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

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14 Responses to Ritual on the Radio

  1. Xan Nowakowski says:

    With respect to sex and gender differences, the balance is much more even on pop stations and some rock stations, although with the latter I find it depends a lot more on station management. As rock becomes more of a diverse musical form I think we also see an emergence of popular younger groups with female frontpeople, whereas stations that play more “classic” rock are more likely to be male-dominated due in part to pipeline issues. Females from my mom’s generation were often discouraged from playing electric guitar or other instruments associated with “harder” music, whereas those biases have ebbed considerably (albeit not disappeared) for females closer to my own age. I have yet to get any strange reactions about playing electric guitar, loving hardcore metal, etc. in a lifetime’s worth of listening.

    There is undoubtedly gender socialization that gets expressed within the hard rock and heavy metal communities, but how much of this actually *comes* from those communities is questionable. Within these genres there is considerable reward for female-bodied people presenting an aggressive, take-charge image–look at Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Shirley Manson, Wendy O. Williams, Nancy and Ann Wilson, or Lita Ford and the immense success they have achieved. But by the same token, there is sometimes backlash intersectional with other elements of a female musician’s life–I would cite Courtney Love as an example of someone who was unfairly perceived as a carpetbagger on her spouse’s coattails when in fact she was always an accomplished musician in her own right.

    In terms of radio, I think we are seeing positive changes as female artists get more exposure in pop, rock, and metal. Genres like trip-hop are big drivers of this change too, although they don’t appear as much on mainstream stations. If you think about popular trip-hop artists, you’re gonna have a good mix of female-fronted and non-female-fronted bands. I say “non-female” because we ultimately do not have good data on intersex, genderqueer, and transitioning musicians, and radio often doesn’t do much to explore these aspects of musicians’ identities. But to take trip-hop as an example, you’ve got amazingly talented people with female bodies consistently leading the pack. Look at groups like Everything But the Girl, Stereolab, Massive Attack, Portishead, and the Sneaker Pimps during the period where they actually topped charts…and you’ve got great examples of bands where females lead and really define the signature sounds of the genre. Yeah, Massive Attack has some tracks with male vocals too. When was the last time you heard one on the radio?

    Country is lagging behind other fields on putting female-bodied artists front and center in ways that don’t objectify them. This represents a regression from the era of Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, Patsy Cline, etc. where female voices were part and parcel of the country sound. This is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that many contemporary female country stars have only found success by “crossing over” into pop–Carrie Underwood might be the best example, but I think we’ll probably see a similar thing with Brandy Clark. Likewise, the statistics on female country megastars like Trisha Yearwood and Faith Hill reinforce a trend of gendered opportunity in country because there is constant talk of these artists only succeeding because of their male-bodied partners’ stardom…even though both were wildly successful in their own right prior to establishing partnerships with Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw respectively. The less we hear female voices on country radio, the easier it becomes to believe those misrepresentations of people’s careers and lives.

  2. Music is a very personal experience, so I am not surprised that you prefer to listen to you own selection of music while driving. Every piece of music conjures up for me a whole range of emotions and moods. It is almost like each piece of music brings back feelings and memories that are very individual, where you were when you first heard it, what you were doing and the emotions you were going through at that time. Same for your partner, especially if the music brings to mind a shared experience, at a night club or a concert. This is something very difficult to put into words and express. Here is simple example: looking at a film of “The Thomas Crown Affair” in 1968 with my wife before we got married, the song “Windmills of your mind” conjures up a whole medley of shared emotions, though the two people listening will have individual differences.

  3. Lain says:

    Love this post! I read this and wonder what a more systematic analysis of something like this would reveal. As Xan commented above, the gender differences across different genre stations shifts a little bit. I am wondering, specifically, what might be revealed by documenting not only the songs that are played, but supplementing it with an analysis of the lyrics to each of these songs. When there are women artists singing, what are they singing about? Would their songs pass the Bechdel test of musical arts? If so, how frequently and on what stations? Does this shift depending on where you are in the state/ country/ world? What ritual codes might be revealed in that kind of analysis? I think someone would need a lot of time and travel money to do it, but if radio stations seem to provide “codes of conduct” for certain genres, I wonder what other patterns might be a part of those codes?

  4. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    I love these comments, thanks so much!

    I think Xan hits on an important point (as does Lain) in relation to the gender observation. I honestly wonder if the reason I noticed it so much is that (a) the last time I really listened to music on the radio much was in the time where women (Reba, Wynona, Dolly Parton, Jo Dee Messina, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, SheDaisy just to name a few because there were a ton of them) were incredibly visible and successful on country radio channels and / or (b) because the best country artists these days in my opinion (which ties into Jim’s notes on personal aspects) are almost all female (there are a couple male exceptions, but females rule country for me right now) including but not limited to Brandy Clark, Kacey Musgraves, the Courtyard Hounds, Cassadee Pope, Carrie Underwood, Hillary Scott, Kelly Pickler, Chely Wright, Miranda Lambert, the Pistol Annies, Ashley Monroe, and Holly Williams (I heard none of these artists during my drive despite how long I was on the road).

    I also think the personal aspects Jim notes are very important components to, for example, the ritual codes and meaning systems on radio. Like Jim, I can think of so many songs (country or otherwise) that just blow me away personally and emotionally, but none of those (for example Brandy Clark’s music tends to hit me like a bullet) were visible on the drive I took. I think that aspect is what hit me most on the “time” dynamic – most songs that create these personal relationships are from the past (i.e., like Jim’s example they recall specific moments we have already experienced or in my case, to provide one example, whenever I hear Citizen Cope’s “one lovely day” I automatically think about the first dance I shared with the most important person I’ve ever met since that was the first time I heard that beautiful song and I wouldn’t be surprised if they feel the same way when that song comes on), but if radio is in some cases only playing things within a 3 year window it would be hard to have such reactions at all while listening to the radio.


  5. Something that trikes me in Sweden is how many brilliant female singers and musicians there are. It is quite extraordinary.

  6. It would be interesting to look into the ways in which we use music to accompany different activities. I know of some related research on music and work, but what about music and leisure activities?

  7. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    I’ve had a similar reaction to Sweden Jim, and especially years back (when I first got into Swedish artists) when a friend sent me all kinds of Swedish metal bands fronted by and / or including amazing female musicians. The interesting thing to me is that we have a ton of female artists in the States, but they get almost no exposure except in rare cases.

    There probably are some interesting insights there Dirk, my first thought is music playing at picnics, sporting events, and even in offices and stores where people regularly go. In all such cases, we often hear music refereed to as setting a mood, but exploring the contents or the intended moods might reveal some interesting nuances and meanings.

  8. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog says:

    Relevant comment to this discussion posted on the About page of the blog today:

    jk542013 says:
    May 30, 2015 at 1:30 pm (Edit)
    Here is an industry-based answer to the question of gender in country music posted in the WP this morning: http://wapo.st/1J5CmdY.

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