Tag Archives: Consumption

Adventures in Sound: A Grand Tour on Vinyl

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, Rochester Institute of Technology

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This project explores the contribution of consumer artifacts to the imagination and construction of modern US identity and cosmopolitan, global citizenship. We undertake fieldwork in our living room (Riggins 1994), offering a critical visual and cultural analysis to show how peripheral objects reveal often hidden pedagogical aspects of consumer culture. The intersections of identity and material culture emerge, in this case, via vintage vinyl record albums in a music genre specifically constructed for creating world-aware listeners and prepared adventurers –the travel record. Interestingly, these albums re-circulate today as retro classics, precursors of television adventure travel and exotic food shows, and are collected for their value as windows into bygone eras.

As we have argued previously, record albums occupied a space evoking identity and group membership in many US homes during the 1940s, 50s, 60s as recording technology emerged and developed, bringing sounds, sights and specially designed furniture into the home. Here we examine examples from a large, privately owned LP archive, selecting an illustrative sample from the 1950s and 1960s, the era in which the LP record emerged as a dominant information distribution format and international tourism developed for a mass US population. In this way, the marketing of hi-fi sets, packaged tours, and exotic aesthetics united to create a sense of the good life, which included a vision of the rest of the world and how to travel through it.

In attempting to make the unfamiliar more palatable and the culturally sophisticated more accessible, record albums often became opportunities to inform and influence consumers (e.g., Borgerson and Schroeder 2006). Just as album cover images served a pedagogical function in guiding post-WWII consumers in decorating their homes or hosting a dinner party, travel records – featuring music, pictures, and destination information – helped ready US consumers to take on the world. We build upon consumer culture studies that adopt a historical approach to music and its’ ephemera and also draw upon work from popular music history (Morgan and Wardle 2010; Wilentz 2012). Engaging notions of materiality and agency in the constitution of consuming subjects (Borgerson 2005), our research offers compelling visions from a time that brought international travel more fully into modern US consumer culture.

As with many LP album covers, travel records feature compelling photos and graphic design: “for many people, record sleeves have the capacity to trigger memories and convey emotion in the most personal way” (Schoonmaker 2010, p. 168). Further, the phenomenon of commentary beyond the recording per se, in the form of liner notes, was particularly common with music “from far away places” (Borgerson and Schroeder 2003). A typical example is 1958’s “A Visit to Finland” album, featuring “A smörgåsbord of Finnish pops by famous Helsinki artists” designed to guide Americans into the Helsinki music scene of the day.

Although some travel records were slapped together in US studios with little or no connection to cultural or historical context, many in our collection showcase more authentic music of the destination. For example, the respected jazz label Verve Records collaborated with Esquire Magazine to release several “sound tour” albums that included gatefold sleeves, color photographs, and “insider” information for the continental connoisseur.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the long playing record, Columbia introduced its “Adventures in Sound” series in 1958.  “Adventures in Sound” sought out interesting sites and captured actual performances from around the globe.  “Holiday Abroad” albums sponsored by the now defunct Sabena Airlines featured water color paintings by Moyelle Thompson, each cover showing the same youthful couple (sporting a tiny Sabena flight bag) engaged in an iconic touring moment. Vox Records distributed the “Cook’s Tour of” series that included stops in Cuba, France and Italy – and wherever Cook’s Tours promoted travel.  “Inspired by the pages of Holiday magazine”, Decca’s travel albums featured Rio, the Alps, Paris, Italy, Vienna, South American, Hawaii, and the West Indies. Your Musical Holiday in the West Indies includes Calypso and Steel drum tunes from the likes of Lord Kitchener and the Iron Duke.  One apparently well-traveled and dreamily dozing blond woman appears on Fiesta Records I Remember Germany, I Remember England, as well as, I Remember Sweden.

Producer Dave Dexter’s “Capitol of the World” series from Capitol Records featured albums from at least twenty-five countries, including the Belgian Congo, Egypt, Chile, and Argentina. The war in the Pacific was still recent memory when Capitol released Japan: Its Sound and People. Four subcategories were designed to bring particular aspects of a country’s music and culture to the listener: “modern song stylists” for “popular tunes of the day presented by the top stars of foreign lands”; “folk songs” for “authentic music of the people, handed down from generation to generation”; “folk dances” for “traditional dance music that captures the living spirit of distant lands”; and “unusual recordings” for “exotic instruments and unique musical groups rarely heard” in the US.

