Soundtracking Existence

After dreaming of doing so for most of my life, two weeks ago I released my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine, for purchasing information please visit  The novel is a sociological narrative built on over two decades of observations and interviews (formal and informal) with LGBTQIAP people in the southern United States as well as the past decade of sociological and interactionist research I have done concerning these populations.  Written in the form of a personal narrative from the perspective of a bisexual, non-binary teenager growing up in the Bible Belt in the 1990’s, the novel traces the lives of an interrelated group of mostly LGBTQIAP characters while highlighting the ways relationships, meanings, and both negative and positive experiences shape the people we become over time.  Not surprisingly, the release of this book – and the actualization of a lifelong dream in the process – has dominated my thoughts of late.

In the process of thinking about, answering questions about, and promoting the book’s release, I kept coming back to the ways I used musical references to capture feelings and times in the book, and the ways music – as well as other elements of arts and popular cultures – invoke specific times and places in our minds.  In the case of the book, for example, I was intentionally invoking aspects of 1990’s, and did so by pulling songs, artists, and events in that decade that allowed me to set the time without having to spell out the time and context within the narrative in a more direct fashion.  In a similar case, a commenter on the previous post about teaching with music noted the ways one can use music to invoke or set the tone for a class focused on a specific decade, and an earlier comment on another post long ago noted the ways childhood can be invoked for readers and listeners when certain instruments, sounds, smells, and forms of art are used to set a tone in writing or in person.  For whatever reason, this also got me thinking about colleagues – and myself too on occasion – who often used music as a background sound when students did in class writing assignments and / or at the opening of classes (whether or not such sounds were discussed in the class).  It hit me that I still associate a specific subject with 80’s pop songs because the class I took on the subject in college always started with such music playing in the background and we knew it was class time when the professor cut off the music even though we never discussed the music in relation to the class material or during the class.

As I’ve noted in other posts related to other topics, these types of thoughts circle around what I have casually referred to as the processes wherein we soundtrack our lives, cultures, settings, and experiences whether we realize it or not.  In my case, for example, there are two albums – no matter when or where or how I hear them – that always remind me of my life partner because they were newly released albums that became favorites of mine when we met.  There are similarly albums and songs and even more broader sounds I associate – often without realizing it at first – with other people, places, and events in my life that carry symbolic weight for me.  I often wonder what systematic studies of the soundtracks of people’s personal, collective, cultural, and national existence and experience might tell us about said people, cultures, and nations.  As such, I simply wanted to raise that question today because while I have yet to find the time to study it, I really would love to see what people might come up with in such studies.

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Teaching Sociology with Music…Some Examples

A few months back, I spoke on a conference panel about using music in the classroom.  Both before and after that talk, I chatted with a handful of people interested in examples I used in classes to cover various concepts.  I shared some examples with them, and then I found myself having similar conversations in the months since online, at other meetings, and in other ways.  As a result, I thought it might be useful to share some of the examples I use in classes a bit more broadly (i.e., here) in case they are useful for other teachers.

I would like to note that I’m not claiming any particular pedagogical expertise related to the examples I share below as I’m certain there are many other examples and ways people utilize music in classrooms.  In fact, I’ve been the student beneficiary of other examples and used many more examples than I will list here over the years.  Put simply, I’m not suggesting these examples are necessarily better or worse than others, and I welcome others to share their own examples via comments below, social media forums where we all often share teaching tips, and even in guest posts on this blog if anyone would like to do so (simply send me an email if you’re interested in doing a guest post on this or any music related topic).  All I’m doing here, put simply, is sharing some of the current examples I use that tend to work rather well for students in my classes just in case they are helpful to anyone else covering similar topics.

I would also like to note that the list below is by no means exhaustive even in my own toolkit of examples I use in classes regularly or from time to time.  I simply chose some of the concepts and topics I often illustrate with music (and other examples from the arts, sciences, and public media offerings) for the purpose of sharing.  I am more than willing to share others with anyone who wants to get in touch with me to ask about suggestions related to this or that topic, concept, theory, or other aspects of course content.  Like many other teachers I know, I pick up examples from a wide variety of sources (i.e., other scholars, students themselves, teaching support sites, etc.), and I personally appreciate how willingly many of us share techniques and examples that work in our classes and like any chance I can contribute the same.  In fact, if I continue to get questions about this practice, I will likely post other sets of examples in the future.

