A while back, I encountered Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” two different ways. In one instance, a radio host closed out an eight year run by playing the song and reflecting on the years of conversation. In the second instance, another person thought about their life thus far and used some of the words from the song to wonder what life might hold by the end.
Here is my sociological question: does this song represent American individualism in the twentieth century?
Regrets, I’ve had a few But then again, too few to mention I did what I had to do And saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course Each careful step along the byway And more, much more than this I did it my way
This is a man reflecting on a full life. He planned it, he executed it, and did it “my way.” Later in the song:
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried I’ve had my fill my share of losing And now, as tears subside I find it all so amusing
To think I did all that And may I say – not in a shy way Oh no, oh no, not me I did it my way
Similarly, thinking about the emotional aspects of life, the singer notes that he was not shy and “I did it my way.”
It would be hard for any single cultural work to stand in for an entire people or country. Yet, at the same time, there are certain works that become popular, stand the test of time, and embody particular values and practices. Is “My Way” one of these songs or does it fit a particular subset of Americans better than others?
First, the performance of “Amazing Grace” after Joe Biden’s inauguration speech. This is a religious song regularly heard in many churches and congregations. On the song’s origins (with information on the song from Wikipedia):
Newton and Cowper attempted to present a poem or hymn for each prayer meeting. The lyrics to “Amazing Grace” were written in late 1772 and probably used in a prayer meeting for the first time on 1 January 1773. A collection of the poems Newton and Cowper had written for use in services at Olney was bound and published anonymously in 1779 under the title Olney Hymns. Newton contributed 280 of the 348 texts in Olney Hymns; “1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith’s Review and Expectation” was the title of the poem with the first line “Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)”.
The song really took off in the United States and was adopted by a number of Christian denominations. But, this popularity extended beyond explicitly religious settings:
Following the appropriation of the hymn in secular music, “Amazing Grace” became such an icon in American culture that it has been used for a variety of secular purposes and marketing campaigns, placing it in danger of becoming a cliché. It has been mass-produced on souvenirs, lent its name to a Superman villain, appeared on The Simpsons to demonstrate the redemption of a murderous character named Sideshow Bob, incorporated into Hare Krishna chants and adapted for Wicca ceremonies. It can also be sung to the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club, as Garrison Keillor has observed. The hymn has been employed in several films, including Alice’s Restaurant, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Silkwood. It is referenced in the 2006 film Amazing Grace, which highlights Newton’s influence on the leading British abolitionist William Wilberforce, and in the film biography of Newton, Newton’s Grace. The 1982 science fiction film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan used “Amazing Grace” amid a context of Christian symbolism, to memorialise Mr. Spock following his death, but more practically, because the song has become “instantly recognizable to many in the audience as music that sounds appropriate for a funeral” according to a Star Trek scholar. Since 1954, when an organ instrumental of “New Britain” became a best-seller, “Amazing Grace” has been associated with funerals and memorial services. The hymn has become a song that inspires hope in the wake of tragedy, becoming a sort of “spiritual national anthem” according to authors Mary Rourke and Emily Gwathmey. For example, President Barack Obama recited and later sang the hymn at the memorial service for Clementa Pinckney, who was one of the nine victims of the Charleston church shooting in 2015…
Due to its immense popularity and iconic nature, the meaning behind the words of “Amazing Grace” has become as individual as the singer or listener. Bruce Hindmarsh suggests that the secular popularity of “Amazing Grace” is due to the absence of any mention of God in the lyrics until the fourth verse (by Excell’s version, the fourth verse begins “When we’ve been there ten thousand years”), and that the song represents the ability of humanity to transform itself instead of a transformation taking place at the hands of God. “Grace”, however, had a clearer meaning to John Newton, as he used the word to represent God or the power of God.
The transformative power of the song was investigated by journalist Bill Moyers in a documentary released in 1990. Moyers was inspired to focus on the song’s power after watching a performance at Lincoln Center, where the audience consisted of Christians and non-Christians, and he noticed that it had an equal impact on everybody in attendance, unifying them. James Basker also acknowledged this force when he explained why he chose “Amazing Grace” to represent a collection of anti-slavery poetry: “there is a transformative power that is applicable … : the transformation of sin and sorrow into grace, of suffering into beauty, of alienation into empathy and connection, of the unspeakable into imaginative literature.”
A song so popular that it could be preformed in public and enjoyed by both Christian and non-Christian audiences.
The brief program included two songs: Amazing Grace and Hallelujah.
