What makes a classic?

The Title of this post is a question I have been wrestling with for a while now.  As noted in a previous post, I often use music in my classes to illustrate points, demonstrate the transmission of ideas and practices over time, and otherwise engage students.  In so doing, however, I am constantly reminded of the variations in what people are exposed to and what people are not for a wide variety of reasons.

This observation has been especially relevant in my mind this semester because I organized my qualitative research methods class around music and how to study and analyze music in terms of trends, lyrics, and settings.  As a result, I have – as has happened in other classes – noted that some things I think of as classics are also things many students have never heard of, but unlike in other classes, I have also gotten to watch students wrestle with the realization that things they consider essential or classic or major in music are not necessarily agreed upon by their classmates.

As I ponder the idea of a “classic” or an essential artifact of a given tradition or canon, I find myself remembering my shock when I encountered students who had never heard of Alice Cooper, when I came across students who had never seen Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” when I came across students who never heard of the Rolling Stones, when I came across students that struggled to name 5 female musical artists or even 1 LGBTQ musical artist, when I came across students unfamiliar with any musical artists or genres located outside of the United States, and many other examples.  What do these knowns and unknowns say about how one establishes the “greats” or “most important works” in a given field of creativity?  Considering that I learn of new (to me at least) artists and styles fairly regularly, why was I so surprised in these moments that students did not know this or that artist?  What level had I placed these artifacts in my own head that my reaction to others who did not recognize them was sadness or concern?  How do things become “classics” for a given person?

These experiences keep leading me to ask what makes a classic?  What is it about a song, about exposure, about distribution, about an aesthetic that leads this or that artifact to become more well known and regarded than others?  What elements of social variety – generations, race/class/gender/sexuality/nation/age/religion, regional context, etc. – shape what one feels is an essential element of the musical (or any other artistic or even academic canon)?  How do these ideas form, and what happens when we engage with people who do not know our classics?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I find them fascinating and I continue to discuss them with students and others in my life.  As noted in other posts, musical selections, tastes, and meanings often suggest quite a bit about people socially and personally.  I wonder what the things we deem “classic” or “essential” say about us to ourselves, to others, and in relation to our interactions and interpretations of the world.

J. Sumerau

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About Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction - Blog

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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