Special Session Summary Getting More Than an Earful: an Ethnomusicological Perspective on the Reflexive Circle of Music and Consumption

Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury
Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College
[ to cite ]:
Barbara Olsen and Stephen J. Gould (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Getting More Than an Earful: an Ethnomusicological Perspective on the Reflexive Circle of Music and Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 43-45.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 43-45



Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury

Stephen J. Gould, Baruch College

Music is an expression of the human spirit that offers audiences transcendent inspiration as well as providing a mirror for culture that reflects economic conditions and social relationships. Through music, and the artwork that promotes it, cultural codes and categories are made explicit and parodied for fun and function, and communicate symbolic meaning in the enactment of everyday life. Inquiry on how this occurs is the focus of this session. The objectives of this special session are to: (1) explore how music consumption plays a reflexive role in reproducing symbolic ideologies inherent in gender and status roles and cultural stereotypes, (2) investigate how, during the consumption of music, colonial hegemonies are redefined as representations of national identity, and (3) provide ethnomusicological insight on how the production of performance discourses are consumed by validating personal and cultural identities. In one sense, music creates culture as culture recreates human relations.

This session extends an important dimension of research on postmodern, liberatory consumption (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). Ethnomusicological inquiry finds the postmodern "metaconsumer" of music on a global scale, but particular genres articulate local ethnographic circumstances. Just as Feld (1982) found among the Kaluli people ofthe tropical rainforest in New Guinea, that social sentiment is constructed by the mediation of birds through song and expressed metaphorically in sound, it appears that for all humanity our physical and social environments become referential nodes that frame our cultural experiences. We have found that these cultural experiences also get translated into song lyrics, are depicted in art on album covers and become the plot line of film entertainment. Gender roles and symbolic cultural codes expressed as art are then reconstituted in the social relations of everyday life. Postmodern consumer culture is hyperreal because songs simulate lived experience which audiences emulate.

Research on music as consumer behavior has been most notably conducted by Holbrook and Schindler (1989) who, in determining the acquisition of adult musical tastes, found a correlation with preferences from the peak period of late adolescence. We find much more research on the role of music use in television commercials and retail atmospherics. In the direction proposed by this session, Scott (1990) integrates music within a cultural system, so that when associated with TV commercial visuals, pictures, lyrics, rhythm and musical score work as a whole to carry culturally shared meanings. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in reviving research on the musicBconsumption paradigm (Wallace 1997, p. 301). This session hopes to further open the door to that request. Each paper was presented in a multimedia format with audio and visual presentations including slides of record album covers, music videos and recorded music.

In the first paper, "Jamaican DJ Music Lyrics and Postmodern Consumption: Liberatory for Whom," Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury and Stephen Gould, Baruch College, discuss DJ music in relation to the Jamaican lovemap as a design of gender socialization which is reflected in song lyrics. DJ music is reflexive and people use it to see themselves, to create themselves. Audience self-concepts are matched against the musical concept. The lovemap, for instance, is one part of this self-concept and cultural identity.

The authors of the second paper, "Packaging Paradise: Consuming Hawaiian Music," Jonathan Schroeder, University of Rhode Island, and Janet Borgerson, Brown University, analyze the packaging of Hawaii in the feminine mystique of a primitive paradise through an interdisciplinary integration of race and gender identity construction informed by social psychology, philosophy and marketing theories. They develop their theme from the 1950s to the present, analyzing record album covers and liner notes as well as radio shows that sold Hawaii as a tourist destination and Fiftieth State of the Union in 1959. Using their archive of 150 Hawaiian record albums, they conduct a content analysis concerning racist and sexist representations of Hawaii as Other with ethical implications of neocolonial identity conscription for sale as Exotica.

The third paper, "The Evolution of Rap Music in the U.S.: From Reflexive Consumption to Marketing Exploitation," by Valerie Vaccaro, St. John’s University, is a historical analysis of the development, diffusion and consumption of rap from the 1960s to the present. Rap music obtained its profane, controversial reputation with violent, anti-authority, anti-white, anti-Semitic, misogynist themes reflective of the black ghetto. These songs were criticized in the media by certain parental and political groups for promoting negative consumer attitudes and behaviors related to the narrative lyrical content. In the mid-1990s, there was a backlash to the negative lyrics and new rap artists emerged to counter the effects and to be proponents of more positive messages. Rap music’s turn toward a more "positive" message since the mid-1990s mirrors the same trend in Jamaican DJ lyrics.

