Sunday, January 13, 2008

Calling all Sociologists!

Calling all sociologists! We've got an 11-59!

If you are interested in the sociology of video gaming (or just the sociology of gender) you need to be watching the crap on the G4 video game channel. Their "Attack of the Show" is pretty much the worst thing on TV - they just interviewed David Caruso and managed to make him look like a professional - but even watching it on mute, you get a good sense of what I'm talking about. Some of the dudes are "cool" (or metro or at least well-dressed) or whatever, and some are just gamer nerds. But ALL of the ladies are hot. To a woman, they are all slender, boobied and long-haired. Now if you can stand to watch this show with sound, you'll find that the dynamic between the two hosts (a guy and a girl) is straight out of the '70s. It's vaguely anti-woman with a smiling nod to her inferior gaming knowledge/skillz. All of the jokes (which are universally terrible) are about sex (doin' chicks), poo or how nerds are not very physically active. It's such a perfect picture of what industry thinks of gamers - they want to be Rico Suave and hang out with attractive ladies, they like jokes about sex and poo, they can only understand things if presented as a videogame analogy - it borders on parody. In fact, they hosts are constantly shrieking at the viewer, "We know what you want! We know what you want!" Which begs the question: if you're presenting the viewer with what he wants, why do you have to tell him that?

Identity reinforcement is an interesting phenomenon in popular culture. I was recently trapped in a clinic lunch room for 8 hours doing patient interviews and forced to listen to country music all day. Prior to this time, I had never listened to much country - just whatever one crazy friend forced on my in high school. The first thing I noticed in the first two hours was that I can't tell the songs apart unless it changes from a male to a female singer. The second thing I noticed was that the lyrics are constantly describing (building?) and reinforcing the Country Identity. In talking about this with Joe, Lisa and Pete, Lisa pointed out that they also spring God on you at the end of the song. Here is what it's like:
I wear my jeans,
I drive my truck,
my life is just like yours.
I got this girl,
she's really cute,
but sometimes she's real trouble.
Now you understand
what I'm talking about
because we all got problems.
The pastor says
my girl means well
so I pray on it each Sunday.

This is not something I've ever noticed in rock music, or even in rap. Rap does a lot of identity work, but it's mostly: I'm awesome, I'm keepin' it real, my life kicks ass, here is a list of things that I do because I'm awesome. The identity construction available to listeners isn't aimed at them the way it is in country. Country music says, "Here's what you are, and so are we, and we should all be content with that, for better or worse." Rap music, on the other hand, offers a description of an great life and implies that if you were to achieve/do/own these things, your life would be great as well. Some rap concentrates on the "keepin' it real" vibe, but even then it's more like a personal justification of realness rather than an instruction to the listener.

Here are links to the lyrics for of the Top 10 Hot Country Songs from Billboard (1/19/08).
1. Taylor Swift, Our Song
2. Sugarland, Stay
3. Montgomery Gentry, What do ya think about that?
4. Rascal Flatts, Winner at a Losing Game
5. Keith Urban, Everybody
6. Brad Paisley, Letter to Me
7. Gary Allan, Watching Airplanes
8. Kenny Chesney, Don't Blink
9. Josh Turner, Firecracker
10. Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus, Ready, Set, Don't Go

I read through these lyrics and came up with 28 themes that seemed pretty common and then (because I'm a totally OCD nerd) made a little chart and counted up which songs had which themes/words. Here they are, from most common to least common:
  • Love - 8
  • Church/praying/God - 7
  • Car/truck - 6
  • Baby (word) - 5
  • Time - 5
  • Crying - 5
  • Leaving - 4
  • Pain - 4
  • Mama/Daddy (words) - 3
  • High school - 3
  • Sex - 3
  • Love lost - 3
  • Looking back - 3
  • Kids - 3
  • Packing - 3
  • Phone/calling - 2
  • Beer/drunk/drugs - 2
  • Farm - 2
  • "Others" - 2
  • Games/prize/win/lose - 2
  • American holiday/event - 2
  • Marriage - 2
  • Town (word) - 2
  • Loneliness - 2
  • Truth/lies - 2
  • Radio/music - 2
  • Clothes - 1
  • Cheating - 1
Okay, so it looks like (at least for this week's top 10) my sense that country songs are always telling you what the singer is wearing is maybe a little exaggerated. Two of the seven songs that talk about God/church in some way do so as an ambiguous reference (one to "faith" and one to "heaven"), so that count is debatable. But overall it looks like the sense that country music is all about love, God, one's "baby" and automobiles is pretty accurate. The two songs that didn't talk about love are the Montgomery Gentry song about how people gossip about you when you're white trash, but dagnabbit, you got a right to keep a rusted out ol' Ford in your front yard while you splash mud all over the town with your big 4-wheel drive; and the Keith Urban song, which is about depression and loneliness and having hope.

