Don’t say my name

Over the weekend, my life partner and I caught a concert put on by the Sarah Mac Band. The show was quite a bit of fun, and the music – an Americana sound with storyteller style lyrics – was very similar to a lot of my broader collection of tunes. Overall, it was a fun show, the band was in good spirits and celebrating headlining at a venue where they played as an opener earlier in their career, and I had a good time. I could use this space to review the concert itself, the experience in the space, or the night my life partner and I had before, during, and after the show while discussing music and our impressions of the show. Instead, however, I want to focus on a particular song that caught my attention as I drove back to Tampa the following day.

As I often do when I’m enjoying a concert, I spent some time at the merchandise table and picked up a couple new cds of music. On the road the next day, I played these cds as I drove and thought about the week, life, and the show. While I enjoyed the bulk of the music contained on the discs (always a welcome result of blindly buying new tunes), I came across a track on one of their records that I found myself playing over and over again. I honestly cannot recall if the song was played during the show, but it struck a chord in me each time it flowed through my speakers. The song is called “Say my name” and it can found on the band’s album entitled “Florida.” The song caught my attention because the following verse kept getting stuck in my head each time I heard it:

Don’t say my name

            I never gave you

            Any right to

            Call me that

            Don’t say my name

            Its not the same as

            When my mother

            Gave it to me

            When it leaves your lips

            It sounds so brittle and cold

            And unfamiliar 

As someone who does a lot of work on identities, the work people do to define themselves and their situations, and the experiences of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, these words resonated with me, and I found myself thinking of all the many social contexts and experiences they could apply to in a given life. In the song, the person appears to be talking about a failed relationship, but these words speak to wider social processes and definitional endeavors people experience in a wide variety of ways as they seek to claim new selves, adjust existing selves, and / or leave aspects of the self behind.

The experience got me wondering about both (1) the importance of names for given people whether such names are personal monikers, social labels or a combination of the two, (2) the difficulties people face when others call them by labels or names they no longer or never did identify with personally, and (3) the issues, conflicts, and processes that arise when one person’s desire for identification conflicts with the identification practices of other people in relation to that person.

These are each common questions Interactionists wrestle with and analyze in many contexts implicitly and explicitly, but the question I kept returning to involved what might be learned by Interactionist studies about the way people describe and make sense of shifting labels and names over the course of their lives. In what varied situations might the phrase “Don’t say my name” be especially relevant to identity transformations, and what might Interactionists learn from explicit focused attention on such turning points and transformations?

While there has been tremendous focus on such dynamics over time, studies typically focus more on broader labels (i.e., racial, classed, gendered, sexual, religious, and subcultural labels) rather than on actual personalized names.  Especially as more and more people define themselves in fluid terms over the life course, change names for a wide variety of social and political reasons, and experience tensions between how they may appear in a given circumstance and how they see themselves, I wondered what might be gained from Interactionists analyses of times, situations, and circumstances wherein the line in the song – “don’t say my name” – may become especially relevant to personal and social evaluations of given selves and realities.

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, concerts, Discussion, Interactionism, Music, music sssi | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Music, Communities, and Connections

In this guest post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on connections and communities fostered by live music, and the ways such experiences may impact us individually and bind us to others in predictable and unexpected ways.  

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on music, community, and the many connections between the two. Since my teenage years I’ve loved seeing and participating in live music. These days I regularly attend concerts by artists in a variety of genres, though I continue to have a particular affinity for heavy metal and closely related styles. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that although people may do a lot of boundary work about which bands fall into which sub-genres, many of those divisions seem to melt away when you get a bunch of excited fans shoulder to shoulder on a club floor. It’s as if the definition of the situation shifts to focus on the experience that everyone is about to share. And the sense of community that emerges can be truly extraordinary.

