Whenever two people meet for the first time, one of the things normally brought up as a point of conversation is music. A person usually asks what kind of music the other one is into to see if they have anything in common. I myself have experienced this and have also used music a few times as a conversation starter. However, sometimes when I am asked about music that I like, I become a bit conscious of what to say because it becomes an attribute by which I could be judged. During a soiree back in high school (yes, I am embarrassed to say that I did in fact attend those silly high school soirees), a guy asked me what music I was into. When I told him I really liked The Killers, his eyebrow shot up and he asked “Really?” Yes really, I do like them, do you have a problem with that? But, alas, I was not able to say that. Instead I just gave a sheepish smile and pretended to enjoy the rest of the conversation with that stupid guy.
Although I felt that that guy was pretty judgmental of the music that I listen to, I guess I tend to act the same way sometimes. When I see Facebook statuses about how sad someone is over the price of a Taylor Swift concert ticket, I think to myself “She likes Taylor Swift??” This is similar to the way I think about those really bad bossa nova covers of mainstream songs like Single Ladies and Firework. The minute they come on over the radio, I switch the station and think who in their right minds would listen to that. Likewise, I always make fun of the band Cueshe because I think they are very “jologs”. Indeed, while the music that we listen to can give a glimpse of what kind of person we are, it may also be a way for other people to label us.
In a discursive approach study done by Ivaldi and O’Neill (2009), they were able to explore how adolescents construct the notion of social status and being privileged through discussions about musician role models. Pictures of several musician role models were asked to be grouped based on who the participants were familiar and unfamiliar with, and then based on who they liked and disliked (based only on pictures for those that were unfamiliar). The list included Britney Spears, Craig David, Madonna, Hear’say, Jennifer Lopez, Eminem, Westlife, Robbie Williams, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Vanessa-Mae, Luciano Pavarotti, Charlotte Church, Evelyn Glennie, Beethoven, Nigel Kennedy, Mozart, Jane Glover, and Guy Johnston. After which, each participant was given information about the musicians and a focus group discussion was held.
The study was done in England, and so the discussions focused on Robbie Williams, a popular British pop star, and Guy Johnston, an award-winning cellist who none of the participants were familiar with. The results of the discussion showed that the notion of privilege was constructed in four emergent themes, namely (1) wealth, education, and higher social status; (2) “posh” versus “common” accent; (3) age and opportunity; and (4) family values. The study centered on the concept of social identity, social comparison, and the presence of in- and out-groups.
The adolescent participants associated themselves more with Robbie Williams, whose picture was of himself in jeans and a t-shirt. They noted the fact that he had a Stoke accent, but a participant commented that it was a shame that his Stoke accent could be heard “because we’ve got such a common accent, it sounds awful”. They also brought up his fight with drugs and considered how much work he put into making a comeback afterwards. On the other hand, they considered Guy Johnston as very different from themselves because he is very “posh” and privileged. His picture was of himself in a traditional concert suit and holding his cello. The participants even likened him to Prince William and Prince Harry, and concluded that he must have been from a very rich family because “he probably would have started when he was about six” and “if you’re playing the cello when you’re six it just seems like you know, you’re really posh”. Although some of the participants themselves were playing instruments, they considered Guy Johnston as very different from themselves and generally considered themselves part of the out-group rather than the in-group or the privileged group. Overall, the findings suggest that the way adolescents interpret musical behavior is based on what it means to be privileged. In addition, the findings have implications in engagement in musical involvement. Because of the notion of privilege in musical attainment, there may be a barrier in expectations and aspirations to achieve a similar level of musical expertise.
Personally, I find it interesting that based on music and on the appearance of musicians, we are able to construct a perceived notion of otherness. Because a person plays the cello, he is immediately perceived as very rich, “posh”, and different from ourselves. This perceived notion of otherness then affects how people view themselves and the social groups they belong to. Also, one of the notable things about this study is that in the English setting, the adolescents try hard not to classify themselves with the privileged class because they are too posh and high-class. Perhaps this also happens with us in the Philippines (and elsewhere) because we also do not associate ourselves with groups that are into classical music, but the general trend is that we try more to veer away from the underprivileged class or those who like bad music. The fear of being judged based on the music we listen to is that we might be labeled as having bad taste.
Therefore, this perceived otherness in privilege and musical taste provides a barrier not only in musical attainment, but in overall exposure to music as well. Because we wish to stay within our own social groups, staying away from music or people that are too high-class as well as from people who are underprivileged or tasteless, we give ourselves a limit to the music that we listen to and enjoy. For example, I was told (and based on some songs I’ve heard on the radio, I have also heard for myself) that Gloc 9 is a really good rapper and that his songs are very well-written. He writes about things that have depth and sense and that reflect life in the Philippines. But because I am not into rap and because there is a bit of a stigma in Philippine rap music, I don’t think I’ve given Gloc 9 a chance and still laugh at his songs sometimes. Maybe it’s time to give other music a chance rather than stay away from it just because of what others think. We must refrain from being judgmental and be open in order to enjoy and appreciate all kinds of music.
Ivaldi, A. & O’Neill, S. (2009). Talking “privilege”: barriers to musical attainment in adolescents’ talk of musical role models. British Journal of Music, 26:1, 43-56.