Alumnae Bulletin August 2009

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Sociology of Popular Music: Socl 252

By Alicia Bessette
Photo by Paola Nogueras ’84
Illustration by Esther Bunning

Professor Nathan Wright bases his course on the conceptual tool of the “cultural diamond,” which has four corners—the cultural object (in this case music), its creators, its audience, and its social world.

How did Elvis become King?

A. Perhaps the birth of rock and roll resulted from antitrust legislation, and changes in the nature of radio due to the advent of television.

B. Perhaps the racial context of the 1950s, the mixing of Black and White artists, audiences, and forms of music made Elvis a star.

C. Or, perhaps there was something special about the music itself.

All of the above are viable scenarios in a course on how sociology offers a better understanding of popular music, and how popular music offers a better understanding of society.

Nathan Wright, assistant professor of sociology, built the course around sociologist Wendy Griswold’s conceptual tool of the “cultural diamond”: at its four corners, the cultural object (in this case music), its creators, its audience, and its social world.

“The goal is to use pop music as an analytic lens to explore all these relationships more broadly,” Wright says. “The point is that you can’t understand anything cultural without paying attention to all four points on the diamond, and all six relationships among those four points.”

As students plug variables into the cultural diamond model, lively debates emerge.

One debate that dominated research for decades concerns the role of popular music regarding domination and resistance. Is popular music a tool of domination, run by multinational capitalist entities to enforce an oppressive status quo? Or is popular music a tool for expressing resistance to oppression, and affecting social change?

Ultimately, students tend to find those questions too limiting, observes Wright, and they expand their debates to include additional issues such as sociability, collective rituals, identity formation, and authenticity.

The question of musical taste sparks robust conversation, too. Research suggests that when people express a dislike for a particular musical genre or band, that dislike is rooted in a desire to distance themselves from the kind of people they think like that genre, rather than an actual objective appreciation of the music itself. Often this “taste” happens along social class lines or political affiliations.

“Musical taste isn’t ‘innocent,’ in other words,” explains Wright. “Saying you like ‘everything but country’ is the obvious example here. It’s not because you have carefully listened to all the different subgenres in the history of country music and decided that it doesn’t appeal to you for purely musical reasons. Rather it’s a knee-jerk reaction against your (usually false) notions about who country music fans are.

“Both the field and the students recognize these aspects when it comes to musical taste, yet also recognize that taste can mean different things as well,” Wright adds. “Simon Frith’s book, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, is the one that ‘saves’ taste for most students, and I think because of this it is the one that many students most gravitate toward by the end of the class.”

‘Make the familiar strange’

Sociology of Popular Music was the first Bryn Mawr class for Genna Cherichello, a Haverford psychology major. “All of the assigned readings left me (and, by the way the class sessions went, most others in the class) with thoughts, questions, and concerns, and since they were focused around the topic of music, for which everyone in the class had a passion, this class was a refreshing way to start my Tuesday and Thursday mornings,” says Cherichello, whose main academic interest is the psychology and neuroscience of music.

Wright requires students to complete an eight- to 12- page research paper applying course insights to an area of pop music of interest, such as particular artists, albums, genres, movements, or subcultures. Cherichello’s research paper concerned mashups, a controversial genre that consists of songs made up of preexisting songs.

She discovered mashups in high school and was intrigued by the intellectual property issues they raised. Drawing upon some of the class readings about the fate of pop music, some philosophy about creativity, and even conversations with one artist in the field, she wrote a paper exploring the past, present, and future of mashups.

Maggie Larson ’10, a Growth and Structure of Cities major with a minor in education, researched sampling artist Gregg Michael Gillis, who goes by the stage name Girl Talk. Drawing from sources such as Pitchfork Magazine and the New York Times, she established the ways Girl Talk has been received across various audiences, focusing on concepts of taste, authenticity, and experience of the listener.

“Popular culture is too often something we seem to only passively accept or engage with in ways that are seemingly separate from analytic thinking,” Larson says. “Though at times what a Bryn Mawr student needs most is a chance to put the academic part of themselves on mute for a little while, exploring popular music as we did in the class allowed us to make the familiar strange and see and listen in new ways.

“The class was tremendously thought provoking,” Larson adds. “It demanded considering new and different ways of listening and thinking about popular culture. While a range of theories was presented, it was sometimes the nuance and subtlety between different schools of thought that were the most difficult but also the most interesting to work through and discuss.”

For Larson, a semester highlight was guest speaker Kip Berman from the band The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. A fan, Larson was thrilled to learn the lead singer would be visiting the class the day following their Philadelphia performance. Berman discussed how he considered music that came before him and his contemporaries, and his talk complemented the course material and reenergized classroom discussions, she says.

In addition to the longer research paper, weekly one- to two-page response papers help students synthesize various topics covered in the course, which include the merchants of cool, pop music as collective activity, the production of culture approach, pop music on the internet, critical theory, pop music as commodity, artists in pop music production, “authentic” popular music, musical taste, the Birmingham school, pop music as resistance, and music fandom and critical practice.

“I hope students leave the course able to appreciate all the ways that historically-contingent and sociallyconstructed structural situations influence the trajectory of their daily lives,” Wright says. “I hope students are able to find the ‘cultural diamond’ a useful model for applying to anything cultural at all, be it religious beliefs and practices—my own main research area—or the clothes they wear, foods they eat, books they read, movies they see, and ideas they encounter.

“I hear from students that they’re surprised how much this course seems to relate to so many of their other courses that seem so far removed from pop music,” Wright adds. “I think that’s because the social processes that are at work in pop music are so similar to the social processes that are at work everywhere.

“That’s actually why I teach this course: to introduce those social processes via a subject area that most college students are automatically interested in and involved in personally.”

Selected Reading

Required Readings:

Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity by Richard A. Peterson (University of Chicago Press 1997).

Music Genres and Corporate Cultures by Keith Negus (Routledge 1999).

Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music
by Simon Frith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1996).

Subculture: The Meaning of Style by Dick Hebdige (Routledge 1979).

Other referenced readings:

Art Worlds by Howard S. Becker (University of California Press 2008).

Commodify Your Dissent edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (W.W. Norton 1997).

Culture and Society: Contemporary Debates edited by Jeffrey Alexander and Steven Seidman (University Press 1990).

Cultures and Societies in a Changing World by Wendy Griswold (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press 2008).

Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century by Greil Marcus (Harvard University Press 2009).

On Record: Rock, Pop, & the Written Word edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (Routledge 2000).

Popular Culture: Production and Consumption edited by C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby (Blackwell Publishers 2000).

Society Online: The Internet in Context edited by Philip N. Howard and Steve Jones (Sage Publications 2004).

Studies in Entertainment edited by T. Modleski (Indiana University Press 1986).

Understanding Popular Culture by John Fiske (Unwin Hyman 1989).

Welsh Psycho: Extracts from the Teenage Diary of Colin B. Morton by Colin B. Morton ( zine/elshpsycho/index.html).

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