LUBBOCK, TX — Teaching at NCCU has been a pretty rewarding experience so far. This week was a planned distance learning exercise—although I didn’t plan on that distance being nearly 8000 miles, the result of being called back to the US about four months early. Rather, the students were given a break from in-class meetings to engage in some applied learning.
For this week, our students were asked to blog about their own experiences with media: Media Entertainment students were asked to write about an example from their home countries related to “moral panic” and Interactive Media students were asked to construct “demand profiles” for their favorite interactive programs. The latter have a few more days with their work, so I’m going to focus on the former in this post.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, moral panics are an area of conversation within media effects research (and I’m sure, many other fields) that try to understand the presumption that certain types of media—or media content—have corrosive influences on their users. Several of our colleagues have written about this, but perhaps one of the better definitions I’ve found is from Elson and Ferguson (2013):
“In a moral panic, a part of society considers certain behaviors or lifestyle choices of another part to be a significant threat to society as a whole. In this environment, moral beliefs can substantially influence scientific research, and its results are readily used as confirmation for what has been suspected (p. 32)”
Moral panics are a topic that I’ve published quite a bit about in academic and popular press. Thus, I was feeling very confident with this discussion—perhaps a bit over-confident. And just about when that confidence was peaking, my students reminded me of a pretty robust “truthism” in pedagogy. I can’t remember the quote and I didn’t want to cheat (re: Google), but … well, when we teach, we learn. We learn quite a bit from our students, and that’s a pretty damned cool thing.
And when those students come from four continents, there’s just so much more to learn. Especially when we’re talking about something as culturally bound as moral panics.
Above? A photo of Louis Armstrong (it’s hard to type “Louis” when I’m thinking “Louie”), one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century. Folks of most all generations have probably heard his gravely voice and moving trumpet during some rendition of “What a Wonderful World”—yet his jazz influence goes far beyond that song (a few examples of his larger catalog, for those interested).
By most accounts, jazz seems to be a rather well-regarded form of music—the music of high-class coffee shops, gin joints, and music lovers the world around. For many, jazz is a uniquely American art form.
Of course, our students reminded me that jazz wasn’t always so highly regarded. In the 1920s, when musicians such as Armstrong were crafting the first notes of their musical revolution, those in US high society were already wearing of the dangers of the “Devil’s Music.” Excerpted from a PBS documentary, one of the deepest fears of jazz came less from the music itself, and more from the race of the performers who popularized it:
“Jazz was different because it broke the rules—musical and social. It featured improvisation over traditional structure, performer over composer, and black American experience over conventional white sensibilities. Undercurrents of racism bore strongly upon the opposition to jazz, which was seen as barbaric and immoral.”
Others alleged that jazz would directly challenge the popularity of European classical music, and that jazz was unworthy of high society.
Two of my students—both from different corners Southeast Asia (masked for privacy)—directly engaged this conversation in their blog chats this week, and suggested that they were rather shocked to learn about the moral panic around jazz.
After all, in Taiwan (and in many other Asian countries), American Jazz is considered a classy, happening, and popular form of music. Jazz clubs that emulate the Bauhaus styles of the early 20th century are popular in many Asian capitals, including Tokyo and Taipei. Many record shops have extensive jazz collections, including rare albums pressed in the US and in Japan.
About jazz, one student wrote (edited somewhat to protect identity):
“As a musician myself, I adore jazz… I truly cherish the flexibility, the improvisational aspect, and just being able to have such a freedom and a variety of sound…”
Another student responded, saying:
“ (for us), jazz was more seen as music that those who are more ‘cultured’ or ‘civilized’ people enjoy. Jazz was often more seen as high culture, or more of what educated people consume … probably because of the Western identity that jazz possesses…”
In hindsight, the conversation made so much sense. Understanding moral panics requires us to also understand historical and contemporary views on society, and what is and isn’t considered valuable or venerable. For Americans, the 1920s came nearly 40 years before the first meaningful civil rights movements for African-Americans and as a result, any music coming from those of presumed minority or “lower” status would not be valued. Yet for folks in Taiwan and Japan, the racial tensions of jazz were less relevant. Instead—and perhaps caught up in a broader “westernization” that has since been critiqued—jazz was seen as a refreshing, exotic, and high-class cultural export from an aspirational other.
One’s moral panic is the others next sensation, and that’s pretty neat.