Into the Great Wide Open

The title of this post refers to two things in my home office right now. First, I am currently listening to a song by this name by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m currently on a massive Tom Petty kick in my own listening so playing one of their songs as I get ready for work in the morning is about usual at present. At the same time, the song feels appropriate – probably why I just hit the button to have it play for the third time in a row just now – as I’m currently jumping into a new type of writing for me that is a bit out of my wheelhouse. There is something comforting to me about thinking of this as diving into a wide open possibility, though I have no clue why that is comforting.

This type of thinking is something I’ve written about here before and something that comes up implicitly in my fictional writing – soundtracking life itself. As I’ve noted in interviews, prefaces, and at conferences whenever I’m asked about ideas that lead to this or that research or fiction publication, most of my ideas come from and / or develop alongside music I’m listening to at a given time. At the same time, I often narrate my own life, if only for myself whether or not I share such thoughts with others, in relation to songs because music makes more “sense” intuitively to me than most other languages (i.e., emotions, math, talking, etc.). As such, I thought I would say a few words about the current song rotating on repeat on the stereo as it pertains to the mixture of anxiety and excitement I’m feeling at present.

According to Petty, the song is about getting more and more into a music career, and the ups and downs in between. On some level, the former performer in me can relate to this idea as I know friends who are even more invested in music careers formerly or throughout their lives to date can. At the same time, it feels fitting for the many times we try something new for whatever reason. In this case, I’m currently working on my first scholarly attempts at music-related writing beyond this blog. I only plan for that to include one article, but at the same time, who knows where it might lead over time. Since my research tends to be in fields without much connection explicitly to music and society fields, it is an interesting experience of immersion into literature built from work I have done for fun alongside other research projects, working on this blog, teaching courses on the subject, and with the lucky help of a colleague who primarily focuses in the area.

At the same time, there is a comfort in the endeavor so far that I did not expect. Maybe I should have, but that’s a question for another time. While I am only now taking a stab at writing about music for a scholarly project / outlet, in some ways, I’ve been writing about music my whole life. My novels are organized around music and themes related to this or that feeling evoked in this or that musical domain – whether or not readers ever catch this part of the process for me. People have noted – especially in my adoration of alliteration and different wording choices than the average – that even my academic writing style sometimes holds a lyrical quality. The earliest writing I recall doing in my journals – alongside things about my own life specifically – involved attempts to take apart songs and videos and albums. In graduate school, more than one person who saw the way I organize fieldnotes observed that it seemed like I was using some kind of scale or rhythmic pattern in the organizations (which I’m still unaware of doing consciously, but I admit is likely correct and drawn from musical scales and lyrical structures best I can tell). And my first writing jobs, however little they paid, involved writing about musical acts, products, and experiences in indie magazines. In some ways, I guess it would have been reasonable to think – though I don’t recall doing so – that at some point music itself, so prevalent in so many parts of my life, would become a subject of analysis in some piece of my scholarly work. There is a comfort in this as I work through data and thoughts that have sat on the sidelines of my collected data sets for a while without use thus far.

I don’t know if I have a take home here other than yet again wondering about the various ways we may soundtrack our lives, and wondering about how widespread such efforts are not only among those of us with admitted love affairs with music, but even among those who may do this type of interpretive effort unconsciously when a particular source of sound brings forth a given memory or feeling from a given time. I’m not sure, but I feel like it would be an interesting area of consideration for each of us and maybe a source of self-reflection if we thought about it from time to time.

J.E. Sumerau

Posted in Blog, Music, music sssi, Reflection, Research | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

2017 SSSI Annual Conference in Montreal – Final Program – #sociology

Dear Friends and Colleagues

the Final Program of our conference in Montreal has just been published on our website.

Please follow the link below, have a look at the conference and then join SSSI in Montreal. Beth Montemurro has done a splendid job in putting it together.

