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Wednesday, August 22, 2007


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We had a conversation on this subject on Sunday, after taking a bicycle up to our eldest, a freshman at USC who moved into his dorm over the weekend (interestingly, but off the topic, I heard a couple of "official" people referring to freshmen as "first-years;" is that a new thing?).

A cute little first-year girl came over to hang out while we were talking with eldest-boy and he fiddled with his iTunes. The conversation (hers, anyway) turned to music, and it was a bit awkward.

Later on it occurred to me that what we had witnessed wasn't a conversation about music per se, but a ritual "flying of the flag." Which is to say that because music = identity (for the young, very often so, but also for older people), one of the ways that college students and other young people find the other members of their personal tribe is by "loving" this music and "hating" that music.

The days before classes begin for freshmen is a chaotic time, with everyone stumbling around trying to find new friends, divide into groups, and create a new instant community. Music serves as a shorthand, a signal, a "hi-sign" for mutual recognition.

I don't think that changes. I just think the consequences of questionable taste become less dire.


Sloop has developed beyond recognition symbols . Eldest son and girl are still finding their way. It implies that age brings acceptance, which seems to suggest that adults are more open minded than their almost-adult kids (at least in terms of music). Isn't that some kind of role reversal?


i live with sloop and his equally music-identified son, and i am constantly surprised by how i ended up here, as a person who does not identify herself through music and who winced when sloop made it clear that EVERY CD THAT HE OWNS would be displayed in our living room. part of my wincing was about realizing that there would then be no room for my "pretty" bookcase that i have always used to display hardbacks in my living space. because, i now realize, books work for me the way that music does for him. and yes, i read books that i would not admit to some of my literary friends that i read and that i am loathe to display in my house (like certain genre paperbacks). at the same time, i read book reviews religiously in places like the NYT and the New Yorker, so that i know what's happening in the literary world even if i don't read all the "hot" stuff. nice post, JMS--you made me think about this in a new way.


I'd like to pick up on one particular point Sloop of the Conchords made (if he isn't lying about all of this, that is). I agree that the products we buy and exhibit in public can put us in situations where we have to make decisions about self-expression and identity. But I'm also intruiged by the ways these products nowadays all-but-necessitate that we make those kinds of decisions.

For example: As a Mac user who almost always has iTunes running, I'm still amazed at the ways in which the Apple software has built-in prompts to try and get me to publicize what I'm listening to. I can set my web chat program to tell people automatically what I'm listening to. My personal web page (made with Apple's software) can now have a little widget that lets people see my favorite songlists. Any songs I'm listening to can be made with one click into an iMix published on iTunes. I can set my screensaver to show my iTunes library and current song track, so that anyone who walks by my computer when I'm away can see what I'm listening to. And there are many other ways in which I can publicize what I usually take to be a private venture -- listening to my music in my own space.

Now, I'm glossing over the obvious commercial motive here because, well, it's obvious and because I don't think it would matter unless there is a strong social engine pulling the commercial load. And that's what fascinates me. What is the social motive for Apple suggesting that others *should* know exactly what I am listening to at almost all times?

Apple's vision of social interaction is interesting to me because it is an inversion of what I used to think of the public/private boundaries. I used to think that when I was sitting alone at home or work, working on my computer, that I was about as private as a person can get (and my music choices confirmed this for me). Yet Apple thinks that's when I should be most public (at least in as much as I am my current song track). Who would even know that I'm listening to music in those situations? Apple suggests everyone should, and with specificity.

Walking in the city with my headphones, I thought, was a public way of displaying that I'm listening to music. I could be listening to the ambient noises of my community, I seemed to be saying, but these earbuds indicate clearly to you, fellow citizen, that I've got some other auditory agenda, thank you very much. But the headphones, though displayed in public, still afford me privacy because people only know that I'm listening to music, but not what I'm listening to. Essentially, Apple has put me in a place where the decisions about public and private are taking on new implications.

I liken this situation to the dilemma I encounter often when pulling up to a stoplight with my windows rolled down. There have been many times when I have changed what was playing on my car stereo to better represent myself in that little milieu, either to save myself what I thought was some embarassment or to try to impress an attractive stranger. I could have just turned it off or rolled up the windows, but I think I want more to play with that tension involved in aural voyeurism so important to music culture.