Often it’s the conversations that happen in between sets that seem to knit together the fabric of these found communities, just as much as the process of moving and shouting along to the music. Every shared affinity for a particular artist becomes a bit of social closure, binding you together. Sometimes you find common ground with music you play as well as music you hear, whip out your phones and start comparing photos of your guitars or drum kits. The sign equipment of your musicianship becomes a means of connecting with others rather than setting yourself apart from them by showing elevated status. This sharing unlocks a kind of giddy excitement that vibrates in the room, makes you feel like you’re among friends.

The dynamics of shared experience and practice as conduits of social closure aren’t unique to metal at all. I’ve seen them in action at every type of show I’ve attended, minus one terrible concert a couple of years ago that my partner and I left because the headlining act started engaging in hate speech. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiastic gushing about the music in the amphitheater that night because the acoustics were so terrible we could barely hear the performers, and when the headliners took the stage, what we could hear wasn’t good at all. But even in those moments, there was tremendous community: concertgoers leaving the venue in droves, shaking their heads in disgust and sending empathetic smiles back and forth to one another as we moved towards the parking areas.

What has led me to reflect so much on the development of found community through live music lately represents a whole other level of dealing with adversity—one that has led me to realize that the community that seems to sprout from the floor at a concert venue grows roots much deeper than I’d previously thought.   These roots not only reach deep into the ground, but also spread expansively, reaching us in our home communities long after we’ve cheered for the last encore of the night. A recent concert and the events that followed over the next few days showed me just how deep community found through live music can go, the strength of the closure that people feel as a result, and the impact it can make in times of crisis.

Earlier this month, SSSI Music blog editor Dr. J Sumerau and I had just returned from a quick work trip to Miami and decided to unwind with one of our favorite Saturday night activities: live heavy metal at the Orpheum in Ybor City. I was especially excited because I’d wanted to see the headlining band, Canadian metal veterans Voivod, perform live since I was a teenager. As usual, we showed up to support the local bands and tour partners opening for the main act, and to spend time by the merchandise tables to meet some of the musicians and their road crew. The crowd was energetic and talkative as local group Generichrist finished up their set and turned the stage over to the next band, tour partner Eight Bells. We were familiar with Generichrist already as a Tampa local act, and I’d heard a few tracks from Voivod’s other tour partners, Philadelphia-based Vektor. But Eight Bells were totally new to us, an all-female group out of Portland promising complex doom sounds.

We got pretty excited to see a purely female band getting exposure on a national metal tour. Although women in metal are much more visible and appreciated these days than when I was first getting into the genre at age 10, female artists are still underrepresented and often treated as a novelty. I had some discussion about this back at the merch table with one of Vektor’s team, who I found out later was the lead singer’s spouse because he voiced his appreciation for her support on the tour midway through the set. The crowd cheered loudly and people flocked to the merchandise area, and there were definitely more than a few whispers in the room about how awesome it was to see female artists and tour management professionals getting enthusiastic support on a national tour with metal mainstays like Voivod. As a female both listening to and playing metal myself these days, I hope this is a sign of wonderful things to come.

Eight Bells wowed the crowd with their set, a twisting odyssey of cerebral songs that seemed to integrate an impossible array of musical influences to craft a truly singular doom sound. I heard everything from gothic rock to jam band to thrash metal to Delta blues stylings in their repertoire, and threw the horns excitedly. As usual at metal shows—as well as in other genres, such as country and rock—fans use the horns as a means of showing appreciation and support for performers and also communicating with one another. The Orpheum security staff regularly stop to dance with fans and share a “horns up” moment as they keep an eye out for safety issues. And every once in a while, when we’re lucky, the performers catch our eyes, nod sagely, and throw the horns right back as we cheer excitedly. The feeling of being in exactly the right place, and of being totally welcome as a member of the community there, when those moments happen is indescribable.

Eight Bells finished their set with a flourish and started striking their gear, with help from a few of the Vektor members who would take the stage next. Hanging out by the side stage area as I tend to do at shows—it’s quieter and I can dance and windmill freely without worrying about crossing into anyone else’s personal space or knocking over their drink—I had a great opportunity to let them know how much J and I had loved their set once they were done clearing their equipment. In another beautiful example of how music gives us friends everywhere we go, bassist and singer Haley grabbed her drink and came over to hang out with us for the duration of the break between sets.

