Dramaturgical Guitars

Having both begun playing guitar about this time last year, in this post Xan Nowakowski and J. Sumerau collaboratively reflect on some ways people interpret and use guitars in ways that signify meaning about themselves, music, and the wider social world.

One of the things we have enjoyed most about learning to play guitar is learning about guitars themselves, and all the different ways musicians interpret these objects. How does a guitar become an iconic element of a musician’s act – and indeed, of their image beyond that act? How do people assign meaning to their guitars? In a dramaturgical sense, what does these objects signify to people using them and / or witnessing their use?

There is perhaps no more suitable case to start such a conversation than Willie Nelson’s undying, singular devotion to a specific guitar. Since the beginning of his career, Nelson has played his beloved Martin acoustic guitar “Trigger” to the exclusion of all other instruments. These days Trigger sports a large hole in the body and shows ample signs of wear, but Nelson plays it with all the affection of an eager beginner. An introvert by all accounts, Nelson finds comfort in familiar things, and most of all in his first guitar. In the electric world, a cartoon, Metalocalypse, offers a similar example. Dethklok lead guitarist Skwisgaar Skwigelf, whose parts are played in real life by show creator Brandon Small, is rarely seen without his trademark Gibson Explorer. Without the guitar, he becomes an awkward shell of himself, unsure of what to say or do.

Just as Trigger’s familiarity and reliability is a source of comfort for Nelson, dependability and consistency are also considerations for many other guitarists. Consider how many musicians, for example, rely on brand-name versions or licensed copies of the Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul. These two instrument lines have become industry standards in the world of electric music, just as Martin guitars remain iconic stalwarts of acoustic offerings around the globe. Indeed, many guitarists who prize function and a “known quantity” with their sound above all else return time and again to the Strat or the Paul.

Take Eric Clapton, for instance. Renowned as one of the world’s greatest guitarists in a wide variety of electric and acoustic styles, Clapton returns time and again to his two favorite guitars –both Fender Stratocasters. “Blackie” and “Brownie” are plain, standard-issue Strats with exactly the body colors their names suggest. Write Where It Hurts editor and SSSI Music guest contributor Xan Nowakowski often plays a pale silver Gaspar 3R, which is a licensed Stratocaster copy made by a local Tampa Bay company, and likewise loves its versatility and dependability with little excess. SSSI Music and Write Where It Hurts editor J Sumerau, however, prefers hir bright red Fender Starcaster, a less expensive modification of the Strat favored heavily by grunge musicians, for its durability and rugged sound.

Sentimental value is also a key consideration for many guitarists, not just people like Nelson who play a single instrument for their whole career. Some musicians gravitate towards instruments they idolized as children. Our Assistant Editor at Write Where It Hurts, Lain Mathers, knows a bit about this as ze recently gave hir young nephew a used Gibson SG for Christmas. Some of the most famous guitarists around have similar stories. Motley Crue multi-instrumentalist Nikki Sixx talks of longing for the Les Paul he saw through a shop window, and painstakingly saving enough money to buy it. An instrument acquired through hard work and careful planning can become an incredible symbol of perseverance for musicians – sign equipment indicating the ability to see a dream through to completion.

Guitars can also signify a variety of aesthetic preferences, both visually and auditorily. Folk-rock guitarist KT Tunstall creates an edgy yet glamorous image for herself with Fender Jaguar guitars decked out in every possible bit of sparkle and glitz. Tom Petty, master of all things strange and fantastical in his songwriting and music videos, favors eye-catching Rickenbacker models in bold colors. Blues legend Bonnie Raitt got noticed with a glittering blue Fender Stratocaster before blowing audiences away with her incredible technical proficiency. Metal guitarists like Lita Ford and Wendy O. Williams have delighted in instruments with an aggressive, harsh aesthetic to help show their toughness to audiences for a genre traditionally dominated by males.

Yet aesthetics seldom come at the expense of function. Indeed, Ford still favors one of the all-time classic instruments of heavy metal, a BC Rich Warlock Metal Master. Designed with input from Slayer guitarist Kerry King, one of the founding musicians of shred technique, the Warlock brings together the piercing wail of early specialized guitars for metal with the full-bodied sound one would expect from a blues or jazz guitar. Xan just recently purchased a Warlock at a steep discount when a shop was getting ready to discard it because of a damaged headstock.

Xan’s Warlock is an example of how the story behind a guitar can become part of a guitarist’s own story – their character arc in the grand play of life. In Xan’s case, they restored the Warlock using tools they had at home and got it looking just about perfect, without ever having to pay anything close to list price. If you know Xan in person, you know they love few things so much as do-it-yourself projects and getting a good deal. Being able to share an instrument with the likes of Ford, King, and Overkill multi-instrumentalist DD Verni is also a selling point, of course. A guitarist often fashions themselves in the image of musicians whose styles they wish to emulate; this can apply to the visual presentation of self as much as the auditory.

Repairing a damaged headstock is also small potatoes in the world of what some guitarists will do to craft their signature image and sound. Keith Richards, for example, has long been known for removing strings from his Fender Telecasters – he favors a partial-hollowbody sunburst model from 1972 just like the one J plays out on zir front porch some nights. Removing one of the E strings allows Richards more control over his sound, and a way to conceal the amount of functional limitation he lives with in his hands due to nerve damage from years of heroin use. Richards is an icon for both Xan and J, albeit for different reasons. You would not find Xan playing something as heavy as J’s ’72 Telecaster, nor would you find J constantly exploring the possibilities of rhythm guitar. But we both appreciate Richards’s stripped-down, back-to-basics approach as well as his outspoken opinions on the importance of studying and celebrating classic blues and jazz artists’ who often received little mainstream credit or recognition, as well as honing in on technique by practicing without tons of amplifier or pedal effects.

