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06 May 2017

The Little Red Hen as Antithesis to the Prodigal Son

I have a two-year-old, which means that I'm getting a crash course in childhood socialization. Case in point: The Little Red Hen. She already knows two versions of the story. Here is the plot summary according to Wikipedia:
In the tale, the little red hen finds a grain of wheat and asks for help from the other farmyard animals...to plant it, but none of them volunteer. At each later stage (harvest, threshing, milling the wheat into flour, and baking the flour into bread), the hen again asks for help from the other animals, but again she gets no assistance. Finally, the hen has completed her task and asks who will help her eat the bread. This time, all the previous non-participants eagerly volunteer. She declines their help stating that no one aided her in the preparation work. Thus, the hen eats it with her chicks leaving none for anyone else. The moral of this story is that those who say no to contribution to a product do not deserve to enjoy the product: "if any would not work, neither should he eat."
I find this story shockingly ugly. It occurs to me that it's the most conservative argument ever. (Ironically, one could also read it as the most Marxist argument ever, which is intriguing given its supposed Russian roots, but that's maybe for a future post.) It also strikes me as the mirror opposite of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32):
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"
Oh, how little we actually think about the lessons we teach our children.

Don't get me started on the bourgeois propaganda that is Thomas the Tank Engine!

'Are You in a Band?' Autoethnographic Interview Essays, Pt. 1/10

As I posted recently, I'm starting a new research project. It's an ethnography on how do musicians start and sustain a band. I'm also incorporating elements of autoethnography. Primarily, I see this part of the project as exploratory and supplementary. In that spirit, I'm going to write essay answers to the preliminary, sample interview questions. It should be in ten parts. Here we go.


Can you tell me about the first time you joined a band?

The first band I was in was a foursome called Hammertoe. We founded the group when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I played bass and my buddy Devin played drums. We were both fairly talented musicians already at that point, both having taken lessons for a few years and developed some chops. We recruited a mutual friend, Stu, to play guitar and another mutual friend, Sean, to sing. It turned out that Sean couldn't actually sing so he didn't last long. Stu and I started trading lead singing responsibilities. Stu really was only a guitar player at that point in the sense that he owned a guitar and an amp, but he was a pretty quick study. It would have been around 1993 or 1994 when we started so most of our early repertoire consisted of Nirvana and Green Day covers, but we almost immediately started writing original stuff. I was already reading enough trade publications to know that we weren't going to be taken seriously as a cover band. The first songs we wrote were really bad, but we were learning.

Our first gig was at party in the basement of our friend Jill's house when we were high school frosh. I think we played some Green Day, Offspring, and Nirvana. As amateur as it was, it was legitimizing, especially since Jill and her friends were all a year ahead of us in school, and though it's easy to forget, that's a big step up in the adolescent hierarchy. 

That same year, we changed our name from Hammertoe (a reference to my grandmother's jacked up feet that our family dog would lick) to Steamboat Willie. Stu, who was becoming our lead singer and frontman, thought the name was original, but when he realized that it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, we quickly dropped the "Willie" and became Steamboat. We played our high school talent show that year as frosh, covering Hendrix's cover of "Hey Joe" with our new lead guitarist Jason. We had been introduced to him through some mutual friends. He was, in our eyes, a very cool, older, and popular kid, but he proved to be very affable. The variety show was not the typical amateur-hour; it was a big production with a longstanding reputation in the community.

Sometime after that, we started playing shows more regularly and eventually recorded and self-released an album of original material. We disbanded as we were graduating high school and heading in different directions to college and whatnot.

Overall, I feel very lucky for the time I had with that band. We had little squabbles here and there, but generally, we got along very well. I was contributing to songwriting with the group, but much of what I was writing wasn't appropriate for the group. I wish that I'd pursued other avenues for that stuff. I tended to write poppier material, and Steamboat was very much rooted in the Led Zeppelin school of '70s blues-based jam rock. I sang background vocals, but it was determined that my voice was too clean and pretty, which, in retrospect, was absolutely true for that genre.

I learned some important lessons about band dynamics. We started the band as very, very close friends, but as we went along, I became more distant and sought outside friendships. The guys in the band were experimenting with drugs and generally being more deviant, and while I wasn't a square, I was becoming more focused on academics and sports and knew that path was probably dangerous so I distanced myself. We continued to play well together, though.

For a few years in there, I was also playing a Christian rock band called Embrace. It was fronted by Chris, who was in his thirties and the youth pastor at the local Church of God. Stu recruited me into the band. He attended the church and was playing guitar for the group. I had many other friends and acquaintences in the youth group there so it was a fairly easy sell, especially since I was a fairly religious kid. In retrospect, it was a very odd time. I learned a lot in the group musically and learned hard lessons about what I didn't believe religiously, but I have fond memories of playing with the band. We did record a album of original material, mostly written by Chris. I am a very different person now than I was then. Adult Brad would judge teenage Brad.