With the above noted, here are a few examples that work well in my classes when I seek to use music to illustrate a specific concept, theory, point, or other social pattern (see also this previous post on using musicals to teach sociological theories).  Usually, I do this by sharing the example after having covered readings and / or other outlines of concepts, and then students have to write about the musical example from the perspective of whatever reading or concept or theory we are covering and then we debate these things in class.

  • In medical sociology, my students and I cover a wide variety of medical experiences in order to create personal resonance with the broader patterns we are discussing and reading about throughout the class. In some cases, I accomplish this with narratives, memoirs, personal videos, and autoethnographies covering health experiences and interactions with medical authorities.  In other cases or alongside these examples, I also use songs that tell stories about medical experiences and have students write about the songs in relation to the scholarly readings and other examples.  Here are some that have worked really well:
    • Jason Isbell – Elephant (about loving someone with a chronic condition)
    • The Ramones – I wanna be well (about addiction)
    • Andrew McMahon – Bloodshot (as Jack’s Mannequin) (about living with chronic illness, we also look into his experiences with medicine and survival)
    • Death Cab for Cutie – what sarah said (about dying and grief and hospitals)
    • TLC – waterfalls (about drug abuse, HIV/ AIDS)


  • When covering suicide in courses on counseling, sociological theory related to Durkheim’s book, or in other courses related to other materials, I often have students listen to and view videos for songs about suicide from different decades and seek to situate these artifacts into the arguments or studies we are reading (for example, which forms of suicide outlined by Durkheim fit this or that song). Here are some songs that have worked well for this:
    • Billie Holiday – gloomy Sunday
    • Billy Joel – you’re only human
    • Pearl Jam – Jeremy (also useful for talking about gun violence and school shootings)
    • Brandi Carlile – that year


  • When discussing police brutality, racism over time, racialized violence, racial justice movements, and other aspects related to violence and inequalities, I often use songs about violence and inequalities over time to demonstrate just how consistent this issue has been – even in popular culture captured by the arts – over the past few decades. To this end, I generally have students look at / listen to songs from different decades going back at least to the 1970’s that all have very similar storylines concerning violence and inequalities (especially related to police and race).  Here are some examples I have used to demonstrate this similarity over time (note that I intentionally use songs that got some mainstream exposure, which I can then have students look at and discuss and I intentionally use songs from different genres so students see the same argument coming from different groups or social locations in society):
    • 1970’s – Gil Scott Heron – no knock, Junior Murvin – Police and Thieves
    • 1980’s – the Clash – Know your rights and the Violators – Summer of 81
    • 1990’s – 2pac – Trapped, Sinead O’Connor – Black boys on mopeds, Pearl Jam – WMA, Rage against the machine – Killing in the name, KRS One – Sound of da Police, Ice Cube – Who got the camera, and Bruce Springsteen – American Skin (41 shots)
    • 2000’s – Dead Prez – Cop Shot, G Unit – Straight outta Southside, Talib Kweli – the Proud, and Chamillionaire – Ridin’
    • 2010’s – Killer Mike – Don’t die, Lauryn Hill – Black Rage, Beyonce – Formation, Usher – Chains, Run the Jewels – Early


  • Throughout my gender class and classes about the social construction and experience of gender in society, I often have students listen to songs that tackle questions about gender we are covering in our readings and compare the songs to the scholarly literature. I have used too many songs to count for this over the years, but here are some I’ve been using of late (I also use this to lead into discussions of gender and music related to who does and who does not get mainstream attention among artists as well as what topics do and do not often get much mainstream attention in music):
    • Neko Case – man
    • Mindy McCreedy – Guys do it all the time
    • Ani Defranco – not a pretty girl
    • Alice Cooper – only women bleed
    • Arie – video
    • Soko – who wears the pants
    • Antony and the Johnsons – for today I am a boy
    • Dolly Parton – just because I am a woman
    • Nina Simone – four women
    • Beyonce – Flawless
    • Jenny Lewis – Just one of the guys
    • Neko Case – Margaret versus Pauline




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CfP SSSI Annual Meetings 2017

The Call for Papers for the 2017 SSSI Annual meetings has just been published on our website. For the call, please go here:

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The best albums of 2016 in my opinion

With the new year approaching, I look forward to many new posts concerning the intersection of music and society on this blog.  At the same time, I wanted to close out the year by simply doing what almost every other media and commentary source about music does every year at this time.  As such, here are my own best albums (limited to 25 and only to new releases) of the year presented without comment for anyone’s interest or consideration.  See you all here in the new year, j

  1. Sturgill Simpson – A sailor’s guide to earth
  2. BJ Barham – Rockingham
  3. Miranda Lambert – the weight of these wings
  4. A Tribe Called Quest – We got it from here…thank you 4 your service
  5. Various Artists – Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here Symphonic
  6. Amanda Shires – My piece of land
  7. Mavis Staples – Living on a high note
  8. Against Me – Shape Shift with me
  9. Alicia Keys – Here
  10. Wilco – Schmilco
  11. Beyonce – Lemonade
  12. The Head and the Heart – Signs of Life
  13. Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered
  14. Nice as Fuck – Eponymous
  15. PJ Harvey – The hope six demolition party
  16. Usher – Hard II Love
  17. Lady Gaga – Joanne
  18. Garth Brooks – Gunslinger
  19. Norah Jones – Day Breaks
  20. Leonard Cohen – you want it darker
  21. KT Tunstall – KIN
  22. Lucinda Williams – the Ghosts of Highway 20
  23. Tegan and Sara – Love you to death
  24. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
  25. Metallica – Hard wired to self destruct
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Event Specific Playlists

In recent weeks, I have enjoyed a series of posts people have made in various corner of the internet sharing playlists they have created for processing the results of the recent U.S. Presidential election.  Roaming around online, I have seen such playlists show up from people on the left, people on the right, and moderates alike, and though the contents – not surprisingly – of the playlists differ greatly between these groups, each seeks to use music to make sense of the event and what may follow it.  I have also noticed quite a bit of variation between individuals’ – even with similar political and other demographic leanings and statuses – and enjoyed the varied ways people utilize different musical tastes to express similar points and reactions.  As someone who rarely spends much time at all without music playing nearby, I’ve really enjoyed both remembering songs I haven’t listened to in a while and even learning new ones to try while reading these shared and otherwise posted playlists.

At the same time, the amount of people sharing such lists following the U.S. Presidential election led me to start thinking about what I would call, for lack of a better term, event specific playlists and the roles such list might play in our emotional and cognitive processing and experiences.  I think about people I’ve seen post “wedding day playlists,” “final exam playlists,” “anniversary playlists” (related to various kinds of anniversaries), and a wide variety of other examples.  On my own computer every day, I have a “fiction” playlist that contains the main musical numbers I listened to when crafting each of my novels because sometimes I listen to them when I’m struggling with a story.  I’ve also seen people post playlists for various recreation activities, such as “Going to the River Songs” and “Girls Night Out Playlist” at times over the years.  I’ve also seen playlists posted online or shared between friends that remember specific things, people, places or events – “Songs that take me back to Georgia” or “Remembering Mama Playlist,” for examples.  In all such cases, people experience or process specific events in the life course with the use of songs that, at least for them, speak to those events.  Simply put, these playlists represent people’s attempts, best I can tell and I admit I do it to, to create soundtracks for their lives, emotions, and concerns.

Especially as I’ve been studying and becoming more active in arts-based research throughout this year, this strikes me as an interesting question that could be examined by interactionists focuses on relationships between music and society.  How do people narrate their lives through the use of songs and albums?  What playlists might people form to explain their reactions to varied life events like elections, graduations, breakups, first loves, and many other major moments?  What might we learn about the influence of art on identity and narrative creation, and what might we learn about broader patterns of narrative and identity creation from such studies?  What lessons might we learn about events and the ways people experience them by examining the playlists created by this or that group (and especially those shared widely) after such events?  I don’t know what the answers might be, but I think this could be an interesting line of inquiry.

