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

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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!

Sincerely,

Antony Puddephatt

Vice President, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

2015 SSSI Annual Meeting Preliminary Program and Details

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What’s in a genre?

When I was a child, I had a friend who took every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen that Cat Stevens was the greatest country singer of all time. Although I disagreed with this assertion (my vote went to Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire at the time), I never thought much about it until I met another friend a couple years ago who asserted both that he did not like country music and that Cat Stevens was the greatest artist of all time. For my childhood friend, Stevens was country music, but for my current friend Stevens is a folk singer (for me, Stevens is kind of boring).

This observation got me thinking about musical genres or types, and the ways we construct and maintain them in relation to our expectations and understandings about music and our experiences with it. I found myself wondering what constituted a genre, how people decided what did and did not belong in a given genre, and how these things might change from person to person or at different times.

While usually focusing on scenes and communities, interactionists and other sociologists have often analyzed various ways people understand and make sense of different types of music including but not limited to punk rock, bluegrass, hip hop, heavy metal, angry rock, grunge, and Latin music. In such cases, scholars have found that people invest these labels with significant meaning capable of signifying individual and collective identities, group memberships, and tastes and consumption patterns. In fact, such studies suggest genres represent symbolic boundaries that speak to emotional, ideological, and identity based conceptions of who we are and how we do things.

Like all symbolic boundaries, however, genres may be contested whenever people with differing opinions, experiences, and expectations come into contact with one another. Alongside the case of Cat Stevens noted above, I’m reminded of arguments (that sometimes became outright fights) I witnessed years ago over whether Metallica was a rock or heavy metal band, and whether Bone Thugs-N-Harmony constituted soul, rap, and / or hip hop. I also remember similar debates about what “counted” as “hard” rock; the difference between the blues, Americana, and alternative country; distinctions between R&B and Soul, and how anyone could even imagine a category that fit innovators like Prince or Tori Amos who created sounds, images, and ideas that none of us ever imagined in the first place. In fact, I doubt I could count the number of cups of coffee and alcoholic beverages that have been consumed as I witnessed or participated in these types of discussions.

I have also noticed similar meaning making efforts whenever someone seeks to explain an unknown artist to a potential new listener. I remember, for example, telling my life partner that a new band I heard sounded (to me) like Sisters of Mercy and Sonic Youth (two of their favorite bands) had a baby – the band is called Royal Thunder, go listen for yourself and see if you agree. I further remember many occasions where I told someone or someone told me some variation of, “Oh you gotta check them out if you like x, y, or z,” or “Well, its kind of like x during y period when they were into z technique.” At other times, people explicitly invoke (assumed) understandings of genres themselves like when a friend introduced me to the Roots years ago by saying, “Take the best stuff you can think of out of Hip Hop, Soul, Blues, Rock n Roll, and Americana and you got it” – I honestly still think this was a fairly accurate description.

All these observations lead me to think that genres represent an interactional process wherein people take aspects of shared meaning systems to define musical selections as a certain type or form. This makes me wonder what genres do people listen to or associate themselves with most frequently, and further, what do these forms represent or mean to them. If, for example, someone primarily enjoys one genre, what about that genre speaks to them and how well does their definition of the genre line up with others? If, on the other hand, a person (like me) listens to a wide variety of genres, are there specific elements or meanings within different genres that speak to them in different ways? What might interactional analyses focused specifically on genre creation, maintenance and / or change reveal? I can’t pretend to have answers to these questions, but I think they might provide some fertile ground for interesting studies of music.

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

SSSI NOTES – Call for Submissions #sssi

New Deadline: June 21st
 

 The next issue of SSSI Notes will be available by the end of June. If you have any announcements about books, conferences, grants, awards, related organizations, or other relevant information please send a short description to the editor (William Force at wforce@wne.edu) by Monday, June 21. Please include submissions as Word attachments limited to 250 words. Feel free to contact me with questions.

 

 – William Force (SSSI Notes, Editor)

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Pain Soundtracks

This past Saturday, some colleagues and I launched a new blog project called Write Where It Hurts in hopes of starting a collective conversation about the emotional aspects of teaching, research, and service. As we launched the site with our first post and shared our vision with a post on another academic blog called Conditionally Accepted, I found myself thinking about the use of music to manage pain and other negative emotions.

Since I was a teenager, I’ve often turned to a handful of artists whenever life feels terrible. Whether I’m sad, angry, insecure, exhausted, experiencing bouts of depression with or without noticeable stimuli, or grieving a loss, I typically crank up my stereo (often either in a car while driving aimlessly or in my headphones while roaming around aimlessly) and just let the songs wash over me, sing along in a cracked voice, and wait for the latest storm to pass. In fact, I doubt this type of behavior is uncommon.

For me, as noted in the comments section of a previous post, the big ticket song is Perfect Blue Buildings by the Counting Crows, which lyrically feels like the inside of my head when I’m swinging downward. I find myself screaming along with Adam Duritz about the desire to get “myself away from myself and me.” By extension, the whole Counting Crows catalogue becomes my own personal pain soundtrack, and it usually doesn’t take long for it to be joined by some other artists that just somehow speak to the way I experience, interact with, and interpret pain in my own life.

Alongside the Counting Crows, the other two most common elements of my pain soundtrack include Melissa Etheridge and Gary Allan. In fact, based on when I initially got into the music of these two artists, I sometimes wonder if maybe pain is exactly why I listened to both of them in the first place. There is something about their raspy vocal styles, and the propensity of hooks involving things that just don’t work out well that speak to me on a level I can’t quite understand. While there are any number of songs by these artists (like the Counting Crows) I could mention, I generally find myself turning to Melissa Etheridge’s If I only wanted to and Gary Allan’s Songs About Rain the most. The defiance of the former and the ‘I can’t catch a break’ of the latter somehow make me feel better (if only for a few minutes) no matter what is bothering me at the time.