This quiet, devastating and hopeful memorial reminded me of the remarkable and wholly improbable journey of this song, Hallelujah, into something like a canonical song of memorial or pathos in American culture. That this should be so is actually quite odd, not least because it is not at all clear what the song, in its totality, is even about. And a number of things the song is quite clearly about … well, they are not what you’d expect in a song now treated as appropriate, uplifting and fitting for all occasions and audiences.
Mainstream or memorial versions commonly expurgate the song’s erotic imagery. But it can’t all be ironed out. This energy, rumbling rough under the simplified lyrics, gives a power and ballast even to the more sanitized versions. In any case the mixing and matching of lyrics is possible because Leonard Cohen wrote numerous different lyrics for the song. You can mix and match them and create your own version.
Could these two songs help prompt a spiritual experience for listeners and performers? Music does not have to be explicitly or exclusively religious to help bring people together. Could they be heard in houses of worship, on the radio, and in political settings? Christians have a history of adopting popular music and words and plenty of church songs have entered the public consciousness. Do they address universal themes as well as hint at specific religious details? Such songs could help Americans and others link what may at times seem to be disparate realms while leaving enough room for interpretation and use that it can mean different things to different people.
To go back to the beginning, how does Gill conclude her study of poetry and the suburbs? Here is the final paragraph:
Postwar suburbia has been understood and depicted as a place where little of significance can be said, where there is a profound absence of meaning, where communication is stylized, superficial, muted almost into silence. Yet as the poems discussed in this study indicate, suburbia is replete with meaning. Its poetry is bold, innovative, and engaging – both formally and thematically – in its evocation of this space and time. Indeed, the suburbs we know are known to us, in part, because of the ways in which poetry has constituted and mediated them. In turn, this poetry shows the signs of its own discursive, spatial, and historical contexts. As Doreen Massey has argued, “Social space is not an empty arena within which we conduct our lives; rather it is something we construct and which others construct about us” (49). For Roger Silverstone, suburbia is a “geographical, an architectural and a social space,” but it should also be understood as “an idea and ideology, as form and content of texts and images and as product of a multitude of social and cultural practices” (ix). Poetry, as this book has demonstrated, plays a vital – if until now overlooked – role in these processes. It offers a startling lens through which to view suburban landscape and architecture and to understand the nuances of the suburban everyday, and it demands of us that we read it with acuity and sensitivity. In its diversity and frequent ambiguity, poetry breaks the stranglehold of polarized thinking or, what Robert Beuka calls, “our continued cultural reliance on a restrictive binary system in defining the suburban milieu” (10). The Poetics of the American Suburbs has argued that the poetry of this time and place is critical, interrogative, evocative, expansive, and suggestive in turn. Most importantly, it is a poetry that is often skilful, occasionally luminous, always intriguing. The song it sings is sometimes familiar, sometimes subtle, sometimes discordant. As I hope this book has demosntrated, it deserves a hearing, and rewards attentive listening. (Gills 2013: 181)
This is a good description of what Gills does throughout the book, analyzing both popular and more literary poetry, showing how the constraints and possibilities of poetry help lead to insights about the suburbs, and how poetry reacted to and was shaped by suburbia. I recommend the book for those interested in studying the interaction of cultural works and the suburbs.
As I reviewed this academic work, it led to a few more thoughts on patterns within the work:
One idea that emerges from a number of these texts: understanding the suburbs requires analyzing what they mean and how narratives about them develop. Cultural narratives are influential and these cultural works contribute to an ongoing conversation about what the suburbs are and how they are to be regarded. For sociologists, both the facts about the suburbs – how did they arise, how are they changing, what social forces affect life there – and the interpretation of the suburbs – what are the processes of meaning-making around them – matter.
The academic literature addresses both works that praise or celebrate suburbia and works that critique suburbia. There are many works in this latter category, particularly in more recent years.
This is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor with scholars across a number of disciplines – Communications, English, Geography, Sociology, History, and more – contributing. These different perspectives help illuminate varied aspects of the cultural works and what they mean.
Related to #2, much of the work I have seen in this employs close readings or case studies of particular works or collections of works. There is less work that takes a quantitative approach to such cultural works.
In sum, I am grateful for all of this good academic work. It has helped me think more comprehensively about the suburbs and be more aware of how cultural works contribute to and/or challenge my and our perceptions of the suburbs. I am sure the academic conversation – and the public conversation about suburbs as well – will continue as suburbs change, new cultural works are produced, and the larger social context evolves.
Parts One, Two, and Three of this series have summarized academic work on how poetry, novels, and screens (television and film) have engaged and depicted suburbs. What about popular music? While I have not comprehensively looked for academic sources regarding music in the ways I have for the other cultural mediums, I do not know of as much work in this area. At the same time, this does not mean music has not addressed the suburbs.
