Jenessa Williams

Jenessa Williams is a graduate of the Media and Communication PhD programme at The University of Leeds, UK, and an incoming postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab for 2024-2025/6.

Looking specifically at hip-hop and indie-rock, Jenessa’s doctoral research (#MeToo & Music Fandom) explored the way in which online music fan communities respond to allegations of celebrity sexual abuse across the intersections of race, gender, genre and respectability politics. During her time at Stanford, Jenessa will be working on developing this research into her first monograph.

Outside of this project, Jenessa’s wider research interests explore ‘fangirl’ and ‘stan’ identities, as well as issues of diversity, inclusion, activism and wellbeing across the music industries. She is a co-founding member of the Music & Online Cultures Research Network (MOCReN), and a member of the conference organising committee for Fan Studies Network North America.

Jenessa also works as a freelance music journalist, with work appearing in the likes of the GuardianNMEthe Forty-FivePitchforkAlternative Press and Music Week.

Scholar Spotlight, June 15, 2024

In this month’s DCSL Postdoc Spotlight, we catch up with Jenessa Williams, a postdoctoral scholar in Communication. Jenessa describes herself as a “hybrid academic/practitioner who is super curious,” channeling her curiosity into her work at the intersection of music and fandom. With a background in music journalism and a PhD in Media & Communication, Jenessa’s research focuses on how marginalized groups engage with and influence music communities. In this interview, Jenessa talks about her current research project, the challenges she’s encountered along the way, and finding community in the Bay Area.

How did you become involved as a postdoctoral scholar in communication?

I completed my undergraduate degree in Music Journalism in 2014, and after a few years’ break to work in industry, returned to study for a Masters By Research degree and then a PhD, both in the field of Media & Communication. I became a Doctor in November 2023, after an incredibly hectic few years that also included a wedding, part-time jobs as a freelance music journalist, lecturer, consultant, and of course, a global pandemic. Whilst I was and still am incredibly proud of my PhD and its findings, I knew quite quickly that there were some areas that I wanted to investigate more deeply.

Given that so much of my research is entrenched in US case studies, I thought it would be hugely useful to both my project and my personal development to get out of the UK and experience that context firsthand. After applying to Stanford’s call for DCSL Postdocs and having a wonderful interview with the team on Zoom, things moved pretty quickly, and here I am talking to you! I had a really great feeling about the department right away and can’t wait to meet everyone and get started properly in September.

Can you talk a bit about the work you’re doing and your research?

Absolutely! For me, everything tends to come back to the study of music and fandom, and how those of typically marginalized backgrounds—women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ and neurodiverse fans—shape, challenge or interact with the artists, scenes and communities they admire. Ever since my Master’s degree, I’ve been especially interested in how people navigate fandoms and listening habits that do not entirely line up with their socio-political beliefs, whether that be the potential incompatibilities of being a ‘Hip-Hop Feminist’ (love Joan Morgan’s work), or the difficulty of loving an artist whose actions have rendered them ‘cancellable’ in some way.

During my time at Stanford, my main project will be to revise and update my PhD thesis into a monograph. Tentatively titled “Music Fandom after #MeToo.” which explores the implications of the MeToo movement on 10 different fandoms across Hip-Hop and Alternative Rock. In interviewing 50+ fans of various acts that had been accused of sexual misconduct, I explore the way in which audiences use social media to discuss, process and police allegations of abuse, and how race, music genre, media intervention and victim respectability politics all complicate the way that allegations are understood, debated and/or forgiven in the public sphere. I hope to make interventions into the current literature on cancel culture and fannish activism, establishing where feminist fans can utilize boycott as an efficient way of signaling zero tolerance, but also how developments in modern music consumption—streaming in particular—may also cause some fans to devalue their own intervening potential within an industry that relies on profitability to deduce which behaviors can be deemed excusable.

