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 – http://newsouthnegress.com/southernslayings/

The video itself – http://www.lovebscott.com/music/beyonce-drops-new-song-video-formation-on-tidal

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.
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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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Does anybody care about the Grammys?

A few weeks ago, I surprised a student by both not realizing the Grammy nominations were coming soon and by not caring about them at all. The student was very excited about the Grammy awards show that airs on television every year, and looked forward to the nominations each year in preparation for the show. When I asked the student what they thought about the nominations, however, they admitted that they really did not care and saw that part as just a lead in for the television special.

This experience made me wonder if anyone really cares about the Grammys. I realize that some suggest Grammy nominees and winners often experience potential boosts in the sales of their products, and that every year there are various essays, discussions, and debates about hating the Grammys, loving the Grammys, and every perspective in between. I am also aware of many times when artists have explained why the Grammys are meaningless to them and other occasions where artists talked about how important the Grammys were to and for them. I am also well aware of ongoing discussions about snubs and surprises every year at the Grammys, and ongoing discussions about the odd process of voting and selecting artists and categories. However, what I wonder is does anyone – especially outside the music industries – actually care about the Grammys?

As I often do when I’m curious about any topic, I began asking people what they thought of the Grammys over the past couple weeks. While this exercise in no way suggests any kind of definitive answer to the question, I rarely found anyone who actually cared about the Grammys or who remembered previous winners or nominees. Rather, the people who seemed genuinely interested in the topic – like the student mentioned above – only seemed to care about the actual broadcast or show put on every year on television. Many people talked about how much fun that show is, and how much they enjoy watching it and other award shows every year, but very few showed any real interest in the awards themselves. This made me wonder what the “meaning” of the term Grammy actually is among everyday people. Do they think of the award, the nominees, the winners, the losers, the process, or simply the television show? Or do people think of some combination between these and other elements concerning the term?

While I think each of these questions – and many others – might offer fascinating ideas for studying a wide variety of awards related to various artistic creations, in the end I have to admit that I personally could care less about the Grammys or other award rituals for that matter. As is the case most years I can recall, I took a look over the announced nominees this week, and while I am familiar with most of the nominees and may check out some of the ones I have not tried yet, my overall thought was that in every category I could make arguments for the people present and for other people not present depending on what characteristics I used to evaluate the pool. As a result, I once again come back to my initial questions – does anyone outside of the music industry care about the Grammys, and what (if anything) do these awards mean?

J. Sumerau

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Bonus Tracks

Earlier this week, I came across a group of people talking about an interesting aspect of collecting music that I had never given much thought. As I took a seat at a table next to this group, one of them was lamenting the current practice of releasing different versions of albums on different platforms, through different retailers, and in different packages. The concern the person voiced was that they tended to be what they referred to as a “completionist” wherein they sought to acquire all the recordings of a given artist or artists, but as a result, they often needed to purchase multiple versions of the same album / record to acquire all the different bonus tracks released in various ways.

While I had never given this aspect of music sales much thought, recent years have witnessed an increased tendency for the contents of a record or album to vary in relation to where and how it is purchased. If, for example, one wanted to buy the new album by artist X, they might get the same 10 core tracks wherever or however they purchased the album. However, if they bought the Target exclusive version they would also get 5 more tracks that were only released on the Target version, or if they bought the Itunes deluxe version they might get a separate bonus song or three that is only available when purchasing the Itunes version, but Amazon might also have a deluxe version with another separate set of extra tracks only available through Amazon, and Walmart may have another exclusive version with their own 5 live unreleased tracks not available on the other versions. Someone could thus get at least 4 different packages simply by going to 4 different retailers for the same album / record. For someone seeking to acquire all the tracks released by a given artist, this could lead to quite a bit of purchasing of materials one already has (i.e., since generally all versions come with the same standard 10 core tracks and just have different bonus materials).

Since I had never really considered this possible conundrum, I decided to do so and thus spent the week looking at various releases in terms of similarity and difference. As I went through releases, I counted how many times one might need to buy the same core release to gather all possible bonus material from that release, and in some cases the effort might mean gaining 10 copies of the core release. I also noticed that it is often not possible to just buy bonus material (though in some cases one can do this), and thus such material often requires the purchase or re-purchase of the whole. This experience led me to a handful of questions that could lead to interesting discussion and debate concerning musical marketplaces within society at given times and in given contexts as well as how people respond to and interpret such marketplaces.

For example, in what ways are current tendencies to release multiple versions of a record within the same market similar to or different from the experience of international music collectors and casual buyers in previous years? For an international fan (i.e., someone interested in artists not in their own country or the international releases of artists from the country they live in) this is not a new issue since releases in different countries often have different track listings, different bonus materials, and even different production contents. Is this the same issue people run into when they have to purchase imports to listen to their favorite band because their favorite band is in Germany and they are not, or is this current tendency for in-market differentiation of releases something different or is it both different and similar in varied ways?

Another question that kept coming up in my deliberations involved the effectiveness or lack there of for such attempts. Do people actually go buy the Target (or other retailer) version for the exclusive content even if they don’t normally get their music from that source? If so, it might be interesting to understand why and how people make sense of these patterns, and if not, it might be interesting to explore why retailers engage in this practice if it is only likely to garner the attention of customers they would already reach without doing so?

