What’s in a Name

“I don’t know what it’s called,” they say smiling, “But its track four, yeah, track four, this moment is definitely track four!”

“There is something about that song, you know the one with the thing about the elephant, there is something about it that just speaks to me, you know?”

“Oh, I’m like a completely different person when the right song comes on, I mean, I don’t tend to know the names of the songs, but the right ones just hit me and they mean something to me, I guess, something beyond, well, normal.”

Each of the quotes above are taken from interpersonal interactions over the last couple months. Whether talking to me or someone else within the vicinity of where I was, each of them represents an interesting aspect of meaning making via music. While people have talked about the importance of naming things for generating meaning and emotion, each of these cases reminds us that one need not know the given name of something for that social object to have influence upon their mood, experience, or selfhood. Rather, something can be named in any way – such as track four in the first case – by a person who finds meaning in that object.

This leads to an interesting interactionist question – what role does a given name play in processes of meaning making? In some cases, the given name of a song, place, person, or anything else may elicit very strong emotions – both negative and positive – that any other word or label might not generate. In other cases, however, the given name may easily be revised into something different or other in the ongoing confluence of interactional experiences and still offer just as much, if not more, meaning as the given or official name. In both cases, however, we see the attempt to both express the meaning of a given object by labeling it in some way with some kind of language and generate some kind of label or name for a given object once that object represents a meaning for a given person.

This also leads to questions about translation in the process of communication and meaning making in everyday life. When a given object, for example, is renamed or initially named, does that object then need translation to others or is the process of the naming the translational event itself? When one translates a feeling by expressing the way it is generated by an external source – like a song with or without a name – is said one engaging in a bit of symbolic conversation or simply utilizing whatever nearby resource is available to convey an idea or feeling? What if, as could be the case, each of these things and many others are happening at the same time in such interactions? How might we study such dynamics? How might we interpret them?

If we treat the exchange of music or musical references or other cultural artifacts and references to said artifacts as a conversational meaning exchange, what might we learn from systematic study of such exchanges? What might we learn about the names people give themselves and others, this object or that, and other things in their world? What might we learn about the significance of labels and categories and definitions more broadly in the flexibility of interactional experiences across the life course? These, I would suggest, are only a few questions that might be explored by paying attention to the ways people name and narrate references to this or that shared meaning or artifact in daily life.

J. Sumerau is the author of four novels and over 40 peer reviewed articles focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health. For more information about their writing, visit jsumerau.com.

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Homecoming Queens & the Soundtracking of a Research-based Novel

After first publishing Cigarettes & Wine (see review in Symbolic Interaction) and later beginning my own independent series of sociological and queer based southern stories with Essence, I released my second research-based novel in the Social Fictions Series earlier this month – Homecoming Queens. Like Cigarettes & Wine and other works in the Social Fictions Series, this novel is a sociological narrative built upon observations and interviews (formal and informal). In this case, these data points come from LGBTQIA people, people of color, and working-class people in the southeastern United States utilized in combination with my own endeavors and formal studies as a sociological, interactionist, and queer mixed-methodological researcher. Written in the dual forms of a southern gothic novel and an observational account from a main character, the novel traces the experiences of a bi+ poly marital trio as they move from a large southern city back to the small town where two-thirds of the marital union grew up in their youth, and traces the ways the past influences and becomes relevant in the present for southern LGBTQIA people, small towns, families, relationships, and patterns of social inequality.

As I did with the release of Cigarettes & Wine, I have found myself thinking a lot about the ways music shaped this composition and release in much the same way it does with everything I write, publish, and / or promote following publication. While I have written about the process of creating the work elsewhere, here I want to return an earlier discussion of the soundtracking of existence – or the ways people may use music to make sense of their lives, creative scientific, artistic, or otherwise works and selves, and experiences over time. In this case, this novel owes largely to the release of Brandy Clark’s second studio album Big Day in a Small Town. While I use musical references to situate experiences throughout the book as I do in other books, in this case, the primary music that played as I took the varied data points and intertwined them into a narrative was this album. I specifically organized every aspect of the novel around homecomings of varied sorts, and this idea came to me initially as I listened to Clark’s song “homecoming queen,” and remembered the story and experience of a homecoming queen I knew from my years on the planet. As I composed the novel, I kept spinning Clark’s album as a kind of soundtrack to the story the same way I have with other records when writing other works.

This brings me back to the discussions on this site earlier in the year about the ways music may serve as a background expectation or illustration of varied feelings, thoughts, and landscapes we experience throughout our lives. Earlier this year, I wrote about this as a process of soundtracking existence in ways that make our narratives and selves more meaningful and emotionally coherent to us as well as more easily translatable to others. In the months since, I have also noted that I have begun some scholarly writing on this idea that I will share more about as it develops over time. The point I wish to return to here is the theoretical and empirical question of the ways people may engage in such tactics, consciously or otherwise, throughout their lives and in relation to whatever musical materials they come in contact with over time. I think these could be fascinating questions for interactionists and broader sociologies to explore concerning the role of arts and music specifically in the social construction and dissemination of who we are, how we do things, what we feel things mean in our lives at a given time or place in the life course. As such, I simply use this post to introduce my latest book, and remind us of a potentially fascinating question that could be explored in many social contexts throughout the world today.

J. Sumerau is an interactionist scholar and novelist, for more information on their novels and research, visit http://www.jsumerau.com. 

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Between the Sounds

The other day I did something I have done many times, but I thought about it more than I normally have, likely because I write this blog and occasionally do some music-related scholarly work nowadays. This leads me to regularly reflect on musical patterns I encounter even more than I normally would in case I realize something potentially useful to other scholars, researchers, or writers. It is a practice that has always comforted me, but not one I have ever really thought about all that much.

Simply put, someone will send me music – a mixtape, an album for some reason (they have given many over the years), and / or more recently links to songs online) – and I will respond in kind without necessarily commenting at all. I will send back music – generally in the same form, so a mixtape for a mixtape or a link for a link, for example. Especially if there is no original comment from them or me or however the exchange begins, I generally do not comment on what I send back or on what they send unless they ask explicitly or start commenting themselves. I don’t know, probably due to the lack of commentary in most cases, what they are actually doing or intending in such exchanges. I’ve never really concerned myself about this question, and didn’t really even notice it until I started thinking about the exchange process the other day. In my case, however, I know what I am doing (or at least whatever I am doing consciously that I have access to in my own thinking). I am sending something that reminds me of the them, me, and aspects of both if I start the exchange. If they start the exchange, I am sending back whatever their musical offering reminded me of in relation to them, me, and aspects of both.

For me, this is a fun conversation that takes place between the sounds of the given musical entities exchanged. Especially as someone who rarely understands hints, assumptions, or other forms of implicit communication without a lot of help or effort, it is likely the main form of implicit communication I have ever engaged in within my own life. There is no way to know for sure what they are saying, and there is no way to know for sure what I am saying to them from their perspective or viewpoint. This is, as conversational scholars have long noted, not uncommon in mainstream interaction rituals in modern society, but it is uncommon for someone like me because generally I only catch what someone says directly and only reply in a direct fashion unless I stop myself and think about it for a specific reason (i.e., a boss, a request explicitly made by someone, etc.).

It hit me the other day that no matter what this type of conversation might be, mean, or feel like to others, for me, it is one of the closest ways I get to experiencing the type of “information game” Goffman and others note in the vast majority of interactions between people. The songs give information and give off impressions, but there is no concrete, explicit, discussion. This is the way most discussions in the world take place (i.e., people try to read, guess, or hypothesize what is meant behind the words), but this is the opposite of what I generally experience (i.e., there is nothing behind my words generally and I don’t think to look further into what might be behind the words of others without considerable effort – and years of practice – doing so). Even more so, however, it hits me that sharing music – and the potential meanings between the sounds – could be an interesting metaphor for looking at broader forms of interpersonal interaction and communication between people in varied settings and contexts. This, I would say, might be a fascinating way to explore social interaction via centralization of music, meaning, impression, and interpretation.

J. Sumerau is an interactionist scholar and novelist, for more information on their novels and research, visit http://www.jsumerau.com. 

 

 

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Into the Great Wide Open

The title of this post refers to two things in my home office right now. First, I am currently listening to a song by this name by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m currently on a massive Tom Petty kick in my own listening so playing one of their songs as I get ready for work in the morning is about usual at present. At the same time, the song feels appropriate – probably why I just hit the button to have it play for the third time in a row just now – as I’m currently jumping into a new type of writing for me that is a bit out of my wheelhouse. There is something comforting to me about thinking of this as diving into a wide open possibility, though I have no clue why that is comforting.

This type of thinking is something I’ve written about here before and something that comes up implicitly in my fictional writing – soundtracking life itself. As I’ve noted in interviews, prefaces, and at conferences whenever I’m asked about ideas that lead to this or that research or fiction publication, most of my ideas come from and / or develop alongside music I’m listening to at a given time. At the same time, I often narrate my own life, if only for myself whether or not I share such thoughts with others, in relation to songs because music makes more “sense” intuitively to me than most other languages (i.e., emotions, math, talking, etc.). As such, I thought I would say a few words about the current song rotating on repeat on the stereo as it pertains to the mixture of anxiety and excitement I’m feeling at present.

According to Petty, the song is about getting more and more into a music career, and the ups and downs in between. On some level, the former performer in me can relate to this idea as I know friends who are even more invested in music careers formerly or throughout their lives to date can. At the same time, it feels fitting for the many times we try something new for whatever reason. In this case, I’m currently working on my first scholarly attempts at music-related writing beyond this blog. I only plan for that to include one article, but at the same time, who knows where it might lead over time. Since my research tends to be in fields without much connection explicitly to music and society fields, it is an interesting experience of immersion into literature built from work I have done for fun alongside other research projects, working on this blog, teaching courses on the subject, and with the lucky help of a colleague who primarily focuses in the area.

