Saturday night we had the pleasure of attending a lovely event - a fund-raising gala for a local civic chorale. The invitation we received from some friends said that they recommended black-tie as a dress code. Naturally, this is not a normal way of spending a Friday evening for us, and, only knowing one couple that would be there, I was quite nervous. I’m not good in social situations, regardless of the dress code, but something formal just seems to increase the possibility for awkwardness.
Given that neither of us actually own formal wear, I was thankful that I took a moment to clarify and learned that a dress for me and a suit for hubby would be sufficient, but that still left me feeling quite apprehensive about the activity in the hours before. Nonetheless, off we went.
Well, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. We had quite a bit in common with many of the people in attendance – our love of music. It was music, after all, that had brought all of these people together, and our mutual interest served as a kind of social glue, allowing people of a wide range of ages, economic backgrounds, and professions to share a lovely evening.
The festivities began in a reception area, where attendees had time to peruse items donated for a silent auction and partake of the offerings at the bar. Then, we were signaled to enter the ballroom by the song of a bagpiper (the choir is preparing for a tour of Great Britain, so the gala had a Scottish theme). Next, the chorale performed a medley of songs, all drawn from Scottish traditions.
Then, we ate. This is always the part of these kinds of affairs that I dread because there is no escaping the need for small talk. I’m terrible at small talk. Luckily the music provided a launching pad for conversation. Soon, everyone was chatting away about their relationship with the chorale, their love of local performers, their experiences in Scotland… I suspect had I been attending a similar event that didn’t have live music as a focal point, I’d have struggled much more to find things to say to this table of strangers. Music, however, served as a kind of social lubricant, allowing us all to relax and get to know one another within a pre-defined framework.
I suspect music serves this function on many levels beyond that of non-gala-going folks who suddenly find themselves attending a gala. I myself have seen instances where I suddenly learn that a new (or sometimes even an old) friend enjoys a band or style of music that I enjoy, and that can help to solidify our new (or re-emerging) friendship. (You’d be amazed at how many people will only admit to being fans of groups like Duran Duran or the Monkees under the perceived protection of social media.).
We even see this kind of reference to music as a kind of social glue in mass media. I’m particularly thinking of the episode of South Park that feature the “goth kids.” As soon as another character begins to hang out with them and take on their lifestyle, the posters on their wall or the music playing in their bedroom instantly changes. Similarly, I was watching the trailer for the movie Blackboard Jungle the other day, and I got such a kick out of the way the “bad kids at the school” were portrayed to a soundtrack of Bill Haley & the Comets singing “Rock Around the Clock,” while the adults were accompanied by a dramatic orchestral arrangement. Only a “teenage menace” would listen to that rock’n’roll garbage! In this case, music not only unites the kids on the school grounds, but it provides a social barrier between them and the authority figures in the film – one style of music indicates the younger side of the generational divide, while another style of music symbolizes the other generation.
As I write this, I find myself thinking a lot about high school cliques and how they adopt part of their social identity from music. I can’t speak as eloquently about today’s high school experience (it’s been, ahem, a while…), but I remember almost imagining a soundtrack as I would walk past various groups of people. The skateboarders were associated with punk. The goth kids (did we even have that term back then?) seemed like they listened to a lot of the Smiths, Echo & the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie & the Banshees – though maybe that was in fact too pedestrian for their tastes. The headbangers obviously liked metal, Etc. etc. etc… Of course, I never actually asked any of these people what kind of music they preferred, so this is all mere speculation on my part, but in an age before iPods, when music was more of a social activity, these were the kinds of things one might hear walking past a group of friends. And concert t-shirts were also a pretty reliable clue. Nonetheless, music seemed to form at least a surface point of contact for many of these cliques. I’d be curious to see if the outward appearances actually reflected the musical tastes held within.
What do you think? How does music help to aid in social interaction?
It is through one of my oldest and dearest friendships that I became acquainted with the music of The Cure. And so, it seems only appropriate that I mark this discussion of music as social glue with my favorite of their albums, The Head on the Door.
This album will never not remind of high school, but having a bit of historical perspective allows me to examine it from a somewhat more objective light. So. Much. Reverb! But, that’s ok, because here it works. Want to make sense of the lyrics? Good luck! But, the imagery they produce is dreamy and fun.