Starting with a broad view, the rise of mass suburbia coincides with the spread of pop and rock music in the twentieth century. Rock music arose amid the development of teenagerdom as a life stage (now in suburbs that privileged children and family life), as music that borrowed from blues music (now heard in largely white suburbs and from many white performers), and broadcast through mass media like radio and television (now in many suburban homes).
Here are some of my own ideas on this connection between suburbs and music:
-Another aspect of this possible connection is how music is produced and consumed in the suburbs. The reputation of suburbs is that they are not exactly hotspots of culture, notwithstanding the occasional community that serves as an entertainment center. Music is occasionally performed in restaurants, bars, and festivals (with a heavy emphasis around here on rock/pop cover bands at community festivals). The stereotypical garage band of teenagers working out their music would benefit from the surfeit of suburban garages. Compared to the music ecosystem in larger cities including performance spaces of various sizes, the presence of music labels, and the mixing of musical groups and settings, the suburbs may not be the liveliest music scene.
-The connection between poetry about the suburbs and music about the suburbs would be worth exploring further. If singer/songwriters or popular artists are writing for the masses, how do their words and products compare? Furthermore, the role of music in all those television shows and films about suburbs could be worth considering. Is there a stereotypical “suburban soundtrack”?
-Certain genres of music have connections to particular places. Country, as its name implies, is connected to more rural areas and the South. Hip-hop and rap music emerged from urban settings. Is there a genre or type of music closely connected to suburbs? Middle-of-the-road (MOR) pop music?
Tomorrow, I will sum up this series on cultural works and the suburbs.
I first took up the instrument in middle school and played regularly through college in band, marching band, and pep band. Even with this familiarity, miming playing a song was difficult. I did not know what key it was in. I could move my fingers to the music and go up or down when needed but this does not mean I was close to the right notes. As a musician, it felt strange. (Yes, if I had a little more time I could have figured out the key of the song and transposed for the saxophone.)
I have thought about this numerous times before with television shows and movies when they depict people playing instruments. Since I play piano and can strum a few guitar chords, these performances especially catch my attention. For piano, they often show separate shots of playing the keys and the person sitting at the piano with their hands hidden. For guitar, you can sometimes see which chords are being played or see the strumming patterns. But, this too can be hidden or obscured.
Perhaps the normal viewer does not think about this much. This may matter more in films where music is at the heart of the story but if you do not watch too closely or the shots do not really show much, any issues may not be noticeable. The music generally sounds fine, regardless of what the musicians on screen is depicted as doing. And if people want to see musicians play, there are many fine music videos and recorded performances available for viewing. Still, this ended any dreams I might harbor of adding saxophone to numerous lip syncing videos – I will need to leave that to the professional musicians and cinematographers.
At the same time, many of these locations play the same songs – and even the same versions – of Christmas songs over and over again! How many times have you been shopping and heard “Holly, Jolly Christmas,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and “All I Want for Christmas is You”? Or heard the same songs on the radio? Or on TV or in movies?
Why this happens makes some sense. Many of these Christmas favorites come from an era, the 1930s to the 1950s, that induces nostalgia. Music helps bond people together. The familiar can be comforting. When people think of Christmas, the music is part of it. The ritualistic nature of the holiday where patterns repeat year after year is part of the appeal of Christmas and rituals.
As sociologists argue there is “civil religion” in the United States, perhaps these popular songs reflect what we might call “civil Christmas.” The songs are generally about good cheer, parties, happy characters like Santa and Rudolph, getting together. The songs played in more public settings tend not to refer to the religious nature of Christmas but rather elements of the holidays that could appeal to many. The songs are about a lengthy celebration…and who is opposed to at least a month of cheery music and festivities right around the darkest days of the year?
Perhaps the Christmas public music canon will expand in the future. New songs might be added here and there while others let go (see the debate over “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in recent years). There is no shortage of songs to choose from or artists and styles for familiar songs. (I say this after working for years at Wheaton College Radio where we featured over 2,000 songs in our 24-hours-a-day Christmas music rotation. Listen to a reconstituted live stream of WETN Soundtrack for Christmas.) Regardless of whether the music stays the same or we all retreat to our headphones for our personal Christmas playlists, the music will continue to matter as we prepare for and celebrate Christmas.
I know wading into opinions of hymns, worship songs, and other church music can be thorny. But, here on Labor Day, I am reminded of verse 4 of the hymn “Earth and All Stars”:
The hymn presents different aspects of Creation and the fourth verse specifically addresses workers, particularly those devoted to building. There are not too many church songs I know of that address how work can be part of worship and devotion. Indeed, many songs could give the impression that Christian activity should primarily consist of sacred duties. Of course, there is a long history of Christians wrestling with work and how ordinary tasks contribute or connect to faith. Adding more music that highlights work, something that occupies many hours and engages the minds, bodies, and talents of many, could go a long way to connecting laboring and faith.