Alongside the questions above, I think I’ll close this post by sharing some of the songs I have most often listened to following the recent election, and in so doing, potentially share some of the enjoyment I’ve gotten reading and thinking about the lists shared by others.  Alongside the songs listed below, I’ve found myself listening to a couple of complete albums fairly regularly in the last few weeks – “We got it from here…thank you for your service” by A Tribe Called Quest and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen.  Alongside those two albums, here are some of the other songs (I limited it to ten) I listen to these days when I think about the recent election:

American Skin (41 Shots) – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Transgender Dysphoria Blues – Against Me

Pray to Jesus – Brandy Clark

Don’t Die – Killer Mike

Crucify – Tori Amos 

Not Ready – Dixie Chicks 

Formation – Beyonce 

Bend before it Breaks – Brandi Carlile 

We’ve been had – Uncle Tupelo 

Inside Job – Pearl Jam 







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Writing Fuel

A few years ago, I had a nice conversation about writing habits with a colleague who cares very little for music except when she is writing. While she almost never listened to music at any other time, she noted how her writing process is intimately tied to the types of music – mostly jazz from the 70’s and 80’s – she plays while she works on this or that paper. As we were talking that day, another person sitting nearby admitted surprise that we could write while music was playing. This other person loved music, but could not concentrate on writing if it was playing nearby, and noted that the times where they were working on this or that composition were generally the quietest times in their home. As someone who generally has music playing at all times – or as much as possible – and has not – that I can recall – ever written anything without a soundtrack playing in the background, I found the variation in our three experiences fascinating and have often thought about them over the years.

In my own case, I’ve often referred to music as my writing fuel, or a source of energy, inspiration, and ideas I draw upon whenever I’m writing in any way. Though I’m relatively certain few other people would guess this, I can actually look at each of the articles, chapters, essays, short stories, books, newspaper pieces, and other published works throughout my career and remember exactly what songs or artists were dominating my stereos at the time of their composition, editing, and submissions. At present, for example, I’m writing this post while Brandi Carlile’s Give Up the Ghost plays on repeat from my laptop, and my part of my most recent co-authored journal article (forthcoming in Symbolic Interaction) was written almost entirely to the sounds of Amanda Shires Down Fell the Doves. I’ve never tried to pinpoint what, if any, explicit role these soundtracks play in my compositions, but at this point I honestly can’t imagine what writing without music playing would be like. However it actually works inside my head, music seems to be an integral part of my own experience of and ability to write.

I’ve found myself returning to the above conversation more and more this year as I expanded my writing efforts to the composition of sociologically informed novels. As I recently noted elsewhere, I decided to begin working in research-based fiction both in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream of publishing a novel, and as an attempt to translate sociological insights – and especially insights concerning marginalized groups often left out of mainstream scientific studies and data sets – for broader academic, student, and public audiences. In the process, however, I kept running into elements of the conversation above as I found myself arranging the stories I composed around particular songs that caught my attention, spoke to some element of the social issues contained within the work, and / or provided an organizing theme or feeling for the work. Even more so than the non-fiction writing I’ve done throughout my career, the music in each case served as an inspirational and organizational fuel for turning complex findings from various academic literatures into useful characters, plots and narrative arcs. As I completed my first four novels, and the contract for publishing the first one as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy, I found myself thinking about two questions I have been wondering about ever since that conversation years ago.

First, in what ways do other people use music as fuel for their writing, thinking, and other creative and academic endeavors? I automatically think about my life partner situating autoethnographic experiences within the contexts of storylines from some of their favorite bands and analyzing the emotions the combination of these data points reflect in their writing, analysis, and conceptualization. I also think about my colleague that writes to music, but only music without lyrics – even though he also likes music with lyrics outside of writing time – because while instrumental flourishes inspire his thought processes, lyrics will distract him from the same processes. I also think about the colleague that completes every writing project by dancing around to their favorite records whether or not they listen to those records while writing in the first place. I think about these and other examples, compare them to my own experience, and compare them to the people I met years ago. In so doing, I wonder about all the different ways music informs and / or becomes relevant in writing processes and rituals.