Don’t stop me, even if you’ve heard this one before. I’ve been telling this story a lot the last few weeks, but now it’s got me thinking.
A short time ago I had my first visit with a new doctor. As part of the getting-to-know-you process, she asked what I do for a living. I replied saying that I teach music history at a local university. “Oh, you do music,” she responded, “What instrument do you play?” Mostly because while wearing one of those fancy medical gowns and being lectured about my blood pressure makes me less than talkative, I just said, “Actually I sing.” She then said, “Oh, you’re just a singer.” “Hmm…”
Normally, I would say something to the effect of how I am actually a scholar who also holds a master’s degree in vocal performance, but since I was there to oversee my healthcare it seemed wise not to antagonize, but the longer I thought about this exchange, the more it annoyed me. JUST a singer? You mean like you are JUST a general practitioner?
I think the thing that strikes me strangest when I look back on this discussion is that a) this woman had no idea how rude she was being, and b) why would a non-musician have these kinds of notions about the comparative skill set of various types of musicians?
Certainly, there are stereotypes associated with performers of different instruments/voices and styles of music. And often, the more deeply someone embeds themselves in the music lifestyle, the more specific they become.
As an undergrad, the recording technology majors were seen as slackers, who didn’t care about their school work, and were only interested in partying and playing with bands. Of course, they were not all like that, but that was the general perception.
When I studied vocal performance, sopranos and tenors were haughty, scene stealing ego machines, while mezzos, altos, baritones, and basses were either highly industrious or sad sacks.
As my interest became increasingly academic, performers became seen as dingy, self-centered, and impractical.
Even now, as a historical musicologist, we often have joint meetings with our colleagues in music theory (nerds) and ethnomusicology (hippies).
What purpose do these kinds of notions serve? That is primarily a question for cognitive and social psychologists, but simply put, stereotypes help people easily draw conclusions about a person based on a set of understood generalizations. This then aids in our social responses to this new individual.
Since people tend to be drawn to others who share their interests, the idea that notions about “others” would arise makes sense from a purely cognitive ad psychological perspective.
Of course, stereotyping can lead to prejudice and animosity, and it is our failure to recognize that an individual is always more that what another person instantly perceives and assumes to be true about them that causes the problematic stigma attached to stereotypes.
All that being said, what does it say about the pubic perception of music when a layperson assumes an inferiority of “just a singer” over an instrumentalist? Or a scholar over a performer?
I suppose there must be something about that notion stemming from the fact that singers use an instrument that nearly everyone has at their disposal. Without an instrument outside of our bodies, we as singers have not mastered anything that anyone could, if they tried. In theory…
Our culture in recent years has also seen an unending barrage of people who think they can sing and feel no qualms whatsoever about displaying their “skills” on karaoke stages, television talent contests, and other public venues. Is it possible that performers like these have diminished the overall level of respect that hard-working, gifted singers are entitled to earn from the general public?
As for scholars, culture at large still seems to believe in the old axiom, “Those who cannot do, teach,” assuming that anyone who would pursue the scholarly aspects of music because they lacked the talent or heart to make it as a performer.
I’m sure that these notions hold true for some singers and scholars, though certainly not all. Musicians, just like everyone else, come in all shapes, sizes, colors, level of intelligence and dedication, etc. etc. etc… Nonetheless, we’re all guilty of stereotyping, so it should come as no surprise when such notions are aimed back at us, whatever the reason.
So where am I going with all of this? Honestly, I’m not longer sure. I started writing with my feathers in a ruffle over something said to me by an innocent (though still ignorant) party. Then, as I looked into how ideas like that nonchalantly blurted out by my doctor making small talk are simply part of society’s collective cognitive mechanism. Now, I guess I’m left with the idea what everyone makes snap judgments about others, but the proof in the pudding is how we act on them.
I’ve kind of gotten away from music here, but I suspect that it’s ok. Reminding folks to be kind to one another seems more important somehow…
I had a hard time deciding what would make sense as a listening example for this post. Then it hit me…
Listen Without Prejudice: George Michael
I found this CD is a used shop about 6 months ago. I hadn’t heard the album in years, but I remembered liking it a lot when I had it on vinyl. I still like it.