But the computer technology has changed my own sense of my identity. In the private realm, I cannot lie about my music. The software reports truthfully. The decision is not whether to lie, but whether to be publicly visible while in my private space. In the public realm, the technology still affords me privacy, but leads to the Sloopian decision of morality.

At least until Apple invents a digital tshirt that displays to people what I'm listening to on my iPod as I walk the streets. And I would probably totally buy that tshirt.


Here's another aspect - imposing your music on others.

A car just rumbled through my neighborhood. The "rumble" was not the engine noise or exhaust pipes..it was his/her choice of music. Couldn't catch the name but it had a heavy bass beat. HEAVY enough that my window rattled.

Thanks for continuing past. If he/she had stopped out front I probably would have said something. Shouted something.

That's sharing...to a fault.


i have to agree with the "music as tribal identifier" idea. because my musical tastes are wide (though not particularly deep, for the most part), i'm often looked at with some dismay when i express a musical preference. strange in a culture that often claims to be tolerant of diversity.


In a sense, sharing/not sharing your musical preferences is like "message discipline" in politics. If you're dealing with friends and people with whom you share a more complete and textured relationship, sharing more of yourself makes sense. It strengthens bonds, creates deeper understanding. But sharing more of yourself with random people, who have only an interest in collecting and deploying shallow interpretations of you, can be... dumb.

A stranger who asks "What are you listening to?" might as well be asking "Mind giving me a shorthand biographical summary?"

Oh, and I was reminded of the power of this signal last weekend when our son Lee piped up about how they'd been in my car one day looking for music and found a tape of the soundtrack to "When Harry Met Sally," which is a bunch of old big-band standards recorded by Harry Connick Jr. The kids thought it was HORRIBLE, and they STILL consider that tape to be material proof that I am profoundly dorkish, with scant prospects for redemption.

I'm not ashamed of that tape -- I think it's a great tape -- but if that were the ONLY thing you knew about me, you might get a totally skewed impression of my tastes, my interests, my attitudes. And let's face it: Why would someone who isn't really interested in me care to get a more complete picture?

So managing the signals we send out to the random public isn't hypocritical or dishonest. It's a practical and effective way of keeping our public personas aligned with our personal goals.


My first thought was you are more shallow than I thought, Sloop. Then I had a look at my own audio player. It turns out there are a few selections that I probably would not confess to a cute barista.

Dixie Chicks: Wide Open Spaces

I would like to say I bought this for their politics, but in fact I bought this particular CD before they were shunned by the country music establishment. The fact is, I kind of like their music, and perhaps with Nascar Dads burning their records, maybe now they now have the freedom to break free of Nashville pop-country production. Still, do I really want to admit I listen to them?

Peter Frampton: Frampton Comes Alive

Some 70s rock you can listen to and be hip. Frampton does not fall in that category. At age forty-four, listening to him could easily make me look like someone whose best days were in high school and has not listened to any new music in the last quarter century.

Andy Williams, Barbara Streisand, Englebert Humberdink, and Jim Nabors: Dreaming of a White Christmas

It turns out I have a weakness for Christmas music, and this compilation has a selection by each of these artists. I suppose there is a possibility the barista might think Jim Nabors is cool, but I doubt it.

Vienna Chior Boys: Noel

Like I said, I have a weakness for Christmas music, and this particular CD is sublime. But in today's environment, can a man of forty-four listen to boy sopranos without someone calling the cops?

Snatches of Pink: Bent With Pray

Cute Barista: What are you listening to?
Me: Snatches of Pink
Enough said.


Brief Dixie Chicks digression: I own, or haved owned and lost, all of their CDs. I was skeptical at first, too, but they are not the country version of 'N Sync. They all play their own instruments and were a band before they got discovered -- in other words, they were not formed by some Nashville producer.

Natalie Maines is also the daughter of Texas legend Lloyd Maines, and Emily Robison is married to Charlie Robison, another Texas singer/songwriter.

Put another way, they come from the world of Texas country music, which is a generally a much more interesting, and authentically creative, world than Nashville country music.

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