I played an occassional gig here or there with other groups, but I was pretty loyal to Steamboat. I went on to play in a few other bands in college and grad school, but none was as formative as that first band.

05 May 2017

Some Notes for Later Use on Campus Carry

Governor Deal signed the campus carry bill into law. I wrote about the lead-up last year. I'm angry. Here are two thoughts for future reference:

First, I'm contemplating buying a costume bulletproof vest to wear in protest while on campus next year.

Second, Freedom of Speech is regularly constrained on college campuses. I do not allow students to use the N-word in my classrooms, for example. Students are generally expected to shut up when told to by a professor. This is, for better or worse, how college classrooms work. Colleges also have so-called Free Speech Zones. One (purported) reason for these is to limit protest to areas that are not disruptive to regular campus activities, like holding classes. The courts have regularly allowed colleges and professors to curtail First Amendment rights. Why should Second Amendment rights be any different?

04 May 2017

Cycles of Poverty are Circular

I regularly teach a frosh-level Social Problems course. The students give several presentations and submit several papers. One "concept" shows up so often that I've added a bullet in my syllabus specifically to forbid it: the Cycle of Poverty. Poverty is, no doubt, cyclical in the sense that it is passed down over and over again from generation to generation. When my students invoke this phrase, however, they do so in a way that dismisses the actual causes of poverty. In effect, "the cycle of poverty" is a tautological argument. Why are black kids disproportionately poor? "Because their parents are poor." Why are their parents poor? "Because their parents were poor" ad infinitum. Why is the sky blue? "Because it reflects the ocean." Why is the ocean blue? "Because it reflects the sky." By this logic, poverty is intractable, and students can either throw their hands in the air and walk away or they can propose interventions that are far more likely to address the immediate consequence of poverty without actually confronting its causes. Sure, poverty is cyclical, but what was its prime cause? Black kids may be disproportionately poor because their parents were poor, but their grandparents may have been poor because they were denied affordable housing (e.g. Redlining) or because they were restricted from upward mobility through threats of violence (e.g. Jim Crow) etc. Part of teaching that social change is possible is getting students past the notion that "this is the way things are because this is the way things have been" mentality. I'm not certain what the cultural source of this thinking is, but it's insidious.

01 May 2017

New Project: 'Are You in a Band?' (Auto-)Ethnography of Forming a Popular Music Ensemble

I'm starting a new research project, and I'm pretty excited. Here is a portion of the proposal. If you or someone you know wants to give me funding or a book contract, I'm game.

Background and Purpose
Previous research has looked at the community created by music consumers (Lena 2012) as well as at the musical tastes of individuals (Bourdieu 1984, Peterson and Kern 1996). Previous research has also looked at discrimination of and among musical performers (Clawson 1999, Donze 2011, Goldin and Rouse 2000). Little work has been conducted, however, in understanding the process by which musicians in popular music negotiate the formation and maintenance of a musical collective; in other words, how do musicians start and sustain a band?

I propose to conduct an autoethnography and ethnography of the process of forming a band in a prominent musical center and college town in the southeastern United States. I will collect my own personal reflections, fieldnotes from participant-observations, and semi-structured interviews with fellow musicians and related insiders (e.g. promoters, venue owners, press, record industry, etc.) of the local popular music scene. This will follow the process from early formation to recruitment, auditions, rehearsals, socializing, socialization, performances, and recording and, possibly, to ejection, replacement, and even dissolution. The specific role of the primary investigator is of band (co-)leader, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist.

While the nature of semi-structured interviews does not include verbatim questionnaires, the following are likely indicative of the nature of questions to be asked:

  • How would you describe the interaction of band members and how is this similar to or different from other relationships in your life?
  • How has being in a band affected your outside relationships?
  • How has being in a band affected your regular gig [i.e. your primary employment]?
  • Can you tell me about the first time you joined a band?
  • Have you ever been kicked out of a band? Can you tell me about that experience?
  • Tell me about what it’s like to perform on stage?
  • How would you describe rehearsals? Do you enjoy it?
  • Tell me about your practice routine?
  • What was the worst argument you ever had in a band?
  • What was the most rewarding experience you ever had in a band?

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Clawson, Mary Ann. 1999. “When Women Play the Bass: Instrument Specialization and Gender Interpretation in Alternative Rock Music.” Gender and Society 13(2):193-210.
Donze, Patti. 2011. “Popular Music, Identity, and Sexualization: a Latent Class Analysis of Artist Types.” Poetics 39:44-63.
Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. 2000. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians.” American Economic Review 90(4):715-741.
Lena, Jennifer. 2012. Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Peterson, Richard and Roger Kern. 1996. “Changing Highbrow Taste: from Snob to Omnivore.” American Sociological Review 61:900-907.