It’s always amazing to me how quickly the definition of the situation can shift at a concert. One minute musicians are stunning you on stage and the next they’re right there next to you, sharing stories and laughs. We compared instruments, and talked about our passion for interdisciplinary health sciences—hers psychology to J’s social psychology and my medical sociology. We talked about all the different music we grew up listening to, and how those diverse influences played out in our own creative process as musicians. Guitarist Melynda joined us midway through the conversation, and we talked a little about the Orpheum and how the crowd there always seems to be especially supportive and welcoming—a consequence perhaps of how much the venue and its management stress creating true community for metal artists and fans in the Tampa Bay area. After cutting my teeth in the iconic metal clubs of New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, I always feel like I’m coming home when I walk through the doors at the Orpheum. I thought about this as Vektor took the stage and we were all off dancing again, after many hugs and a couple of quick pictures.

Our wonderful experiences at the Orpheum that Saturday swirled in my mind a couple of days later when, after driving back to Tallahassee with the Eight Bells and Vektor CDs I picked up at the merch table spinning the whole way, I checked my Facebook feed to find a new post on the Eight Bells band page with the terrible news that Melynda had been badly injured at their concert in Atlanta the previous evening. The shock of seeing Melynda with her guitar swapped for a leg immobilizer reverberated in my mind. The cognitive dissonance was extreme—to see someone whom I’d quickly regarded as a conqueror and a force of nature onstage and off harmed. Even the nature of Melynda’s injury and the events that led to it spoke to the tremendous bonds that form between metal fans, and the lengths they will go to in protection of an artist if something goes wrong at a show. But the shock of thinking that Eight Bells might be out of commission, unable to share their art with other communities and continue their journey toward becoming a household name in metal, was overwhelming.

What didn’t surprise me at all was seeing how emphatically not alone I was in my horror at what had happened, or in my desire to help the band continue touring if at all possible. That photo was barely up for 60 seconds before fans started blowing up the thread with offers of money, medical equipment, places to stay, and other instrumental resources to get Eight Bells back on their feet and back on stage with as little lost income as possible. Many of us had just met Melynda, Haley, and drummer Rae a couple of nights before, but it was clear in that moment that we all felt connected by what we had shared that night—by the music happening on stage, and by the community that grew around it.

Fans wasted no time in organizing to blast out social media posts promoting the band’s GoFundMe page. The fundraising site and fans’ pleas for help spread through Facebook and Twitter like wildfire, new donations showing up faster than sweep-picked arpeggios in a power solo. The goal Melynda’s bandmates set for the fundraiser seemed lofty at first: cover the medical bills, and recoup a bit of income lost from the two concerts they were unable to play if at all possible. But if I’ve learned one lesson from the past week, it’s never to underestimate what a bunch of outraged music fans can do when we put our minds to it. By week’s end, Eight Bells announced with gentle good humor that they were going to have to close the fundraising page because fans were still sending donations despite the goal being long since exceeded. The band’s management also sent personal notes to each and every donor, thanking us for our support of Melynda and the band. And the next day, Eight Bells reunited with their tour partners in Chicago to begin playing the rest of their scheduled shows, Melynda looking as powerful and virtuosic as ever with guitar back in hand.

Something special happens when we share music together, soundwaves reverberating far beyond the walls of a concert venue, and long after the last piece of equipment has been struck. So often in listening alone we find ourselves—in lyrics that resonate with us, in instrumentals that move us, in how music opens up opportunities for us to process our experiences and emotions in ways that we otherwise could not. But in listening together we find each other, often in ways that continue to grow throughout and beyond the span of a band’s career. It is not lost on me that one of my most important and enduring social relationships started with a shared love of metal and countless other diverse genres, or that these days music constitutes a big part of the fabric of my relationship with my life partner. It is also not lost on me that I fondly remember the faces and voices and stories of so many others I have attended shows with, shared a fist bump or thrown the horns with, many years after those nights’ last notes have faded away. To listen together, to participate actively in these moments of art coming alive, is to create community with incredible power and reach.