From here, I see my future work branching into two different strands. I hope to conduct more research into how rape myths and ‘misogynformation’ proliferate through online networks, particularly with regard to the current state of the Hip-Hop bloggersphere and influencer media. I also hope to continue my work on stan fandoms and the tensions that are emerging between fans and media practitioners, in light of fans’ ever-increasing market power. It’s been fascinating in the last few years to observe how music fans have taken a closer interest in metrics and their ability to influence business decisions in real-time. I’m keen to look at this more in the context of fannish labor and personal-professional trajectory. Both projects readily tie back into the lab’s focus on civil society, and an interest in the role of online participation, influence, and identity performance.

What successes and challenges have you encountered so far, and what lessons have you learned, if any?

Time management is always a big one! If it’s not immediately obvious, I’m the sort of hybrid academic/practitioner who is super curious and often has tons of different project ideas firing off at once. I thrive off of being busy, but I’m also slowly learning when to remind myself to slow down, confront my imposter syndrome and recognize that success in academia means doing things with depth as well as breadth. That said, working simultaneously across journalism and scholarship has been a great way for me to think about diverse forms of dissemination, and to stay abreast of the talking topics within the music industry that feed into my academic research. I love being ‘in the field’ in this way, and whilst it’s not always an easy juggle, I do think it has made me a more effective and engaged researcher.

I’m also incredibly passionate about inclusive methodologies and ethics, particularly when it comes to studying online communities and fandoms. We can learn so much from observing people’s online interactions, but when we take them at face value, we often miss a lot of the specificity; the sarcasm, the hyperbole, even just the context of what was going on in someone’s life when they decided to make that post. For this reason, and in the context of ‘cancel culture’ discourses especially, interviews are often my method of choice, as I feel it is important to dig deeper than simply coding what is said online.

Establishing a methodology that felt accessible, sensitive and appropriately nuanced is one of my proudest achievements of my thesis, allowing room for participants to express the kind of ‘flawed’ honesty that is often lacking in situations where interviewees might feel pressured to perform the perfect ‘moral’ answer. I think of myself as a feminist researcher and I would never wish to excuse or mask the harms of those who participate in hate speech, but if we are to truly understand how and why misogyny, racism and sexual violence continue to proliferate across music scenes, I do feel it is important to better understand what brings people to engage in those kinds of behaviors or thoughts. That often means having uncomfortable conversations, or finding ways to ‘hear out’ participants that we might not personally agree with—something that I’ve very much learnt by doing.

Going forward, in what ways can the Stanford community continue to support your work?

It may sound cheesy, but I’m really excited about collaboration and meeting new people, especially those who approach communication study from more of a sociological/political background. As a Covid-era PhD researcher, I was lucky enough to study alongside a wonderful cohort of media scholars, but we unfortunately missed out on a lot of the in-person interaction and bonding that other PhDs get to experience in their formative study years. I’m excited to have a fresh opportunity to teach, learn from others and discuss works-in-progress, especially given the interdisciplinarity of the department.

I’m definitely a bit of a ‘headphones on’ introvert when it comes to getting words down on a page, but I really enjoy breaking up this solitude with more informal ideas generation and peer support. Whether that’s book clubs, conference organization, virtual whiteboard sessions or simply a good lunchtime event about the ups and downs of academic life, I’m here for it all. Working in these contentious subject areas of race and gender and activism can have a big emotional toll without you even realizing, so it means a lot when you can cultivate a network to lean on for advice, support or even a little bit of welcome distraction.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

If anyone has any advice, settling-in tips, must-sees for somebody new to the Bay Area, please reach out! Stanford is a long way from home for me and a big adventure into the unknown, so I’m very interested in hearing where the best places to study, eat, and watch live music might be. I’m also hoping that in the coming year, I might be a little more active on my Substack, where I try to post various thoughts-in-progress on popular culture, music journalism and early-career academia. If that sounds interesting to you (and you share my love of a good K-Pop playlist), feel free to come say hi!