Sugar Shock #008: Outside Looking In
urther commenting on a recent Status Ain’t Hood post about the High School Musical live concert series, Tom Breihan addresses concerns about his own position in Disney’s Magical World of Teenpop as a twentysomething music critic:
Seems to me that [the HSM concert]’s a really well put-together piece of work that’s made for an audience other than me. I’m at the middle of some crazy Venn diagram where I’m in the target audience for Broken Social Scene and Celtic Frost and Z-Ro, so listening to those guys never feels like anthropology. But I don’t feel like I’m part of HSM’s intended audience, and that keeps me at a distance. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.Listening to and discussing music can be as much an anthropological as it is a sociological process, even if, as Tom says, sometimes it doesn’t feel like anthropology. Where teenpop tends to differ from other genres is the extent to which those outside an intended audience attempt to employ a kind of makeshift “observational” anthropological approach—to assume a neutral, detached, “objective” position that puts them squarely outside of teenpop’s listeners.
This is partially encouraged by the consolidated corporate entities that have gone to great lengths to mobilize and isolate young niche audiences. Using Disney as the primary example (though in their day, major label teenpop acts like No Secrets and the A*Teens were sheltered from non-kid audiences, often through Disney media outlets), I only need to look at the demographic info to feel out of place: according to Disney, I am a 16+ boy non-parent. Even 16 is pushing it; their target audience is 6-14, and 14 is a relatively recent expansion from an earlier, more ambiguous 2-12 bracket.
But the elephant in the room for an observational approach to teenpop anthropology is the “outsider’s” relationship to the target audience. Outsiders embrace condescending and/or distancing stances that separate them from what they believe to be the “ideal listener,” who might exhibit certain traits, such as: (1) being young and therefore lacking agency (e.g., teenyboppers being “manipulated” en masse—one interesting common feature of several articles about the High School Musical concert series is the depiction of large, shrill hordes of preteens acting, moving, and being influenced as a homogenous entity), (2) being female, or (3) being removed or excluded from “normal adult society,” either through circumstance (being a kid) or, occasionally, by choice (being, as Simon Reynolds describes Paris Hilton’s rock critic fan base in his Pazz and Jop commentary, “lone loonies.” A broader assumption, if not exactly Simon’s, is that an adult would have to be loony to care about this stuff, which is almost verbatim what my dad always tells me).
The assumptions I’ve listed need to be investigated, not to be disproved, but because they need to be understood in the way they define a social relationship between “inside” and “outside” audience members. Point 1 is an ideological position that denies children—and loonies—legitimacy in the musical choices they make, either by suggesting that they can’t make them, period, or (more accurately) that they don’t make the “right” ones. I’ll discuss adult denial of children’s agency in choosing their music in a future column; as for the loonies, I’ve noticed that non-kid teenpop enthusiasts tend to be labeled as contrarians whose enjoyment of the music itself is somehow implicitly dishonest.
Point 2, the idea that teenpop’s audience is predominantly female—though this is probably statistically correct—is often part of the sexist myth of a patriarchy that’s unique to pop production and distribution: for production, the issue is male Svengalism; for distribution, it’s potentially harmful—but only to passive young female listeners—hyper-sexualized marketing tactics.
Commentary on the transition of former teenpoppers into commendable “adult” artists can reveal more about commentators’ views of the legitimacy of the “normal adult audience” referred to in point 3 than musical legitimacy. Christina Aguilera’s soul makeover was as much about her decision to pander to adults instead of children and teens as it was about musically “going soul”; it was about her having “soul,” not just sounding like it. This sort of social judgment might help to explain why discussion of the influence of soul on her earlier material has generally been avoided, except to imply that what came before had “less soul,” if not exactly “no soul whatsoever.”
All audience assumptions, however alienating in intent, require social engagement: we engage by recognizing and distinguishing “us” from “them,” by mapping our place in a social Venn diagram in a certain relationship to the assumed audience of ex-Xtina, or Paris/Lindsay/Britney (prosti-tots and poptimists!), or the Disney Channel. Anthropology is a way of understanding these relationships. Filmmaker David MacDougall, working toward viable theory and practice in the field of visual anthropology, describes the roles of the fieldworker and the anthropologist:
The fieldworker often works in a way that is exploratory and intuitive. This is a dynamic process affecting various aspects of the work unevenly. Indeed, it can be said that for the anthropologist the process of producing a work of anthropology lies very much in progressively discovering what this relation is.Most critics tackling the High School Musical tour proved to be lazy fieldworkers (how many writers included interviews with audience members, or let their experiences actively shape the resulting articles, or reshape what they already believed?) and lousy anthropologists—and they’re also subjects themselves. As anthropologists, we have a responsibility to speak with subjects rather than for them, to investigate and analyze this relationship rather than merely “observe” or “report.” And as subjects, we also need to acknowledge that we are part of what we cover, that we are really there. This tends not to be as glaring an issue in, say, a review of a Broken Social Scene show, where it’s usually fundamentally understood that each person is having a unique experience that he or she at least partially shares with the writer. (Of course, even partially shared experience isn’t always given, and sometimes that’s supposed to be the point: in a recent Stylus column, Nick Sylvester effectively portrays himself as being “really there” but refuses to be one of “them.”)
Tom Breihan openly struggles with the conflicts that arise from being an outsider seeking inside knowledge, which is what makes his observations about High School Musical more honest and more compelling than almost anything else I’ve read about it. But in a certain sense, he’s also already “in”—listening to music and interacting in a social context puts you inside whether you like it or not, even if you’re not necessarily “inside” in the same way that someone else is (and even if there are only a few people to hang out with, though I do wish more upstart Aly and AJ fans would find their way to the places where the loonies hang out). Whether or not you’re supposed to be inside in the first place is a more difficult and contentious issue, and “why not?” doesn’t really suffice (even if sometimes it seems like it should). In attempting to reconcile outside observer and active participant status, you have to create your own inside space, strange little circle though it may be.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-02-21