Posted in Blog, concerts, Event, Guest Post, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, Xan Nowakowski | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Favorites

As someone who listens to a lot of music, collects a lot of music, and plays a lot of music in various ways, I find myself constantly learning of artists, trying out new and old artists I have missed to date, and searching for the next artist I will enjoy. In a given year, I will listen to hundreds of records or artists that are new to me regardless of when they were released, and I have great fun doing so on a wide variety of formats. As I have noted on the blog before, one of my favorite things to do is go out searching for music.

Like everyone else I have come across to date, I have my favorites as well. While some people I have met have one favorite artist or record, others have 100 or more favorite artists or records. In fact, I have learned over the years that what constitutes a favorite (i.e., what it means to say this record or album is a or the favorite) varies dramatically individually and collectively. In some cases, people find favorites in the works that speak to their most cherished memories or hardest moments in life. In other cases, people find favorites in a specific sound or style. In still other cases, people find favorites because that voice or that lyrical structure is “just the best” however they define “just the best” consciously or otherwise. I could likely fill a book with similar rationales behind the development of favorites, but the point I have noticed is that variation is the rule if there is a rule, and favorites can come in a wide variety of types, styles, origins, and other facets for a given person or group.

In my own case, I am one of the people that has multiple favorites. While I have many favorite albums and songs, here I will focus on my favorite artists and the origins of these artists as my favorites. I do this both for simplicity (i.e., to pick a topic to focus this post) and because I am currently experiencing the next set of additions to my favorite artist list so the topic is on my mind and my stereo each day at present. I share these selections as an example of the development of favorites, and an opportunity for anyone to share their own favorites and definitions of what makes a favorite because in my experience these elements of musical (and other artistic) experience often speak to the person in very personal and important ways (I admit they do for me).

To this end, I should start with what “favorite artist” means to me. For me, this phrase means a couple things. First, a favorite for me – whether artist, song, album, genre, or other category of music or other forms of life – is something that speaks to me emotionally in a way that other things in this world do not. There are some things that – for lack of a better phrase – hit me or captivate me in ways that other things do not. Whether I’m thinking about the feeling of parmesan cheese on my tongue, the sense of comfort I get walking through any place that looks like a warehouse, or the desire to dance that comes over me when I hear Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (on my own long list of favorite songs), the entity in question facilitates an emotional reaction within me that other forms of – to use the above examples – food, architecture, or song do not. Emotionally, these things feel special to me.

Second, a favorite artist for me is someone (individual or collective) capable of regularly producing these special or different emotional reactions within me. They don’t do it with one song (Michael Jackson is an example of such a case for me) or with one record (Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” is an example of such a case for me) or with a couple songs (Reba McEntire is an example of such a case for me – about 18 songs) or with a couple of albums (Alanis Morrissette is an example of such a case for me – three albums) or with a specific selection of songs on a compilation (like a Greatest Hits list, Boyz II Men are an example of such a case for me with their Greatest Hits collection that I have). Rather, these are artists who hit me emotionally over and over again with every record and in some cases everything they release.

Put simply, my favorite artists are those who emotionally get a reaction out of me with a large amount of material (in some cases with every single thing they ever release). They are artists that I always look forward to MORE, and that have (to my mind) never released a single song that was not at least excellent and usually release only things that are far better than anything else I have ever heard in my own opinion and emotional reaction. I truly love hundreds of artists, and I truly like and enjoy thousands more artists, but my favorites stand head and shoulders above everything else I have ever encountered in music. As I noted in a previous post when discussing one of these artists, I generally feel like these artists are in some way specifically speaking to me, my life, my feelings, my desires, my hopes, my fears, and every other element of who I think I am overall throughout the many aspects of my life and experience. For me, they are rare, they are special, and they are important beyond any feeling I can put into words.