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Latest Issue of #SSSI Notes Vol.46(1) – 2017 #sociology

The latest issue of SSSI Notes has been published on our website. Please follow the link below to access the Notes.
Thanks to Will Force for putting the newsletter together once again and to all those of you who have submitted contributions. 

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Gonorrhea on a Gravel Road

Have you ever thought about song lyrics that people mishear?  Have you ever wondered about what such accidental reinterpretations might say?  Have you ever had one of these occasions become an inside joke or other bonding experience?

The title of this post comes from one such bonding experience where a companion of mine misheard Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” as “Gonorrhea on a Gravel Road.”  This accidental reinterpretation has provided a lot of laughter over time, and sometimes some of us actually sing along this way for the fun of it when the song comes on in a car, coffee shop, or other venue.  As someone who often studies and writes about both relationships and the ways people talk, I find this dynamic – one that I’ve seen play out with many different misheard lyrics over the years – rather intriguing.

This is, of course, only one of numerous ways people have misheard song lyrics and found joy in sharing these experiences.  There are occasional blogs about examples of the phenomenon, and I’ve enjoyed reading more than my fair share of discussion boards where people share examples.  People might talk about Jimi Hendrix saying “excuse me while I kiss the sky,” but being heard as “excuse me while I kiss this guy,” for example, or Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot” becoming “Hit me with your pet shark,” or Kiss’ “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day” might become “and part of every day.”  There are many more, google mondegreens for some fun examples.

While these are often fun on their own, they can become even more fun when tied to specific relationship contexts.  I remember a couple who spoke a set of misheard lyrics to each other at their wedding because the laughter that erupted the first time they both misheard the song was an early moment in their life together they both treasured.  I remember the friends who would turn up the same song when they saw each other every few years, and laugh about the ways they re-wrote it together, intentionally later, accidentally at first, with new lyrics about their lives.  I’ve often wondered what we might learn about relationships by exploring the meanings people attach to these types of moments.

I’ve also often wondered what these experiences might say about us.  Considering that we tend to interpret people, places, things, and anything else based on the experiences, emotions, identities, and memories we hold dear, I wonder what parts of our selves show up in the ways we initially hear – accurately or otherwise – song lyrics.  Do our interpretations, whether misheard or heard as intended, reveal parts of our stories, lives, and experiences that others might not guess, and if so, in what ways?  If so, how does this process work?  What does it say about us and our interpretative endeavors in more serious scenarios?  What does it mean when seven people listen to the same song and hear seven different lyrics at a place in the same song where the vocal is not quite as clear as other places?  I feel like exploring these questions might lead to some interesting answers about meaning, interpretation, and memory.

On the other hand, I might just enjoy driving down the road yelling gonorrhea on a gravel road and laughing so hard I might cry while doing so.  So, what do you think, what  do misheard lyrics mean, and what are your favorite examples?

J.E. Sumerau is an Interactionist assistant professor of sociology and director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa.  They are also the author of over 50 academic works in journals and edited collections as well as the author of two forthcoming scholarly research-based books, and of the novels Cigarettes & Wine and Essence.  For more information, visit their website at or follow them on instagram @jesumerau; Facebook @jesumerau; or twitter @jsumerau.  


Posted in Blog, Music, music sssi, Reflection | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Reminder – #SSSI Annual Meeting in Montreal (August 9th to 13th)

Dear SSSI Colleagues:

If you have not yet had a chance to look at the preliminary program for the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, I encourage you to do so. You can see it here:—program

We have a dynamic program, including 37 paper sessions, an Author-Meets-Critics session focused on Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman’s book, The Color of Love Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families, (University of Texas Press, 2015), and the Distinguished lecture “The Past, Present and Future of G. H. Mead in Symbolic Interactionism,” given by Dr. Jean-François Côté, Université du Québec à Montréal. We also will have a workshop: “Using Grounded Theory for Social Justice Research,” given by: Dr. Kathy Charmaz, Sonoma State University, and featuring special presentations: “Grounded Theory Coding.” Dr. Linda Liska Belgrave, University of Miami “Pragmatist and Interactionist Perspectives on Social Justice.” Dr. Melinda Milligan, Sonoma State University.