The overall question stemming from the first two is what role do “bonus” tracks and materials play in people’s decisions about music purchase? When someone comes across “bonus content” or an “exclusive release” by a retailer, how do they interpret that label, what does it mean to them in practice? Over the years, I have met people who considered “bonus tracks” to be unworthy of purchase, and preferred to only have the core materials. At the same time, I have met people that crave every possible bonus offering, and go to lengths to get everything. I have met others that exist somewhere between these two options (myself included) over time. How do people make these decisions, develop these preferences, and act upon these interpretations in the course of their engagement with music, musical retailers, and the broader musical marketplace? What lessons might scholars learn from systematic investigation of the social interpretation of bonus material in a wide variety of contexts and among different groups of people?

J. Sumerau

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Cassette Store Day

This past weekend, people in a handful of countries celebrated the third annual Cassette Store Day. Inspired by the format and success of Record Store Day, Cassette Store Day is an annual event set aside to celebrate compact cassette tapes, release new and rare items on compact cassette for collectors and appreciators of the medium, and promote a specific medium of musical creation and consumption. Unlike Record Store Day, however, Cassette Store Day is not designed to highlight the importance of local record stores (though it may in some cases accomplish this as well), but rather is primarily focused on promoting the cassette medium.

While I look forward to Record Store Day every year and plan out my whole day to catch musical performances, look for interesting releases, and enjoy the sales and conversations that take place in the crowded shops throughout the day, I have barely noticed Cassette Store Day for the most part. This might be because I am less interested in compact cassettes than I am in other (i.e., vinyl, compact disc, and digital) music mediums, but it might also be because – as I learned this past weekend when I accidentally stumbled into Cassette Store Day events while taking an unplanned trip to a handful of record stores I go to regularly – there is not as much promotion or as many elements to Cassette Store Day offerings in my area.

As I walked into one of my regular destinations the other day, for example, I noticed a very small set up out front offering cassettes and playing music. At this same spot, the sidewalk is packed with merchandise, performers, people, and signs every year on Record Store Day. Inside, the store looked like a regular day, and if the workers had not said it was Cassette Store Day I don’t think I would have known. In comparison, on Record Store Day it is hard to move in the space because of how packed it is with people, and it often feels funny to see the store so crowded. Finally, I noticed that the merchandise (or releases) for the day only took up one small space and only took me about five minutes to look through. In comparison, on Record Store Day the merchandise takes up most of the space and has to be sorted throughout the store to fit. For someone not all that concerned about cassettes, it simply seemed like a normal day in the store.

This observation became even clearer when I arrived at the next shop I wanted to visit that day. On Record Store Day, the next shop often has food trucks, live performances, and even space where one can make their own t-shirt. On Cassette Store Day, however, the place appeared mostly empty, did not seem to have any of the special releases for the day, and best I could tell, was not even participating in any real way. This made me wonder about a few things throughout the day as I continued to notice much less activity tied to Cassette Store Day than I am used to with Record Store Day.

On the one hand, I wonder if the disparity is tied to the age of the events. While I wasn’t at any Record Store Day events in the first couple years, it is possible that they were just as low key and this is just how an event looks before it really takes off in a given market or area. On the other hand, I wonder if the disparity is tied to the focus of the day wherein record shops got behind Record Store Day in a big way since the focus was on saving local record shops, but have less concern for Cassette Store Day thus far since its focus is not really about the record shops themselves. In either case or any other possibility, I think the disparity speaks to the meaning of the events in the minds and lives of sellers, buyers, and others involved.

In my case, for example, the two days mean very different things. Even without any interest in a given set of vinyl releases, Record Store Day matters to me because I rely on the shops themselves throughout the year for my (possibly obsessive) music collection endeavors. I also understand the usefulness of vinyl releases beyond simple sound difference (i.e., part of the driver in vinyl and cassette sales is that analog recordings sound different than digital (i.e., compact discs and downloads) recordings) because the size of the packaging is rather useful for artistic, decoration, and other purposes. I cannot, however, say the same thing about Cassette Store Day (i.e., since its not geared toward promoting record shops explicitly and since Record Store Day is so successful, I’m not sure recognizing this day does much for the record shops at present) or about cassettes as a medium (i.e., they are even smaller in packaging and format than compact discs, and I can’t think of other uses for them beyond listening to analog recordings). As a result, the days mean very different things to me – as do the mediums released on said days – and my guess is that such meanings influence how I respond to the two days.

This makes me wonder how others interpret these days and other widespread (in this case internationally recognized and celebrated) events concerning music. How do our meanings for certain events and mediums influence our engagement (or lack there of) with specific events and mediums? As someone who actually likes cassettes (I have a few myself), it would have been logical to expect me to find interest in Cassette Store Day when the idea emerged. Yet, I have yet to really care about it at all. At the same time, I’ve met people who never owned cassettes before who are now enthusiastic celebrators and collectors of the medium as a result of Cassette Store Day. It might thus be sociologically interesting to tease out – as has been done at times with some music festivals – the meaning making and interpretation that exists within people’s reactions to varied musical events, celebrations, and mediums over time.

J. Sumerau

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