Sociology of Music
Of all the singing shows on television, I find NBC’s The Voice particularly charming. If you haven’t seen it, here’s how it works: a bunch of contestants audition to join a team led by one of four superstars. Each team leader is a respected star in their music genre: CeeLo Green as the epitome of R&B, Christina Aguilera is the standard-bearer for Pop, Adam Levine serves as the tattooed Rocker, and Blake Shelton is the rugged representative for contemporary country music. Green, Aguilera, Levine and Shelton pick their “teams” through contestant auditions, hoping to mold the raw singers into talented artists.
“What is Sociological About Music?” William Roy and Timothy Dowd answer this question by saying, among other things, that we could examine the interactions between musicians and fans, the passion of audiences, the way certain people play particular instruments, the communities that support, produce and transmit music, or how particular scenes develop and change. One of the more straightforward ways to think sociologically about music, or really any art form, is to think about how conventions of art genres are formed and reinforced from person to person (a la Howard Becker’s classic Art Worlds).
I was thinking about conventions in music when I watched The Voice recently. In this season’s first episode contestant Gracia Harrison, decked out in a white sundress and cowboy boots sang and yodeled through Patsy Montana’s 1935 classic, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Three of the judges wanted her for their team, but she chose Shelton to be her coach. In other words, the aspiring country singer picked the country star, who was ready to teach her about country music’s conventions.
While each episode provides personal stories and oceanic swoons of emotions, The Voice also shows how artists symbolically represent a genre. What, I wondered, does Blake Shelton have to offer Harrison in the way of conventions? She already picked a song that’s about riding an ”old paint,” strumming a guitar, and appreciating the sunset. There’s a reason other country gals, like LeAnn Rimes and the Dixie Chicks have sung the song: it has many of the trappings of a Country and Western conventions.
The lyrics are an easy convention to identify, although styles of playing instruments and song structure might be as well. But the words are often the most obvious facet, and there are dozens of lyrics-based websites for us to read what singers actually say. Songs tell stories, communicate feelings, even evoke emotions sometimes poorly (Pink Floyd’s The Wall might take a long time to fathom) and sometimes people can wrongly interpret it (anyone who uses The Police’s creepy stalker song “Every Breath You Take” as a wedding song is misinterpreting it).
Taking as a first example, we can look at a song I heard a lot of while in Nashville doing research on country music: Toby Keith’s infectious hit, “Red Solo Cup.” The song spawned hundreds of cup-necklaces, and it was a big hit on both Country and Billboard charts.
The song was practically a free advertisement, too. Commercialism in music, and in country music, is nothing new. Ford Trucks used Alan Jackson’s “Mercury Blues” (1998) in a television commercial, wherein Jackson changed the lyrics from “…crazy ‘bout a Mercury” to “…crazy ‘bout a Ford Truck.” The roots of the tune go back further. It’s a 1949 blues song, “Mercury Boogie,” by KC Douglas, singing about wanting a Mercury car.
So, let’s take the opening verse of a popular country tune, a remake of “Kiss My Country Ass” by NBC’s The Voice coach, Blake Shelton. In it he sings:
Tearin’ down a dirt road, rebel flag flyin’, 'Coon dog in the back.
Truck bed loaded down with beer, An' a cold one in my lap.
Earnhart sticker behind my head, And my woman by my side.
Tail-pipe's poppin', the radio's rockin’ “Country Boy Can Survive.”
Well, if you got a problem with that, You can kiss my country ass.
This is a long way from Montana’s yodelin’ and wishin’ to learn “how to rope and ride.” We can identify at least four conventions here: Nostalgia, Symbols, Behaviors, and Boundary Maintenance.
Nostalgia: The song valorizes the rural and simple. Dirt roads, simple fun, and listening to the radio. These are tried and true, classic country tropes.
Rowdy/Reckless Behavior: Shelton has a ”cold one” in his lap, evoking drinking and driving is common. Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” for example, evokes a classic moment in the genre’s history: George Jones being pulled over on his lawnmower while he attempted to drive drunk to the liquor store because his wife took away his car keys. (If you compare more recent uses of this convention to Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” you’ll note how the mixture of sadness and playfulness with the lyrics is absent.)
