product: music

One major part of introducing students to sociology is getting to the “this is water” lesson: the idea that our default experiences of social life are often strange and worthy of examining. This can be challenging, because the default is often boring or difficult to grasp, but asking the right questions is a good start (with some potentially hilarious results).

Take this one: what does English sound like to a non-native speaker? For students who grew up speaking it, this is almost like one of those Zen koans that you can’t quite wrap your head around. If you intuitively know what the language means, it is difficult to separate that meaning from the raw sounds.

That’s why I love this video from Italian pop singer Adriano Celentano. The whole thing is gibberish written to imitate how English slang sounds to people who don’t speak it.


Another example to get class going with a laugh is the 1990s video game Fighting Baseball for the SNES. Released in Japan, the game didn’t have the licensing to use real players’ names, so they used names that sounded close enough. A list of some of the names still bounces around the internet:

The popular idea of the Uncanny Valley in horror and science fiction works really well for languages, too. The funny (and sometimes unsettling) feelings we get when we watch imitations of our default assumptions fall short is a great way to get students thinking about how much work goes into our social world in the first place.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

More social scientists are pointing out that the computer algorithms that run so much of our lives have our human, social biases baked in. This has serious consequences for determining who gets credit, who gets parole, and all kinds of other important life opportunities.

It also has some sillier consequences.

Last week NPR host Sam Sanders tweeted about his Spotify recommendations:

Others quickly chimed in with screenshots of their own. Here are some of my mixes:

The program has clearly learned to suggest music based on established listening patterns and norms from music genres. Sociologists know that music tastes are a way we build communities and signal our identities to others, and the music industry reinforces these boundaries in their marketing, especially along racial lines.

These patterns highlight a core sociological point that social boundaries large and small emerge from our behavior even when nobody is trying to exclude anyone. Algorithms accelerate this process by the sheer number of interactions they can watch at any given time. It is important to remembers the stakes of these design quirks when talking about new technology. After all, if biased results come out, the program probably learned it from watching us!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Source Photo: Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

It’s that time of year again! Fans across the nation are coming together to cheer on their colleges and universities in cutthroat competition. The drama is high and full of surprises as underdogs take on the established greats—some could even call it madness.

I’m talking, of course, about The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

In case you missed the Pitch Perfect phenomenon, college a cappella has come a long way from the dulcet tones of Whiffenpoofs in the West Wing. Today, bands of eager singers are turning pop hits on their heads. Here’s a sampler, best enjoyed with headphones:

And competitive a cappella has gotten serious. Since its founding in 1996, the ICCA has turned into a massive national competition spawning a separate high school league and an open-entry, international competition for any signing group.

As a sociologist, watching niche hobbies turn into subcultures and subcultures turn into established institutions is fascinating. We even have data! Varsity Vocals publishes the results of each ICCA competition, including the scores and university affiliations of each group placing in the top-three of every quarterfinal, regional semifinal, and national final going back to 2006. I scraped the results from over 1300 placements to see what we can learn when a cappella meets analytics.

Watching a Conference Emerge

Organizational sociologists study how groups develop into functioning formal organizations by turning habits into routines and copying other established institutions. Over time, they watch how behaviors  become more bureaucratic and standardized.

We can watch this happen with the ICCAs. Over the years, Varsity Vocals has established formal scoring guidelines, judging sheets, and practices for standardizing extreme scores. By graphing out the distribution of groups’ scores over the years, you can see the competition get more consistent in its scoring over time. The distributions narrow in range, and they take a more normal shape around about 350 points rather than skewing high or low.

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Gender in the A Cappella World

Gender is a big deal in a cappella, because many groups define their membership by gender as a proxy for vocal range. Coed groups get a wider variety of voice parts, making their sound more versatile, but gender-exclusive groups can have an easier time getting a blended, uniform sound. This raises questions about gender and inequality, and there is a pretty big gender gap in who places at competition.

In light of this gap, one interesting trend is the explosion of coed a cappella groups over the past twelve years. These groups now make up a much larger proportion of placements, while all male and all female groups have been on the decline.

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Who Are the Powerhouse Schools?

Just like March Madness, one of my favorite parts about the ICCA is the way it brings together all kinds of students and schools. You’d be surprised by some of the schools that lead on the national scene. Check out some of the top performances on YouTube, and stay tuned to see who takes the championship next month!

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Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Originally posted at Discoveries

Punk rock has a long history of anti-racism, and now a new wave of punk bands are turning it up to eleven to combat Islamophobia. For a recent research article, sociologist Amy D. McDowell  immersed herself into the “Taqwacore” scene — a genre of punk rock that derives its name from the Arabic word “Taqwa.” While inspired by the Muslim faith, this genre of punk is not strictly religious — Taqwacore captures the experience of the “brown kids,” Muslims and non-Muslims alike who experience racism and prejudice in the post-9/11 era. This music calls out racism and challenges stereotypes.

