Norteño music, south-of-the-border hot dogs

Yesterday’s dining section of the New York Times featured an article about Sonoran-style hot dogs: bacon-wrapped, smothered in beans, guac, tomatoes, onions, salsa of all kinds, mayo, potato chips, etc.

Despite the fact that I’m rather intrigued by this development–given that I grew up in the land of a thousand variations on cooking bratwurst, sausage culture nostalgically interests me–I valiantly tried to ignore the food part of the article so that I wouldn’t be tempted to try a Sonoran hot dog.  (Bacon+pork hot dog+dairy products=quite unfriendly to the quasi-kosher vegetarian who authors this blog.)

What really caught my attention instead was how the reporter deployed music to set the scene for his detailed descriptions of southwestern-U.S./northern Mexico hot-dog-eating life.  Check it out:

One Sunday afternoon, as a mariachi band played, an after-church crowd, half Anglo and half Hispanic, thronged El Güero’s outdoor dining pavilion.  Babies cried.  Teenagers table-hopped.  And parents argued that, rather than order a second dog, children should fill up at the salsa bar at the back of the pavilion, stocked with peeled cucumbers, sliced radishes and chunky guacamole.  Front and center at every third table was a Sonoran hot dog.

Doesn’t knowing that a mariachi band was playing help you taste the sliced radishes a little more pungently?

One recent afternoon, at one of the two Oop’s hot dog stands he operates on Tucson’s south side, Martin Lizarraga sat beneath a tent-draped ramada anchored on one end by a flattop-equipped hot dog cart, and on the other end by a minivan painted with a hip hop-inspired, anthropomorphic hot dog character.

As a tripod-mounted speaker blared norteño music into the street, and toritos–mozzarella-stuffed, bacon-wrapped güerito chiles–browned and then blistered on the flattop, Mr. Lizarraga talked of the days when he worked as a liquor salesman in the Sonoran capital city of Hermosillo, frequenting the “table dancing club” for which he named his two hot dog stands.

With his 14-year-old daughter, Abigail Lizarraga, by his side, he spoke, with great enthusiasm, of Hermosillo, where “every corner has a hot dog stand” and “the health department is not so strict” and vendors have the freedom to garnish a dog with everything from cucumbers in sour cream to crumbled chorizo.

Notice how different music is linked to each type of setting.  The family-oriented setting plays mariachi; it’s characterized by restraint, with parents telling kids not to get another dog, but rather to fill up on toppings if they need to.  The second cart both plays norteño and has a hip-hop-inspired logo.  The owner used to be a liquor salesman and enjoys the creative freedom his profession enjoys back in Hermosillo–the description of his business is characterized by more expansiveness and sensual joy.

The music evoked in each case is also a provocative commentary on U.S.-Mexican border culture.  Given the popularity of Sonoran hot dogs and northern Mexican musical styles in the southern U.S., along with many other cultural signifiers of course, what conclusions can we draw about border culture and the effects of immigration and colonization?

One easy way to think about the ethnomusicological approach is to think about both how music is influenced by its context, and how it in turn influences that context.  Both dimensions are operating here: how do you think about norteño and mariachi (whether or not you have ever heard either style) based on the settings the reporter evokes?  How do you think about each hot-dog-eating setting based on the musical descriptions that have been embedded in the story?

Asperger’s and iPods

We all know that music is an important way for people, especially teens, to form their identities and to share those identities with other people.  The Philadelphia Inquirer had a new spin on this concept last week, detailing a recent study where researchers gave iPods to kids with Asperger’s syndrome to help them socialize better.  The iPod content was varied; many kids loaded it with music, which had a calming effect, and some kids also had instructional videos on daily tasks with which they had trouble, or recordings that prompted them with conversation topics.

We often think of music helping with socialization in other ways: people hearing traditional music and connecting with a cultural identity; people hearing liturgical music that creates a common religious experience; people bonding over a genre of music that they both like, etc.  But here is a concrete example of music (loosely defined here as human-organized sound in order to include the instructional recordings) that is being used as a direct agent of socialization for people who seem to have trouble in this area.  Perhaps sound is more integral to this process than we ever realized.