Symbols: The first line includes a reference to the Confederate, or the “Dixie” flag, long symbolizing the American South. Blake later adds, “If you don’t like the American Flag,” it turns out that you can also kiss his country ass for that too. (Not to be outdone, Montgomery Gentry have an entire song about the American Flag with “Do Your Thing.”)
Shelton also mentions a pickup truck, ‘coon dog, and a NASCAR sticker, all evocative images building to a symbolic constellation. He is sure to include the brand names as well: “Well, I love turkey calls, overalls, Wrangler jeans, smoke nothin’ but Marlboro Reds.” Big and Rich sing about their Chevy trucks. Jason Aldean’s “Big Green Tractor” which is clearly one-step-removed from entitling a song “John Deere Tractor” or “Red Solo Cup.” (Oops! There’s already a song called that.) Genre icons can be symbols too. Shelton uses NASCAR star Dale Earnhart Jr. and mentions Hank Williams Jr.’s song “Country Boy Can Survive,” but there’s usually Hank Williams, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash in there.
Boundary Maintenance: This is a sociological concept, indicating the process through which groups determine that these are the things we do, and those are the things you do. For Shelton, if you don’t like the things he does, well, you can kiss his ass. George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “We’re Not the Jet Set” shows how symbols can be used to differentiate us versus them: “We’re not the Jet Set/We’re the Chevrolet-set/Our Bach and Tchaikovsky are Haggard and Husky.”
This isn’t the Rosetta Stone of country songs, of course. Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” or Paisley’s “This is Country Music” might work as well. But listening to these songs, over and over reinforce the genre touchstones. There’s an economy of the songwriting, the economic success, the success in the desired effect, and the genuine emotional tie (e.g., pride, etc.) listeners have with country music. These are why conventions work.
Conventions, and the same conventions, aren’t the purview of country music alone. Shelton waves the rebel flag while ‘Lil Wayne raps “…my flag’s red” (meaning that he’s a member of the Bloods). There’s the valorization of street life, us/them, and name checking of legends and brand names in hip hop too.
Like Alan Jackson, even the ”hardest” rappers embrace commercialism: Ice Cube selling St. Ides Malt Liquor. Metallica’s “Whiplash” valorizes rowdy behavior (“Bang your head against the stage/Like you never did before/Make it ring, make it bleed/Make it really sore…”) and name checks a popular guitar amp (“Here on the stage, the Marshall noise/Is piercing through your ear”).
In “Don’t Think Hank Done It This Way,” Waylon Jennings sang about how the country music genre had grown stale, and wondered how conventions might change: “It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/ Where do we take it from here?/Rhinestone suits and fancy cars/It’s gotta change.”
Indeed, Becker notes that conventions do change. They are also critiqued and reinforced, as Waylon was doing with that familiar line. We can look to rock and hip hop genres for internal critiques. Neil Young, for example, played off of the popular Budweiser Ad campaign “This Bud’s For You” to critique commercialism in his 1988 song, “This Note’s For You.”
Ain’t singin’ for Pepsi, ain’t singin’ for Coke.
I don't sing for nobody. Makes me look like a joke.
And Mos Def, as another example, provides a history of the genre, “Hip Hop,” calling it an “ad space for liquor.” Lastly, we can end with a great critique of the conventions of hip hop from the second verse (by Dice Raw) on The Roots’ 2008 song “I Will Not Apologize:”
Don't blame the n****, blame America, it's all business.
Acting like a monkey is the only way to sell tickets.
Shit I can dig it, n****s gossip silly digits
White kids buy it, it’s a riot when we talking about pimping.
Or sipping on Old English brew or whatever they think we do.
Spraying double Uzis ‘cause you know they think we live in zoos.
The problem is with this everyone seems to be real confused.
From the n****s on the streets to the old people that watch the news
And watch BET and the crazy shit they see
They associate with you do the same shit to me.
Music is a way to exclude others, an avenue to express our identities, our values and norms, but music can critique conventions as well. The next time you watch The Voice, see what conventions you identify with particular music genres, and see how the coaches bend, blur and play with them.