At the same time, there is a comfort in the endeavor so far that I did not expect. Maybe I should have, but that’s a question for another time. While I am only now taking a stab at writing about music for a scholarly project / outlet, in some ways, I’ve been writing about music my whole life. My novels are organized around music and themes related to this or that feeling evoked in this or that musical domain – whether or not readers ever catch this part of the process for me. People have noted – especially in my adoration of alliteration and different wording choices than the average – that even my academic writing style sometimes holds a lyrical quality. The earliest writing I recall doing in my journals – alongside things about my own life specifically – involved attempts to take apart songs and videos and albums. In graduate school, more than one person who saw the way I organize fieldnotes observed that it seemed like I was using some kind of scale or rhythmic pattern in the organizations (which I’m still unaware of doing consciously, but I admit is likely correct and drawn from musical scales and lyrical structures best I can tell). And my first writing jobs, however little they paid, involved writing about musical acts, products, and experiences in indie magazines. In some ways, I guess it would have been reasonable to think – though I don’t recall doing so – that at some point music itself, so prevalent in so many parts of my life, would become a subject of analysis in some piece of my scholarly work. There is a comfort in this as I work through data and thoughts that have sat on the sidelines of my collected data sets for a while without use thus far.

I don’t know if I have a take home here other than yet again wondering about the various ways we may soundtrack our lives, and wondering about how widespread such efforts are not only among those of us with admitted love affairs with music, but even among those who may do this type of interpretive effort unconsciously when a particular source of sound brings forth a given memory or feeling from a given time. I’m not sure, but I feel like it would be an interesting area of consideration for each of us and maybe a source of self-reflection if we thought about it from time to time.

J.E. Sumerau

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2017 SSSI Annual Conference in Montreal – Final Program – #sociology

Dear Friends and Colleagues

the Final Program of our conference in Montreal has just been published on our website.

Please follow the link below, have a look at the conference and then join SSSI in Montreal. Beth Montemurro has done a splendid job in putting it together.

https://sites.google.com/site/sssinteraction/home/conferences-events/sssi-annual-Conference

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Latest Issue of #SSSI Notes Vol.46(1) – 2017 #sociology

The latest issue of SSSI Notes has been published on our website. Please follow the link below to access the Notes.
https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxzc3NpbnRlcmFjdGlvbnxneDpmODU4NTg4N2ZlNmY3YTY
Thanks to Will Force for putting the newsletter together once again and to all those of you who have submitted contributions. 

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Gonorrhea on a Gravel Road

Have you ever thought about song lyrics that people mishear?  Have you ever wondered about what such accidental reinterpretations might say?  Have you ever had one of these occasions become an inside joke or other bonding experience?

The title of this post comes from one such bonding experience where a companion of mine misheard Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” as “Gonorrhea on a Gravel Road.”  This accidental reinterpretation has provided a lot of laughter over time, and sometimes some of us actually sing along this way for the fun of it when the song comes on in a car, coffee shop, or other venue.  As someone who often studies and writes about both relationships and the ways people talk, I find this dynamic – one that I’ve seen play out with many different misheard lyrics over the years – rather intriguing.

This is, of course, only one of numerous ways people have misheard song lyrics and found joy in sharing these experiences.  There are occasional blogs about examples of the phenomenon, and I’ve enjoyed reading more than my fair share of discussion boards where people share examples.  People might talk about Jimi Hendrix saying “excuse me while I kiss the sky,” but being heard as “excuse me while I kiss this guy,” for example, or Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot” becoming “Hit me with your pet shark,” or Kiss’ “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day” might become “and part of every day.”  There are many more, google mondegreens for some fun examples.

While these are often fun on their own, they can become even more fun when tied to specific relationship contexts.  I remember a couple who spoke a set of misheard lyrics to each other at their wedding because the laughter that erupted the first time they both misheard the song was an early moment in their life together they both treasured.  I remember the friends who would turn up the same song when they saw each other every few years, and laugh about the ways they re-wrote it together, intentionally later, accidentally at first, with new lyrics about their lives.  I’ve often wondered what we might learn about relationships by exploring the meanings people attach to these types of moments.

I’ve also often wondered what these experiences might say about us.  Considering that we tend to interpret people, places, things, and anything else based on the experiences, emotions, identities, and memories we hold dear, I wonder what parts of our selves show up in the ways we initially hear – accurately or otherwise – song lyrics.  Do our interpretations, whether misheard or heard as intended, reveal parts of our stories, lives, and experiences that others might not guess, and if so, in what ways?  If so, how does this process work?  What does it say about us and our interpretative endeavors in more serious scenarios?  What does it mean when seven people listen to the same song and hear seven different lyrics at a place in the same song where the vocal is not quite as clear as other places?  I feel like exploring these questions might lead to some interesting answers about meaning, interpretation, and memory.

On the other hand, I might just enjoy driving down the road yelling gonorrhea on a gravel road and laughing so hard I might cry while doing so.  So, what do you think, what  do misheard lyrics mean, and what are your favorite examples?

J.E. Sumerau is an Interactionist assistant professor of sociology and director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa.  They are also the author of over 50 academic works in journals and edited collections as well as the author of two forthcoming scholarly research-based books, and of the novels Cigarettes & Wine and Essence.  For more information, visit their website at http://www.jsumerau.com or follow them on instagram @jesumerau; Facebook @jesumerau; or twitter @jsumerau.  

 

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