Theses Doctoral

Children's Music, MP3 Players, and Expressive Practices at a Vermont Elementary School: Media Consumption as Social Organization among Schoolchildren

Bickford, Tyler

Over the last generation changes in the social structure of the family and children's command of an increasing share of family spending have led marketers to cultivate children as an important consumer demographic. The designation "tween," which one marketer refers to as kids "too old for Elmo but too young for Eminem," has become a catchall category that includes kids as young as four and as old as fifteen. Music marketed to children--led by the Disney juggernaut, which promotes superstar acts such as the Jonas Brothers and Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus across television, radio, film, DVDs and CDs, and branded toys, clothing, and electronics--represents a rare "healthy" area of the music industry, whose growth has paralleled the expansion of portable media technologies throughout U.S. consumer culture. The increasing availability of portable media devices, along with the widespread installation of Internet terminals in schools and educators' turn toward corporate-produced "edutainment" for lessons, has reconfigured schools as central sites of children's media consumption. Off-brand MP3 players packaged with cheap and brightly colored earbuds have become more and more affordable, and marketers increasingly target kids with celebrity-branded music devices and innovations like Hasbro's iDog series of toy portable speakers, which fit naturally among children's colorful and interactive collections of toys. At the forefront of the "digital revolution, children are now active--even iconic--users of digital music technologies. This dissertation argues that tweens, as prominent consumers of ascendant music genres and media devices, represent a burgeoning counterpublic, whose expressions of solidarity and group affiliation are increasingly deferred to by mainstream artists and the entertainment industry. We appear to be witnessing the culmination of a process set in motion almost seventy years ago, when during the postwar period marketers experimented with promoting products directly to children, beginning to articulate children as a demographic identity group who might eventually claim independence and public autonomy for themselves. Through long-term ethnographic research at one small community of children at an elementary school in southern Vermont, this dissertation examines how these transformations in the commercial children's music and entertainment industry are revolutionizing they way children, their peers, and adults relate to one another in school. Headphones mediate face-to-face peer relationships, as children share their earbuds with friends and listen to music together while still participating in the dense overlap of talk, touch, and gesture in groups of peers. Kids treat MP3 players less like "technology" and more like "toys," domesticating them within traditional childhood material cultures already characterized by playful physical interaction and portable objects such as toys, trading cards, and dolls that can be shared, manipulated, and held close. And kids use digital music devices to expand their repertoires of communicative practices--like passing notes or whispering--that allow them to create and maintain connections with intimate friends beyond the reach of adults. Kids position the connections and interactions afforded by digital music listening as a direct challenge to the overarching goals around language and literacy that structure their experience of classroom education. Innovations in digital media and the new children's music industry furnish channels and repertoires through which kids express solidarity with other kids, with potentially transformative implications for the role and status of children's in their schools and communities.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Fox, Aaron Andrew
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 6, 2011