Save the farm from turning into McMansions by writing a song

Tennessee’s 11th state song – “I’ll Leave My Heart in Tennessee” – was inspired by a threat of McMansions in a Nashville suburb. According to the writer of the song:

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So, I sold the farm and horses and moved into the beautiful suburb of Brentwood where I was on only an acre of land. It was great but not me, as I grew up in a rural area and loved the farm. I so missed walking the land.

In 2004, when I wrote the song, the only bucolic land in Brentwood was a 250-acre farm called Green Pastures on the corner of Franklin Road and Concord, owned by the Turner family (Dollar General/etc). They boarded horses there and a friend ended up bequeathing me a gorgeous six-year -old paint mare and said he would pay for its care if I got it ready to ride for his daughter someday. It was a beautiful compromise to living in the suburb yet having a masterpiece of a farm three miles down the road. Everyone there just loved it, and it was a close group of people who boarded there. Many said it was what kept them sane going through divorces or cancer, etc. Horses really are healing creatures…. especially when you don’t have to pay for them! It was such a gift to go out there and ride on the property or just hang out there with the horses and boarders. It was a family.

Well, at one point, developers (‘damn those developers they’re cold and heartless’) got the ear of the Turners and they were going to sell it off to put up what we called McMansions…. the LAST thing Brentwood needed. It went so far as to have a huge sign with the plans and everything. The barn family was of course heartbroken. So, I said, ‘Let’s at least try and see if we can have them save at least part of the property.’ I suggested we put a digital scrapbook together with each boarder having two pages of pictures and what the place meant to them. Underneath I put the song I’ll Leave My Heart In Tennessee. We gave it to the Turners and were told they cried when they watched it. I’m not saying my idea was the only reason they decided to stop the development, but I do think it may have been the catalyst/last straw to validate what a unique place they had.

They helped SO many people PLUS just driving by and looking at the property was uplifting to anyone with eyes! It staved off the development for over 10 years. A few years ago, they decided to stop the boarding business, but the property still remains today. I don’t know what their plans are for it. I worked with a grass roots group called Save The Brentwood Green Space for a while who put up an idea for the city of Brentwood to buy the property, but the citizens took a look at the $50 million price tag and got spooked. I would assume the price NOW would be over $100 million so they lost a deal!”

Today I learned Tennessee has 11 state songs (!!).

At the same time, this could be a story from many states and metropolitan regions: the farmland once common is quickly turning into houses. Not just any houses; big houses with dubious architectural quality (i.e. McMansions). The farm will be gone and replaced with supposedly impressive yet private homes.

How often does such a scenario lead to writing a popular song? Not often. Instead, neighbors and residents might quietly seethe. They could show up at local meetings and make their displeasure known. Some might even move away to find a different plot of land still near farms or open space.

As far as I can tell in watching performances of the song on Youtube, the song decries “progress” and sprawl but does not specifically call out McMansions…

The popularity of the Beatles, informational cascades, and culture developed by champions and conditions

Explaining the rise and fame of the Beatles is complicated but there may still be new arguments to be made:

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So how did the Beatles make it? Obviously, they had talent that was going unrecognized. But they had something else: early champions. They had a fanatically committed manager in 27-year-old Brian Epstein. They had two enthusiastic admirers who worked in the music publishing arm of EMI who pushed until the company offered the Beatles a recording contract. When “Love Me Do” was released in late 1962 with little support and low expectations from their label, a different kind of champion — fans back in Liverpool — helped build up a wave of support for the song.

I take this example from a paper by Cass Sunstein that is awaiting publication with The Journal of Beatles Studies (you knew there had to be one, right?). Sunstein is a celebrated Harvard Law professor who studies, among many other things, how informational cascades work…

In his paper, Sunstein cites a study done by Matthew J. Salganik and others that illustrates the immense power of social influence. The researchers recruited about 14,000 people to a website where they could listen to and download 48 songs. Some of the people were divided into subgroups where they could see how often other people in their subgroup downloaded each song. Sunstein summarizes the results: “Almost any song could end up popular or not, depending on whether or not the first visitors liked it.” If people saw the early champions downloading a song, they were more likely to download it, too…

These findings support the work of René Girard, a French thinker who is enjoying a vogue these days. Girard exploded the view that we are atomistic individuals driven by our own intrinsic desires. He argued instead that we explore the world by imitating other people. If we see someone wanting something, then that can plant a desire in us to want it, too. “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind,” Girard wrote…

If you are an artist, you probably have less control over whether you’ll become famous than you would like. Social conditions are the key. The better questions for the rest of us may be: Who am I an early champion for? Who are the obscure talents I can help lift up? How am I fulfilling my responsibility to shape the desires of the people around me?

This could be the start of a joke: “How many famous researchers does it take to explain the rise of a set of adolescent celebrities from Liverpool?”

Or, perhaps this simply illustrates Marx’s idea that (paraphrased) “people make choices in circumstances not of their choosing.” The Beatles did their thing but operated within a particular system and time.

More broadly, explaining significant cultural and social change can be complicated. Creativity often builds on the work of people that came before (as the Beatles did). Artists may be creative but not find an opening in the existing system or not be recognized in their time. Even “successful” change can take a long time to develop and be adopted. The Beatles has many things going for them including champions, changes in technology, the rise of teenagers, an ability to put together music and lyrics, etc…but, as noted above, they did not control the whole process nor survive the subsequent pressures.

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.

Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as the ultimate expression of American individualism?

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?

Americans are known for their individualism. For example, the sociological study Habits of the Heart examined how individualism plays out in the realm of religion and spirituality. President Donald Trump played “My Way” for the first dance at the Inauguration Ball and the song played when he left Joint Andrews Base in January 2021.

Take these two paragraphs from the song:

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?

Religion and civil religion in two Inauguration songs

Inauguration Day and the surrounding activities can contain plenty of opportunities for analyzing religion and civil religion. As I took in some of the proceedings, two songs blurred the lines between religion and civil religion.

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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.

Second, a song from the COVID-19 Memorial the night before the Inauguration might go the other way: from popular music – though starting with Biblical allusions – toward more religious activity.

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.

This song first recorded in 1984 made its way through a few singers, became widely known in the kids’ movie Shrek, has been covered by numerous artists, and was rewritten to be a Christian Christmas song.

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.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Five on poetry and patterns

Starting with Jo Gill’s questions in the Introduction of the book The Poetics of the American Suburbs, summarizing some of the academic work on novels and suburbs and screens – television and movies – and suburbs, and then considering what a more robust study of music and suburbs might consider, it is time to conclude this series of posts on cultural works and the suburbs.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

“Who sings the song of suburbia?” Part Four on music

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.

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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:

-Popular music offered another means for protesting and reflecting on the suburbs. This could take many forms. Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song “Little Boxes” criticized the tract homes arising outside many American cities. Ben Folds’ 2001 album Rockin’ the Suburbs profiled sad and angry suburban lives. The 2010 album The Suburbs from Arcade Fire built on the experiences of two band members in a suburb outside Houston. Numerous other songs and albums addressed suburban life.

-All popular music from the 1950s onward was created by some artists who had spent formative years in the suburbs. The postwar Baby Boomers and subsequent generations wrote about what they knew. For example, the Beatles song “Penny Lane” highlights the suburban nature of communities the group knew. Or, see this 2014 post about a band from the Chicago suburbs that was trying to make it big.

-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.

Miming playing an instrument is not an easy task

My academic department recently put together a lip sync video of “Blue Christmas.” For part of my time, I played the alto saxophone.

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.

All of this reminds me that musicians like the Beatles sometimes had to mime playing their instruments on television because of particular rules. In these situations, I assume professional musicians with all of their training could play without sound. In music (and much of the rest of life), practice makes perfect, even if it is not a full performance.

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.

Not hearing the same 20 Christmas songs over and over in public spaces this year

Part of the collective effervescence of Christmas activities involving other people is the music. If people are out shopping, eating, looking at lights, watching festivals and tree lighting and other Christmas and winter activities, they are likely to hear Christmas music. The sounds are unmistakable and are a key part of the holiday season.

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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.

Celebrating ordinary work in a hymn

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.)