Ritual on the Radio

I realized the other day that I rarely listen to music on the radio. In fact, considering how much of my time is spent listening to music, this seemed rather odd to me when it crossed my mind mid-conservation last week. I began to wonder why I don’t use the radio for music?

As is often the case when questions emerge in the course of my life, I sought to figure out possible answers. To this end, I decided to spend the entirety of a road trip I took this weekend listening to music via the radio while taking notes on what (if anything) I gained from the experience. In so doing, I figured I would (at least) become more familiar with musical offerings on the radio, and maybe observe some preliminary patterns I could think about or look into later. Simply put, I was curious.

In terms of parameters, my observational exercise was not at all systematic. I was taking a drive (3 hours each way) over the course of two days, and I figured I would simply find music on the radio the entire time I drove. In hopes of having enough observation to notice patterns, however, I did limit myself to only one of the genres of music I regularly listen to. Specifically, I kept my radio dial on country music stations (a genre I was pretty sure I could find anywhere in Florida) throughout the drive (I may later try this with other genres). Obviously, the patterns I observed may not hold outside of country music stations, outside of Florida, or outside of the United States. With these caveats noted, however, I did notice some interesting patterns, and moreover I did not really like any of these patterns, which may provide some clue as to why I rarely listen to music via the radio.

During my drive, I noticed three primary patterns:

  • Country music stations in Florida are incredibly repetitive. I heard the same group of songs repeatedly over the course of two days, and each time I found myself wondering what it would be like if I was only exposed to such limited playlists. Considering that I normally travel with a handful of records of various musical types as well as over 2,000 songs in digital format, the lack of diversity in the radio offerings really annoyed me. I found myself getting sick of songs on the third to ninth play that had seemed like decent cuts only hours before on first listen.
  • Country music stations in Florida are incredibly male-dominated. Whether I was paying attention to the performers being played, the people talking in between songs, or the commercials announcing concerts or having stars tell listeners how wonderful a given station was, the voices were predominantly male. It reminded me of an experience I had a while back where a friend was seeking female artists to introduce young female musicians to as part of a summer camp, and while I could come up with about 100 off the top of my head the friend in question had trouble thinking of more than 5 or 6 before turning to others for help. While researchers have examined gender disparities in various musical subcultures and the mainstream, I began to also wonder what influence such an imbalance might have on the casual listener who is never exposed to female artists and whether or not such listeners notice they are primarily hearing male voices and experiences.
  • Country music stations in Florida are incredibly “now” focused. At more than one point, for example, announcers noted (with effected shock) that they were going “way back” in time before introducing songs from 2007 and even 2009. I honestly don’t know what to make of this observation analytically, but I found it curious that anything from more than two or three years prior was an “oldie” on these stations. I wonder what messages listeners receive about time when songs within the last decade are framed or defined as “way back when” music.

While I am certain other Interactionists could offer a multitude of analyses from these patterns (and I encourage all to do so in the comments), what really struck me was the ritualistic nature of music on the radio. Thinking about the work of Erving Goffman or Spencer Cahill, for example, I kept feeling like the radio stations were offering me a “code of conduct” or “set of expectations” for the genre.

If one were to be a fan of these stations, one would (consciously or otherwise) be revealing an interest in repetitive offerings (i.e., ritual interactions with the musical medium in question), male-dominated storytelling (i.e., learning of the musical world through the eyes of its male members), and an ahistorical culture (i.e., the newest things are the only ones worth mention and the most recent newest thing quickly fades from view). I found myself imagining what elements of selfhood would be comforted and / or created in relation to this particular set of rituals. Such a self would likely feel just as uncomfortable with musical diversity, gender egalitarian storytelling, and the historical development of genres, sounds and techniques as I felt while listening to these channels. It thus made me wonder what rituals other musical platforms may suggest for the people who interact with them, what patterns might others notice when viewing such platforms, and how people go about selecting different ways to engage with musical content.