A guitarist’s body and their instrument may become one in many ways, but the guitar also becomes a way to extend the body and make it either larger than life or small and contained. Former Guns n’ Roses guitarist Slash, a physically smaller person who often felt very uncomfortable being in the spotlight, cultivates his iconic look with classic Les Paul models that offer big sound without a large body. By contrast, a larger musician like Blues Traveler frontman John Popper or Heart bass guitarist Ann Wilson may load themselves up with big instruments and gear as a way of negotiating judgments passed on their bodies, and reaping some of the benefits of conforming more to expected norms of physicality.

We see these patterns in our own playing too. Xan personally loves the Warlock not only for how powerful it sounds, but also for how fierce it looks – a tough mask on a body often perceived as fragile from a lifetime of chronic gastrointestinal inflammation’s inevitable consequences. It is small and light as guitars go, but potent in its sound and vicious in its image. Likewise, their steel-string acoustic Yamaha folk guitar is small in size but big in volume, producing an experience more akin to playing electric with a warm, rich vibrato unique to acoustic instruments. J, who has a very different set of aesthetic preferences in presenting hirself, likes any guitar that looks old even if it is brand-new, a Fender T-Bucket acoustic being the latest addition. It looks well-loved and shopworn, a bit like J hirself and everything else about the image ze presents – comfortable, approachable, lived-in, experienced, a bit rough around the edges but soft beneath the surface. Whereas Xan wants their guitars to tell the world they are bigger than their body gives them credit for, as singer-songwriter John Mayer once put it, J communicates a sense of approachability and gentleness to contextualize hir big and tough physical appearance.

The things guitars can signify about a musician are endless. Def Leppard bass guitarist Rick Savage is famous for playing Fender Jazzmasters emblazoned with Union Jack flags, embracing their British nationality and culture. Pioneering guitarist Jimi Hendrix took the world by storm, changing the very face of electric guitar on the wings of his trusty black and white Stratocasters – a nod, perhaps, to the racial politics of his peek career years. Cabaret musician Aurelio Voltaire pushes mariachi guitars to their limits, his Cuban heritage embraced and extended by experimentation with traditional Mexican and Central American genres as well as the classical techniques of his ancestors’ homeland. Guitars can also symbolize sexuality in a variety of ways, whether by how one moves their body while playing or by the incorporation of sound and design elements traditionally regarded as masculine, feminine, or androgynous. Queer musicians Melissa Ethridge, KD Lang, and the late Freddie Mercury offer excellent examples.

Decorating one’s guitar can also provide a means of expressing political beliefs. Some queer musicians have decked their instruments out in rainbow or pastel colors in support of LGBTQ rights. Others musicians have added explicitly political statements in text. Perhaps the most infamous example is Woody Guthrie’s “this machine kills fascists” in felt-tip marker on the body of his folk guitar, a message that modern guitarists like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (sidetone this link takes you to a space to download the new Wilco record for free) have embraced and incorporated into their own music in various ways. Tweedy’s bandmate Nels Cline, by contrast, focuses almost exclusively on sound with little consideration for image or message. Cline plays a broad range of styles, from jazz and blues to classic rock and metal.

Indeed, guitars can symbolize prized elements of music itself for an artist. Cline illustrates handily how musical influences are a common theme in many guitarists’ choices of instruments, playing everything from Dobro resonators to Jaguar jazz electrics. Alice Cooper touring guitarist Nita Strauss plays a series of Stratocaster copies made by Ibanez, an unmistakable nod to Iron Maiden guitarists Bruce Dickinson and Steve Harris, whose music she regularly reproduces with fellow members of the all-female “Iron Maidens” tribute band.

Strauss and her Iron Maidens counterparts also suggest how guitars can become memorable signifiers of an artist’s proficiency, not just as a nod to one’s idols but also as indicators of how one has achieved and even exceeded those high standards. Eddie Van Halen, for example, regularly plays two-necked guitars, as does Alex Lifeson of Rush, both regarded to be all-time greats of the hard rock genre. Shred virtuoso Michael Angelo Batio takes this form of sign equipment to another level by regularly playing guitars with four necks, arranged in a massive “X” shape. Watching Batio play is a surreal experience that quickly drives home why he consistently tops lists of the world’s fastest and most proficient guitarists.

In fact, the potential of signification contained within guitars is likely only matched by the variation in the sounds they can produce in different people’s hands. Take, for example, the iconic ingenuity and pure genius of a black Les Paul in the hands of B.B. King, and you find a series of instruments capable of simultaneously becoming trademarks of an artists’ appearance, generators of vast mythologies concerning their names, origins, and the stories they could tell, and facilitators of some of the most fascinating guitar licks many people have ever heard in person or on a stereo. In much the same way a guitar may produce any of an infinite possibility of sounds in the right hands, it may just as easily produce, signify, or contain any of an infinite possibility of meanings tied to the experiences, emotions, and tastes of a given artist.

