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.
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.