Capitol of the World liner notes link featured artists to the moods and culture of a particular national capitol, and often present parallel texts of English and the country’s language, including Arabic script and Chinese characters. Titles like Songs of India (Recorded in Calcutta), Autumn in Rome, Rainy Night in Tokyo, and Honeymoon in Rio provide hours of listening, as well as an introduction to core aesthetic and cultural elements beyond day-to-day US experience and education. As the notes inform us on An Evening with Najah Salam and Muhammad Salman, Lebanon’s capitol city Beirut, and its “exotic Arabic music,” friendly people, and nighttime beauty “all combine to create evenings unlike any you could ever spend elsewhere short of the Prophet’s Paradise.”

Three relevant themes emerged from our investigations: 1) consumer “education” about Western lifestyle myths, promoting appreciation and adoption of aesthetic values that accompany cultured lifestyles; 2) international travel – or at least representations of travel – as a site of consumption organized around identity projects and 3) the role of the LP in the historical context of contemporary consumer tastes (Borgerson and Schroeder 2013; Osbourne 2012).

A key insight from our previous work was that the more consumers stayed at home, the more they needed objects, artifacts, and practices that linked them to affiliated people, communities, and environments, that is reference groups, real or imagined, beyond the walls, doors and windows of home. Here, we observe a related, but distinct consumer process: in order to venture beyond familiar territory of home lifestyle and mores, popular culture objects, artifacts, and practices were required to usher US consumers into the broader world.


Borgerson, Janet L. (2005), “Materiality, Agency, and the Constitution of Consuming Subjects: Insights for Consumer Research” Advances in Consumer Research, 32, 439-443. www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v32/acr_vol32_126.pdf

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

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

Borgerson, Janet and Jonathan Schroeder (2013), “Visual and Aural Imaginations of Home: Constructing a Consumer Vision of Contemporary Lifestyle,” paper presented at the Consumer Culture Theory Conference, Tucson, Arizona, June.

Morgan, Johnny and Ben Wardle (2010), The Art of the LP: Classic Album Covers 1955-1995. New York: Sterling.

Osbourne, Richard (2012), Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Surrey: Ashgate.

Riggins, Stephen Harold (1994), “Fieldwork in the Living Room: An Autoethnographic Essay,” in The Socialness of Things: Essays on the Socio-Semiotics of Objects, Stephen Harold Riggins, (ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 101-147.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Janet L. Borgerson (2012), “Packaging Paradise: Organizing Representations of Hawaii,” in Against the Grain: Advances in Postcolonial Organization Studies, Anshu Prasad, (ed). Copenhagen: Copenhagen Business School Press, 32-53.

Schoonmaker, Trevor, ed. (2010), The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wilentz, Sean (2012), 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.





PhD Scholarships (2) for Inhabiting Buildings: Embedding Sustainability into RMIT Culture

Digital Ethnography Research Centre, School of Media and Communication and the Centre for Urban Research (Beyond Behaviour Change research program), School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University

The Inhabiting Buildings project adopts an innovative participatory research methodology to map and promote change in the RMIT community to improve sustainability. It focuses on everyday social practices within the built environment to understand how resources are consumed, what role buildings and technologies play in shaping these processes, and where opportunities exist for social, cultural and organisational change. 

Two PhD scholarships (projects 6 and 7) are available for humanities/social science students working under the supervision of A/Professor Tania Lewis and Dr Yolande Strengers as part of the RMIT Greener Government Buildings programme. More information can be found at www.rmit.edu.au/scholarships/ggb. Also see the project description below. Note the closing date for applications is 31 October 2013.

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CFP: Australian Anthropological Society Conference 2013

Australian Anthropological Society Annual Conference 2013 

Theme: The Human in the World, the World in the Human

Australian National University
6-8 November 2013

The theme of this conference embraces anthropology’s enduring commitments to grappling with the human condition in the widest terms. Yet it also directs attention to the ways in which the interrelated concepts, ‘human’ and ‘world’, receive critical disciplinary attention in the present. While anthropologists have always been interested in how particular environmental, social or political worlds shape and are shaped by human existence, the theme attends to the urgency that such questions take at a time when the limits and potentialities of what ‘human’ and ‘world’ mean are subject to searching re-examination. Climate change, developments in bio-technology, securitization and supply-chain capitalism, and processes of forced and voluntary migration are among an array of issues that challenge and stimulate the conceptual and ethnographic work of anthropologists in the present.