(As a musician and educator, I also notice verse three and five and the ways they connect these activities to religious expression. And in what other setting can you sing about “loud boiling test tubes”? At the same time, there is room in this song to celebrate other forms of work and labor.)
So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”
Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.
The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres…The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others.
In short, research shows that tastes in music and other realms is connected to social class. A way to differentiate your tastes from someone else is to have a wider repertoire, particularly for those with resources. Extending this review a bit, then perhaps cultural omnivorousness has spread from those with educational and financial capital to broader segments of society. Could being a cultural omnivore be something more people now aspire to or admire?
Becoming a cultural omnivore and expressing this in daily life is another avenue worth exploring. In High Fidelity, this took place within a record shop where selling music provided the backdrop for ongoing conversations about music. In daily life today, cultural omnivores or those who want to be might have different experiences. Is it easier to be an omnivore with all the streaming music services that allow access to different artists, genres, and songs? While the music supply has expanded, where do conversations about music or extended interactions regarding music now take place?
Finally, fitting these kinds of tastes in music and other cultural products with broader senses of identity (race, gender, class, etc.) could be fascinating. Is being a cultural omnivore still elitist or tied to particular kinds of people? Or, are there multiple ways to be a cultural omnivore that draw on different identities?
The movie Yesterday takes away all knowledge of the Beatles and their music and puts the songs into the mouth and guitar of regular musician Jack Malik. And the music previously unknown becomes massively popular.
Ignoring the other parts of the plot, this is an interesting basic argument: the songs of the Beatles, their music, is so good that it can be put it a different time period and with a solo singer-songwriter and they can create a stir. Is this true? What made the Beatles such a phenomena? A few of the popular theories that have been debated for nearly six decades:
They came at the right time and right place. Rock music already existed (see Elvis) but the Beatles energized people in a different way. The broader cultural milieu was open to them in a new way: from Britain needed a cheeky group in a period of still trying to dig out of the aftermath of World War Two to Americans wanting a diversion from the Kennedy assassination to a postwar adolescent generation looking for heroes.
The sum of the parts – some talent among the individual members of the Beatles – added up to something spectacular. This is a good analogy to what sociologists would say about social groups or social networks: these collectives can do things that individuals on their own cannot. The Beatles together, the combination of their skills and thoughts, made something magical.
The Beatles made multiple advances in music, ranging from original songwriting to psychedelic sounds to innovations in the recording studio to excellent songs. They started with songs like “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You” and made numerous changes along the way.
The songs themselves are simply good. The combined songwriting talents of Lennon and McCartney plus the development of Harrison made music that has stood the test of time.
All together, few bands or musical acts have made music where such a film could be made. It is hard to imagine a world without the music of any number of major musical acts but the reach and influence and staying power of the Beatles is hard to match.
I still purchase CDs. I am buying more than just a few CDs a year; I have over 1,000 albums total. I have not purchased any digital tracks nor have I joined the recent vinyl bandwagon and I have barely used any streaming music service. Isn’t this an expensive (and space taking) habit?
As I thought about all of these albums, I realized that in the last 15 years or so I have bought at least two hundred albums for less than $5. These cheaper CDs primarily come from two sources:
-Used book/music stores.
This means the music I am buying tends to fall into several categories:
-Music people are looking to get rid of. It is always interesting to see what people are willing to sell and donate and what people do hold on to. Just as a quick example: certain classic rock bands always have plenty of CDs on hand for sale while others are hand to find. I am not buying all the extra copies of Top 40 albums people quickly ditched but I can find good albums by worthwhile artists.
-Music that does not command a high price. This usually means I am purchasing music that is not currently popular (it takes a while for music to filter down to lower prices) or music that was never that popular.
And here is why I will likely continue in this pattern of buying cheap music (even with all the space the songs take up):
-The purchase is usually cost effective. If I can get a CD for under $5 and I like more than 4 songs on the album, I come out ahead. (This assumes people still want to purchase music rather than pay a monthly fee or deal with advertisements to stream from over a million tracks.)
-I have a physical copy of the music. I find the trend toward streaming/renting all content a bit concerning for consumers and if I can find cheaper CDs, I will purchase them to help insure I have a copy.
-I generally like the process of going into stores to look at music. I know online shopping is convenient but finding an unusual and cheap CD is still a fun experience (and I do not devote too much time to this).
At some point soon, this might all end if CDs are phased out. Until then, I will keep looking for good music for cheap prices.