Riding on the Subway

In 2002, Jesse Malin released an album called The Fine Art of Self Destruction. As I traveled around Chicago for a couple weeks attending academic meetings and informal gatherings with other scholars, I kept thinking about one song on this record – “Riding on the Subway.” In the song, the narrator describes all the things he sees while bouncing around a city, and interprets these observations – like the people playing jazz on the platform – in relation to his own life and expectations about the world. While riding trains – even those elevated – is likely enough to bring this type of song to mind, it was actually the interpretive process that caught my attention as I wandered through the city.

This process caught my attention because I experienced it many times – although only when I was alone on the trains – during my visit. Let me provide a few examples:

  • A young couple smiles and laughs when they notice the hoodie I am wearing and tell me how Counting Crows (the band name written on the front of my hoodie) changed their lives and they listen to them constantly.
  • A young male-appearing traveler asks me what I’m listening to, and I reply by naming the Garth Brooks song playing in the midst of my shuffled playlist at the moment. Looking first at my long hair, then at my Alice Cooper t-shirt, then again at my long hair, he says, “Wait, you listen to country, would not have guessed that.”
  • I apparently have my music on rather loud late at night as the person sitting behind me taps me on the shoulder and says, “I really like that song, what is it” and we enter a 15 minute discussion of music tastes and selections. The same thing apparently happens the next night, but instead of conversation I get dirty looks from the people around me until I turn down my headphone volume.
  • Seven different people on four different trains express something to the effect of “Yeah Wilco” as I ride the trains wearing a Wilco t-shirt.

While I find the details of these “spontaneous interactions” interesting in their own right, what really captures my attention is the way we interpret others in relation to musical displays or aesthetics on their persons. What about me did or did not look like I listened to country music? In the first and fourth examples, how was a shirt all by itself enough for strangers to imagine a bond to one another? What created the difference in reactions in the two nights noted in the third example? In all such cases, I wonder how we go about interpreting the musical symbols of others in the course of our lives and what these interpretations might say about us or about the people we encounter.

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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4 Responses to Riding on the Subway

  1. That’s in a way the positive side of having ads on your clothes or listening to music on your i-phone, others can see/hear it and can make a passing comment, a small piece of interaction resulting. When I’m walking alone I sometimes sing “Both sides now” and a Hungarian song I once learned “Feleg borul az erdöre” (clouds are gathering over the forests), but I shut up if I see someone walking towards me. Somehow it feels more intrusive to sing to yourself if others might hear, and certainly not in a foreign language.

  2. Xan Nowakowski says:

    Some “music assumptions” tidbits from my life:

    * People often correctly guess that I like gothic, heavy metal, punk, new wave, hard rock, and other related genres of music because I tend to wear a lot of black and have multiple visible piercings. These assumptions, and people attempting to talk to me about them, seem to increase on weekends when I dress in band T-shirts and other casual clothes. This makes sense, but assuming that these things would be all I listened to doesn’t, at least not to me.

    * It often surprises people that I like music that is very far from those genres, or at least is culturally narrated as such. Examples include contemporary and historic folk music, rap and hip-hop, Motown and R&B in general, pretty much anything in the soul genre, lounge music, trip-hop and other electronica…the list goes on.

    * People often mistake me for a professional musician. I’m not sure why this happens outside of music stores. Inside of music stores–where I usually have at least one guitar in tow and/or can be seen playing guitars from the store’s stock–I can understand this one a little, though I don’t think I play nearly well enough to make a career of it. Outside of music stores, I’m not sure what about me suggests “musician” as opposed to “music fan who is dressed down on the weekend”.

  3. Pingback: What makes a classic? | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

  4. Pingback: Music, Communities, and Connections | Symbolic Interaction Music Blog

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