Here we have explored how guitars can become sign equipment for the musicians who play them and the audiences who listen to them. Guitar accounts for the vast majority of our own time playing music, and occupies a special place in our hearts because of the ways in which it has enriched our intimate relationship with one another and our own individual processes of coping with trauma. That said, interactionists could easily extend this framework to other types of instruments as well. Think about your favorite musicians and how they present themselves through their instruments and the accessories that accompany them. What do you notice that catches your eyes and ears? What kind of stories – about them, about the world, about the audience – do these objects generate? In short, what do guitars mean to and for the people who use them, listen to them, look at them, or otherwise interact with them?

Posted in Discussion, Dramaturgy, Guest Post, Music, music sssi, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Investigating Musical Aesthetics

Earlier this week, I spent some time reading an interesting new article (available now on early view) about the aesthetics of everyday life in relation to beauty, art, and fashion.  As I read about the various ways the respondents interpreted beauty in their daily lives, I found myself wondering what makes a given musical offering beautiful?  How do people interpret musical offerings in relation to social locations and identities?  What would analyses of musical aesthetics reveal about what people find meaningful and influential in their own lives?  How do people talk about such things in daily life?

While I could go in any of a million hypothesized directions with this question, what kept rolling around my head were the ways people respond to different voices and the ways social location might influence musical “tastes.”  As a result, I think I’ll offer some examples of such variation in hopes of facilitating reflection about the aesthetics of music and what such an area of inquiry might involve or reveal.

When I think about voices, I always automatically remember the countless conversations I have with people about Bob Dylan.  Unlike so many people I have met in my life time, I am of the opinion that Dylan is an amazing singer – I love his voice, his vocal delivery, and his phrasing more than I can put into words (my favorite Dylan track is the one above).  I could listen to him sing for hours on end, and have done so many times – in fact, I spent a large part of last summer listening to nothing but Dylan to celebrate finally having copies of all his releases to date.  For me, Dylan’s voice is beautiful, and I automatically feel a positive response whenever I hear it.

I have, however, regularly learned that many other people do not hear the same beauty when Dylan sings.  Rather, people have literally told me they think Dylan has the worst voice ever recorded, and I know many others who only listen to Dylan songs when they are recorded by someone else (see above for one of the many examples over the last few decades).  Similar to other cases of taste, we are simultaneously listening to the same thing and something very different whenever Dylan sings.  How would we explain such variation?  How do different people hear varied sounds (or interpret sounds in varied ways) when listening to the same voice or even the same song?  Where do these “tastes” or “aesthetic preferences” come from?

I can actually flip this example very easily in my own case by turning to the work of Billie Joe Armstrong.  The lead singer of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong is an incredibly celebrated singer and songwriter whose work has found international and critical acclaim – but I can’t listen to him.  Don’t get me wrong, I actually wish I could listen to him both because I can often relate to his lyrics, and because when I was younger (like others I know) I idolized him as one of the few openly bisexual celebrities I could find.  But, I just can’t do it.  His voice is like nails on a chalkboard to me, and even testing the video example posted above was painful for me.  While his voice is poison for me, many others love his vocals and can listen to him on repeat with tremendous pleasure.  I, however, echo my companions who cannot stand Dylan’s voice by turning instead to other people’s renditions of Armstrong’s songs like the one posted below (which is the Broadway version of the one posted above).

This variation becomes even more intriguing if we look at the ways people respond to different types of musical offerings.  When people say they “don’t like the sound” of hip hop, country, rock n roll, soul or any other form, what is the “sound” they are referring to? When people say that “sounds like” a soul ballad, a pop song, a rap song, or some other variant, what does it “sound like” to them exactly?  When people, say a certain song or style reminds them of “the sound” of the Beatles, Texas Music, or 2pac, what is the “sound” and how do they connect it to the references they offer?  Similar to music scenes or genre boundaries, it appears people “hear” varied things in the same offerings, what could we learn by asking for these meanings and then comparing and contrasting them systematically?  When songs blend elements of varied “sounds,” what do people “hear” and how do people define them in relation to existing categories (for example, does the following example sound like hip hop, rock n roll, pop, or all of the above to you)?

Another component of such variation likely comes from the assumptions and social locations of the listener.  When people talk about not “liking the sound” of female identified singers or “black music,” they are offering generalizations about music based at least as much on their interpretations of social groups as the sounds themselves.  An interesting line of research could be developed concerning the racial, gender, class-based, and sexual musical interpretations and preferences of listeners (see here for an example of one form such work could take in relation to gender race and class).  Considering that I’ve yet to find a type of music that only one race, class, gender, or sexuality performs and / or listens to, this could reveal interesting nuances about how we interpret songs and develop or make sense of “tastes.”

I noticed an example of this type of aesthetic meaning making while sitting outside a coffee shop a few towns north of where I live a couple days ago.  As I searched the map on my computer for record stores near my location (something I do everywhere I go), a couple of female appearing people sat down and started discussing an incident with one of their children wherein the teenage child was listening to “gay music” that worried the parent.  The other person, likely trying to comfort the parent, noted how they both listened to “black music” when they were kids because it was cool and their parents did not like it.

