Ethnographic Work and Pop Songs

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

A friend jokingly asked if I was going to talk about pop songs in my next book as my books were the only ones they had seen in which an academic author thanked Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Josh Ritter, the Muppets, Pink, Prince, and Toby Keith in the acknowledgments. I said yes.

Living where I do research and living overseas for more than fifteen years is sometimes difficult. Sometimes I drive around town with the car windows rolled up blasting the Boss; sometimes the only way to get motivated to sit down and work on a Friday morning is to play Toby Keith.  I see listing the songs and singers as a way of being honest about how I do research.

Recognizing that I use pop songs to keep me focused is modeling that researchers do not have to be serious all the time, in the same way I try to model honest behavior for my students. Acknowledging pop songs is similar to my saying to students “I don’t know” or “I am not sure about the spelling of that word.” Sometimes a student will gasp, “YOU DON’T KNOW?” I laugh and explain that there are no spelling bees in Germany because they aren’t needed, but every state in the USA has spelling contents because English spelling can be tricky with all the loan words. So, no, I don’t know how to spell every word in English and I sometimes need to do a quick check to make sure.

About a week after I started on-line teaching I watched the movieTrolls and I loved the song “Get Back Up Again.” All that spring “Get Back” was on constant repeat as I fought unfamiliar tech, new ways of teaching, trying to increase student involvement (“TURN ON YOUR MICROPHONES!”). Now when I hear “Get Back Up Again” I am transported back to those tough weeks in March – May 2020 when I left my apartment once a week to go to the grocery store. Bereft of my café, friends, chats with colleagues, the pool where I went swimming and picnics with the research guys, that saccharine song was my stay-positive mantra.

When I first heard the line “I don’t know when, confused about how as well” from the song “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol, I thought: that’s my life as a researcher. I am constantly trying to make sense of what I am seeing and I spend a lot of time living in confusion.

When I used to do teacher-training, I would tell teachers to work from their strengths, be frank when they were lost and ask for help when they needed it. By embracing my inner Top 40 doo-wop persona, I practice what I preach. What helped me through Spring 2022:

  • Big Energy – Latto, and the remix with Mariah Carey
  • Devil with the Blue Dress – Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels
  • Don’t Start Now – Dua Lipa
  • Duke of Earl – Gene Chandler
  • Happy all the Time from Elf
  • Hello, Hello – Elton John
  • House on Fire – Mimi Webb
  • I Don’t Feel Like Dancing – Scissor Sisters
  • Leave before You Love Me – Marshmello and Jonas Brothers
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight – The Tokens
  • Mr Brightside – The Killers
  • The Other Side – SZA and Justin Timberlake
  • Pretty in Pink soundtrack
  • So Happy it Hurts – Bryan Adams
  • Thunder – Imagine Dragons

from my books:

Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

I would like to thank the memory of Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, whose books pulled me out into the world: Jersey, Cyprus, Rhodes, Provence and Alexandria. I have lived over 15 years overseas and have missed a lot of popular culture, but I am grateful for The Mummy (1932 and 1999 versions), Chariots of Fire (1981), Sahara (2005), Black Gold (2011), Theeb (2014), and A Perfect Day (2016), and “All these Things That I’ve Done” sung by the Killers; “If You’re Going Through Hell” sung by Rodney Akins; “Club Can’t Handle Me” sung by Flo Rida;  Elton John, especially “Island Girl” and Aida; Prince, especially “The One U Want to C”; Bruce Springsteen, especially “From Small Things” and “Frankie Fell in Love”; Toby Keith, especially “How Do You Like Me Now,” “Rum is the Reason,” and “Ain’t No Right Way”; Josh Ritter, especially “Getting Ready to Get Down” and “Girl in the War”; Bernice Johnson Reagon; John Denver; Jimmy Buffett; Kid Rock, and the Muppets.

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, 2021

Thanks to Kid Rock (for the slow songs, not the politics, not the rap), Pink, Toby Keith and all the songs picked by Steve Nathans-Kelly which got me through a lot of long drives late at night on dark roads.

Houseways in Southern Oman. Routledge, forthcoming

I am grateful for Aida (Broadway and concept albums); “Mama Knows the Highway,” Hal Ketchum; “Unwritten,” Natasha Bedingfield; “La Vie Boheme,” Rent; “Drunk Americans,” Toby Keith; “American Rock ’n Roll,” Kid Rock, “Let the River Run,” Carly Simon, as well as Jimmy Buffet, Pink, Prince, Bob Seger, Shaggy and Tina Turner.