August 01, 2022

Sociological Songs

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

When I listen to music, I always have an ear out for sociological themes in songs. I also like to reference song lyrics and show music videos in class to highlight sociological ideas. What are your favorite sociological songs? Here are some of mine.

  1. Destiny Rogers, “Tomboy”. This example was given to me by a student in my Introduction to Sociology course when I asked the class to think of any song with messages about gender. Rogers sings, “I got the best of both worlds, I can hang with the dudes, get pretty with the girls.” Another lyric that stands out is “My mama said, ‘Marry a rich man’ and I was like, ‘Mama, I am that rich man’.” The song opens up a conversation about the meaning of the word tomboy. To put the discussion into context, I recommend an article by Elizabeth King that provides an interesting history of the term tomboy and how the concept has changed over time.
  2. Lenny Kravitz, “Mr. Cab Driver”. I wonder, how many people these days have never hailed a cab? We’re now accustomed to the convenience of using Uber and Lyft for transportation. I’ve signaled for a cab many times during visits to New York and Toronto. Being white, it would never occur to me that a cab driver might pass me by due to the color of my skin. In this song, Kravitz captures an example of racism and stereotyping in singing “Mr. cab driver, won't you stop to let me in? Mr. cab driver, don't you like my kind of skin? Mr. cab driver don't like the way I look. He don't like dreads, he thinks we're all crooks. Mr. cab driver reads too many story books.” This example can be used when teaching about stigma. In his book Stigma, one of Erving Goffman’s categories is tribal stigma, referring to stigmas of race, ethnicity, nation, and religion. People with a tribal stigma are subject to unequal treatment and hostility. An article I often use for an example of tribal stigma is “Traveling While Arab,” in which the author says “in airports I am just another Arab, a potential terrorist.”
  3. Skee-lo, “I Wish”.

Physical stigmas are another category of stigma that Goffman wrote about. Examples of physical stigma include a person in a wheelchair, a person who is obese, and a person who is blind. Carolyn Ellis extends the concept of physical stigma by writing about minor bodily stigmas. Ellis is interested in relatively minor “physical imperfections that make us fear we stand out and might be rejected.” Her personal example is having a lisp, a significant challenge considering her job as a college professor which features so much public speaking and heightened awareness of one’s own voice. Other examples include baldness, acne, body odor, and being “too tall” or “too short”. “Whether a particular characteristic is treated as a minor bodily stigma depends on the context in which it occurs, its degree of perceived distance from some imagined or accepted norm, the bearer’s self-perception, and others’ reactions,” she writes.

“I Wish” is a classic song that humorously captures the plight of the short guy. As a man well below average male height, I love this song, and can relate. I learned early in life that being short is less valued than being tall. I was on the receiving end of many short jokes in childhood, and even occasionally in adulthood. I once took an interest in someone who described me as “not their type,” which I later learned to mean she didn’t find short guys attractive. In interactions, I regularly experience being looked down at during conversation, which feels to me like a power imbalance.

  1. Maren Morris, “Tall Guys”. Morris says she wrote this song for her husband (who is 6’3), and to make him laugh. It’s a celebration of tall men and reinforces the socially constructed idea that tall men are more desirable than short men. She sings:

“Yeah, they keep me looking up when I'm feeling down

Yeah, I can always find 'em in the middle of a crowd

When I can't see over, he puts me on his shoulders

I can wear my heels real high

I'm lover of all types

But there's something 'bout tall guys, tall guys”

My students are always interested when I bring up the subject of height. Last semester, one of my students said she considers men who are 5’9 to be short, even though she recognized that 5’9 is average male height. She said this after I mentioned seeing a social media conversation about whether Tom Holland is short. I joked to students that I’d love to be Holland’s height (5’8), and said I wish the term “short king” existed when I was a young man!

  1. Porno for Pyros, “Pets”. I’ve liked this song since hearing it when it came out in 1993. The song holds up well, and can be applied in the context of social problems in the United States and throughout the world. It contains one of my favorite all-time song lyrics: “Maybe Martians could do better than we've done.” Perry Farrell sings, “My friend says we're like the dinosaurs, only we are doing ourselves in, much faster than they ever did...We'll make great pets.” Gun violence, homelessness, war, poverty, famine. Considering the harm we cause to each other and to the planet, do we imagine humans would make good pets? I’m not so sure.
  1. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Wings”. This example is borrowed from sociologist Patricia Louie. In an excellent sociological analysis of this song, she writes: “‘Wings’ becomes a statement on how capitalism seduces us into purchasing products that promise to make our lives better.” Using her article to accompany the video, along with an Everyday Sociology post from Peter Kaufman, is a creative way to introduce students to Karl Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism. As Kaufman explains, Marx was concerned that we are more interested in things than the people who make those things. As Peter wrote, “Most of us never think about the human labor that goes into all of the things we buy and consume.”
  1. Drake, “God’s Plan”.

I have written about my admiration for Peter Kaufman’s post “The Myth of the Self-Made Person,” in which he suggests that we should describe people as being socially made rather than self-made. As Peter said, we are social animals living in a social world. We aren’t as independent as we think. Rather, we are influenced and inspired by our interdependent web of relationships. So why not recognize those who help and support us? I like the way Drake does this in “God’s Plan,” when he gives credit to his supporting cast (emphasis mine):

“Without 40, Oli, there'd be no me

Imagine if I never met the broskis

God's plan, God's plan

I can't do this on my own

The music video shows Drake giving money to people in Miami, and a donation to the Miami Fire Department. At the beginning of the video, we learn the budget for the video was nearly $1 million and that all of it was given away. At the end of the video, he expresses a sociological sentiment in saying “We’re nothing without our mothers.”

  1. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”.

Interdependence is a sociological value, and so is respect. If we want to highlight the importance of respect, who better to summon than the late Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest singers of all time (for interesting background on this song, check out this article). The song gets me thinking about Richard Sennett’s book Respect in a World of Inequality. As Sennett explains, we cannot simply command “Respect others” and expect people to enact respect. The meaning of respect is complex, and the expression of respect is an art. It’s a challenge to achieve mutual respect in an unequal word. Still, we can aim for self-respect and strive to respect others. What does respect mean to you, and how do you think people can show respect across boundaries of inequality?

Comments

I often listen to sociological songs especially at night.

it would never occur to me that a cab driver might pass me by due to the color of my skin. In this song

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