together bits and pieces, melodic nods to different punk bands. With Trap Girl, I fold a lifetime of experience in music appreciation, study and performance into my performance. And in my teaching, I pay a lot of attention to the various histories that support the materials we’re learning about. Putting it out there in the classroom, it’s really exciting, actually, to see people taking notes and listening and receiving certain things they’ll think about later.
When you teach the class, which artists get big responses?
In terms of punk from a global perspective, there’s a group from Indonesia called Trotoar Chaos, which has had a lot of difficulties just trying to perform because it’s very Muslim there. The songs are in a different language, but the stories behind the music really grab the students.
The Dead Kennedys are a big hit, and I love teaching Patti Smith. In the Berkeley section of the course, I start out with Green Day and end up with a feminist rap trio from the 1980s called Yeastie Girlz, rapping about misogyny. I would have nothing to talk about if it weren’t for the material.
How do you see punk music as a tool for learning?
Through a song, or through a reading, we can dig deep and better understand what kind of contingencies created the space we’re in now. When we think critically, it can lead to places we might not have imagined if we only thought about the present as present, and nothing else. Thinking historically affords alternate routes for the future.