The workshop is free for registered meeting participants, but you must sign up in advance.

There will also be a welcome reception on Friday evening. Our banquet and awards ceremony will be Saturday evening, following the distinguished lecture presentation.


To register, purchase banquet tickets, and sign-up for the “Using grounded theory for social justice research workshop,” go to:


Please register in advance and purchase banquet tickets in advance! Also, to make hotel reservations at the beautiful Omni Mont-Royal, please click here:

Reservations must be made by JULY 16, 2017 to receive the group rate.

Look forward to seeing you in Montreal.


Beth Montemurro


Beth Montemurro, Ph.D. Vice-President, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction Professor of Sociology Penn State University, Abington 1600 Woodland Road Abington, PA 19001 215-881-7566


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Exploring the Meaning(s) of Record Store Day

Right now, I’m sitting on my porch sipping a cup of coffee and listening to the latest release from Brandy Clark – Live from Los Angeles.  I’m especially happy to be doing this because this record is one of the 8 things I picked up while visiting my 10 favorite record stores on Record Store Day 2017.  While Record Store Day is always the only singular holiday I really celebrate or get into each year (I celebrate the NBA and WNBA playoffs, but those go on beyond a single day and I celebrate other holidays with friends and family who find those days important), this year offered more releases I wanted than any other to date.  As I do every year, I spent the entire day roaming from shop to shop, watching all the people and celebrations and musical performances, and blowing up the phones of family members who are kind enough to let me do so with endless details about what they often call my day.

As I was strolling around looking at records this time, I also thought about the symbols and meanings that emerged throughout the day.  One of the most common questions I receive when I say I celebrate one holiday, and then tell people what it is involves something along the lines of “what is that about.”  I usually just answer by saying what it is about for me – a day surrounded by other music lovers, and hours spent collecting special releases and memories in stores I spend a lot of my time in throughout the year.  This year, however, I started paying attention while I did this in hopes of picking out some of the things this day means to others.  Like any other holiday (or holy day, whichever you prefer) interactionists have studied over the years, there are multiple meanings for Record Store Day, and I had a surprisingly good time learning some of them from the sixty or seventy people I spoke to about it this year.

For some folks, the day is almost entirely about the releases.  Many of these are the people that get up in the early morning or late night hours, wait in long lines for especially rare and sought after collector’s items.  These people talk about the importance of their collection, and the chances they get on this day to share that collection (and the love and passion it represents for them) with other people who have similar tastes and passions.  It was interesting for me because I’ve never been willing to get up early or wait in the long lines, and as such, I long guessed why people did it, but had a lot of fun hearing the memories and examples of not only why, but how people did it (i.e., for some it’s a family or long time friend ritual), and what people remembered from doing it over the years (the most fun example was a lesbian couple who met in one of these lines a few years ago and continue to do it together now).

For many of the business owners, the meaning of the day revolves around two things.  First, record store owners typically invest a ton of time, energy, and money to operate such places, and this day often represents a big cushion or carry-over of operating expenses due primarily to the fact that people coming in for the events or special releases will buy a lot of other things in the process.  Second, record store owners generally see the day as a celebration of their passion (i.e., the store they invest in) and a remembrance of the time where it looked like such stores would become a thing of the past.  In such cases, the store owners talked a lot about the ups and downs of owning and working at record stores and with other musical enterprises.  For them, it was more of a celebration than anything else.

For a lot of the artists who perform at these events, however, it was primarily about a combination of promotion and possibility.  Many of them talked about the importance of quality gigs throughout the year, and the ways that playing at a crowded record store (even only a small set on a makeshift stage) could turn people onto them that they may not reach otherwise.  Some of them also talked about hope – the idea that the ability of the stores to bring in so many people at once even if only on special days told them something about the ways people still did appreciate music.  To my surprise, though I think I should have guessed it, this was also the pattern I found in the responses of local businesses who serve food and drinks at the events (often for free to us customers or for donations to local charities).  The day represented an opportunity to maybe catch new customers, and an illustration of people caring about local and independent businesses and arts.

