The Sopranos prequel highlights the path from Newark neighborhood to suburban McMansion

The Sopranos’ McMansion is a key part of the original show. The new prequel movie might help explain how the family ended up in a New Jersey McMansion:

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By the 1990s, the mob was operating out of detached villas with swimming pools in upstate New Jersey, but if you want to learn precisely why the adult Tony Soprano lives in a gilded McMansion rather than a clapboard house with a stoop in Newark like his mother’s, The Many Saints Of Newark has the answer.

As Harold’s fortunes rise, black families move onto the same streets as Italians, causing much angst to the latter, including Tony’s parents, Johnny Boy and Livia Soprano. It makes Tony’s racism that much more obvious when, 30 years later, his daughter, Meadow, brings home her mixed-race college boyfriend. “I think there was talk, back in the day, about ‘Were black people getting short shrift on The Sopranos?’” says Odom Jr. “Was our story being told? I think David had a desire this time to look at an arc that really didn’t get explored the first time, at how the two communities intertwined and where they butted up against each other.”

This sounds like a white flight story line: as the population of Newark changed, as more Black residents moved into what were exclusively white neighborhoods, white residents moved out. This happened in numerous cities across the United States (as my own research on religious groups in the Chicago area adds to). In The Sopranos, Tony and cronies make money off housing programs in the city.

At the same time, this narrative could say more about a general move to the suburbs and less about the specific move to the suburban McMansion at the heart of the show. Tony Soprano presumably used his wealth to purchase a big home in a quiet subdivision to hide his work and give his family an opportunity at a more normal suburban life. But, did he go straight from Newark to the suburban McMansion? Did his journey include a more modest suburban starter home or a suburban apartment (as it did for other characters on The Sopranos)? Did a young adult Tony Soprano make his moves from a suburban split-level or anonymous apartment off a major suburban road?

The housing path of Tony Soprano is not an inconsequential part of the story that is being developed here; it highlights his family history, his success, and his goals in life. If I see The Many Saints of Newark, I will be keeping an eye on the residences depicted within the film.

The difference between a psychological and a sociological story

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci describes what makes a sociological story different than a psychological one:

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In a sociological story, you can imagine yourself being almost anyone. Instead of terrible, evil character and good people, where you just identify with the good ones – which is the classic Hollywood narrative, which is also most of human narrative, you have the good one, the bad one – it’s more like a complicated mythology where you can imagine yourself being any one of those characters, even the ones that do the terrible things, you can see yourself doing it.

The second sign of a sociological story, for me, is when nobody has plot armor because it’s the setting that’s carrying the story, with lots of people, but it doesn’t rely on one person dying or not dying. For six seasons, you have a very institution sociology, very interesting. It’s like The Wire. People can die, but the story is still gripping because it’s sociological…

They took a great story that was going to be how power corrupts, which clearly was the story, and in the end, they made the dragon lady snap just because she heard the church bells or something. [laughs] That’s not a good sociological story.

The key to the explanation above seems to be that a institution or a social group or a particular moment is the focus of the story, not a particular character or two. By shifting the narrative away from the actions and/or thoughts of a certain person, the story can be about the social setting.

Since it is hard to imagine compelling stories without any focus on individual characters, perhaps this dichotomy between a psychological and sociological story is more like a continuum. On the psychological side, I could think of stories like Crime and Punishment where so much is about what is going on in one person’s head. On the sociological side is The Wire or War and Peace where the focus is more on the setting and the larger social and historical factors at play.

With this said, I would love to have a list of sociological stories in various genres and mediums. This could be useful to share with students and to explore on my own.

Defining sociology in the pilot of “All in the Family”

The 1971 pilot of All in the Family included Michael, son-in-law of Archie Bunker and a college student, as a main character. After the first commercial break, Michael and Archie go at it about Michael’s study of sociology (with some input from Gloria, Michael’s wife and Archie’s daughter):

Michael: What do you want from me anyway? I don’t have time to do anything. I’m studying six hours, I’m in class six hours. You know it’s not easy going to college, it’s hard work.

Archie: For you it’s like building the pyramids. I’ll tell you it’s all that sociology and studying that welfare stuff. I don’t call that no hard work.

Gloria: Oh Daddy, leave him alone. I think it’s beautiful that Michael wants to help the underprivileged.

Archie: Listen, if he wants to help the underprivileged let him start with himself. He’s got no brains, he’s got no ambitions, if that ain’t underprivileged, I don’t know what is.

Sociology does not feature on television shows very often. While it had a spot on the popular All in the Family, the way it is set up here provides two opposite views of the discipline.

On one side, sociology is the discipline of a younger generation interested in social change and improving society. Sociology can help the disadvantaged and provide for the better distribution of resources.