Through a combination of interviews and many hours of participant observation at Taqwacore events, McDowell brings together testimony from musicians and fans, describes the scene, and analyzes materials from Taqwacore forums and websites. Many participants, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, describe processes of discrimination where anti-Muslim sentiments and stereotypes have affected them. Her research shows how Taqwacore is a multicultural musical form for a collective, panethnic “brown” identity that spans multiple nationalities and backgrounds. Pushing back against the idea that Islam and punk music are incompatible, Taqwacore artists draw on the essence of punk to create music to that empowers marginalized youth.

Neeraj Rajasekar is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Minnesota.

In the 1950s and ’60s, a set of social psychological experiments seemed to show that human beings were easily manipulated by low and moderate amounts of peer pressure, even to the point of violence. It was a stunning research program designed in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, which required the active participation of so many people, and the findings seemed to suggest that what happened there was part of human nature.

What we know now, though, is that this research was undertaken at an unusually conformist time. Mothers were teaching their children to be obedient, loyal, and to have good manners. Conformity was a virtue and people generally sought to blend in with their peers. It wouldn’t last.

At the same time as the conformity experiments were happening, something that would contribute to changing how Americans thought about conformity was being cooked up: the psychedelic drug, LSD.

Lysergic acid diethylamide was first synthesized in 1938 in the routine process of discovering new drugs for medical conditions. The first person to discover it psychedelic properties — its tendency to alter how we see and think — was the scientist who invented it, Albert Hoffmann. He ingested it accidentally, only to discover that it induces a “dreamlike state” in which he “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”

By the 1950s , LSD was being administered to unwitting American in a secret, experimental mind control program conducted by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, one that would last 14 years and occur in over 80 locations. Eventually the fact of the secret program would leak out to the public, and so would LSD.

It was the 1960s and America was going through a countercultural revolution. The Civil Rights movement was challenging persistent racial inequality, the women’s and gay liberation movements were staking claims on equality for women and sexual minorities, the sexual revolution said no to social rules surrounding sexuality and, in the second decade of an intractable war with Vietnam, Americans were losing patience with the government. Obedience had gone out of style.

LSD was the perfect drug for the era. For its proponents, there was something about the experience of being on the drug that made the whole concept of conformity seem absurd. A new breed of thinker, the “psychedelic philosopher,” argued that LSD opened one’s mind and immediately revealed the world as it was, not the world as human beings invented it. It revealed, in other words, the social constructedness of culture.

In this sense, wrote the science studies scholar Ido Hartogsohn, LSD was truly “countercultural,” not only “in the sense of being peripheral or opposed to mainstream culture [but in] rejecting the whole concept of culture.” Culture, the philosophers claimed, shut down our imagination and psychedelics were the cure. “Our normal word-conditioned consciousness,” wrote one proponent, “creates a universe of sharp distinctions, black and white, this and that, me and you and it.” But on acid, he explained, all of these rules fell away. We didn’t have to be trapped in a conformist bubble. We could be free.

The cultural influence of the psychedelic experience, in the context of radical social movements, is hard to overstate. It shaped the era’s music, art, and fashion. It gave us tie-dye, The Grateful Dead, and stuff like this:


via GIPHY

The idea that we shouldn’t be held down by cultural constrictions — that we should be able to live life as an individual as we choose — changed America.

By the 1980s, mothers were no longer teaching their children to be obedient, loyal, and to have good manners. Instead, they taught them independence and the importance of finding one’s own way. For decades now, children have been raised with slogans of individuality: “do what makes you happy,” “it doesn’t matter what other people think,” “believe in yourself,” “follow your dreams,” or the more up-to-date “you do you.”

Today, companies choose slogans that celebrate the individual, encouraging us to stand out from the crowd. In 2014, for example, Burger King abandoned its 40-year-old slogan, “Have it your way,” for a plainly individualistic one: “Be your way.” Across the consumer landscape, company slogans promise that buying their products will mark the consumer as special or unique. “Stay extraordinary,” says Coke; “Think different,” says Apple. Brands encourage people to buy their products in order to be themselves: Ray-Ban says “Never hide”; Express says “Express yourself,” and Reebok says “Let U.B.U.”

In surveys, Americans increasingly defend individuality. Millennials are twice as likely as Baby Boomers to agree with statements like “there is no right way to live.” They are half as likely to think that it’s important to teach children to obey, instead arguing that the most important thing a child can do is “think for him or herself.” Millennials are also more likely than any other living generation to consider themselves political independents and be unaffiliated with an organized religion, even if they believe in God. We say we value uniqueness and are critical of those who demand obedience to others’ visions or social norms.

Paradoxically, it’s now conformist to be an individualist and deviant to be conformist. So much so that a subculture emerged to promote blending in. “Normcore,” it makes opting into conformity a virtue. As one commentator described it, “Normcore finds liberation in being nothing special…”

Obviously LSD didn’t do this all by itself, but it was certainly in the right place at the right time. And as a symbol of the radical transition that began in the 1960s, there’s hardly one better.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at the Gender & Society blog.

Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.

They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.”  And, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S.  Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships.  Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” Here is the chorus:

“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”

In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”

Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, below is the chorus:

“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true”

Unlike Omi’s song, Grammar’s single is a song about a man at a bar without his significant other. He’s turning down drinks from a woman (or women), claiming that he doesn’t trust himself to be faithful if he gives into the drink. Instead, he opts to leave the bar to ensure he doesn’t give in to this temptation.