Reflecting on these things, I wonder if other people have pain soundtracks? What songs do we turn to when the world turns against us, and why do we pick these? As a commenter has noted rather well on other posts, there is a powerfully personal element to what songs and artists mean to us, and thus I would guess answers to these questions would reveal intricate avenues of our selves and lives that might not be apparent to any but those closest to us. What is your pain soundtrack, do you have one, and if not, what might yours look like?

I wonder about these questions, and I think about the work of Staci Newmahr concerning interactionist elements of pain and other emotional experiences (see here and here for examples). While focusing on sexualities and BDSM community activities, Newmahr notes the reciprocal and interpretive dimensions of pain and emotion, and I think about these dynamics when I realize not only that certain artists and songs speak to me when I’m hurting, but also that in those painful moments there is a pleasure (a release if you will) that comes from passionately screaming along to these songs and using their content to explore, feel, and interact with emotional pain. This connection between pleasure and pain is not uncommon in the world, and thus I wonder if we look at our pain soundtracks (or those of others) what we might learn about the ways people turn negative emotions into positive expressions and vice versa. What does it feel like to sing our pain with existing musical selections as our own seemingly personal backing band? What does it feel like to belt out the songs that make the bad days better? What might interactionists learn about pain and music by studying the two in combination with one another?

I don’t have the answers to these questions at present, but as usual, I invite the thoughts of others on the relationship between painful emotional experience and musical selection or consumption. If my own reflections over the past couple weeks are any indication, there may be much to learn from this nexus about ourselves, our relationships with others, our emotions, and music itself. I wonder how many people, like me, reach for the records when it hurts, and figure out the hard moments by singing along.

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Emotion, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, Pain | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Musical Theory

Not so long ago, I was looking for an interesting way to teach sociological theories to students. While I looked over all the ideas, suggestions, and guides I could find, I kept wanting to try something new that I could make my own and transplant from course to course since I rarely teach the required theory course at my university. During this time, a couple friends I admire were having (still are) tremendous success engaging the sociology of Hip Hop to cover a wide variety of subjects with their students, and I kept thinking back to a professor who often started courses by playing music to (as she said, and seemed to work) get the students engaged. At the same time, I remembered another professor who used heavy metal music (with lyrics that are often hard to understand if one is new to the genre) to teach listening skills and poetic techniques (i.e., some heavy metal lyrics are incredibly intricate poems so students had to learn to hear them and then take them apart analytically).

From the combination of these observations, I began to wonder about ways I could use music to introduce students to sociological theories. At the time, I was about to teach the required theory course at my university for the first time, and I already had theory sections built into my other courses. Rather than change everything at once, I decided to do a little pedagogical experiment in the required theory course wherein each sociological theory we covered would be accompanied by a Broadway musical that demonstrated elements of the theory. Students would be required to read the theories, discuss them in class, and then apply them to excerpts from the musicals, and I would see how this integration of musical offerings and theory worked in practice. By the end of the course, via informal and formal student impressions and evaluations, I realized that this tactic worked rather well, gave students a concrete object they could attach the complexity of theories to in a practical manner, and facilitated some rather enjoyable classroom discussions.

For readers interested in replicating or considering the approach, the process unfolded in four steps with each new theory introduced. First, I would have students read the text itself, and in class we would discuss both the theory, the background of the theorist, and ways people have used this theory since. Then, we would spend the next class collaboratively coming up with ways we could use this theory in our own lives, which we would supplement with excerpts from musicals (and an overview of the entire musical). When we covered Symbolic Interactionism and Dramaturgy, for example, students read Mead and Goffman and then we linked their ideas to Billy Elliott’s socialization (via props, rituals, back and front stage performances, emotion management, and interpretive processes) as a male ballet dancer in a lower-working class, masculine-focused familial and economic context (I initially chose this because I had a professor who used the movie version of Billy Elliott for this purpose in a Symbolic Interaction course). In this way, each theory covered was linked to a musical story students could use to analyze and (as one put it) “play with” sociological concepts and arguments.

For the purposes of the course and theory offerings in other courses to date, I have used many offerings from musicals for theory application. As such, I offer a selected few of them for anyone interested in considering, thinking about, or discussing this practice:

  • Structural Functionalism = The Lion King and especially the “Circle of Life” idea of balance and function promoted throughout the story.
  • Conflict Theory = Sweeney Todd and especially the “Little Priest” critique of Capitalism.
  • Weber’s Protestant Ethic = The Book of Mormon and especially the “I believe” solo by Elder Price.
  • Feminist Theory and Intersectionality = Wicked and especially the “Defying Gravity” conversation between women seeking different paths to freedom and authenticity.
  • Queer Theory = Rent and especially the “La Vie Boheme” series of songs focusing on diversity of identity types and categories.
  • Post-Structuralism = Kinky Boots and especially the “Everybody say yeah” celebration.
  • Black Feminist Thought = The Color Purple and especially the “Hell No” performance.

While I have used many other musicals and musical numbers for similar purposes since, these have been the ones that have worked best to date. Further, I have also begun to incorporate other forms of music in similar ways. This leads me to wonder what are other ways we can use music to teach our students about sociology and about Symbolic Interactionism specifically? If my case to date (as well as others I mentioned above and some pieces on using music in the classroom I’ve read) is accurate, music may provide a powerful tool for helping students connect to theoretical ideas and empirical findings in a wide variety of ways. What are other ways to incorporate musical offerings, Symbolic Interactionist concepts, and sociological instruction?

J. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Discussion, Music, music sssi, symbolic interaction, Teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

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 , , , , , | 11 Comments