In my own case, I realized that radio might not be a good fit for my musical needs (and country music radio in Florida definitely appears not to be) for the same reasons that my digital collections, record collections, and Internet radio stations are good fits. The former set offers a ritualistic, narrowly-defined set of songs that I have no say in while the former grants me the opportunity to do away with genres and create my own listening rituals from a wide variety of musical traditions and sources. In closing, I wonder what other people hear when they listen to music via radio stations as well as the ways other people go about developing their own listening rituals and platform preferences.  In short, I wonder what lesson plans or ritual codes may be found by observing musical offerings on the radio in a more systematic fashion?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Interactionism, Music, music sssi | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

SSSI election results are in! #sssi

President-elect (2015-2016): Leslie Irvine, University of Colorado

Vice President-elect (2015 – 2016): Jennifer Dunn, Texas Tech University

Publication Committee (2015 – 2018):

Jason Sumerau, University of Tampa

Linda Belgrave, University of Miami

All have gladly accepted their new positions.

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Musical Dramaturgy

A couple of days ago after class, I was sitting in my office talking with a student about potential career opportunities. As we finished our talk, the student looked around the office, and noted, “You must really like music a lot.” I confirmed the student’s interpretation, and we chatted for a moment about the records on my office wall and the guitar sitting between the file cabinet and bookshelves on another wall. After the student left, I began thinking about the observation, and the ways that I surround myself with musical symbols.

I originally stumbled into Interactionism due to my interest in symbols, and the dramaturgical efforts people engage in to signify who they believe themselves to be and what they feel is important in their lives. As I looked around my office that day, I realized I had (consciously or otherwise, I’m not sure) done a rather nice job of signifying my musical interests while decorating the space. Whether I looked at the framed 7 inch records on one wall I’ve picked up in various cities I visited for academic conferences, the artist certification plaques on another wall that celebrate achievements of artists I enjoy, the guitar I wrote about in the last post, or the album artwork and concert memorabilia adorning other walls in the office, my office feels like a kind of shrine to music at times.

My office, however, has nothing on my home. Visitors have often noted that my home kind of looks like a record store on the inside. There are framed vinyl album covers on every wall (different artists on each wall, situated together and formed into shapes I like) spanning genres including but not limited to hip hop, country, Americana, rock n roll, heavy metal, bluegrass, grunge, experimental, and piano pop. There are guitars in each room (a bass, an electric, and an acoustic) as well as drumsticks, capos, and slides littered about. There are books about music alongside vinyl and compact disc box sets on the bookshelves and in other nooks throughout the place. There are also countless band t-shirts in the closet if one takes a moment to look for some reason, and even a couple of different stereos so I can blast music throughout the space. While I picked these decorations (some that I found and others that were meaningful gifts from important people in my life) because they make me feel comfortable at home and in my office, they also signify the role of music in my overall life as well as my taste in different types of music.

Interactionists have long discussed the ways people use objects to signify selfhood, and some scholars have even investigated the meanings people attach to specific objects and styles associated with various music subcultures (see this piece by William Ryan Force for an example of such an analysis in relation to punk music). Like me, many people surround themselves with symbols that speak to musical tastes, inclinations, passions, and interests, which bring them comfort or other positive feelings while also (intentionally or otherwise) sending messages to others about who they are. This observation leads me to wonder about the myriad of ways people do such dramaturgical work in relation to music. How do you adorn your body and space with musical symbols, and what do these symbols say about who you wish to be? What do you think others gather from these symbols?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Dramaturgy, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Musical Technologies of Memory

I have an electric guitar in my office. Cherry red and white, it lives on a little stand situated between one of my bookshelves and a file cabinet. Sometimes when I get stuck on a manuscript or course preparation, I pick it up and just play for a little while (without amplification) to clear my mind. I find the feel of the strings between my fingers allows me to relax and think about other things for a while, which often helps me work through whatever has me temporarily stuck. At other times, it sparks conversations with students and colleagues who notice it upon entering my office. In such cases, some people ask about its origin, design, or sound while others comment on its appearance or seek to get me to play a bit (to varying degrees of success). While preparing for my university’s graduation ceremony this past week, I found myself staring at it and thinking about an article I read by Bryce Merrill concerning technologies of memory.

In the article, the author explores the interactional use of technology (specifically home recordings) to create and invoke memories. Like many professors I know, I see a lot of these technologies of memory at work each year before, during, and after graduation ceremonies. Students pose for photos in front of the school, faculty are recruited for photos and videos students may take with them into the next stage of their lives, and parents and other loved ones roam around with video cameras and other assorted equipment in search of every possible artifact of these moments. Staring at my guitar, thinking about graduation, and remembering Merrill’s article, I found myself wondering about the memories contained in musical instruments.

Over the years, I have had the pleasure of being around a lot of musical instruments and speaking with many different people from a wide variety of backgrounds who own these technological forms. The vast majority of the time I have encountered stories that go with the instruments. Whether I think about the one who received their “most prized” accordion for their fifth birthday from their grandpa, the one who took their favorite ukulele everywhere because it reminded them of the sibling who passed away not long after giving it as a gift, the one who always hugged the first guitar they received from their life partner before and after every performance, or any number of other people who cherished the memories contained within their instruments as much as the instruments themselves, I have regularly experienced the ways people embed memories – and other elements of selfhood – into their musical instruments. I am no different in this regard. While I could write about the bass guitar (still the best birthday surprise ever) my life partner gave me or the Telecaster (I drooled over it in college) one of my closest friends let me have, in this post I’ll share the memories embedded in the electric guitar I keep in my office.

The story begins a few years ago when I was a nervous graduate student instructor, and the original owner of the guitar took one of my classes in his last semester to complete his degree. Although I was not aware of it at the time, this class would be the first time he ever heard someone in an authoritative position talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in a positive way. I can’t pretend he was an especially noticeable student. Rather, he barely said a word, did his work (quite well honestly), and disappeared quickly following every class. I was actually surprised when I received a thank you letter from him after the class because I barely spoke to him directly (outside of lectures) during the course.

Over three years later, however, we ran into each other in a coffee shop in a different town, and he cried as he told me the thank you letter he sent me after the class was the first time he ever told anyone he was gay. He then told me that the next week he’d moved to the city we were sitting in at that moment, and a couple weeks later he’d met the man who became his husband. In the midst of the conversation, he noticed I was reading a book on guitar playing, and I explained that I had recently picked it up without thinking too much about this detail. We chatted for a bit longer before he had to leave for work. As he left, he asked if I would come to his house sometime and meet his husband, and I agreed to do so because it seemed really important to him.

When I arrived at his house, I didn’t really know what to expect. How often do you learn you changed someone’s life for the better years after the fact, and what are you supposed to do in such times? If there was a playbook, I had never read it. After walking into the house, however, I forgot all these thoughts when I looked up and saw something that took my breath away. There was a wall full of beautiful guitars (including the one that now lives in my office), and there were records and other types of musical technology all over the place. As my former student moved around boxes (he was getting ready to move cross country with his husband at the time), he explained that he’d been playing since he was a kid and collecting musical instruments and recordings just as long. After a lovely couple rounds of drinks with him and his husband, he said he invited me there to give me one of the guitars as a thank you and so I would never forget what I did for him.

I have to admit I was amazed, and I didn’t know what to say. At first, I tried unsuccessfully to turn the offer down in every way I could imagine. After some time and some tears, I realized that this was incredibly important to him and his husband. I did not own an electric guitar yet and I wasn’t sure if I would play it (I’ve always loved acoustic instruments most), but that didn’t seem to matter so I finally agreed to select one of the guitars. After looking through the guitars for a while, I ultimately selected the guitar I see and touch every time I go to work these days, and my former student’s husband handed me a small amplifier because he figured I should have one just in case I wanted to play it. I think I will always remember the joy on both their faces as we said goodbye that night, and I drove away with an unexpected new guitar in my trunk.

Thinking about this particular musical technology of memory, I smiled and touched the neck of the guitar last week as I set out to witness the graduation of another batch of students. In the process, I wondered what, if anything, I would remember about them years later and what, if anything, they might remember about me in the future.  I also wondered what musical technologies of memory other people treasure, and what elements of their life are represented in these technological forms. What are your musical technologies of memory (including but not limited to home recording equipment, instruments, records, stereos, and concert memorabilia)? What do these artifacts mean to you and what memories do they recall?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Thinking about the Meaning of Records

Every year, I celebrate a holiday that is dear to my heart by waking up early in the morning, visiting stores crowded with far more people than I find in these same stores on other days of the year, trading messages with loved ones (some who participate and some who do not) about my journey throughout the day, and talking with a lot of other people who love music for a wide variety of reasons. The same way other people dramatically alter their daily routines and patterns of interaction for other religious or cultural celebrations of various sorts, I transform into a kid at a candy store each year for Record Store Day. While I likely could (and probably will at some point) write much about Record Store Day itself, in this post I want to put on my interactionist glasses concerning the question I hear most during my holiday adventures.

What is your favorite record?