Tying in the global perspective of a postmodern approach we see how music changes form, reacts to the influence of foreign Others and captures the battle of local cultures to remain autonomous and yet, be a part of the global mainstream. The consumption of music is a major sit for the cultural integration-disintegration simultaneously taking place everywhere.


Feld, Steven (1982), Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), "Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 239-267.

Holbrook, Morris and Robert M. Schindler (1989), "Some Exploratory Findings on the Development of Musical Tastes," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 113-118.

Scott, Linda M. (1990), "Understanding Jingles and Needledrop: A Rhetorical Approach to Music in Advertising," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (September), 223-236.

Wallace, Wanda T. (1997), "Music, Meaning, and Magic: Revisiting Music Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 301.



Barbara Olsen, SUNY Old Westbury

Stephen Gould, Baruch College

This paper deconstructs Jamaican DJ lyrics as a cultural reflection of gender socialization expressed in song. Since the 1960s Jamaican music has evolved through ska, rocksteady, reggae and dance hall along with the sound system and recording industry that carries its message. By the late 1980s a newer form called dance hall DJ appeared, characterized by misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic, and obscene lyrics that were labeled "slack" by its detractors. Jamaican DJ slack lyrics are an extension of a continuous stream in which music has been created and consumed to give voice and expression to a lower class traditionally silenced by its powerlessness (Cooper 1995, Hebdige 1993). This musical trend was noticed by Olsen conducting fieldwork in 1987-1988 (Olsen 1995a). Life history interviews corroborated lyrical themes.

DJ lyrics, on one level, mirror tensions inherent in Jamaican gender relations learned through socialization and are representative of a cultural consumer lovemap. Such a lovemap derives from Gould’s (1995) extension of the original lovemap concept of Money (1986) in which he empirically mapped sexually-related consumer behavior in terms of stage of sexual behavior, product use, gender and other individual differences. Many other aspects of consumer bonding, relationship, and socialization might also be considered with respect to lovemaps. For example, the concept of familial consumer reproduction with respect to brand loyalty and lineage (Olsen 1993, 1995b) might be explored. In this regard, the consumer lovemap primarily applies at the individual level. However, we cast a wider net here by situating the cultural consumer lovemap as a macro level concept and applying it ethnographically to the gendered, sexual and related behaviors reflected in Jamaican DJ lyrics as a form of postmodern consumption. A cultural consumer lovemap is a culture’s or subculture’s projective and ever-evolving blueprint for sexually-related consumption and is framed by a complex integration of psychosocial, socio-political, gendered, historical, and economic variables. As a powerful exemplar and showcase of this concept, DJ lyrics are equally inspired by Jamaica’s colonial history, matriarchal legacy, and its plantation economy, all of which conspire toward the love-hate inversion chaacteristic of co-dependency relationships reflected in the music.

Music is a rich source of symbolism and meaning which is learned, persuasive and mirrors the culture in which it is embedded. DJ lyrics are both reflections of gender socialization, as well as liberatory expressions of male empowerment (Firat and Venkatesch 1995). Their emotional tone represents a juxtaposition of opposites in postmodern consumption (Firat 1991) where the lyrics degrade and vilify women while praising them. As slack DJ music is equally celebrated by both males and females, the obscene lyrics authorize lower class youth to shock upper class British sensibilities (Hebdige 1993). The lyrics renegotiate economic frustration and political disenfranchisement by reflecting historically constituted social relations and postcolonial cultural contradictions. As an artifact of popular Jamaican consumer culture, slack DJ music constitutes a socialized, socio-political, postmodern product that is, most definitely, more than an earful.


Cooper, Carolyn (1995), Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender, and the 'Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Firat, A. Fuat (1991), "The Consumer in Postmodernity," in Advances in Consumer Research, Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, (eds.), Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, (23), 70-75.

Firat, A. Fuat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995), "Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (December), 239-267.

Gould, Stephen J. (1995), "Sexualized Aspects of Consumer Behavior: An Empirical Investigation of Consumer Lovemaps," Psychology and Marketing, 12, (August), 305-413.

Hebdige, Dick (1993), Cut 'N’ Mix: Culture, Identity and Caribbean Music, NY: Routledge.

Money, John (1986), Lovemaps, NY: Irvington.

Olsen, Barbara (1995a), "Consuming Rastafari: Ethnographic Research in Context and Meaning," in Advances in Consumer Research, Provo, UT, Vol. 22: 481-485.

Olsen, Barbara (1995b), "Brand Loyalty and Consumption Patterns: The Lineage Factor," in Contemporary Marketing, An Anthropological Sourcebook, (ed.) John F. Sherry, Jr., Sage Publications: 245-281.

Olsen, Barbara (1993), "Brand Loyalty and Lineage: New Dimensions for Research," in Advances in Consumer Research, Provo, UT, Vol. 20: 575-579.



Valerie L. Vaccaro, St. John’s University

This paper provides a historical analysis from the 1960s to the present of the evolution of rap music as a culturally constituted consumer good reflective of society (i.e., McCracken 1981). The paper draws upon interdiciplinary research from consumer behavior, marketing, social psychology, communications and musicology.

Rap music’s origins stem from the trend of "toasting" (speaking over records) in Jamaica in the mid-1960s. During the mid-1970s, a Jamaican DJ moved to the Bronx and rap quickly spread as dance music to poor, black neighborhoods in NYC and to other urban U.S. cities (Samuels 1991). By the mid-1980s, "Gangsta" rap was introduced by socio-economically deprived young, African-American males from society’s 'fringe’Bassociated with the gangs and criminals they rapped about. Some middle-class, suburban black male rappers also chose to rap about controversial, racially charged political themes (Samuels 199).

In protest to "Gangsta" rap’s violent, anti-authority, anti-white, anti-Semitic, misogynistic messages and violent lifestyles, criticisms from parents and political opinion leaders pressured cultural message agent mediums (e.g., record companies, retailers, radio stations and print media) to stop promoting these controversial songs (e.g., Forman 1995).

However, some print media defended rap music as a legitimate outlet of cultural expression (Sandow 1992; Binder 1993), reflexive of American society’s troubles and addressing important racial issues in the spirit of hegemony. In 1989, the cable tv program "Yo! MTV Raps" aired and was credited with stimulating high record sales by speeding the diffusion of rap music to a wider audience (Samuels 1991). Other cultural message carriers for rap’s diffusion included parties, movies, tv and fashion (e.g., Samuels 1991; Spiegler 1996).

In 1991, the market research firm Soundscan found that although a large number of black consumers purchased rap music, the biggest consumers of "Gangsta" rap were white, middle class males between the ages of 16-24 who experienced the 'safe,’ vicarious enjoyment of societal rebellion and the cultural taboos associated with black males in a ghetto environment (Samuels 1991). Research has shown that a common sociological motivation for adopting a new music genre is to have a "generation gap" rebellion (Mussulman 1974; Frith and Goodwin 1990).

In the mid-1990’s, the market share for "Gangsta" rap waned (Rice 1995). Male and female positive "message" rappers emerged with lyrics of anti-violence, anti-misogynist, racial pride, self-respect and pro-community messages and served as role models, demonstrating the constantly evolving meaning of rap music as a reflexive, culturally constituted consumer good (e.g., Armoudian 1994).


Armoudian, Maria (1994), "Beating the bad rap (rap music used to raise social awareness)," Billboard, November 26, v.106, n48, p. 48.

Binder, Amy (1993), "Constructing Racial Rhetoric: Media Depictions of Harm in Heavy Metal and Rap Music," American Sociological Review, December, V.58, n.6, pp.753-767.

Forman, Murray (1995) "Media Form and Cultural Space: Negotiating Rap "Fanzines," Journal of Popular Culture, Fall, v.29, pp.171-188.

Frith, Simon and Andrew Goodwin eds.(1990), On Record: Rock, Pop & the Written Word, Part Two: "From Subcultural to Cultural Studies," New York: Pantheon Books.

McCracken, Grant (1981), "Culture and Consumption: A Theoretical Account of the Structure and Movement of the Cultural Meaning of Consumer Goods," Journal of Consumer Research, June, v.13, pp.71-84.

Musselman, Joseph Agee (1974), The Uses of Music: An introduction to music in contemporary American life, Ch. 14, "Music as Entertainment," Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, p.141.

Rice, Faye (1995), "The market cools to rap music," Fortune, July 10, v.132, n.1, p.30.

Samuels, David (1991), "The rap on rap: the 'black music’ that isn’t either," The New Republic, November 11, 1991, v. 205, n.20, p.24 (5).

Sandow Greg (1992) "Taking a bum rap (rap music and Black racism)," Entertainment Weekly, July 10, v.126, p.56.

Spiegler, Marc (1996) "Marketing street culture," American Demographics, November,v.18, n.11, pp. 28-32.