With all this in mind, I have noticed some interesting patterns in my life to date concerning favorite artists. First, they tend to be artists who straddle or cross genre boundaries in one way or another during their careers. Put simply, they rarely fit neatly into this or that genre especially when the entirety of their work is considered, and they often are the source of vigorous discussion and debate in commentaries, fan experiences, and even on the lists I mentioned in a recent entry. Considering that my own existence is rather complex and nuanced in relation to static or stable categorizations, my guess is that the variation in these artists’ endeavors speaks to me on some level that I cannot fully explain.

Second, my favorite artists tend to be known for and / or heavily dependent upon instrumental experimentation and variation. Stated another way, they are typically artists who utilize a wide variety of instrumental techniques, sounds, and influences in their work. They typically play multiple instruments (as a group or as an individual) and utilize different types of instrumentation at different times in their careers. In fact, they are typically artists that – if one looks back through their careers – have done a lot of performances and collaborations with artists in varied genres, artists from varied social backgrounds and identity categories, and artists from varied generations. They also tend to be artists who have done a lot of work covering the work of other artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and styles.

Third, my favorite artists have come to me over time while remaining relevant and personally significant throughout my life. In fact, thus far my life has provided me three new favorite artists each decade (to date) who I have continued to cherish and turn to more often than other artists throughout the passage of time. While many of them produced wonderful work before I learned about them, I sort them based on the decade when I discovered them because that is when they first began speaking to me. I find it fascinating that within a life characterized mostly be variation these artists have continued to speak to me in special ways no matter what else changed along the way. In the 1980’s, for example, it was Elton John, Prince, and Guns n Roses that set my desire for music on fire, and in many ways the rest of the favorites demonstrate and integrate elements of the work done by these artists in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The twinkling melodies of Elton John, the pure genius of experimentation and nuance embedded in Prince, and the raw emotional instrumentation and vocalization of pleasure, pain and all that lies between these poles offered by Guns n Roses show up throughout my favorites.

In terms of my favorites (beyond the three just noted), the 1990’s brought me into contact with the Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, and Garth Brooks. The 2000’s introduced me to Ryan Adams, Wilco (and especially Jeff Tweedy) and Neko Case. These experiences – especially as I sit in a home and a life surrounded by these 9 artists who dominate my music collection and listening in many ways even today – have been on my mind of late because in 2015 I finally stumbled across this decade’s “WOW I MUST HAVE ALL OF THIS AND LISTEN TO IT FOREVER ON REPEAT” in the forms of Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and the Avett Brothers. If past experience is any clue, these three will continue to dominate my playlists, purchasing endeavors, and suggestions for others in the coming years the same way they have over the past few months and the same way the other 9 have for a long time now because once again I cannot put into words what their work makes me feel and once again I cannot find anything they have released that is not miles above anyone else out there for me (with the exception of the existing 9 favorites).

So those are the favorite artists that speak to me the most important ways. I would like to close this piece by asking readers to think about what are your favorite artists (or songs, albums, and other things) and why do you think that is. How do you define a favorite, and what does a favorite provide you that other options do not? I think these are fascinating questions that may both facilitate self reflection concerning how we see ourselves and our lives and provide opportunities for others to gain more of a picture of who we are, want to be, or feel like in relation to our lives and world.

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Music, music sssi, Reflection, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A couple resources for teaching SI and music

This week, I would like to use this space to share two resources that came my way that may be helpful for Interactionists incorporating music into classroom offerings.

First, SSSI received an interesting infographic concerning careers in the music industry, which might be useful for discussing the social organization and construction of music as phenomena, art, business, and occupation.  Check it out:

Music Careers For Your Personality Type

Second, like many other scholars and music fans, I watched with interest Beyonce’s latest release over the past weekend.  The video and song provide a powerful narrative and symbolic representation of Black Southern culture, history, and politics that may (as it did in one of my own classes already) spark interesting discussion and debate concerning music, race, politics, southern cultures, and symbols in contemporary American society.  For those interested in utilizing this work in classrooms or simply interested in thinking about and reflecting upon it themselves, I recommend checking out the insightful commentary offered by Dr. Zandria Robinson (linked below) alongside the video itself (linked below):

Dr. Robinson’s post on the video –

The video itself –

I’ll be back next week with a new post exploring the social construction of favorites in music tastes and listening practices, and until then I hope these resources are useful for Interactionists covering or considering covering music in their classes.