On the other side, sociology is a waste of time. It is a liberal enterprise composed of people who should themselves focus on working hard and not stirring up trouble.

Fifty years later, are these two reactions to sociology common? Given that sociology does not always get much attention on television or among the general public, have we advanced much in our public understanding of sociology?

This is the focus of the opening stages of my Introduction to Sociology courses: how does sociology view the world? What are its methods and theories? What do we hope to see? This takes more time than television sitcoms can provide.

Bringing a South Side Chicago home to the middle of an entertainment spectacle

The listening party Kanye West hosted at Chicago’s Soldier Field last week featured at the center of the set a replica of the home of his mother on the city’s South Side:

As noted in the review, the addition of the cross to the front of the home helped it look like a church. However, outside of that, it looks like a fairly standard house: long and skinny to fit a city lot, a bay window in the front, a second story with pitched roofs all the way back, nondescript siding.

That the single-family house was at the center of a spectacle – slow moving vehicles, other music stars, people in masks and costumes on the front steps, thousands of people listening in the stands – hints at the role of the home in the creative process. How many important American cultural works emerge from such dwellings? Once stars are established, we do not associate them with such humble dwellings but rather with large Hollywood mansions or opulent condos in the biggest cities. Or, we might think of artists as connected to particular places, whether specific neighborhoods or cities or suburbia at large. Kanye has noted connections to Chicago but this home says less about Chicago as a place than it does about more private activity, home life, and the importance of West’s mother. Even as we are not invited to see inside the important home – imagine it being constructed in such a way to open for the audience with emphasis on certain rooms, activities, or symbols – we get the sense that the home mattered.

The Chair is about a unique role and some bigger issues facing higher education

The Chair follows a new English Department chair as she navigates crises and pressure from administrators and faculty. On one hand, it is about a unique academic position where the department chair is caught between the interests of the institution and the interests of faculty. On the other hand, the six episode season considers some of the large issues facing higher education in 2021. These include:

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-Hiring, retaining, promoting, and celebrating female faculty and faculty of color.

-Responding to student interests amid faculty and institutional expertise and will that might or might not line up with those interests. This can come out in discussions about attracting students and majors or whether programs and faculty are contributing to or harming the school’s brand.

-The personal lives of faculty juggling family, teaching, research, and other commitments.

-Generational change within departments and institutions.

-Addressing social change, new ideas, and controversies when expertise takes time to develop and research cycles are long.

These may not be new questions in academia but relatively few television shows, movies, or other cultural products grapple with issues in what might seem to outsiders to be a strange world.

Chicago’s suburbs as quintessential American suburbs in cultural products

A number of Chicago suburbs have appeared on television and in movies in recent decades:

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Rightly or wrongly, I concluded that suburbia was segregated and snobbish, an attitude I’ve never been able to shake. I didn’t get that attitude from movies about just any suburbs, I got it from movies about Chicago’s Northern suburbs, which, over the last 40 years, have come to be seen as representative of all American suburbia. (My first job in Chicago was covering the Lake County suburbs for the Tribune. That didn’t change my mind.)

During the first wave of suburbanization, in the aftermath of World War II, the suburbs of Northeastern cities got all the attention, in movies such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, and in the fiction of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates. When Hollywood rediscovered Chicago in the 1980s, though, it also discovered Chicago’s suburbs, through the work of writers and directors who grew up there. Paul Brickman, who directed Risky Business, was from Highland Park; Hughes was from Northbrook.

In the 1980s, suburbia was in its prime. Back then, nobody with money wanted to live in urban America. Rich people wouldn’t start moving back to cities for another decade. The suburbs are often mocked as a cultural wasteland, but towards the end of the 20th century, that’s where a lot of Chicago’s cultural energy was coming from. Even The Blues Brothers, which is revered as a document of post-industrial, pre-gentrification Chicago, was co-created by John Belushi of Wheaton. Steppenwolf Theatre Company was co-founded by Jeff Perry of Highland Park and Gary Sinise of Blue Island. According to his National Lampoon colleague P.J. O’Rourke, Hughes in particular was eager to rescue his native grounds from the notion that “America’s suburbs were a living hell almost beyond the power of John Cheever’s words to describe.”Chicago’s 1990s alternative music scene may have been born in Wicker Park, but its leading lights were suburbanites: Liz Phair of Winnetka, Billy Corgan of Elk Grove Village, Local H of Zion. Urge Overkill formed at Northwestern University. High Fidelity, the movie which celebrated that scene, starred Evanston’s own John Cusack as Rob Gordon, a guy from the suburbs who opens a record shop on Milwaukee Avenue.

Chicago’s suburbs continue to define suburbia in popular culture. The 2004 movie Mean Girls, the quintessential depiction of high school cliques, was set at fictional North Shore High School (i.e., New Trier). The characters even shopped at Old Orchard, although it was inaccurately depicted as an indoor mall. Greater Chicagoland also makes an appearance, and provides a contrast: Wayne’s World, set in Aurora, and Roseanne, set in the fictional, Elgin-inspired collar-county town of Lanford, are on the outside, physically, culturally and economically.

As someone who has researched locations and television shows, this raises several responses:

  1. Would viewers of these different suburbs know that the Chicago suburbs were unique in some way or do they look like suburbs all over? For example, does North Shore High School look or feel different than schools in Westchester County or outside Boston? One of the films cited, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, clearly shows Chicago locations but the suburban shots could fit in many American suburbs.
  2. There is an empirical question here: were Chicago suburbs depicted more often than suburbs of other locations? Or, based on viewers or ticket revenue or albums sold, how does the creative energy of the Chicago suburbs compare to cultural products linked to other locations?
  3. There is still some sense that suburbs are not creative places. This stereotypes dates back to at least the mid-twentieth century when suburbs were criticized as conformist and bland. True creative energy can only come from cities, not homogeneous and exclusive suburbs. Yet, as more Americans lived in suburbs compared to cities starting in the 1960s, it is not a surprise that cultural products would come from suburbanites.
  4. Even as a number of creatives grew up in suburbs, how much did their adult work and products rely on cities, including Chicago? The major culture industries in the United States are often located in big cities so even suburban or rural themes are mediated through more populous and denser communities.

Rare McMansion mention on HGTV

For a network focused on single-family homes, the term McMansion is rarely uttered on HGTV. Here is one example I ran into a few weeks back on My Lottery Dream Home:

On the top left of the image, you can faintly see some of the narration over the image: “Willow Park Way that almost looked like a McMansion.”

Almost a McMansion. The exterior here has some interesting features that might place it in McMansion territory: multiple roof lines, interesting window placement, a large house, in a sprawling Texas community.

Even as the couple did not select this home at the end, it is interesting the term was applied to this home and not the others which also could have been viewed as McMansions. Present a large suburban home with a front meant to impress yet some questionable architectural choices and McMansions may just come to mind.

Why the term McMansion is not used much on HGTV is probably very straight forward: it is not a positive term and does not connote the kind of quality of home the network would like to depict. Whether the McMansion is too large, a teardown, aesthetically unappealing, or connected to sprawl or excessive consumption, few people would likely loudly say they like such a home or live in such a dwelling.

At the same time, this episode was set in suburban Texas where housing tastes are different than in more sophisticated markets. In my comparison of the use of the word McMansion in the New York and Dallas regions, there was more openness in Dallas to such homes and what they represent. Surely, some McMansion dwellers and afficionados watch HGTV and they might be in markets where McMansions are not so disliked.

I will keep checking for more mentions of McMansions on HGTV. As I do, I am much more likely to hear terms like mid-century modern or country farmhouse much more than the term McMansion.

Urbanism in board game form, 7 Wonders Duel edition

I am intrigued when the topics I study as a sociologist intersect with board games. Here is another example: the highly rated two person 7 Wonders Duel game includes a token that through science gains you can acquire called “urbanism”:

The way it works is that it immediately provides the player 6 coins and then each time they acquire a building for free, possible if you have already constructed a building linked to the proposed structure, they gain 4 additional coins. In short, you get more coins for constructing free buildings. Hence, urbanism as you are building your city faster.

There is little doubt that urbanism is one of the most important forces in human history. This is about the process of cities developing as well as a particular way of life that emerged in and around cities. Urbanism was important in multiple time periods. This includes the last two centuries as megacities developed around the globe concurrently with industrial, economic, and societal change. It is also the case in the last five or so millennia as population centers around the globe emerged. This is the period that 7 Wonders is covering as ancient wonders are constructed and denser permanent centers of political, religious, and economic life emerge. Most of these cities are not the size of cities today yet their permanence and way of life transformed human and societal fortunes.

In playing the game, having free buildings also contribute free coins is a helpful bonus. More buildings beget more buildings and wealth.

The one HGTV show that leans into the idea of community – but does so through the context of single-family homes

Home Town is one of the big shows on HGTV and it has a premise somewhat different from the other headliners: all of the renovations take place in or near Laurel, Mississippi. The couple in the show, Ben and Erin Napier, say they enjoy contributing to a town that they love:

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The town of Laurel (population 18,338) itself is a starring character in “Home Town,” and it’s a huge part of what keeps the Napiers grounded. “Everybody here knows us,” says Ben. “When we’re in places like New York, Atlanta, Nashville or (Los Angeles) and people stop us on the streets …” Finishing his thought, Erin says, “It’s very surprising.”

Laurel, located about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, was founded in 1882 and flourished thanks to the timber industry (the region is known as the state’s Pine Belt). Mills and factories followed, bringing economic prosperity. Even now, the town boasts the state’s largest collection of early 1900s residential architecture. But as companies moved their operations offshore seeking a cheaper bottom line, the town languished. When the Napiers planted roots in 2008, there was virtually nothing to draw visitors or locals, with vacant storefronts lining the brick streets. Still, they saw its potential and looked for ways to support it, with Ben volunteering with economic and preservation organization Laurel Main Street.

Now, thanks in no small part to the success of the show, “People come to visit Laurel every day, and that’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s why we agreed to do the show,” says Ben. 

Even with the community focus and the history they provide for each property, the show still takes a classic HGTV approach to the bulk of the episode: it is all about the single-family home under renovation. There are limited shots of the street. There are limited views of the rest of the community. There are no neighbors in view. Most of what we see if of the interior rooms, the facade, and sometimes the rear yard. The new owners move in and presumably live a private happy life ever after.

Slowly rehabbing the housing stock of a community plus bringing visitors is a laudable thing. Many small towns in the United States need attention. Many HGTV shows focus on wealthier suburbs or urban neighborhoods where housing prices are already good and people have money to make the homes even better. The housing in Laurel is not what many would want in growing communities but it represents the housing that is found in many American communities.

Can a show truly be about community when the primary focus are interior private spaces? Home Town offers a variation of HGTV’s relatively anonymous single-family homes but it might only be a veneer of community and not a true transformation.

Change how album sales are measured, change perceptions of popular music

The music industry changed in 1991 when how album sales were measured changed:

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On May 25, 1991—30 years ago Tuesday—Billboard started using Nielsen SoundScan data to build its album chart, with all of its charts, including singles hub The Hot 100, eventually following suit. Meaning, the magazine started counting album sales with scanners and computers and whatnot, and not just calling up record stores one at a time and asking them for their individual counts, often a manual and semi-accurate and flagrantly corrupt process. This is the record industry’s Moneyball moment, its Eureka moment, its B.C.-to-A.D. moment. A light bulb flipping on. The sun rising. We still call this the SoundScan Era because by comparison the previous era might as well have been the Dark Ages.

First SoundScan revelation: Albums opened like movies, so for anything with an established fan base, that first week is usually, by far, the biggest. First beneficiary: Skid Row. And why not? “Is Skid Row at the height of their imperial period?” Molanphy asks of this ’91 moment. “For Skid Row, yes. But Skid Row is not Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. Skid Row is a middle-of-the-road hair-metal band at the peak of their powers, relatively speaking. So it’s not as if they are commanding the field. It’s just the fans all showed up in week no. 1, and it debuts at no. 1. And then we discover, ‘Oh, this is going to happen every week. This is not special anymore.’”

Next SoundScan revelation: Hard rock and heavy metal were way more popular than anybody thought. Same deal with alternative rock, R&B, and most vitally, rap and country. In June 1991, N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin, hit no. 1 after debuting at no. 2 the previous week. That September, Garth Brooks’s third album, the eventually 14-times-platinum Ropin’ the Wind, debuted at no. 1, the week after Metallica’s eventually 16-times-platinum self-titled Black Album debuted there. In early January 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September ’91, replaced MJ’s Dangerous in the no. 1 spot, a generational bellwether described at the time by Billboard itself as an “astonishing palace coup.”

Virtually overnight, SoundScan changed the rules on who got to be a mega, mega superstar, and the domino effect—in terms of magazine covers, TV bookings, arena tours, and the other spoils of media attention and music-industry adulation—was tremendous, if sometimes maddeningly slow in coming. Garth, Metallica, N.W.A, Nirvana, and Skid Row were already hugely popular, of course. But SoundScan revealed exactly how popular, which of course made all those imperial artists exponentially more popular.

This is all about measurement – boring measurement! – but it is a fascinating story. Thinking from a cultural production perspective, here are three things that stand out to me:

  1. This was prompted in part by a technology change involving computers, scanners, and inventory systems. The prior system of calling some record sales and getting their sales clearly has problems. But, how to get to all music being sold? This requires some coordination and technology across many settings.
  2. The change in measurement led to changes in how people understood the music industry. What genres are popular? What artists are hot? How often do artists have debut #1 albums as opposed to getting discovered by the public and climbing the charts? Better data changed how people perceived music.
  3. The change in measurement not only changed perceptions; it had cascading effects. The Matthew Effect suggests small initial differences can lead to widening outcomes when actors are treated differently in those early stages. When the new measurement system highlighted different artists, they got more attention.

Summary: some might say that good music is good music but how we obtain data and information about music and then act upon that information influences what we music we promote and listen to.