While I could offer a wide variety of meanings from different groups, the other largest contingent of people offered similar interpretations to my own.  These were customers, more casual record collectors, and music lovers who went to the events because these are the places they normally go, these are the places that matter to them, and these are the places where they generally shop, get to know others, and have important memories.  Many of these people were after this or that release from a favorite artists (like the Brandy Clark record I just flipped to side 2 a few minutes ago), but were primarily interested in seeing the stores full, hearing what the local bands were up to, and checking out the discounts, promotions, and same cubbies and stacks they look through fairly regularly (though often with much less people around).

As an interactionist, meaning represents a lot of what I study and seek to make sense of in my work.  This year, primarily due to the curiosity generated within me by others asking about it, I translated that interest into my Record Store Day adventures.  In so doing, I found what I expected – a day that means a lot to different types of people as well as different things to different people who approach, experience, and interpret it from varied positions.

J. Sumerau


Posted in Blog, Interactionism, Music, music sssi, Record Stores, Research, symbolic interaction | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Soundtracking Existence

After dreaming of doing so for most of my life, two weeks ago I released my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine, for purchasing information please visit  The novel is a sociological narrative built on over two decades of observations and interviews (formal and informal) with LGBTQIAP people in the southern United States as well as the past decade of sociological and interactionist research I have done concerning these populations.  Written in the form of a personal narrative from the perspective of a bisexual, non-binary teenager growing up in the Bible Belt in the 1990’s, the novel traces the lives of an interrelated group of mostly LGBTQIAP characters while highlighting the ways relationships, meanings, and both negative and positive experiences shape the people we become over time.  Not surprisingly, the release of this book – and the actualization of a lifelong dream in the process – has dominated my thoughts of late.

In the process of thinking about, answering questions about, and promoting the book’s release, I kept coming back to the ways I used musical references to capture feelings and times in the book, and the ways music – as well as other elements of arts and popular cultures – invoke specific times and places in our minds.  In the case of the book, for example, I was intentionally invoking aspects of 1990’s, and did so by pulling songs, artists, and events in that decade that allowed me to set the time without having to spell out the time and context within the narrative in a more direct fashion.  In a similar case, a commenter on the previous post about teaching with music noted the ways one can use music to invoke or set the tone for a class focused on a specific decade, and an earlier comment on another post long ago noted the ways childhood can be invoked for readers and listeners when certain instruments, sounds, smells, and forms of art are used to set a tone in writing or in person.  For whatever reason, this also got me thinking about colleagues – and myself too on occasion – who often used music as a background sound when students did in class writing assignments and / or at the opening of classes (whether or not such sounds were discussed in the class).  It hit me that I still associate a specific subject with 80’s pop songs because the class I took on the subject in college always started with such music playing in the background and we knew it was class time when the professor cut off the music even though we never discussed the music in relation to the class material or during the class.

As I’ve noted in other posts related to other topics, these types of thoughts circle around what I have casually referred to as the processes wherein we soundtrack our lives, cultures, settings, and experiences whether we realize it or not.  In my case, for example, there are two albums – no matter when or where or how I hear them – that always remind me of my life partner because they were newly released albums that became favorites of mine when we met.  There are similarly albums and songs and even more broader sounds I associate – often without realizing it at first – with other people, places, and events in my life that carry symbolic weight for me.  I often wonder what systematic studies of the soundtracks of people’s personal, collective, cultural, and national existence and experience might tell us about said people, cultures, and nations.  As such, I simply wanted to raise that question today because while I have yet to find the time to study it, I really would love to see what people might come up with in such studies.

Posted in Blog, Interactionism, Reflection | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments