Contemporary Application of Bourdieu’s Distinction in Musical Taste

In his famous book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu reports findings from a French survey of cultural tastes fielded in 1967-68. Of particular note is a figure showing the distribution of preferences for three musical works by class fractions. Bourdieu reports that Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” represents “legitimate taste” and is favored by “those fractions of the dominant class that are richest in economic capital.” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” stands in for “middle-brow taste” favored by the middle classes. And Strauss’s “Blue Danube” represents “popular taste” — which Bourdieu characterizes as “so-called ‘light’ music or classical music devalued by popularization,” and also “songs totally devoid of artistic ambition or pretension” such as works by Petula Clark. This taste “is most frequent among the working classes and varies in inverse ratio to educational capital” (p. 17).

I do a mini-version of Bourdieu’s survey in my sociological theory class, playing these three songs for my students and asking them to indicate which they like. There are often very seemingly idiosyncratic patterns in the responses to these songs. Strauss is generally pretty popular overall, though, which is exactly the opposite of what Bourdieu would expect from my generally well-educated and fairly affluent student. Discussion of this often highlights the fact that the music in Bourdieu’s study is too old to allow for meaningful interpretation of the relationship between American social class, educational capital, and taste. So, I field another survey for my students.

I am assisted in my choice of songs by a student who sent me a link to the following chart, from an on-line story called “Does Your Taste in Music Reflect Your Intelligence?”

MusicthatmakesyoudumbLargeThe results bring together the most popular songs at 1,352 American colleges and universities and the average SAT scores at those same institutions. Of course, this is not a sociological study, though the person who did the work, Virgil Griffith, is a PhD student at Caltech studying the “information-integration theory of consciousness” (not exactly a rocket scientist, but close to alot of rocket scientists at Caltech).

Bourdieu talks about “educational capital” rather than intelligence, but we do know that one of the things that the SAT measures is the economic and cultural capital of the students taking the exam, so the SAT is not a terrible proxy for what Bourdieu is talking about.

In my reduced version of Bourdieu’s study, I chose three songs that appear high, middle, and low in the SAT spectrum: Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (high), OutKast’s “Ms. Jackson” (middle), and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” (low). I asked students to indicate which of the three songs was their favorite. The results were as follows:

HIGH (Radiohead): 21%
MEDIUM (OutKast): 38%
LOW (Beyonce): 41%

I welcome any comments on the results of this exercise!


Teaching the Frankfurt School on the Culture Industry and Standardization of Cultural Products

In my sociological theory class recently, I was teaching about critical theory (i.e., “the Frankfurt School”). Specifically, students were reading excerpts from Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s work on “The Culture Industry,” excerpted from their 1944 book The Dialectic of Enlightenment.

Dialectic of EnlightenmentWe talked about how the production of mass cultural commodities (books, films, TV, music) is the same as all mass production. It is geared toward making a profit by minimizing the costs of production and maximizing consumption (i.e., “audience”). The result is homogeneity and predictability.

As Adorno and Horkheimer observed back in the 1940s, “As soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded punished or forgotten. In light music [popular music], once the trained ear heard the first note of the hit song, it can guess what is coming and feel flattered when it does come…The result is a constant reproduction of the same.”

In his essay “On Popular Music,” Adorno refers to the rules of standardization in popular music, the best know of which is that “the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note.” Mind-numbing.

To make this point, I usually just refer to Katy Perry and Jessie J. and whoever the latest pop star is, but this year one of my students pointed me to a song by the group, “Axis of Awesome” which makes this point much better than I could with my limited understanding of music. Check out the video for their song “4 Chords” below:

The Message 2006

Rhymefest updates Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s classic in “Bullet”:

Straight outta high school he didn’t know what to do
Wanted to go to college but no money was nothin’ new
Wanted to get away go see the world and do somethin’ new
He got approached in the mall by the army recruit
Told him “If you wanna go to school we got money too,
Sign up at eighteen you be you when you twenty-two”
He joined the army airborne got his uniform went to bootcamp got some
discipline Iraq is where they shipped him
He’s in the mission where bullets flyin’ and missin’ him
Wishin’ he was a kid again with his family in Michigan
In the midst of fightin’ militiamen, one round took down six of them
He ain’t really a killa though, takin’ a lotta risks
This is what a poor person do for a scholarship
He turned around and got a face full of hollow-tips
But don’t be mad, he died for the flag

[Chorus: Citizen Cope]
Now what you’ve done here, is put yourself between a bullet and a target
And it won’t be long before, you’re pullin’ yourself away
What you’ve done here, is put yourself between a bullet and a target
And it won’t be long before, you’re pullin’ yourself away

What’s Gangsta?

”I wasn’t afraid to be sensual and romantic. But I wanted to still hit you hard and make your body move. I just think that being honest is the most gangsta thing you could ever do.”

–Sean “Puffy”/”P-Diddy”/”Diddy” Combs

A New Sound For Old What’s-His-Name
New York Times
September 10, 2006

Another Reason Not to Like 50 Cent

In addition to being an average talent, here is what 50 Cent had to say about George W. Bush:

“I think he’s incredible. I think George Bush is a gangsta. That’s what I think. I wanna meet George Bush, just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him. Do you know we share the same birthday. We were both born on July 6. I would have voted for George Bush.” –Quoted in GQ Magazine, December 2005.

Also, the fact that 50 Cent was named a GQ “Man of the Year” indicates the further debasement of the term “Gentleman” in the magazine’s title.

What’s wrong with Jay-Z?

I haven’t had alot of time to listen to Kanye West’s much anticipated sophomore album, Late Registration, but I have been intrigued by the remix of the song “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” In the first half of the song, West makes very astute observations about the relationship between “bling” in America and the trade in “conflict diamonds” in parts of Africa, including Angola and Sierra Leone. Although it was five years ago that the U.N. adopted a resolution condemning the role of diamonds in fueling these brutal wars, it took West’s song to bring the issue to the attention of large segments of the American public.

My problem with the song is not West’s part but Jay-Z’s. The second half of the song is an extended cameo by Jay-Z, who raps about nothing relevant to the first part. Sample lyric:

Difficult takes a day, impossible takes a week
I do this in my sleep,
I sold kilos of coke, I’m guessin’ I can sell CDs
I’m not a businessman I’m a business, man
Let me handle my buisness, damn!

Jay-Z’s considerable talent is evident on the song. He can flow and he is funny, but why has he never said anything socially relevant in a song? Or maybe he has? Am I missing something here? I mean, he doesn’t have to be Chuck D, but it seems he has wasted his talent in part by not pushing himself more. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” is a perfect case in point.

Savior of West Coast Rap?

Someone was hyping The Game as the savior of West Coast rap. After all, he’s produced by Dre and his new album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts. So I listened to the collabo with 50 Cent, “How We Do.” You can’t avoid it, really. And I say: if The Game is the savior of West Coast rap, then the West Coast is beyond salvation.