Second, and admittedly a curiosity I cannot really speak to myself, I wonder what other things serve as writing fuel for people. I wonder what other people draw on – consciously or unconsciously – when fashioning their own ideas. If not music, what is in the background of their writings, arguments, creations, and conceptualizations? I know, for example, friends who go to art galleries in search of ideas, and others who pull heavily from day-to-day interactions and conversations. I admit I pull from these arenas as well, but music is my primary background component in writing and that makes me wonder what, if anything, plays the same role for other writers. I have no clue what the answers might be, or even if people would be aware of the answers without reflecting on their writing habits for a bit, but I bet the question alone could tell each of us a lot about our writing selves and the influences that find voice within our own words.

J. Sumerau

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Start Again

As I noted in a previous post, my life partner and I went to once again feed my never ending desire to see the Counting Crows live as many times as possible back in July. During that particular show under the moonlight of a Tampa summer night, the band played a soft, haunting version of Start Again (a song they released on an album full of songs they covered by artists – like Teenage Fanclub, the band that originally did Start Again – they enjoyed). As I was listening to this version again a couple days ago when the recording of the show we ordered from the Counting Crows website arrived in the mail, it reminded me of the enthusiasm and joy I experience every time I come into contact with new music and especially newly acquired albums regardless of their ultimate quality in the long run.

While I was taking a little break from new posts here on the SSSI music blog, I spent a lot of time becoming acquainted with new – at least to me in each case – music as the summer shifted into fall. Although not exactly planned this time, the process began when I acquired a nice little gift card that allowed me to purchase nine records by a few artists I long wanted to give a more detailed or thorough listening. I spent the entire time I was in Seattle for this year’s SSSI, ASA, and ASR meetings roaming around the city listening to and honestly falling in love with Margo Price and Courtney Barnett and American Aquarium as well as a couple other new to me artists I became acquainted with at the time. When I arrived back home after the conferences, the process continued as two of my favorite artists – Wilco and Amanda Shires – released new studio albums to welcome me to the fall semester of classes. When the official bootleg recording of the latest Counting Crows show my life partner and I attended appeared in the mail earlier this week, I again began thinking about the ways I experience newly acquired musical stories.

For me, the experience of gaining new music – especially if it turns out to be something I really like or even love over time – never fails to elevate my moods, captivate my always on the edge of getting distracted by something else attention, and feel like a brand new adventure containing an infinite number of possibilities. I find myself wondering what major moment in my life will become associated with, for example, Margo Price’s “Four Years of Chances” or Amanda Shires’ “My Love – the Storm.” I find myself imagining, or trying to, what interesting papers I might write while Wilco’s “Happiness” or K Phillips’ “Hadrian” plays in the background. I consider what new friends might emerge from the introduction of some new album, like the latest one from the Head and the Heart, to a friend of mine unfamiliar with that band before now. Since I never write without music, I try to guess on first listen which of the new songs in the collection will end up on one my writing playlists or which new vinyl records will get the most play when I’m editing manuscripts over the years. Since my artistic, creative writing and storytelling always seems to be inspired by and often named after songs, I wonder which – if any – of the songs will do this work in my head, become titles of stories or poems or other creative endeavors, and / or provide a theme to unify a given story or poem I have yet to imagine.

Even though there are many cases (so many) where none of the new songs or records will be an answer to any of these questions, I always enjoy attempting, in every case of starting to listen to something different again, to envision what – if any – role the new pieces of art ringing in my ears will play in the context of my own life course and ongoing self and narrative constructions. It is with this in mind that I wonder how other people engage fresh forms of art – musically or otherwise – for themselves, with others, and in the context of the rest of the meaning making that makes up a given individual and collective life course. What might Interactionists learn from exploring these questions systematically, and what might any one of us learning from thinking about these questions next time we pick up another new piece of art and start again the process of integrating this new element into our own world?

J. Sumerau

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