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

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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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23 Responses to Thinking about the Meaning of Records

  1. The ‘why’ of this question is incredibly interesting. Making meaning of things and situations because they may be relevant is a revelation of kind, one I find I do not always think of. It’s somewhat subliminal. Anyway, I think of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left as a meaningful record for me. I had been struggling with identity issues; I’d often been called aloof and anti-social as a kid, and the only real things I thought I communicated to were books. Music happened a bit later to me. It started with rock and pop music and graduated to metal, as a young cis boy who had access to MTV. But I discovered Nick Drake at a rather dark phase of my life around the time, and felt his words talk to me immediately. It’s funny how I have identified with Drake’s personal story as a teenager, and how I held on to that as a way of dealing with my own. Songs like ‘Day is Done’ really appealed to me at the time because of the interplay of possibilities and helplessness to me at the time, and have continued to make sense to me at regular intervals.

    Another record I often find myself responding to is Villagers’ Becoming A Jackal. I’d just moved to a new country to study, a country where I did not know anyone, and being socially inept meant I took my time in making friends. At the time I was trying to find new music that was not readily available in South Asia because I wanted to venture out of the popular genres. I found Villagers’ first album which spoke to me immediately; I experienced seeing a live band up close for the first time (as against big festivals that I’d become used to), and I also enjoyed Conor’s songwriting which seemed a tad unconventional and reminded me of my own attempts at being a writer in magazines. Of course, he is far more talented. This album has stuck with me since, and every time I find myself in a new situation I find myself going back to it. There is some weird warmth and comfort associated with this album in my head, and I feel it will stay.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting – I love your insights on this and I can imagine Drake being especially comforting during identity transitions for a lot of people.

      That “weird warmth and comfort” is exactly what I was getting at with “meaningful” in the post. It’s like the records (different ones for different folks and experiences) can speak to or make meaning of our selves and emotions in fascinating ways that stay with us long after the fact.


  2. jk542013 says:

    J: Thanks for taking charge of the SSSI music blog. Your first post is very interesting. When you say “record,” I think of complete albums—records or CDs. My favorite records are those albums I will listen to in their entirety, and there are really not that many. Two come to mind. I will listen to Van Halen’s “1984” in its entirety, especially when driving down the highway. It takes me back a bit, not necessarily to my youth, but to a period in adulthood when I enjoyed acting a little bit like a teenager again. Blasting 1984 probably ended any semblance of normal hearing for me! Eddie rules. The second complete album is a very recent one, Wade Bowen’s “Wade Bowen.” It is a fine example of “red dirt music,” a style made up of country, singer-songwriter, Americana alt-rock, Texas/Oklahoma, etc. The key to red dirt is its accessible lyrics. The stories tend to be very elegant and complex portraits of the simple life. My favorite song on the CD is “Watch her drive,” a driving song loaded with multiple slide guitar about a hip, carefree and independent woman driving—reminds me of my wife who is a much better driver than me, even though she listens to a lot of Michael Buble and Josh Groban. Hey, that’s two car songs!! I listen to complete albums/CDs only when driving when I have the time to listen to an entire album. In my more sedentarily moments, I flip public and Americana radio—still love radio. What I miss is driving through small towns and listening to local radio to monitor pulse of the town. What is local radio anymore?

    Joe Kotarba

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      You’re welcome Joe and thanks for both starting this blog and commenting! Complete albums is exactly what I meant, though I’ve learned from my students that when I say “records” people often hear different things (that’s another interesting meaning making system – how people describe / label their music?). I actually associate 1984 with childhood since I remember it playing all over the place when I was a kid, but Wade Bowen is more my cup of coffee (as well as bands like Blue Mountain that do a similar alt country type sound with accessible, down home, kind of lyrics). I actually often wonder about the ways people listen to music – unlike you I tend to listen to mixes when driving, but I’m all about full albums when I’m writing – because there is probably some interesting variability there.


  3. Xan Nowakowski says:

    My “desert island” albums would be anything by the Sisters of Mercy or Alice Cooper. Deeply sociological and political music! I’m hoping to share some stories later this summer about how Alice’s music has helped me to cope with PTSD and heal from the identity dissociation I experienced as a result of trauma. I think his music is a classic study in the core principles of symbolic interactionism as described by Goffman: the idea that we wear “masks” that all form part of a more integrated self, and that which mask we wear depends on the definition of the situation and the associated expectations of ourselves and others.

