Sociologist explains why her course “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” is needed

The new class “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” at Skidmore College has garnered a lot of attention and the sociologist behind the course explains why it is needed:

With all the very real problems we’re facing as a nation, right — violence against women and children in communities of color, the collapse of the public education system, ongoing poverty and wealth stratification — it’s a convenient distraction to say that a barely post-teen girl or woman is a moral apocalypse. So on one hand, it’s a convenient distraction.

On the other hand, I think that the things that get people so incensed about Miley are the same reasons that I’m trying to teach this course — to help people deconstruct and better understand media, systems of representation, and ideas of power and privilege in the contemporary U.S…

All the best, most inflammatory stuff — all of the pearl-clutching about “Oh, the liberal arts are a cesspool; oh the social sciences are a cesspool! Can you believe that someone would do something so silly!” — is more grist for the mill. It’s more data about why we need to rigorously study media and representation. If you look at the flyer for my class that got tweeted, and if you look at the content of that, this is, you know,  serious sociology. This is rigorous stuff, looking at understanding the world. So in some senses, all of the hubbub in the blogosphere sort of proves the need for a class like this…

I mean, officially, anything that lets me remind people why sociology as a discipline is a rigorous and relevant, why this is useful, why what happens in a liberal arts school is helpful to society? That’s great. I can talk about that all the live-long day.

This is not new criticism – courses about Jay-Z and other parts of popular culture draw similar attention – but it misses the point. Sociologists study social behavior and interaction so theoretically anything is fair game for sociological instruction. Classes can work even better when using current examples, like the attention Miley Cyrus gets for her actions, to illustrate important sociological points. In this case, it sounds like the course will look at how the media presents celebrities and women, to think about how all that media (roughly 11 hours a day for American adults) affect our viewpoints of the world and reflect power dynamics between different groups. The purpose of a sociology course isn’t to psychoanalyze Miley Cyrus or to judge the morality of her actions but rather to think through what she represents and what it reveals about American society.

Watching Beliebers on the streets of Chicago

While walking around in the North Michigan Avenue area yesterday, we came across an interesting scene: one side of the block full of mostly teenage girls looking at the Peninsula Hotel. What were they doing? Waiting to catch sight of Justin Bieber, reported to be inside:


We first passed the crowd a little after 4 PM, waited with them for 45 minutes around 7 PM while waiting for pizza at Giordano’s (across the street), and saw them again when leaving the restaurant at 8:15 PM. No Bieber by that point. But, here are a few observations:

1. It was mostly a crowd of teenage and pre-teen girls, as one might suspect, but there were a decent number of families. Indeed, there was a crowd of moms in the back, leaning against the adjacent building (a parking garage) and holding on to food and drinks. In other words, the crowd on the street would not have been possible without a fleet of moms.

2. The crowd engaged in some singing as well as cheers. We drove past them on the way out of the city and they were happily loud.

3. You might think you could look for nice vehicles pulling up to the hotel to get a clue if Bieber was being picked up. Alas, the Peninsula Hotel has lots of nice cars that pull up and use the valet service. Within the 45 minutes we were waiting there, we saw two Tesla sedans, multiple Escalades and Yukons, and a mix of other upper-end car models.

4. The Giordano’s across the street (sitting just behind where the picture was taken) was getting a lot of business from people eating while waiting or just attracted to the scene. Even with it being Monday night, traditionally a slow night at restaurants, the place was full. At the same time, you could drive a block or so away and you would have little idea of what was happening in front of the Peninsula.

5. It was amusing to see the reactions of people passing by who then asked why the people were gathered on the street. The typical response was to smile and laugh, as if to say, “Ah, those crazy teenagers and their pop stars.” But, at least a few of these passer-by then waited for a bit to see if anything would happen.

It takes quite a bit of dedication to stand for hours outside of a hotel just for a glimpse of a star. This scene might be read as an indication of American teenage obsession with entertainers who appeal to them or a reminder that lots of people of cities are interested in a scene on a lovely summer night.

The increasing sadness in pop music songs

A psychologist and sociologist looked at Billboard pop music hits since 1965 and found that the songs have become more sad:

“As the lyrics of popular music became more self-focused and negative over time, the music itself became sadder-sounding and more emotionally ambiguous,” according to psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve.

Analyzing Top 40 hits from the mid-1960s through the first decade of the 2000s, they find an increasing percentage of pop songs are written using minor modes, which most listeners—including children—associate with gloom and despair. In what may or may not be a coincidence, they also found the percentage of female artists at the top of the charts rose steadily through the 1990s before retreating a bit in the 2000s…

Strikingly, they found “the proportion of minor songs doubled over five decades.” In the second half of the 1960s, 85 percent of songs that made it to the top of the pop charts were written in a major mode. By the second half of the 2000s, that figure was down to 43.5 percent…

“The present findings have striking parallels to the evolution of classical music from 1600 to 1900,” Schellenberg and von Scheve write. “Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries …. Pieces tended to sound unambiguously happy or sad. By the 1800s, and the middle of the Romantic era, tempo and mode cues were more likely to conflict,” which allowed composers to express a wide range of emotions within a single piece.

I would be interested to hear how they relate these changes to larger social forces: does this line up with a greater sadness in society or perhaps the ability or proclivity to express negative emotions? I also wonder if the data is skewed at all by only looking at Top 40 songs – does all music reflect this or only the most popular songs (which then reflect the influence of musical gatekeepers such as radio stations, journalists, critics, and music labels)?

Also: could we have a period where we return to more major mode music? Can a musical genre, whether classical or pop music, recover from an extended period of “sadness”?

Sociologist looks at 80 years of love songs

Musical styles might change a bit as time passes but an ever-present feature of rock or pop music is the love song. One sociology professor has a new book looking at such songs and they messages they send:

UC Santa Barbara professor of sociology Thomas Scheff’s new book, What’s Love Got to Do With It? Emotions and Relationships in Pop Songs, reveals why love songs may actually be negative representations of love and relationships for romantics both hopeless and otherwise.

“Music informs our ideas about emotions, and love in particular, but most love songs are terrible models. Lyrics maintain the mystery of love, but they reveal next to nothing about the look and feel of actual love,” asserts Scheff in his book.

Scheff, who studied 80 year’s worth of American song lyrics, reprimands the machine of pop love songs for setting unrealistic expectations about love for listeners. He questions the disconnect between real world expectations and actual outcomes in relationships that listeners formulate from growing up with their favorite love songs, from George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to N’Sync and Backstreet Boy ballads. Scheff also discusses the pitfalls of pop culture influences.

On the one hand, I can imagine people suggesting that Scheff is simply writing about common sense: of course we know that love songs don’t actually reflect reality. On the other hand, I also imagine there could be some rich ground to cover here, particularly in thinking about how people readily consume such things and then go out and live more complicated relationships. How might Scheff’s thoughts about love songs fit with Ann Swidler’s look at the two dominant motifs regarding love in the United States in Talk of Love? (And in the middle, perhaps there are disc jockeys/radio hosts who will comment that this book is validation for playing love songs. This one’s for you Delilah.)

I will be interested to see if Scheff’s book looks at how love songs have changed over this 80 year period. Are the Gershwins and Adele covering the same ground?