The theme also draws attention to how particularly located humans engage in projects of “worlding”, attempting to stake claims for the relevance of their own understandings, practices and commitments in contexts shaped by both human and non-human agents. How do humans get drawn into, adapt to and adopt in their own way worldly projects that originate from afar? What kinds of oppressions and freedoms are involved in these processes? Shifting global circumstances usher these questions into the anthropological domain, where they are dealt with from a multitude of perspectives, including anthropologies of globalization, media, religion and the environment, existential anthropology and economic anthropology, theories of network and meshwork and theories of political economy. We invite participation from any and all concerned with imagining the shape of the world and the place of the human in relation to it.

Instructions for the submission of individual paper abstracts: If you are interested in presenting a paper on any of the panel themes below, please contact the individual listed panel convenors directly. Send the panel convenor your paper title and abstract (maximum 250 words), along with your email address and institutional affiliation. Do NOT submit your paper abstracts to the conference organisers. The deadline for submission of paper proposals is 1 August 2013.

Conference panels of interest to readers of the Material World Blog may include the following:

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Consumption Markets & Culture

From Jonathan Schroeder, Rochester Institute of Technology and Editor in Chief of Consumption, Markets and Culture

Consumption Markets & Culture has been accepted for inclusion in the Social Sciences Citation Index from volume 13 (2010). The journal will receive its first impact factor in the 2012 Journal Citation Reports, which will be published in summer 2013.  An interdisciplinary journal published four times a year by Routledge

For information, see journal’s homepage: www.tandfonline.com/toc/gcmc20/current

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The Material Culture of (N)Ostalgie

[image found here]
A recent article by Vadim Nikitin on nostalgia in Russia for the USSR called my attention to a number of current projects and publications that focus specifically on fond reminiscences of the unique material culture of Soviet life:

The multivolume glossy, expensive books arising from the Namedni project, the latest of which was published in November, feature a grab bag of large color photographs, news clips, interviews and narratives about every year from 1961 to 2005. For instance, 1962 spans physicist Lev Landau winning the Nobel Prize, the launch of milk in plastic bags, the Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet debut of the Hula-Hoop. The books target readers who lived through Soviet times as well as those who, like me, were too young to have experienced the Soviet Union and want to know more about their parents’ generation.

The volumes are a runaway success despite their high price, and this reflects a growing trend. In the past year alone, at least three other books showcasing Soviet material culture have caught the popular imagination, even on the other side of the old Iron Curtain. Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, edited by Soviet-born American writer Michael Idov and featuring contributions from the likes of bestselling writer Gary Shteyngart, is a breezy English-language meditation on such Soviet staples as folding cups, Lomo cameras, fishnet shopping bags and rustic cars. Olga Dydykina’s coffee-table volume We Lived in the USSR is a kind of Dorling Kindersley travel guide to the Soviet Union, with hundreds of photos and a dictionary of Soviet-era expressions. And Frédéric Chaubin’s Cosmic Communist Constructions celebrates forgotten examples of late-Soviet architecture. What these books have in common is a tone of what Russian-born American scholar Svetlana Boym termed “reflective nostalgia,” the kind that “lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history, in the dreams of another place and another time.”

Here are some links for the projects and publications mentioned in the article:
- on Amazon
- on Wikipedia
- on YouTube
Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design:
- on Amazon
- on a blog post (with images)
Cosmic Communist Constructions:
- at Taschen
- on Amazon
- on WeHeart (with images)
Svetlana Boym’s website with media projects and publications
One of the first explorations of this phenomena to make popular headlines in Western Europe and America was the 2003 German film Goodbye Lenin, which told the story of a patriotic East German woman who slipped into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and whose son tries hard to protect her from the new world order once she awakens a few months later. One of his main strategies is to meticulously surround her with the rapidly vanishing products to which she has grown accustomed before they are replaced by commodities from the West. (My own relatives, who grew up in East Berlin, report similar post-1989 demand for the few brands of coffee, jam, and cereal that they had grown up with in the face of proliferating but unfamiliar choices, and as a kind of quotidian protest against rapid gentrification by Wessies.) Also noteworthy was last year’s exhibition of contemporary artists in The New Museum’s show “Ostalgia”, which showcased diverse and highly ambivalent relations with the visual, material, economic and political cultures in Soviet times.
And finally, here are some recent academic takes on the topic (thanks to Bruce Grant at NYU):
- Dominic Boyer, Dominic (2006) “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture Spring 18(2): 361-381
- Berdahl, Daphne (1999) “(N)Ostalgie” for the present: Memory, longing, and East German things.” Ethnos 64: 192-211
- Bunzl, Matti and Daphne Berdahl (2010) On the Social Life of Postsocialism: Memory, Consumption, Germany. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Todorova, Maria and Zsuzsa Gille (2010) Post-Communist Nostalgia. New York: Berghahn Books.