I must admit that while I was listening I attempted to figure out what was “gay music” (and, in their minds, “black music” for that matter) – I thought of fringe options from Queercore to mainstream acts like Elton John that were called “gay music” when I was younger.  However, I was actually quite surprised when the parent revealed (showing the friend the “gay music” compact disc) that she was talking about Brandy Clark.  I happen to be a big fan of Brandy Clark myself (I honestly think she may be one of the best songwriters currently active s0 I highly recommend her debut album 12 Stories), but I’m not sure what about her music itself is “gay” other than the fact that she identifies as a lesbian woman.  In fact, I think most people would call her music folk, Americana, or simply country music (the videos above and below these two paragraphs are the most popular Brandy Clark songs to date (other than those she’s written for other artists), see for yourself how you would categorize these songs in terms of genre, taste, and / or style).  It appeared that for the parent in question, Brandy Clark’s sexual identity defined her music above all else, which is eerily similar to how I remember Elton John being defined as “gay music” when I younger.

While I could likely offer a multitude of examples of the ways people’s social locations and assumptions about the world facilitate their aesthetic tastes and preferences in relation to music, the central point echoes the questions posed above about variance in the interpretation of voices.  How do such tastes develop?  How do people make sense of their own musical tastes?  What might answers to these types of questions reveal about the social nature of music consumption and definition?  What might answers to these types of questions reveal about music scene selection or wider patterns of activity?  I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions at present, but I believe they might provide an intriguing opportunity to investigate musical aesthetics on individual, interactional, and cultural levels of social organization.

J. Sumerau

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

Making Sense of Concerts

It is late on a Friday night in a darkened room in the back of a bar where people stand packed together as the sounds of guitars, bass, and drum kits radiate through the room. The third band – the headliner tonight visiting their home town to close off another round of touring – holds the stage singing about emotional turmoil, interpersonal struggles, and, according to NPR though not according to the singer-songwriter herself, about romantic breakups. The lead singer holds her bass to the sky, and screams into the night as people cheer periodically and a couple of them dance just a little bit. The crowd appears to be mostly white people between the ages of 20 and 40 dressed casually. There is, however, a small contingent of African-American and Hispanic people in the audience as well. Most people seem to be either alone or with friends in groups, but a few appear to be with romantic partners of different and same sexes. The instrumentals are intricate, but the power of the singer’s voice overshadows everything else in this space – she manages to somehow invoke a feeling of Royal Thunder in her delivery.

It is in the middle of a Saturday afternoon just outside a store called Criminal Records, which is packed with shoppers in search of their favored sounds and souvenirs, when an impromptu performance begins on the sidewalk. A young man with a guitar that has seen better days begins to play at little louder than necessary while kind of singing but kind of yelling some lyrics from what appear to be randomly selected James Taylor songs. We walk past this spectacle on the way around the corner, but when we return it has transformed into a collective – the young man has been joined by two young women playing bongos, another young man playing a saxophone, and a young woman roaming the sidewalk showing off one then two guitars to passersby like ourselves. The crowd as well as the passersby defy racial categorization in a general sense – I count what appear to be at least twelve different potential ethnicities on the sidewalk based on visual cues. Ages, gender presentations, and other cultural cues are equally varied, but most people stop – if for a second or for longer – to witness the spectacle.

It is early on a Saturday evening, and the sun has not quite departed the sky for the night as we stroll through a working class neighborhood. As we walk by booths selling assorted foods, jewelry, clothing, and music, a band plays jazz fusion soul music in the park nearby and an older African American gentleman hosts a bit of a dance party at his booth accompanied by classic soul compact discs playing on a tiny stereo. The jazz fusion band starts a rendition of James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” as we leave the street and begin to roam through the carnival at the edge of the park where children enjoy rides and families share meals. The crowd appears to be mostly African-American people, but varies in age from toddlers to seniors. There is, however, a small contingent of white, Hispanic, and Middle-Eastern people roaming around the carnival as well. Most people seem to be in groups or families, but there are some singles and pairs roaming around. The music is beautiful and fits the jovial mood of the carnival while seeming to capture the anticipation of all the people gathered around waiting for the darkening sky to be reignited by fireworks that will ultimately begin earlier than expected.

In all three of the aforementioned examples, I found myself surrounded by music this past weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. As I thought about these experiences upon arriving home a few days later, I began to wonder about the social construction and interpretation of concerts. While the first example was an official concert – we bought tickets and everything, we even got a poster from the show for the price of a cigarette – the other two events were no less public music performances, but were not explicitly advertised as or limited to concert events. In fact, I’m guessing that in much the same way I could make the argument that all three events were concerts someone else could easily argue that they were three separate types of events. As a result, I began to wonder what social characteristics define a concert?

If, for example, we define a concert as a public musical performance one purchases a ticket to see, then the first one is the only concert. If, however, we define a concert as any public music performance for an audience, then all three become concerts. Then again, if we define a concert as a public musical performance wherein people dance, then the second and third examples would be more concert like than the first, but if we define a concert as a public musical performance by a known or named musical act, then again only the first one would count – though I would actually like to know the name (if they have one) of the fusion band because they were incredible. As other interactionists have asked, I wonder how do people define concerts? What public or private musical performances count and which ones do not count? What might it say about people’s musical tastes, interpersonal interpretations, or understandings of music scenes if we began to examine these questions systematically?

I can’t say that I have answers to the above questions in a general sense (though I would recommend the linked studies since each one suggests some possible answers to build upon), but personally I think I generally consider any public musical performance a type of concert. Some are impromptu, but others are planned. Some are free, but others cost money. Some have multiple acts, but others are simple one act. Some sell merchandise, but others do not. Some have rather diverse crowds, but others do not. Some are advertised, but others are not. For me, the key characteristic of a concert is simply that I may witness the performance whether or not I know the performers personally.

