MACSEM 2008 Panel: “Children, music, and media in the contemporary US”

In March Jenny Woodruff and I organized a panel at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic chapter of SEM, on “Children, music, and media in the contemporary US,” which included papers by Sarah Snyder and Jenny Johnson. It was a rare chance (hopefully more and more in the near future) to bring together some of scholars who have recently been opening up new doors for ethnomusicological study of kids, media, and popular music consumption.

Abstracts after the jump.

Children have recently received increasing attention in anthropological and ethnomusicological research, as models from developmental psychology come under sustained criticism and social constructionist frameworks are put forward in their place. “Childhood,” in this approach, is understood to be a discursive construction that constitutes age-group identities and affliations, and music, media, and aesthetics are key elements in children’s social practices, in the articulation of childhood identity, and in adult frameworks for understanding their own and others’ childhoods. This panel examines children’s interactions with musical media in ethnographic detail, while considering the challenges those interactions pose for adults. In Bickford’s paper, the use of headphones by children at a New England primary school is an essential practice in forming communities independent of adult supervision. In Snyder and Woodruff’s papers, popular media are imagined, by children and adults alike, as potentially corrupting or dangerous influences. In Johnson’s paper, memories of children’s media in 1980’s America are central to the adult formation of childhood trauma survivor identities, further complicating questions of what constitutes innocence, age-appropriateness, and political responsibility in musical media created specifically for children.These papers share a focus on the emotionally charged and socially contentious understandings of childhood musical practices and media consumption. Adult responses to children’s media reflect ideological orientations toward sexuality, social authority, and consumerism that articulate “appropriate,” but often uncomfortable, roles for adults and children. Listening to music, children navigate the contentious spaces of childhood, managing disputed commitments to adults and peers while determining music’s meaning in their own lives.

My own paper was “The social economy of headphone use in a New England public school”:

At Heartsboro Central School in rural southern Vermont, media are intimately embedded in kids’ everyday interactions. Portable music players, tightly bundled with headphone cables, circulate among lockers, desks, pockets, and backpacks. Cables thread under clothing and tangle across crowded lunchroom tables. Earbuds hidden in hoodies provide surreptitious entertainment during class; hanging from a shoulder or shirt collar, maxed-out earbuds strain to liven up group spaces with portable, lo-fi background music. Most often two friends will share a pair of earbuds, listening together with one ear as they participate in a dense overlap of talk, touch, and gesture in groups during moments of freedom from the structured activities of the classroom. Kids prize the cheap earbuds that lately accessorize many consumer electronics, seeing them as perfectly suited to the intense and chaotic sociability of their peer communities—communities maintained in spaces they carve out in constant negotiation with institutional and adult regulations of noise and disorder. Using headphones, Heartsboro kids import popular media into school, finding ways to consume music that would otherwise be proscribed as unwelcome or “inappropriate.”Passing earbuds from ear to ear, kids integrate globally distributed media into their local communities, positioning popular music consumption as an essential social practice. Working from ethnographic research into Heartsboro schoolchildren’s music consumption, this paper explores the intimacies of media use in everyday life, arguing that kids adapt headphones to their local purposes while navigating the often contentious boundaries between classroom and playground, school and family, adult and child, learning and consuming.

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