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.