Quick and dirty guide to cultural snobbery in the digital age

James Wolcott explored the ramifications of digital media on our ability to be cultural snobs in next month’s Vanity Fair (it’s so weird that I can use the past tense to refer to next month’s issue, but you know how magazine print schedules work)–essentially saying that, as our collections of music, film, books, etc. are digitized, we will have fewer and fewer tangible objects to show off to our friends (and potential, uh, romantic partners, as his anecdote about the early Playboy empire shows).  However are we to show our exquisite good taste if we don’t have a collection for our friends to inspect at house parties?

Wolcott suggests that “we’ll just stock up on other possessions, which will be arrayed and arranged to show off not our personal aesthetics or expensive whims but our ethics–our progressive virtues.”  Maybe we’ll do that too, but I think people will always find a way to express their superior aesthetic sensibilities.

Here’s how, at least for music (not in any particular order):

1) Curating the perfect playlist for group listening. What better way to show off your collection than by having your friends listen to it when they come over?  Instead of throwing on the typical party-type songs (if you’re the frat across the street from me, this means an endless rotation of Journey, crunk and Lady Gaga…knock it off already) certain kinds of people will be obsessive about creating mixes that not only set the right mood but also show their superiorly obscure, cutting-edge, and eclectic tastes.  This could be good (maybe the jerks across the street would play something different?) or bad (do you really want to listen to that one friend–we all have at least one of these–blathering for hours about his/her efforts?).

2) Merch. Expect an increase in the number of band t-shirts, posters and other stuff bought and ostentatiously worn/used/displayed by culture snobs.  This tendency may very well extend to strange obsessions such as not washing a concert t-shirt worn in the (tangential) presence of the artist or keeping posters in their original packaging and other weird collector-type behaviors.

3) Increased concert attendance. What better way to show you like an artist than to shell out a lot of money to listen to them live more frequently?  This is clearly not a bad thing in itself, in fact concerts are usually a lot of fun and are much more economically beneficial to the artist than buying their album, so it’s a win-win situation.  Expect the culture snob to talk a lot about each show though and frame or display tickets and/or set lists.

4) A rise in music-subculture-influenced fashion. This is clearly not a new idea, but I think absent other tangible indicators of taste in music people will want to wear it on their bodies if they want to show off what scene they belong to (or, you know, have lined up in their iTunes if nothing else–what’s up, suburban teenagers).  Perhaps styles characteristic of a particular artist or group will be more widely copied or individuals will more strictly adhere to music-genre-based dress codes.

5) Making one’s opinions publicly known via other forms of media. This will certainly include blogging (I won’t snark on this, because I’m uh, writing this on a music-oriented blog) and for the pluckier sorts could even include a column in a newspaper or magazine, or hosting a radio or TV show, including (video) podcasting.

6) Talking about one’s good/diverse/obscure/etc. taste all the time. Yikes.

7) Going old-school and buying tangible media products. Note that vinyl is the fastest-growing category of music sales.  People will do the bulk of their listening on digital, but true culture snobs will have a secondary collection of archaic but better-sounding music technology in order to impress others and hopefully heighten their personal enjoyment.

8 ) Playing music oneself. There’s no better way to appear to know things about music than to be a decently skilled musician.  Even better if you are better than decent.  Get practicing!  This is my favorite option, no sarcasm.  I think it is the best way to inculcate actual knowledge with a minimum of cultural snobbery.

Books are a whole other story.  I wouldn’t be surprised if things like reference books stopped being published in hard copy, but I’m inclined to think there will always be a market for certain types of books (fiction, interesting non-fiction), because people enjoy relaxing with something that looks good, feels nice and has something interesting between the covers, or because certain situations just call for paper books (i.e. cookbooks).

In all though, I think the digitization of media is generally a good thing.  It’s cheaper and easier to produce, faster and more efficient to transport, relatively easy on the environment, and doesn’t take up too much space.  There are clearly drawbacks, as anyone who’s ever lost all their music after a hard drive crash can attest–and more sinisterly, the fact that Amazon remotely deleted books from Kindles this past week after it realized it had mistakenly sold books it didn’t have the proper licensing for.  The technology can be good–but people have to use it the right way.

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