The Academician of the Week here at Soho the Dog HQ is David Grazian, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, for his paper “The Production of Popular Music as a Confidence Game: the Case of the Chicago Blues” (originally published in Qualitative Sociology in 2004). Grazian takes a look at the way electric blues has thrived in Chicago, in large part due to the city’s marketing it to tourists and visitors as an authentic Chicago experience, and points out that it’s strikingly similar to the way large-scale con games have historically been run.
The similarities between confidence games and rock concerts, discos, jazz clubs and even hootenannies are represented by much more than simply their reliance on general tactics of impression management, rhetoric and performativity. Rather, in the context of such enterprises a cultural ecology of deception entwines proprietors, promoters, performers, support personnel and patrons in a set of relations that bear an even closer resemblance to the confidence games played by traditional grifters and their marks. Specifically, the successful production of live popular music and cons both rely on (1) a set of structural relationships in which operators, ropers, insiders, shills and victims are enmeshed; (2) the deployment of carefully planned strategies of deception; and (3) a pattern of success owed in part to the moral and financial motivations of insiders, the willingness of the state to assist in the enterprise, and the desire among victims to be swayed by the production.
In Grazian’s calculus:Club owners = operators
Media oulets and civic boosters = ropers
Musicians = insiders
Bouncers, bartenders, servers = shills
Patrons (particularly out-of-towners) = marks
Each step of the way, the players engage in various subtle deceptions to convince the mark that the experience they’re paying for has the requisite veneer of “authenticity.”
The great thing about Grazian’s analogy is that it can be adapted to almost any performing situation. Classical music breaks down in almost the exact same way, except that the “authentic” experience being promoted isn’t gritty and “working-class” one, but plush, refined, and “upper-class.” And the downside is the same: an ossified repertoire. Grazian quotes one musician:
What happens on Friday and Saturday night when it’s like, you know, packed full of tourists who really don’t know anything?… You know, they want to hear, I mean, I can just list for you the “set list from hell”: “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Mustang Sally”… and, you know, those other f–king songs, you know, “Kansas City,” and f–kin’, you know, “Johnny B. Goode” and s–t. You know, how are you supposed to play those songs for ten years, twenty years?… But that is what these people wanna hear! Like, go to B.L.U.E.S. or Kingston Mines, or wherever…. The two blues songs everybody knows are “The Thrill is Gone” and “Sweet Home Chicago.” And what does everybody sing along to? “Mustang Sally.”
Most classical musicians could probably imagine a similar “set list from hell.”
Grazian’s is one of the most entertaining sociological papers I’ve come across in a while (and I’m a big enough library nerd that I can make that assessment). Looking for more? He’s written one book (Blue Chicago) on the same milieu, and a forthcoming tome looks like an expansion on the con game idea.