George Michael is one of those artists who is almost remembered more as a punch line than a musician, but nonetheless, he has a great voice and can write really thoughtful music. This album was viewed as being somewhat pretentious, as I recall, back in the day, but I suspect that the artist was simply trying to demonstrate that he was capable of more than shaking his butt and writing songs like those recorded by Wham!.
Perhaps the best way to approach the music is just as the title suggests, without prejudice. Enter with no expectations, and no preconceived notions of what an artist such as George Michael should sound like. Only then, can the artistry really shine through.
Consider it not only an exercise in listening, but an exercise in living…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the term “genre” as it is applied to music. It seems as though somewhere in the last 20 years or so, someone just randomly decided to re-define the term, and the rest of the world just went along with it. I suddenly feel myself sounding like an old person wagging my finger on the front porch, saying, “Back in my day…” but in any case, the meaning of the term has definitely shifted.
If one were to look in any music textbook to find a definition of genre, they would encounter something like this: “Types of musical composition.” (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca. A History of Western Music 8th ed., NY: Norton, 2010, p. 7.) Taken from the book sitting right on my desk… So, granted “type of composition” is vague, but the term was intended to refer to the structural, stylistic, and performance characteristics that differentiate musical objects, such as the opera and the symphony, etc.
What is generally understood as genre today is, in fact, musical style, “A characteristic way of treating the musical elements.” (Kamien. Music: An Appreciation, 6th brief ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2008, p. 56). So, while something like jazz is a style, a song in that style is a genre.
So, when did these terms get confused and why? I suspect it happened with the birth of iTunes. “Style” seemed too vague to describe the distinctions between, say, country and blues, and “genre” is a fancy word. Look up genre, and the standard definition leaves enough space to use, and boom! A term is forever bastardized.
And yet, it would seem that many have adopted this misusage. I quick ran a search for “music genre” on Amazon, to see what kind of books were adopting the wrong use of the term. Once I got over my astonishment at getting over 72,000 hits, I realized that Amazon groups printed music by genre (using the established definition of the term), but there were still numerous scholarly books on popular and non-Western music that used the word “genre” to mean “style.”
I suppose part of the problem is the lack of distinction among actual genres in popular music. A popular song is pretty much a popular song, i.e. a relatively short work, recorded for commercial purposes in a non-art music style (that’s my definition, for those of you keeping score).
So, what difference does it make? Well, I, for one, think it is important to use terminology correctly, and as such, I spend much of my professional life correcting students about the improper use of the word genre.
The really sad thing about all of this is that there are some really fascinating topics regarding musical style that would be fun to discuss, if not for the constant threat of someone bringing up “the g word” and ruining my day…
I find it really funny how obsessed listeners and artists get about picking apart the differences between one style and the next. The example I use in class a lot are to play examples of “Norwegian Death Metal” compared to “Swedish Black Metal.” Seriously? Can anyone hear a difference? And yet, if you bring this up to a die-hard fan of either sub-sub style, they’ll go to the ends of the earth defining the differences between these two styles.
With that in mind, if we return to the definition of style for a moment, the term implies that some combination of musical characteristics should not only hold together music of a specific style, but that this grouping if characteristics should make it different from other styles, right? For example, the way music sounds are combined in bluegrass set it apart from the combinations heard in hip-hop.
How does that apply to a style like emo? I can honestly say I’ve listened to huge amounts of emo music, but, given what I have heard, I can honestly say that I don’t hear a lot of unifying musical characteristics, but rather what brings this style together seems to be more based on lyrical content. And, as I find myself saying at least a million times a year, lyrics are not a musical element. In fact, looking to the internet for a definition of the word emo, I find, “a style [yay!] of rock music characterized by expressive, often confessional lyrics.” Uh-huh….
Suffice it to say, I find the whole issue somewhat confusing… and incredibly frustrating when the terminology I teach students gets distorted into something else. I can see why it has happened, and I’ve been guilty of misusing “genre” myself, but I can’t help but wonder why such a big deal is made about musical style.
It almost strikes me a musical stereotyping to place a collection of distinct, individual works under s single heading. Sure, it makes cataloging easier. It helps with searches. But, on one hand, we have artists who seem to eschew the notion of genre/style all together – like the hipsters who claim “my music has its own style,” and on the other, like in the ridiculous case of Norwegian death metal, artists who label their music to the point of absurdity. There are also plenty of artists who blend styles together into strange and often fascinating fusion styles. Does style even mean anything anymore?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.