Not surprisingly, this line of thought next led me to think about how people define “good” concert experiences. What makes a concert good or bad? What elements of the musical performance, structure of the setting, content of the performance, or other effects lead one to feel that a concert was a “positive experience”? Does it have to do with prior knowledge of the act, type of music, previous exposure to the sounds, or something else that hasn’t yet crossed my mind – what makes a good concert?

Once again, I can’t pretend to possess any generalizable answers to these questions, but I do realize there are things about concerts that make them better or worse for me. First and foremost, the sound is the most important thing to me – do I enjoy what I hear, if so, that is a good concert. Second, maybe because I listen to so much music on my own, I want to be entertained and thus I’m more likely to enjoy Alice Cooper (all the props and costumes add to the songs), the Counting Crows (the way they change the lyrics to their songs while on stage), Neko Case (the way she reinvents instrumentals and vocal ranges on the spot), or other performers who do not simply sing the songs I could listen to on the radio or some record. Third, though others might not think of this aspect, I find that whether or not a venue has seats plays a large role in my level of enjoyment of a show. I have a chronic leg condition so standing for long periods of time is not very easy on my best days, and thus concerts where I can sit down – even if only for a few minutes here and there – are ultimately better shows in my opinion. Finally, I’ve realized over time that who – if anyone – I attend a concert with will influence my impression of the experience in dramatic ways (even my favorite artists, for example, have appeared to offer better concerts when my life partner has accompanied me).

All the aforementioned questions lead me to wonder what a symbolic interactionist approach to concerts might involve or look like or reveal about society. While I’ve linked a few studies above (and there are more available) that begin developing such an approach, I wonder what further inquiry building on these studies and observations of varied types of musical performances might tell us.  What counts as a concert to people from varied backgrounds and experiences? What defines a good versus a bad concert experience? What could the concert preferences, interpretations, and behaviors of people tell us about their interpretations and interactions with music, with social settings, or with society as a whole.

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, concerts, Discussion, Music, music sssi, Reflection, SSSI | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

SSSI Notes 2015 Vol.44/1 is out – #sssi

Download the latest issue of SSSI Notes, the Society’s Newsletter by clicking on the image below:


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Didn’t We Meet: The Many Masks of Alice Cooper

Dr. Xan Nowakowski is research faculty at the Florida State University College of Medicine, and adjunct faculty in Sociology. Their research and teaching focus on the experience and management of chronic health conditions, their causes, and their consequences. In this guest post, Dr. Nowakowski reflects on the music of Alice Cooper in relation to processes of identity work throughout the life course.

Paint on my cruel or happy face, and hide me behind it. It takes me inside another place, where no one can find it” (“Escape”).

What is more central to symbolic interactionism than the concept of wearing masks? Erving Goffman, who pioneered a dramaturgical approach to interactionist scholarship, described masks and their importance in some of his earliest works. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life illustrates how and why we wear masks, and deconstructs misconceptions about the relationships of our masks to our identities. In the process, Goffman offers a great paradigm for exploring the dramaturgical work done by professional performers, who may wear masks not only figuratively (“Remarkably Insincere”) but also literally (“Zorro’s Ascent”) when appearing onstage.

Come on and tell me, tell me. It’s really up to you. Have you got the time to find out who I really am” (“Is It My Body”).

Last week on the Write Where It Hurts blog, I shared a detailed reflection on how the music of Alice Cooper has helped me to understand and negotiate my own experiences with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), both during and after my time with active DID. Since my reintegration in August of 2014, I have often turned to Alice’s music for comfort and inspiration. Staying integrated has not always been easy, but it has become much more so with time and progress. Alice’s music has been instrumental in my journey, both as assurance that one need not present only one face to the world (“He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask)”), and as proof positive that one can be multiple people inside of an integrated whole (“Triggerman”).

“I watch the bus as it pulls out of view. Someday, like that bus, I will be leaving too. But you know it breaks my heart to leave you, Camelback, my high school” (“Alma Mater”).

As a sociologist, I had already been exposed to this idea, starting with Dr. Priscilla Ferguson’s Sociology of Everyday Life course during my senior year at Columbia. If you are doing interactionist analysis on my post itself, you might consider the use of my university’s name to be a form of sign equipment, signifying the identity I wish to communicate in this context. This would be a correct interpretation—I never left academia, and my identity as a university professor is quite fundamental to my overall self-concept. However, it would also be an incomplete one. My primary goal in mentioning Columbia here is to conjure up visions of New York City, a wonderful stage with diverse players who invite detailed interactionist critique. It would not be a stretch to describe New York City as a carnival of masks.

“You showed me your paradise and your carnival of souls, but my heart keeps telling me that ain’t the place to go” (“Stolen Prayer”).

 Alice frequently uses circus and carnival metaphors in his music, describing the performance aspects of life and selfhood as well as the chaos and excitement of performance-oriented social spaces (“Sideshow”). He also cites New York City as an inspiration for both his music and his identity work, dating back to the earliest days of his career (“Big Apple Dreaming (Hippo)”). Indeed, Alice often uses the tangible hustle and bustle of Manhattan as a metaphor for the intangible pandemonium of negotiating the competing expectations of others  and resolving cognitive dissonance. He reflects on how people have simultaneously cheered for the villainous identity he presents on stage, but shunned that same persona in his life offstage (“From the Inside”).