J. Sumerau

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Listing Subjectivity

One of my hobbies involves following, reading, and thinking about various writing about music in magazines, newspapers, and other publication records. As anyone else who does this – even once upon a time or only occasionally – likely knows, a standard element of writing about music involves the creation of lists. In any given year, for example, one may come across the top 50 classical pieces of all times, the best punk bands of the 1980’s, the best international records of 2010, the top albums in this or that genre literally every year, and novelty lists like “ten best songs to listen to while surfing naked on a Tuesday in October somewhere off the coast of this or that given place” (FYI, I made that one up just now to the best of my knowledge).

While I enjoy reading through the various lists (maybe more than most), I rarely think much about them. Honestly, they very rarely surprise me in any way, and generally the only thoughts I have are I disagree with that selection, I agree with that selection, and / or will I ever find a list where I have not listened to at least one of the artists mentioned in x genre or y composition style. These are fun questions, and I often have fun discussing such observations and questions with other people, but again, I rarely take them all that seriously. In fact, the number one use I get from such lists is an introduction to this or that artist or record I have not yet heard that sounds like it might be interesting. Considering what I do for a living and the ways my own brain works, I would not be surprised if the lack of intellectual engagement with these lists is exactly why I like them so much.

I realize at this point that thus far it may seem odd for me to be writing a post about something I do not think about much, but the reason I am doing so is because back in December I finally came across a list that actually has made me do quite a bit of thinking in the past month. This anomaly caught my attention so I decided to write about and reflect on it for fun.

What happened was fairly simple. As I often do, I grabbed a bunch of end of the year lists about music in various genres, and began sipping my coffee while I read through the descriptions and rankings for a few hours. This was pretty much what happens every time I do this, and it was quite relaxing per usual until I came across a list that I thought would be a lot of fun for me – the greatest albums of the 1990’s. As someone who spent countless hours with music in the 1990’s and still listens to a lot of music from that decade, I thought it would be fun to see what top 100 albums they chose from the decade.

While I admit it was a lot of fun, it was also quite surprising when I got to the end of the list (Number 1), and realized that NONE of the records that would have been my own top 25 (or 10 or 100 or any number) of the 1990’s made the list at all. Not one single record I would have HAD to put on such a list made the list at all, not even one. I was amazed – especially since I actually knew EVERY SINGLE ALBUM on the list and had heard each one of them myself. In other words, it wasn’t that I had missed some collection of great albums in my own listening, but rather, 100 albums that would have been behind ATLEAST 25 others if I made the list were deemed the best of the decade. For better or worse, I have actually been thinking about, reflecting on, and considering this particular list for over a month now.

I should note that my surprise does not cloud my vision about the inherent subjectivity of all such lists. For example, I am well aware that the 1990’s are generally lauded by music critics as (other than and maybe even more so depending on the article) the explosive decade of some of the most quality music in varied genres ever. I thus realize any list from such a decade will be potentially even more difficult than other lists and all such lists are going to leave out quite a lot in any case. I further note that like any such list this one emerged from a collection of people, writing for a specific audience, within a publication that focuses on some forms of music more so than other forms anyhow. I thus realize that like any other list it was always possible that none of my picks would make the list. Put simply, my surprise is interesting to me, but at the same time, it is likely something very common that people experience (especially the bulk of people I have met who listen to less varied amounts of musical styles and genres than I do) if they look at this publication instead of that one to see what is considered the best tunes.

In any case, I found / find the experience fascinating because especially as someone who listens to music broadly across genres, styles, origins, and other factors, it was the first time in all the years I have been reading lists that NOT ONE of the things I would have expected to see on the list made the list. This, of course, leads me to wonder what other people would say are the best albums of the 1990’s or other decades, and in so doing, I also wonder if other people’s selections made the list I read. As someone who finds delight in variation and subjectivities throughout our world, I feel like I could have a lot of fun comparing and contrasting such responses for a long time.

