When I listen to music, I always inquire about the sociological themes of the songs. I also like to use lyrics and show music videos in class to emphasize sociological ideas. What are your favorite sociological songs? Here are some of mine.
- Destiny Rogers, Tomboy. This example was given to me by a student in my introductory 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 be with the homies, make out with the girls.” Another lyric that stands out: “My mom said, ‘Marry a rich man,’ and I said, ‘Mom, I’m the rich man.’ The song opens up a conversation about the meaning of the word “bobby”. To put the discussion into context, I recommend Elizabeth King’s article, which provides an interesting history of the term “bobby” and how the concept has changed over time.
- Lenny Kravitz, “Mr. Taxi Driver”. I wonder how many people these days have never hailed a taxi? We are now used to the convenience of using Uber and Lyft for transportation. I have hailed a taxi many times when visiting New York and Toronto. Being white, it never occurred to me that a taxi driver could pass me because of the color of my skin. In this song, Kravitz captures an example of racism and stereotyping by singing “Mr. Taxi Driver, won’t you stop to let me in? Mr. Taxi Driver, don’t you like my skin? Mr. Taxi Driver doesn’t like the way I look. He doesn’t dreads, he thinks we’re all frauds. Mr. Taxi Driver reads too many story books. This example can be used to teach about stigma. In his book Stigma, one of Erving Goffman’s categories is tribal stigma, which refers to the stigmas of race, ethnicity, nation, and religion. People with tribal stigma experience unequal treatment and hostility. An article I often use as an example of tribal stigma is “Traveling Arab,” in which the author says, “In airports, I’m just another Arab, a potential terrorist.”
- Skee-lo, “I would.”
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 expands on the concept of physical stigma by writing about minor body stigmas. Ellis is interested in the relatively minor “physical flaws that make us fear that we will stand out and be rejected.” Her personal example is one of disgust, a big challenge given her job as a college professor, which involves 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 characteristic is treated as a minor body stigma depends on the context in which it occurs, its perceived degree of distance from some imagined or accepted norm, the wearer’s self-perception, and other reactions,” she writes.
“I Wish” is a classic song that humorously reflects the plight of a short guy. As a man well below average male height, I love this song and can relate. I learned early on that being short is less appreciated than being tall. As a child and even occasionally as an adult, I was the recipient of many short jokes. I was once attracted to someone who described me as “not their type” and later found out that she was not attracted to short guys. I constantly experience being looked down upon in conversation, which to me feels like a power imbalance.
- Maren Morris, The Tall Guys. Morris says she wrote this song for her husband (who is 6’3) and to make him laugh. It is 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 looking up when I’m feeling low
Yes, I can always find them in the crowd
When I can’t see, he puts me on his shoulders
I can wear high heels
I am a lover of all types
But there is something about “tall guys, tall guys”
My students are always interested when I bring up the subject of height. Last semester, one of my students said that she thought men who were 5’9 were short, even though she recognized that 5’9 was the average height for men. She said this after I mentioned that I had seen a conversation on social media about whether Tom Holland was short. I joked to the students that I wish I was Holland’s height (5’8) and said that I wish the term “short king” had existed when I was young!
- For porn movies Pyros, “Pets”. I have loved this song since I heard it when it came out in 1993. The song holds up well and can be applied in the context of social issues in the US and around the world. It has one of my favorite lyrics of all time: “Maybe the Martians could do better than us.” Perry Farrell sings, “My friend says we’re like dinosaurs, only we can fix ourselves a lot faster than they ever did… We’ll make great pets.” Gun violence, homelessness, war, poverty, hunger. Given the damage we are doing to each other and the planet, do we imagine humans would make good pets? I’m not so sure.
- Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Wings. This example is borrowed from sociologist Patricia Louie. In an excellent sociological analysis of the song, she writes: “Wings” becomes a statement about how capitalism lures us into buying products that promise to improve our lives. Using her article in conjunction with the video and Peter Kaufman’s Everyday Sociology post 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 we buy and consume.”
- Drake, “God’s Plan.”
I’ve written about my fascination with Peter Kaufman’s post, The Myth of the Self-Made Man , where he suggests describing people as socially constructed rather than self-made. As Peter said, we are social animals living in a social world. We are not as independent as we think. Rather, we are influenced and inspired by our network of relationships with one another. So why not recognize those who help and support us? I love how Drake does it in “God’s Plan” when he acknowledges his supporting roles (emphasis mine):
“Be 40, Oli, I wouldn’t be there
Imagine if I never met peaches
God’s plan, God’s plan
I can’t do it alone
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 learned that the budget for the video was almost 1 million. USD and that it was all given away. At the end of the video, he expresses a sociological sentiment by saying, “We are nothing without our mothers.”
- Aretha Franklin, “Respect.”
Interdependence is a sociological value, and so is respect. If we want to emphasize the importance of respect, who better to invoke the late Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest singers of all time (you can find the interesting background of this song in this article). The song makes me think of Richard Sennett’s book Respect in a world of inequality. As Sennett explains, we cannot simply command “Respect others” and expect people to show respect. The meaning of respect is complex and the expression of respect is an art. The challenge of achieving mutual respect with an unequal word. However, we can strive for self-respect and strive to respect others. What does respect mean to you and how do you think people can show respect by transcending inequality?
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