In terms of which song had the most of the 28 themes, that would be the Brad Paisley song, with 13 (car, god, daddy, high school, love, sex, American event, marriage, love lost, looking back, kids, pain, time). Sugarland was a close second with 12 (baby, god, phone, crying, cheating, love, leaving, sex, loneliness, truth/lies, pain, time), and the Cyruses were third with 11 (car, baby, god, crying-kind of implied, love, leaving, town, game, kids-implied, packing, pain). Gary Allen had 10. Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, and Kenny Chesney had 9. Montgomery Gentry had 8, Josh Turner had 5 and Keith Urban only had 3.

Of course, this is far from scientific (bordering on "pointless waste of time"), but I think it's interesting to note that the 8/10 of the Billboard top 10 hot country songs are about love in some way and that 7/10 involve God, prayer or christianity. Shouldn't there be more variety? I was going to do the same thing for the top 10 rock and top 10 rap songs, but now I'm bored, so I'm just going to assume that 8/10 of the songs on those lists would not share a single theme. What is the point? Hegemony. It's there on G4, too. My thesis statement is that while identity promotion (represented by rock, rap and tv stations not devoted to video games) can be thematically diverse, identity construction/reinforcement is thematically hegemonic and music/programming in hegemonic genres MUST pay homage to the hegemony or face expulsion/reclassification.

Sociologists, get on this! I want to see papers on my desk by week's end!


Joseph said...

You win. I'm not sure exactly what you said, but you win. Victory through exhaustion. Uncle.

Sydney said...

Oh sad! I didn't mean to defeat you with my socimological theories! :(

Joseph said...

It's OK. We mathy types are easily bewildered by long texts without equations. Perhaps if you had some Latex-formatted formulas in the middle, it would have held my attention a little better...

Beau said...

I have been trying to think of how to respond to this post for some time. I feel as though I should respond as perhaps the only regular reader of this blog that actually listens to country upon occasion. Yet, for some reason I have been having trouble getting my thoughts in order. Here goes anyway though.

First: I am going to have to disagree that G4 is actually gamer television. Although much of the programming (at least what I can see on it) has some electronic/video game edge to it, I don't think it actually appeals to the people that I consider video gamers. Perhaps my view on this are a little close minded but half drunk frat rats that like the Halo and are constantly talking about how drunk/stoned they are don't qualify. From what I have been able to see on G4, the video game content is aimed more at those "games" then anyone else. (Exceptions include Ninja Warrior etc.)

Secondly, from what I hear on the radio, it seems to me that not only would a thematic survey of current pop hits or current R&B hits would yield similar results. Moreover, depending on how broadly you are willing to define your terms, I bet you get a list that looks pretty similar.

Disjointed though they may be, there are my thoughts. I hope I didn't miss the point on this one.

Sydney said...

Country and R&B/Rap probably do share the same set of themes, now that you mention it. I guess it's really a question of what they do with those themes. R&B/Rap are more expository: here's what I did/do, here's why I'm awesome, damn sex with girls is awesome/crap breaking up sucks. There is an implied message of "If you want to have an awesome life and be like me, here are the things you can/should do." Country seems to be more identity building/reaffirming: here's what we do, here's why it's awesome to be x, don't you think sex with girls is awesome/don't you think breaking up sucks, also Jesus.

I really notice the use of the 2nd person in country music. A lot of it is "you... you... you...", which may be meant as 3rd person neutral (one) but has the effect of making it sound like the listener is specifically being addressed. R&B/Rap seem to talk more about "I" or a specific "You." Like Outkast's "I'm Sorry Miss Jackson;" all the yous in that song are addressed at a specific person. Another Outkast song, the wildly popular "I like the way you move," is ostensibly addressed to a specific girl.

What we really need in English is a marker of specific/general for our second person pronouns. Some languages distinguish between inclusive and exclusive "we/us." Like if there are five people (A, B, C, D & E), B could say "We inclusive" and mean all 5. Or B could say "We exclusive" and mean just A & B, but not C, D & E. Sometimes it's a whole different pronoun, sometimes it's morphological (like an affix of some kind). Maybe we need a way of saying "You-anyone" versus "You-someone." Although that might ruin some of the subtlety of the language. Maybe that's why people say, "It's like he's speaking just to me" when they hear a song they really like. It would be pretty sad if all those girls who swooned over Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love," who could imagine themselves as the You, taking Elvis' hand and his whole heart too, were given a linguistic marker that the song was written to a specific girl that he knows and therefore not them.