J. Sumerau

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“Popular Music and Society”

I am teaching my undergraduate “Popular Music and Society” course online this semester, as usual.  I have 90 students enrolled—sold out!  Responding to inspiration from Tia Denora and my own work on the value of examining the most mundane uses of music in EDL, we will engage in two activities/exercises/tasks/adventures.
The first involves all students interviewing the oldest person they know or can contact.  I refer to this as a follow-up to my work on baby boomers.  Bbs are now approaching or have entered in the third or fourth age of life, as gerontologists put it.  What place does music—of any sort—have in their everyday lives?
The second activity involves students assembling short (5) lists of songs they would like to have played at their own memorial service.  At first, students find  this activity a bit strange since, of course, they are going to live forever!  But, after giving it some thought, they have no problem coming up with—in some cases—ten to twenty songs they want or performed!  They also have to indicate to whom any particular song is directed and what thoughts or feelings they would expect to elicit with the song.
I’ll keep you up to date on how the course goes.
Posted in Blog, Guest Post, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction, Teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

After the end of a year

After the end of every year, I find myself thinking about other endings that occur throughout the course of a life. As I often do, I generally begin more regularly listening to music concerning the experience of such endings. Whether such songs focus on the end of a given time period, relationship, life, or other circumstance, I find comfort in the reflection and consideration of the instability of all that is, the expression of what was and could be, and the multitude of ways emotions, selves, experiences, ideas, and symbols all come together and fall apart in the course of any given ending.

Thinking about these things the last couple days, I began thinking about the two songs I listen to the most in these times. For me, each one both exceptionally captures the nuance of endings and effectively demonstrates the lasting impressions left by the moments where our ultimate instability becomes visible. I am often surprised to learn from others that songs of this type are interpreted as sad or otherwise melancholy because for me they are hopeful, beautiful articulations of the whole point of bothering to exist, and the tremendous effects that lasting and shifting circumstance may have upon a given person or set of people.

The song I typically turn to first in this regard just celebrated its 10 year birthday in various publications, and concerns what it feels like to be left behind after someone important passes away. Initially released on an album titled 29 by Ryan Adams, the song is called “Elizabeth, you were born to play that part.” I have loved this song since the first time I heard it a decade ago this month, and the part that always speaks to me is it represents an attempt to say goodbye, to make sense of an ending, to make peace with something difficult even when it feels like none of these endeavors are actually possible. I especially like the final refrain – “and I’m not strong enough to let you go, and I have tried everything but that” – because it flips a common social script wherein we often define strength in relation to acquiring or keeping things even though it often takes just as much or more strength to let go of things, people, or other entities we desire.

The second song I generally turn to when thinking about endings is a song by Death Cab for Cutie called “What Sarah Said.” This songs takes listeners on a trip through a hospital or other medical setting as the narrator struggles with the experience of caring for and supporting someone dying or otherwise in serious health distress. While I have heard others focus on the details of the narrative or the sadness of losing someone, for me this song is about what it means to actually love someone. The narrator expresses a sentiment I believe in deeply myself – “love is watching someone die.” While we often focus on the tremendous beauty and joy of connecting with someone, this song points out the other side of the coin – these connections are like all others temporary and require opening one’s self up to tremendous pain and loss. I always think of this line because love is easy in the best and even moderate moments of a life, but for me it is the most difficult moments that truly to give meaning to the notion of loving another person.

I could talk about a bunch of such songs, and the ways they help me think about and reflect on endings that occur in the course of a life. Rather, I simply wish to turn the question to others. After the end of a year, at the end of other life events or experiences, what do you think about, what do you listen to, and what role (if any) does music play in the interpretation of such times? Related, what songs speak to you about endings (and beginnings), and what do you gain from or see within these songs? At least in my case, these questions spur quite a bit of useful self reflection about and appreciation for the ongoing moments that make up a life.

J. Sumerau

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