“I’m a gambler and I’m a runner, but you knew that when you lay down. I’m a picture of ugly stories. I’m a killer and I’m a clown” (“Desperado”).

This role conflict quickly led to engulfment as Alice felt more and more pressured to adopt his stage persona as the sum total of his identity (“Hard Hearted Alice”). This played a role in his decision to change his name legally, becoming Alice Cooper in a more comprehensive way that made him increasingly bound to his onstage self. The dissolution of the original Alice Cooper group, the five-member band with which Alice’s performance career began and continued through the release of 1974’s Muscle of Love, also contributed to this shift in Alice’s presentation of self. Whereas he had previously felt a degree of role entrapment as a band leader (“Teenage Lament ’74″), Alice now felt increasingly isolated within an identity framework that had begun to consume him (“Crazy Little Child”).

“I squeeze the love out of your soul, all the perfect love that’s in your soul. You’re just another spirit on parole” (“Devil’s Food”).

He sought respite in the escapist fantasies of his music (“Escape”) and specifically in the world of dreams (“Welcome to My Nightmare”) in which he could take on literally any identity and transition seamlessly between different states of being (“Devil’s Food”). He describes this process as an empowering one (“Department of Youth”), but also one that traps him in a perpetual adolescence (“Steven”) that both he and his character would later outgrow.

“From your birth until your final breath, I’m proud to say you finally entertained yourself to death” (“The Congregation”).

Alice’s own reflections on this growth are evident in his interviews about writing and recording Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the long-awaited follow-up to his debut solo effort from 1975. The sequel to Welcome to My Nightmare reflects an older, wiser Alice who relates differently to his own pain (“Caffeine”) and feels more confident in his ability to overcome challenges (“What Baby Wants”). This represents a dramatic shift from his mid-1970s feelings of just wanting a break from himself, even if getting one requires measures as extreme as temporarily visiting hell (“Give the Kid a Break”). Whereas the younger Alice internalized pressures to restrict his entire being to the increasingly suffocating confines of his stage persona (“Serious”), the older Alice handles the challenge of reconciling his two selves with wry humor (“Ghouls Gone Wild”) and even expresses the desire to be remembered as an integrated person capable of love and empathy (“Something to Remember Me By”).

“I got no friends ‘cause they read the papers and can’t be seen with me. And I’m feeling real shot down, and I’m getting mean” (“No More Mister Nice Guy”).

As his struggles with alcohol abuse intensified, Alice began to experience significant stigma in his broader social world. His own acute awareness of these shifts—and more specifically, of the consequences of his drinking for his loved ones—is painfully apparent in his music from this time period (“Only Women Bleed”). The agony Alice felt over not being able to connect fully with his partner, and later his children, appears with increasing pathos in his music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His cycling into and out of rehabilitation brings exploration of his most disparate masks—at once triumphant conqueror and fragile victim (“Roses on White Lace”), always hopeful but ultimately brought to his knees by forces he still sees as beyond his control (“Life and Death of the Party”).

“Sometimes my world goes upside down; sometimes I see things backwards. When I go walking in town, I can’t get back home. Sometimes I see things right to left” (“Dyslexia”).

In his work from the mid 1980s and his later reflections on that time period, Alice clearly struggles with competing expectations that he either exit the sick role and its associated deviance or embrace the identity of an insane, addicted person and behave accordingly. His inchoate feelings never fully resolve (“Hurricane Years”), leaving him stuck in a limbo where his choices are always constrained and never really feel like his own (“Steal That Car”). His vacillation between masculine (“The World Needs Guts”) and feminine (“Gail”) means of presenting himself through his music and stagecraft illustrates this tension, sometimes within the space of a single song (“Prettiest Cop on the Block”). A perpetual war rages within him, making him feel completely alienated from all possible incarnations of himself as well as everyone he loves.

“I’m just no good without it; I’m not a man at all. It makes my skin crawl. Baby, baby, come on and save me” (“Some Folks”).

Even Alice’s early work reflects a pervasive frustration with others’ lack of understanding of his multifaceted identity (“Be My Lover”) and this pattern continues in his 1980s albums. It is thus unsurprising that as he and his career have matured, Alice increasingly sings about the preciousness of those people in his life who have been able to embrace him as a complete person, with flaws and strengths in equal measure (“How You Gonna See Me Now”). His albums from the late 1980s onward—the time period for which he has remained actively in recovery from alcoholism—reflects active affirmation of an integrated self. Sometimes Alice uses humor to negotiate the stark contrasts between his onstage and offstage selves (“Feed My Frankenstein”) and sometimes explores the darkness of this contrast and his lingering awareness of how easy it can be to get sucked in (“Fantasy Man”).

“Just want to be myself again, and find my way out of this iniquitous den. I ain’t having fun and I ain’t making friends. I don’t want to know how this nightmare ends” (“I Gotta Get Outta Here”).

Listening to Alice’s most recent albums reflects his robust awareness that it is possible to wear many masks, both literally and figuratively, and be an integrated person all at once (“Perfect”). He has become a living, breathing embodiment of Goffman’s assertion that each of the masks we wear represents an equally real identity, to the extent that we may actually feel as if we become completely different people as our definition of the situation changes. Both within and outside of his art, Alice explores the diversity of self-presentation that is possible within the context of integrated selfhood. He also reflects on the tragedy of people who occupy marginalized social locations not being affirmed in their pursuit of an integrated public identity (“The Saga of Jesse Jane”).

