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What Pop Songs Can Teach You About Life

UCSB Professor Writes Book on the Sociology of Top 40 Hits


Friday, January 27, 2012

Are you someone who has ever questioned the social importance of the Backstreet Boys? Do you wonder what you can learn from Britney Spears about human nature? Dr. Thomas Scheff is an emeritus professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara and the author of a new book, What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Emotions and Relationships in Popular Songs. He uses 70 years of Top 40 hits to illustrate how people interact socially and form relationships with each other. “One idea I’ve had for a long time is to encourage the teaching of pop music to college freshmen and high school seniors,” Scheff said. “Our educational system should make teaching about emotions and relationships one of its goals, which it isn’t.” He hopes to correct that. Scheff has been using pop music to teach undergraduates about how our emotions work for 25 years, and according to him, he’s never had an unsuccessful class.

Dr. Thomas Scheff
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Dr. Thomas Scheff

Scheff has been a longtime advocate of innovative and creative teaching. He has seen firsthand that teaching sociology in a relatable way engages his students far more than reciting lecture notes from a textbook. “I got the idea from teaching undergrads. They’re experts at pop songs. They’re devoted to music. I figured that they would enjoy classes wrapped around music,” Scheff said. “It starts them off with something familiar. It relaxes them.” As a professor teaching the sociology of emotions, he found that many of his students have been reluctant to talk about things like emotions and relationships. “Men especially can be resistant,” he said. “Music can lure them in.”

For his class and, in turn, his book, Scheff conducted extensive research, examining lyrics from chart-topping songs all the way back to the 1930s. “One thing that surprised me was how very creative many Top 40 songs are. They’re really quite artful, if you listen to them. Another thing that surprised me was how very unhelpful the implications of their lyrics were. They’re really misleading.” Scheff argues that most popular love songs aren’t really about love at all — they’re about detachment and alienation. Emotional alienation in music is symptomatic of larger issues in our society, which is the meat of what he wants to talk about and show people. “We live in a society where we are all deeply alienated from other people,” he said. “Relationships and emotions — these are ineffable things, and understanding the ineffable isn’t encouraged by our individualist society. But individualism is a myth. It’s just there to hide the fact that we’re made for each other. We’re dependent on each other.”

One of the problems we face in our struggle to connect to other people is misuse of the word “love.” “In an individualist society, love is an interruption to getting ahead,” Scheff said. “Love is used in many ways, sometimes as a way to hide disconnection — a disguise for alienation. Think about the phrase ‘love at first sight’. That’s not about love. That’s about living in your own movie. It’s not about being connected. You’re not connected to that person. You don’t know anything about them.” One of the central points Scheff makes in his book is a case for a more careful definition of love, one that emphasizes love as a form of mutual connectedness. “There are the three As of love: attraction, attachment, and attunement,” he explains. “Attunement means feeling the other person’s feelings — telling the other person, ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ and meaning it. The first two are fixed, biological. There’s not much we can do about them, but we can do a lot about attunement. We can improve our attunement. It’s a hopeful idea in the book.”

Scheff plans on using What’s Love Got to Do with It? as one of the required texts when he teaches the sociology of popular music during the upcoming spring quarter at UCSB. Connection between people is at the heart of what Scheff teaches and promotes in his classroom, in his books and blog posts, in talks he gives and even in everyday conversation. “The social world is a relational world. We can be connecting with other people in a deep and meaningful way, but most of the time we’re disconnected. We bounce off each other, talking about topics instead of engaging in a meaningful conversation about what we mean to each other,” he said. We are all connected culturally by pop music. Scheff hopes that if we examine it closely, pop music can connect us emotionally as well.

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