Friday, August 18, 2006

Musicology in Action?

Who says musicology isn't relevant?

There was a very bizarre little item in the news today. Apparently, at the World AIDS conference going on in Toronto right now, a study was presented which investigated the correlation between HIV infection and musical taste. According to the article, teenage boys who listen to "gospel, techno, and pop" are more at risk for HIV than teenage boys who listen to "hip hop, reggae, reggaeton, rap and rhythm and blues."

Now, it was very hard to tell what this study is actually about from this quick little wire feed article, which was mostly just a few quotes from the study's author, Miguel Munoz-Laboy--all of which sounded like they were taken a little out of context. I did find the study's abstract, which tells us that this is actually an ongoing ethnography of urban youth cultures focusing on masculinity and sexual risk. The presentation at the conference was on one aspect of that project, hip-hop as a "narrative of masculinity."

Obviously, the musicologist in me--as well as the queer activist still in me, buried beneath the layers of graduate school, who really cares about the real-world implications of this study--has a lot of questions. Most of them are completely unanswerable in lieu of a finished, published project, rather than just an abstract and a half-ass interview. I do sense that it is a well-meaning project, and I like the fact that an empirical public health study such as this is taking music culture seriously. Obviously nobody is claiming that listening to one genre of music "causes" certain risky sexual behaviors. Munoz-Laboy's claim is that involvement in certain "scenes" tend to correlate with risky behaviors. That makes intuitive sense-- a "scene" is a community of people typically linked by an appreciation for a certain genre of music. And that "appreciation" is important--it is the way certain people appreciate music that matters almost more than what is being appreciated. A scene is an analytical tradition, not so different than, say, set theorists or Schenkerians.

Interpreting music is a social phenomenon--we don't call them theoretical "schools" for nothing--so if one's object is to study social behavior, such as sex, it seems particularly important to look at how these kids are listening to music. And that gets to one of the obvious problems of the survey as presented so far. By dividing up popular music into all these genres, they are doing the musical interpretation for the kids. I mean, can you really put "pop" music and "rhythm and blues" and "hip-hop" into different categories today? I think not. Yes, plenty of people do, and I have no doubt that the study attempted to take its cue from how the teenagers talk about their music. But I do think that if you are going to study such a complicated cultural problem, as this study thankfully attempts to do, you need to also look specifically at the music on its own terms. Because any sort of social behavior inevitably bleeds into other social behaviors, and studying how these kids listen to music might tell us something about how they do other things. Otherwise, you're just randomly correlating data, which can lead to also sorts of silliness.

And might actually give you some ideas for how to fix things. I know a high school teacher in Los Angeles named Patrick Camangian, who uses hip-hop lyrics to teach his young charges critical thinking. That is, he didn't just use hip-hop to gain street cred with them. (As a former drop-out of the school at which he taught, he already had that!). He uses it to teach them analytical skills, and critical thinking. And the optimist in me does think that if you can learn how to be critical in one part of life, you might start to be critical in others.

I sound awfully formalist, don't I? Oh well. I'm very open to opinions others might have about this. Really, I just think everyone needs a musicologist in their lives!

4 comments:

sushipjs said...

Gosh... that study sounds like the very worst of ethnographic studies - you know, the kind that ignore the changes that social sciences have undergone in the last twenty years. A good ethnography isn't supposed to try to draw such simplistic connections between social practice and genre. That's what practice theory is for: complicating connections. Grrr...

bbound said...

see, I knew you would know more about this sort of thing than I. I just hope--hope!--that the actual study, not the random quotes, is a bit smarter. But it all seems to kind of be within an epidemiology, public health kind of setting, which doesn't really bode well.

but makes good fodder for academics!

sushipjs said...

You know, I was still thinking about this post today and I remembered a paper I heard at Q Grad 2003 by Christine Balance, a performance studies grad student from NYU about drug use, electronic dance music, and pilipino american heteronormativity. It was simply mind-blowing research. She did ethnography and found some really interesting information along the same lines as your study, but she didn't fall into the trap of mistaking correlations for causes. Maybe I should google her to see what she's been up to...

Caroline said...

ctrl f, Kids Incorporated Not found....