Like many music lovers I know, my answer to this question can vary greatly depending on what the question means and what I’m experiencing at the time. If I interpret this question in terms of what I’m listening to most at the moment, it will be a different answer than if I interpret this question in terms of what record I think is most technically sound, original, or any of a hundred other factors. As a practicing interactionist, I realize that people typically act toward things based on the meanings those things have for them, and that as a result, the meaning they associate with the question, records themselves, and many other factors may shape their response to this question. As a result, I often revise the question. Instead of asking about favorites, I tend to ask people what records are the most meaningful to them, and why.

In my case, the answer to this question remains surprisingly constant over time, and I often find the same with other music lovers. I think this is because the most meaningful records for me are those that speak to specific times and experiences in my life, and continue to recall these feelings and memories each time I hear or even think about them. Since what is best or worst in music tends to be a matter of interpretation and experience, like so much of social life, the most meaningful records in anyone’s collection likely speak to important aspects of their selfhood, lived experience, interpretative frameworks, emotional turning points, and relationship to the broader social world. What are the most meaningful records for you, and why do they mean so much to you?

For me, I always first think of the Counting Crows debut album August and Everything After. While I love each of the songs, the meaning of the record itself goes deeper than listening pleasure. I remember first acquiring this record (for sentimental reasons I have a cassette copy of this record in my office) right at the time I learned I was adopted. I remember reading the title and thinking “adoption and everything after” as I listened to the songs over and over again throughout the coming months as I tried to make sense of my newly realized backstory. I remember feeling my confusion in Perfect Blue Buildings, my sense of isolation in Round Here, my anger in A Murder of One, my hopefulness in Mr. Jones, my sense of loss in Anna Begins, and my desire to just feel okay again in Rain King. I still feel these things when I hear or even think about these songs. For me, it is not a record of music, but rather a record of the many emotional and identity transformations I experienced – a kind of soundtrack to my identity, emotional, and ideological work processes.

After that first thought, my mind always turns to Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, and even typing the words just now I can smell the scent of coffee, stained journal pages, and dark bars filled with music. When this record came out, I was working my way through college, spending countless hours in coffee shops doing school work and hanging out in bars to see bands so I could write my first few reviews for local newsletters and pamphlets (writings that later led to my time as a music reviewer for a local paper). To this day, this record means “writer” to me. I often pull it out when I’m having trouble with a manuscript, or when I feel like I’m on the verge of a breakthrough with this or that paper, or when I really need to curse or cry after an especially annoying rejection letter. Somewhere within these 18 songs lives my identity as a writer, and I call upon this sign equipment whenever I doubt the reality of that identity for even a second.

As I begin writing on and operating the SSSI Music Blog, I find myself wondering how other interactionists might answer the same questions in the comments section or in a blog post of their own. And so I ask, what are your most meaningful records? Why do these mean the most to you? What records would the soundtrack of your experience contain?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

ESSSI2015 – Extension of Deadline for Submission – June 1st.


Contributions, Legacies, and Prospects

The University of Salford, Manchester

MediaCityUK Campus 29–31 July 2015


We welcome submissions from scholars using interactionist approaches

in established fields including communication, crime and

deviance, education, embodiment, emotion, health and illness,

identity, organisations and work, and urban life—as well as from

those working in newer areas, such as digital cultures, or those

deploying innovative methods and techniques.

To include a wider range of sessions the call for papers has been

extended to 1st June 2015.

The MediaCityUK Campus is at the heart of six global BBC

departments and a mass of independent creative, digital and media

organisations. It is a short walk to the Lowry theatre and gallery,

Imperial War Museum North and the Manchester United football

ground. There are many shops, bars, and restaurants nearby.

Interactionism has a distinguished record as a vigorous way of

investigating the diversity, richness and complexity of contemporary

social life. This will be a truly interdisciplinary forum for those

using interactionist approaches to understand the social and

cultural realities of contemporary societies.

Join us!

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Now on Early View: Review of Kotarba’s Baby Boomer Rock ‘n’ Roll Fans #sssi #music #sociology #bookreview

Gretchen Larsen’s (University of Durham, UK) review of Joe Kotarba’s “Baby Boomer Rock ‘n’ Roll Fans: The Music Never Ends” has just been published on Early View. Larsen’s focuses her review on the question that is central to Kotarba’s book “why have so many adults not outgrown rock ‘n’ roll?”.


The answer Kotarba gives – according to Larsen  relates to the ways in which ageing Americans use Rock ‘n’ Roll music to make sense of themselves and their lives.

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