“You’re your own worst enemy. You’re a walking catastrophe. You’re at war with yourself and nobody else. You’re a danger” (“Your Own Worst Enemy”).

Indeed, Alice calls for a more empowering approach to selfhood (“Run Down the Devil”) that embraces the multiple facets of people’s identities, favoring creativity and exploration over labeling and stigmatization. He articulates contemporary interactionist perspectives on mental health, noting that framing illness and addiction as master statuses often produce the counterproductive result of reinforcing the etiology of these conditions. His most recent album features a self-confident, self-efficacious Alice who is capable of receiving social support from people who affirm him while rejecting people who seek to limit his modes of self-expression, instead of doing the reverse as in earlier times (“The One That Got Away”). He articulates a sense of mastery of his masks, literally becoming the ringmaster in his own circus.

“In my heart, in my soul, something new that’s very old. Like a pain that’s finally gone, I feel my heavy burden lifted” (“Salvation”).

His 1995 album The Last Temptation explicitly operationalizes this triumph. Alice notes that integration has not come easily (“Unholy War”) or without tremendous personal costs (“Nothing’s Free”). He cautions that the temptation to dissociate and vanish into darkness always teases at the edges of his consciousness (“You’re My Temptation”). But he concludes with songs of victory and celebration, affirming that it has been worthwhile in order to achieve healthy relationships (“It’s Me”) and freedom from inner torment (“Cleansed by Fire”). Alice has moved from suffocating within the confines of his masks to displaying them proudly for all to see, transitioning between them with ease in situations with different definitions. He is different people when performing onstage, golfing for charity, taking private moments for prayer and contemplation, vacationing with his family, visiting his restaurant, recording his nightly radio show, meeting fans, writing new music, and reaching out to others struggling with addiction. And yet, he is always the same.

“And when I wake up on a dreary Sunday morning, I open up my eyes to find there’s rain. And something strange within said “Go and find her. Just close your eyes, yeah just close your eyes and she’ll be there” (“Pretty Ballerina”).

Discovering myself—and indeed, embracing all of the diverse masks that I can wear within that integrated framework—has sometimes felt extremely isolating (“Last Man on Earth”) and lonely even when other people were around to offer support (“Is Anyone Home”). But knowing that Alice went through a similar process and experienced similar feelings (“Bad Place Alone”) for many years before coming out on top (“We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) gives me comfort and perspective. I have learned much from the identity work he describes in his music—both the challenges (“Cold Machines”) and the triumphs (“Freedom”). I have found equal inspiration in his frankness about support from others making a tremendous difference for him, and his simultaneous acknowledgement that ultimately the choice to recover is a deeply personal one (“I Am Made of You”). And like Alice, I begin every day with the hope that things will continue to get better, even at times where the struggle feels futile (“I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”). Slowly but surely, I am finding that the masks I wear feel less like straightjackets (“The Ballad of Dwight Fry”) and more like costumes.

All I wanted, all I needed, was someone to rescue me. I was drowning; I was dying. Now I’m free (“I Am Made of You”).

Xan Nowakowski

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Dramaturgy, Guest Post, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, Pain, Reflection, Xan Nowakowski | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Interpreting Record Store Content and Experience

As I noted in my first blog post, one of my favorite things to do is roam around and dig through the shelves and bins of record stores.  In this regard, I am quite lucky to have many such places within a short drive of my home (and I’m not counting places like Target or Best Buy that have maybe one row of compact discs in store that sells all kinds of other things, but rather only stores where records are the primary thing they sell), and I take full advantage of this luck by rarely going a week without visiting at least 1 – 3 record stores whether or not I purchase anything on a given visit. This past weekend, however, I dug through the bins of one such store for the last time, and the experience led me to reflect on record stores I have visited across the United States over time.

I did not actually know ahead of time that the record store I visited Saturday was closing the following day. In fact, it had been months since I had taken the 45-minute drive that brought me to its door nestled amidst other shops within a flea market the size of a couple football fields. When I arrived, however, I found signs noting the closing of the store the following day, and a sale taking place all weekend. Having recently received some free cash for helping out a friend, I was happy for the sale – I left with a large bag full of compact discs spanning eight different genres without spending much at all – but I was sad to see the place closing because (as I thought casually at the time) it was the best spot in the area for finding used records by female-identified artists.

As I drove away from the place for likely the last time (i.e., I have no other reason to visit that particular flea market), I thought about my own apparent sorting process (i.e., this was the place near my home for best selection of used records by female-identified artists), and began to reflect upon what (if any) interpretive sorting I had done with other stores I regularly visit. It didn’t take me long to realize I associated other stores in the area (as well as stores across the country) with specific contents, meanings, and desires – here are some examples from the stores near my home that I visit most often:

  • There is the one with the best selection of new vinyl right across the street from a comfortable coffee shop.
  • There is the one where there never seems to be a line even on Record Store Day, which often has a tremendous supply of music from the 1990’s.
  • There is the one where they often have obscure and hard to find releases for only a dollar or two (sometimes even new releases).
  • There is the one I can barely walk through because junk is thrown everywhere (I’m not overstating here), but it has the largest metal and only Goth section I’ve seen in the area.
  • There is the one (well three locations actually) that has the largest organized (i.e., easy to sort and look for specific things) used compact disc collection I’ve seen in the country to date (especially if, like me, you combine the three locations by visiting each one in the same day).
  • There is the one (also in a flea market like the one that just closed) that has an interesting ever-changing selection of compact discs and records (often initially released independently or through limited runs or from less well known genres like Texas Music or Queer-Core) for very low prices as if they are easy to find anywhere (for the record, they are not).
  • There is the one I likely go to the most, but shop at the least because they rarely have things I want or need in my collection, but they have great coffee and are located next door to one of my favorite restaurants.
  • There is the one that is smaller than my office at work that just seems so cute, but I hear it might be closing soon.
  • There is the one in the back of a pipe (i.e., for tobacco of course, ignore the Grateful Dead posters, nothing to see here) shop that I go to (despite the horrid smell of the place) because they often have the best selection of box sets.
  • There is the corporate one that I rarely go to because when I’m in other cities corporate options are often all I have to choose from, and I’ve noticed they don’t change much from place to place (i.e., an FYE or Second & Charles in Louisiana is basically the same as one in Georgia and so on). Also, corporate stores often want more for their used compact discs than I am willing to pay.
  • There is the one with the largest selection of rare releases and new used (i.e., from recent years, but used and thus cheaper) vinyl in the area.
  • And finally, there is my (self described) favorite record store in the world, which has a little bit of everything I’ve just noted about all the others as well as a budget (i.e., very, very cheap) section full of compact discs that is actually larger than some of the other stores noted above. It also has a separate location full of more vinyl than any one person could likely listen to in a lifetime.

For lack of a better term (is there one?), I think of this as interpretive sorting wherein I sort musical spaces I enjoy based on the elements of each place that make it distinct. I found myself wondering if other people do this in relation to, for example, record stores, other types of musical businesses, concert venues, or other types of space. What speaks to the person about a specific musical space, and what might such interpretation tell us about music, fans of music, and other aspects of musical experience and content?

As I thought about these things, I also found myself remembering Joseph Kotarba’s work on music scenes and on the meaning of specific types of music to specific populations. In terms of specific types of meaning, I found myself returning to my prior posts on genres and radio stations because I have noticed genres rarely contain all the same things in each store. In some stores, for example, an artist will be in the country section (take Jason Isbell or Neko Case for example), but in others in the Rock or Folk section (same thing with Rock versus Pop versus Hip Hop (i.e., I’ve seen Prince in all three in various parts of the country). Similarly, some stores are arranged purely alphabetically, but others are broken down explicitly into genres. I tend to prefer the alphabetical method, but I’m guessing others like the genre method and I have no clue how or why stores do one or the other. Further, some stores sort by generation wherein Rock, Pop, Country, Hip Hop, Metal and Pop are only post 1980 releases whereas earlier releases of similar music will be in Classic Rock, Americana, Soul, Vocal, Folk, or some other area. It makes me wonder where people draw the lines in time that separate, for example, classic rock from rock, and why this is done in the first place.

In relation to music scenes (and other places people get their music), I began to wonder if the record store could be conceptualized as a music scene. One thing I’ve noticed (likely because of how often I go to record stores) is that they often change in terms of arrangement, often cater to very different demographics and tastes, often price their merchandise in varied ways that appear to have no discernable order (i.e., the same record is 1 dollar at one place, 3 dollars at another place, and 10 dollars at another place), and often host musical performances at specific times during the year. Since these same provisions are often integral parts of music scenes and subcultures, could record stores represent music scenes in and of themselves? If so, what would ethnographic studies of these places reveal?

I could offer plenty of other examples, but the point I’m getting at here is that it appears the organization of a record store may tell a story of some sort. Maybe the story is about the assumed shoppers. Maybe the story is about the owners. Maybe the story is unintentional or intentional in some or all cases. In any case, I wonder what examinations of the organization of record stores (in terms of both content and space) would tell us about the ways music is framed or structured in society.

What does it say when an artist is in two sections in the same store – I’ve actually seen this more times than I ever would have expected honestly, most often with acts like Prince or Wilco that blur existing genre boundaries? What does the variation in record store organization mean to owners, shoppers, or others who visit such places? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear some. What might examinations of the interpretation of record store contents and experiences reveal about music and society?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Music, music sssi, Record Stores | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Preliminary Programme for SSSI Annual Conference 2015 in Chicago #sssi

Dear fellow interactionists,

I am very happy to provide a preliminary schedule for the 2015 SSSI annual conference this August in Chicago, Illinois, on the theme of Symbolic Interaction and Public Sociology. 

Many thanks to the session chairs for their cooperation, and to all of you who submitted paper proposals. Please check over this preliminary program and in the event of any conflicts or mistakes, contact me at apuddeph@lakeheadu.ca, so I can try and accommodate you or fix things before releasing the finalized program as we approach August.

We now have a very simple way to register for the conference and banquet. Please visit https://sites.google.com/site/sssinteraction/home/conferences-events/sssi2015, where you can conveniently register and pay the appropriate banquet registration fees. There is no conference fee for members, though non members are expected to pay $100. We encourage you to become a member if you are not already, as the fees for membership are actually less than $100, and you also receive a subscription to our flagship journal, Symbolic Interaction.

Students are encouraged to look at some funding opportunities as outlined in the preliminary program.

Many thanks for your support, and looking forward to meeting you in Chicago!


Antony Puddephatt

Vice President, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

2015 SSSI Annual Meeting Preliminary Program and Details

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