Music for Gracious Living: Learning about Lifestyle from LPs

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, Rochester Institute of Technology

 

 

This project finds us concerned with how home is conceptualized, enacted, and consumed. We are interested in exploring how the US home became an entertainment zone – and an alternative to ‘going out’ – in postwar popular culture. In the West, notions historically linked to home include domesticity, intimacy, and privacy; austerity, efficiency, and comfort; and nostalgia and style (Rybczynski 1987). The shifts away from public, feudal households to “the private, family home” with its increasing domestic intimacy “affected not only our physical surroundings, but our consciousness as well” (Rybczynski, 1987, 49). Rybczynski points out that home interiors in the seventeenth century began to demonstrate what Mario Praz identified as Stimmung, “a characteristic of interiors that has less to do with functionality than with the way that the room conveys the character of its owner–the way it mirrors his soul” (43).

We take a historical approach to understanding the contribution of material artifacts, in this case, the LP (long player) record album, to the imagination of modern identity and style in the home. LP album covers from an important era in the development of the American home, when the marketing of hi-fi sets, backyard barbeques, and dinner parties combined to create a vision of the good life, offer images for a case study on the intersection of identity and complex consumer objects. These LP’s combine visual instruction and a music genre specifically marketed for creating an ideal home. We examine examples from our large vinyl archive, selecting an illustrative sample from the 1950s and 1960s. This was the era in which the LP record emerged as a dominant format for music distribution, postwar affluence contributed to leisurely lifestyles, and notions of cosmopolitan cachet were promoted via air travel, home decorating, and entertaining.

Record albums occupied a space evoking identity and group membership in many homes during the postwar period as recording technology emerged and developed, bringing sounds, sights and specially designed furniture into the home. Apart from music, vinyl records included several genres aimed at developing “taste” and achieving a “modern” lifestyle, such as dance instruction records, travel guide records, and home entertaining records. These albums re-circulate today as nostalgic classics, precursors of cooking, decoration and makeover television shows, and collected for their value as windows into a bygone era (e.g., Adinolfi 2008). Moreover, as the LP record – surprisingly – has gained in popularity in recent years, these vinyl artifacts enjoy new life as retro icons (Felton 2012).

In this analysis, we focus on a subgenre of “dinner, dancing, and entertaining at home”, in other words, the home entertaining record, and in particular, a series put out by RCA Victor Records called Music for Dinner at Home, which included French, German, Italian and Chinese versions – nations with which the United States had various tensions during war years. We also attend to a series called Music for Gracious Living from Columbia Records, which included such gems as “Barbeque,” “Buffet” and “Do-it-Yourself”; and, finally, Music for Hi-Fi Living, a twelve volume complete guide for modern lifestyles. Drawing upon notions of materiality and agency in the constitution of consuming subjects (Borgerson 2005) and critical visual analysis (Schroeder 2006) our theoretical approach offers compelling visions of home from an era that brought the home more fully into modern consumer culture, and still resonates today. For example, the 1955 “Barbecue” album from Columbia Records’ Music for Gracious Living series states “in the evening, what better living than a barbeque in your own backyard, or on your patio, porch or terrace, surrounded by family and friends, and by music, especially selected for your out-door living!” This record includes advice for “patio planting” and “cool patio drinks,” and offers such tunes as “Summer Evening in Santa Cruz” and “Live, Laugh, Love.”

A key insight from the study is that the more people stayed at home, the more they needed objects, artifacts, and practices that linked them to affiliated groups, real or imagined, beyond the walls, doors and windows of home – in other words, those people, groups, and environments with whom they were not present, because they were at home instead. This may prove an interesting entré for understanding more fully the social media linkages now at play in the blurring between home and the world “out there.”

As media theorist Jacob Smith reminds us: “From the 1940s to the 1970s, the phonograph industry experienced phenomenal growth in sales and cultural influence, producing recordings that were meant to serve a multitude of functions in the American home above and beyond the reproduction of popular music” (Smith 2011, 1). Smith writes that, in the postwar period “phonograph records frequently provided a ‘segment-making’ home media alternative to the dominant ‘society-making’ media of network broadcasting. […] Records convened audiences around shared interests that were often underrepresented in the broadcast media, making them a powerful vehicle for the formation of group identity during the postwar decades” (Smith 2011, 202-203). “Educational” records, such as the examples discussed here, are among the LP records to which Smith refers.

Not only did album cover images provide a clue to an album’s musical style, or values, but such visual representations offered lessons for achieving an often aspirational lifestyle. The small print that filled the LP’s back cover communicated visions of the recording within, and also produced historical knowledge not just of the featured music, but also the related cultural contexts deemed relevant to the consumer’s enjoyment. This phenomenon of commentary beyond the recording per se was particularly common on albums of unfamiliar musical styles, for example, Music for a Chinese Dinner at Home (Borgerson and Schroeder 2003; Reagan 2011). In attempting to make the unfamiliar more palatable and the culturally sophisticated more accessible, album notes often became pedagogical opportunities to teach consumers about musical traditions, foreign lands, home entertainment and lifestyle choices aimed at communicating a more cultured and modern American home (e.g., Borgerson and Schroeder 2006).

 Selected References

Adinolfi, Francesco (2008), Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation, Karen Pinkus, trans., Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Borgerson, Janet L. (2005), “Materiality, Agency, and the Constitution of Consuming Subjects: Insights for Consumer Research” Advances in Consumer Research, 32, 439-443.

Borgerson, Janet L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2003), “The Lure of Paradise: Marketing the Retro-escape of Hawaii,” in Stephen Brown and John F. Sherry, Jr. (eds.), Time, Space and the Market: Retroscapes Rising, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 219-237.

——— (2006), “The Pleasures of the Used Text: Revealing Traces of Consumption,” in Stephen Brown, (ed), Consuming Books: The Marketing and Consumption of Literature, London: Routledge, 46-59.

Cohan, Steven (1996). “So Functional for its Purposes: Rock Hudson’s Bachelor Apartment in Pillow Talk,” in Joel Sanders (ed.), Stud: Architecture of Masculinity, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Architectural Press, 28-41.

Felton, Eric (2012), “It’s Alive! Vinyl Makes a Comeback,” Wall Street Journal, January 27, D8.

Reagan, Kevin (2010), Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, Cologne: Taschen.

Rybczynski, Witold (1987), Home: A Short History of an Idea, New York: Penguin.

Schroeder, Jonathan (2006), “Critical Visual Analysis,” inRussell Belk (ed.) Handbook of Qualitative Methods in Marketing, Aldershot, UK: Edward Elgar, 303-321.

Smith, Jacob (2011), Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Valentine, G. (1999), “Eating in: Home, Consumption and Identity,” The Sociological Review, 47(3), 491-524.