    My current favorite record–the one I can’t get out of my car stereo right now–is Royal Thunder’s Crooked Doors. I only got into Royal Thunder recently; they opened for a Wilco concert I attended with J, and I fell in love with their music. They bring a progressive, contemporary spin to the sounds of classic gothic, alternative, and grunge rock bands like the Sisters, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and a lot of other groups whose names don’t start with the letter S. You’ll find elements of jam band stylings and bluesy licks merged with distortion, heavy riffs, and power chords. Their music coheres around the phenomenal talents of a female-bodied vocalist/bassist who pulls each song together with her strong lyric delivery and intricate fretwork. Mlny’s singing is at once assertive, rich, and mellow–she quite literally hits all the right notes amid an ornate tapestry of instrumentals. Give “Time Machine” one listen and then give it 10 more, because once is not enough to appreciate all the complexities of this beautiful track. And then listen to the rest of the album, because it’s amazing and I can’t say enough good things about this band.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting Xan, and for encouraging me to get involved with this blog! I’m really looking forward to you posting on Alice’s influence in your life and I’m so glad you’re enjoying Royal Thunder!


  4. To answer such a question makes me look at my whole life, and understanding it in the context of the different eras they were part of. Born in Britain I was a young child just after the war, an era of rationing and shortages that continued well into the 50s. One of my favourites from that time is the theme tune of the two hats: Johnny Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet would be one, and run, rabbit, run, teddy bears’ picnic. In my early teens popular music would be Rolling Stones and Beatles, then Bob Dylan and Donovan; in my early twenties Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Eagles. Middle aged: Baroque music (Vivaldi, Telemann), Beethoven, Liszt.

    Of course, these different ages are not watertight, but flow into one another, but this gives the general idea, a mix of American and British pop, shading into light classical. All this is pretty average for most in the same age group, I would reckon.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting! I think your insight here (understanding music meaningful to us leads to looking at the life course in context) is a fascinating one, and I bet there are likely (whether noticed or not) a lot of contextual factors that play into not only the music we find meaningful but also the music we hear in the first place.


  5. Lain says:

    When I contemplate some of the questions you pose in this blog post, it makes me acutely aware of just how much my taste in music changed (and likely will continue to change) over time, and how much of that is related to the ways that I understand myself.

    There’s albums that were deeply influential to me at some point that I don’t listen to as frequently now. For instance, Bad Religion’s “Recipe for Hate,” “The New America,” and “All Ages” played on repeat in the bedroom of a thirteen-year-old kid trying to figure zirself out. The fast paced guitar and drums made me feel confident and powerful at one of the most awkward times of my life. Greg Graffin’s gravely voice is what I aspired to sound like. I spent hours listening to the songs on repeat, transcribing the lyrics into my journals, and analyzing what (I thought) the meant. Truthfully, I didn’t understand them all at the time, but even as a kid I got a twinge (in the Kleinman 2007 sense) that there was a theme of non-conformity throughout all of them (even though I had no words yet to express the themes or connect the dots of the lyrics of these songs). None of my other friends were listening to Bad Religion at thirteen, so I figured something had to be different– either about the band, me, or the combination of me and my listening to *this* band.

    I returned to some of these records many years later, and after many major life shifts, and suddenly the critiques of capitalism, religion, corruption, war, and consumption were unambiguously clear. Thus, even though these records are not on my recently played list very often, they’re still incredibly important to me in the sense that they were some of the albums that brought me comfort in my own (gender/ style/ intellectual/ extracurricular) non-conformity as a youth, and (whether I was aware of it or not) delivered some of the first critiques of systems of power that I ever heard.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting! I think this is a good point (about how listening practices rise and fall over the life course in relation to our perceptions of self and our knowledge of the world). I think for me the best two examples are Guns N Roses (I remember feeling “estranged” and other songs by them as a teenager so deeply without words for what I felt) and the Grateful Dead (I remember a sense of freedom in the jams and rhythms – a fluidity that fits so many parts of the self I became) and I would guess this experience (music inspiring us to feel parts of ourselves even when we can’t explain it) is fairly common for a lot of people.


  6. Reblogged this on My Symbolic Interaction and commented:
    The study of music as a reflection of our time has become a significant part of symbolic interaction. This blog is a manifestation of that. I look forward to seeing more.

    • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

      Thanks for commenting and sharing! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and I can promise you that you’ll be seeing more to come 🙂


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