Personal Music as Public Wedge

Sunday’s “Profile” column in my local paper features an outgoing Senior here at the University, one who for the past year has served as the student representative on the Board of Trustees (the governing body of our University). On page two, where we typically see an action shot of a local schoolteacher, community organizer, or research scientist, we see a young, closely-cropped white man, seated in front of a window overlooking the campus Quad. On a table to his left, we see a large campaign button for a Presidential race that happened in my lifetime, but not in his. Above the student’s folded arms, across a crisp navy blue tshirt, appears the now retired and contraband image of the “Chief” logo.

This student is no stranger to my local paper, and I expect Illinois voters will see more of him in the future. As President of “Students for Chief Illiniwek,” he was behind last year’s non-binding student referendum in which, one year after the Trustees finally did the right thing and retired our racist mascot, 80 percent of voting students registered their desire that the “Chief” symbol be “reinstated.” (At least 2/3 of registered students didn’t vote.)

This young citizen has also previously appeared in the paper’s pages defending his group’s use of the trademark “Chief” logo, against University lawsuits citing trademark infringement. He’s been championed by the paper’s editors on multiple occasions – for supporting free speech through pressing for the right of students to continue the “Chief” tradition, or for pushing for access to official correspondence between the University and the NCAA, whose ruling against the Chief logo as racist led to the logo’s demise.

The paper’s editors have been avowedly against the decision to retire the mascot, so it’s no surprise to see a young champion of the Cause celebrated as a “rabble-rouser” in our community.

What stuck in my head about this piece of journalism is one very odd sub-feature. As part of the profile, the reporter apparently asked the lad to list the most frequently played songs on his iPod. He listed, in no order:

“Ave Maria,” Franz Schubert
the “Three-in-One,” University of Illinois Marching Illini
“I Wish You Love,” Dean Martin
“Hey Brother, Pour the Wine,” Dean Martin
“O Holy Night,” Nat ‘King’ Cole

It’s a mash-up worthy of Komar and Melamid. I listen to some admittedly annoying music, but to listen to these five all the time would truly drive me batty.

Savvy politicians know that one answers such a question to project a particular image, regardless of whether one even owns an iPod. It hardly matters whether he really listens to these tracks all the time or not. Either way, in these instances we find a clear example of self-construction, a moment of definition in relation to others, that is dependent on one’s sense of hearing. Let’s have a closer look/listen.

A playlist like this invites viewing from two angles. From one angle, we can stand behind the listener and see what he projects out into the world – how does he approach a chance to engage others with possible connections, alliances? From a second angle, we can look back at this person, and imagine what sort of emotional, social, aural experience he is looking to construct for himself.

From the first angle, looking out, I believe we can read this playlist as a highly instrumental attempt to stake positions and opinions in relation to others.

Ave Maria – “I’m VERY Catholic, and proud of it.”
Three-in-One – “CHIEF! Forever.”
I Wish You Love – “I’m an old-fashioned heterosexual Romantic, I like my girls girly and my guys suave.”
Hey Brother, Pour the Wine – “A little drinking never hurt anyone, I’m not so uptight. Boys will be boys.These are the best years of our lives!”
O, Holy Night – “Let’s keep the Christ in Christmas!”

No rock bands, no country stars, no hip-hop, no contemporary pop. No attempts to ally with popular music debates and alliances (“Beach Boys or Beatles?” “Kelly Clarkson or Clay Aiken?” “Rap or Rock?”). This guy is willfully constructing not a genre-mashup identity of linkable items, but a collection of moral wedges into the world.

Looking back at the listener, we might imagine what sort of private world he’s creating for himself through listening. The scenario I imagine is this – you’ve just run into someone you know, and take out your earbuds to say hi. What state must you be in upon re-emerging from that track into the world of the social?

Ave Maria – “Wow, give me a minute, I was just lost in worshipful reverie again. Hey are you going to that party tonight?”

Three-in-One – “Yes, let’s win! CHIEF! I feel so traditional and motivated to defeat the enemy in a way that has the moral high-ground of solemn respect for ageless wisdom! See you at the tailgate!”

I Wish You Love – “Wow, some girl is gonna be so lucky when I start loving in her direction. I am a ROMANCING man. She’s not gonna know what hit her, and I am such a clean-loving, timelessly good guy. Hey man, let’s go drink later.”

Hey Brother, Pour the Wine – “That party was awesome, I can’t wait for the next one. It’s such a good feeling when we’re all taking a drink at the same time and singing like that, it makes me feel part of something. Hang on a sec, I can’t hear you, let me take these buds out.”

Oh Holy Night – “That feeling I get during Christmas Eve is so perfect, I want to have it all the time. I love remembering how great that feels. Everything is so dramatic and uniquely poignant! I gotta listen to that again, hey don’t talk to me right now OK?”

As an ipod playlist, these are all good “psych-up” tracks – mood music for direct and private self-stimulation. Select the track, and -presto- you’re in the desired mood. And nobody around you is the wiser. (Very pharmaceutical, no?)

What interests me here is the interdependency of public “wedge-issue” identity politics and private emotional management, self-stimulation. The same tracks that enable this character to broadcast a very polemical, non-dialogic public conversation also allow him to self-regulate as needed throughout the day.

He’s as instrumental with himself as he is with the public.

This is interesting to think about in light of the pro-Chief movement, wherein a majority of Illinois citizens and alumni demand the uncompromising right to employ a racist stereotype, because they like how it makes them feel. (The “Chief” halftime show is intended as a stirring and emotional ceremony with moral overtones.) They employ highly instrumental tactics in defense of their right to instrumentally stimulate themselves to feeling honorable, timeless, dignified.

Admittedly, my whole experiment in this post is a stretch. Writing about this guy from just a couple of newspaper articles hardly qualifies me to know his heart. The student character here is somewhat my own invention, and only partly based on fact.

But I think it’s an experiment worth trying, and this helps me think in new ways about the effects and dependencies of personal music as emotional management. Hopefully I’ll return to such an analysis soon, picking on a harder target.

Lastly, and in fairness, I’ll list my own recent five “Most Played” tracks, engaging in a related game of public argument and self-sculpting:

Pj Harvey – Silence
Utah Smith – I’m Free
Expo ’70 – Matroshka Experiment
Rusty Dusty – The Place I’m From
New Pornographers – My Rights Versus Yours

3 Responses to Personal Music as Public Wedge

  1. kevin.

    i love this. seriously. i made my chief-advocate-staunch-republican sister read it. and even she liked it.

    p.s. good tunes.

  2. you forgot “Hey, I listen to black singers! The good ones, anyway…”

  3. Wow, just stumbled across this and loved it. Thanks!

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