Both songs are written in the same spirit. They’re songs that appear to be about women, but are actually anthems about what amazing men these guys are because… well, because they don’t cheat, but could.

I was struck by the common message, a message at least partially to blame for why we all heard them so much. And the message is that, for men in heterosexual relationships, resisting the temptation to be unfaithful is hard work. And this message helps to highlight key ingredients of contemporary hegemonic masculinities: heterosexuality and promiscuity. Both men are identifying as heterosexual throughout each song. But, you might think, they’re not identifying as promiscuous. So, how are they supporting this cultural ideal if they appear to be challenging it? The answer to that is all in the delivery.

Amy C. Wilkins studied the ways that a group of college Christian men navigated what she terms the “masculinity dilemma” of demonstrating themselves to be heterosexual and heterosexually active when they were in a group committed to abstinence. Wilkins discovered that they navigated this dilemma by enacting what she refers to as “collective processes of temptation” whereby they crafted a discourse about just how masculine they were by resisting the temptation to be heterosexually active. They ritualistically discussed the problem of heterosexual temptation. And, in so doing, Wilkins argues that the men she studied, “perform their heterosexuality collectively, aligning themselves with conventional assumptions about masculinity through the ritual invocation of temptation” (here: 353). It’s hard to craft an identity based on not doing something. But if you’re going to, Wilkins argues that temptation is key.

Similarly, Sarah Diefendorf found that young evangelical Christian men navigate their gender identities alongside pledges of sexual abstinence until marriage. Men in Diefendorf’s study used one another as “accountability partners” to make sure they didn’t cheat on their pledges if they were in relationships, but even with things like pornography or masturbation. As Diefendorf writes, “These confessions… enable these men to demonstrate a connection with hegemonic masculinity through claims of desire for future heterosexual practices” (here: 658-659). In C.J. Pascoe’s study of high school boys navigating tenuous gender and sexual identities, she refers to this process more generally as “compulsive heterosexuality.”

Both songs are meant to situate the two singers as great men, men to be admired. But, being able to listen to this message and “get it” means that you can take for granted the premise on which the songs are based—in this case, that men are hard-wired to be sexual scoundrels and that heterosexual women should count themselves lucky if they are fortunate enough to have landed a man committed to not living up to his wiring. Without understanding men as having a natural and apparently insatiable sexual wanderlust, these songs don’t make sense.

Both Omi and Grammar need the discourse of temptation to frame themselves as noble. If we want to challenge men to not cheat, we should be challenge the idea that they’re working against biologically deterministic inclinations to do so. I’m not sure it would make a top 20 hit, but neither would it recuperate forms of gendered inequality through the guise of dismantling them.

________________

*Thanks to Sarah Diefendorf for her edits and smart feedback on this post.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar.  With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity.  With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.

That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.

Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”

But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.

My students, I discovered last week,  harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.

Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”

That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?

Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films – when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.

Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.

“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – ‘Honeycomb’ by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”

It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.

Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films had the similarity of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioblogBig hat tip to Mark at West Coast Stat Views.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Musician Ryan Adams recently released an album cover. A cover, that is, of an entire album written and performed by Taylor Swift. Both albums are titled 1989.

7via TheVine.com.

Critical praise for Adams’ version was immediate, turning quickly to a comparison of the two. At There’s Research on That!, Jacqui Frost explained that there was…

…a media frenzy about which album is “better” and who deserves credit for the “depth and complexity” that many say Adams brought to Swift’s poppier original. Some reviews argue Adams “vindicated” Taylor Swift as an artist; others argue that emotional depth was already present in Swift’s songwriting…

Swift’s 1989 was the best selling album of 2014 — by popular vote, it was obviously an excellent album — but many people seemed not to notice. Instead, they wanted to talk about who should get credit for the quality of Adams’ album, as if whether there was anything good there to begin with was an open question.

Frost draws on sociological research to suggest that gender might help explain why we have such a hard time giving credit to Swift.

First, she notes that musical genres are gendered and we tend to take feminized genres less seriously than masculinized ones. “Many publications that reviewed Adams’ version [of 1989],” for example, “did not review Swift’s original.” This may be because serious music critics don’t review pop.

Second, research shows that male creatives in the music industry are generally more likely to get credit than females ones. Frost writes:

[M]ale musicians, regardless of genre, are more likely to receive critical recognition and be “consecrated” into the popular music canon. Women are less likely to be seen as “legitimate” artists and are more often judged on their emotional authenticity and connections with “more” legitimate, male artists.

In fact, Frost notes, “the albums will be competing for a Grammy this year, and many think Adams will take it over Swift

Whatever you think of the two albums, the instinct to dismiss Swift’s album as “just pop” and Adams’ version as “artistic” is likely tied to the powerful ways in which the music industry, and our own experience of music, has a thumb on the scale in favor of men and masculine genres.

This post borrows heavily from Jacqui Frost at TROT! and you can find links to the original research there.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.