On March 24, Roger Mantie, assistant professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at UTSC, gave a talk on the Center for Ethics YouTube channel as part of the song ethics series.
As a trained instrumentalist, Mantie’s interests have rarely focused on vocals and lyrics. However, his recent work on college acappella groups has shed light on the ethics of songwriting and how those ethical parameters are defined in the college and university spheres.
The word “ethics” generally refers to the morality associated with human behavior — what is right and wrong, and how we justify our moral judgments. So what does ethics have to do with music?
There is more to music than instrumental arrangements and vocals. Songs can be wrapped in deep layers of meaning that are sometimes innately defined in the lyrics, but individual perspectives and interpretations also play a part in shaping the songs.
According to Mantie, “The ethics of song…is more about practices than inherent meanings.” The same song can have very different meanings for different people, shaped by personal experiences and viewpoints.
In a larger context, one person’s ethical judgments about music can influence the behavior of others. Having worked as a school music teacher for several years, Mantie has come across instances where parental objections influenced whether or not their child participated in musical activity.
For example, although the song “Jingle Bells” has no religious connotation, some parents would prevent their children from learning it. As Mantie said, it begs the question, “Who gets to decide what a particular song means or doesn’t mean?”
College acappella groups are small groups of post-secondary students who arrange and perform music recreationally. For these students, making music and presenting it on stage is closely linked to the concepts of cultural capital, gender and sexuality, and performativity.
The acappella tradition originated in Ivy League institutions in the United States, but has since spread widely across North America. U of T has several student-run acappella groups, such as “Surround Sound A Cappella” and “Tunes. Beats. Impressive.”
The prestigious roots of the collegiate acappella can influence the presumed esteem of an institution and the “cultural capital” associated with it.
Another interesting factor is the often gendered nature of collegiate acappella groups. Here, the performance of gender and sexuality, a concept proposed by the philosopher Judith Butler, is fundamental. Acting serious, silly, or sexy on stage can be received differently depending on the demographics of the band, sometimes with harsh double standards that favor all-male bands.
The ethical value of collegiate acappella groups reveals that even this fun and recreational activity can have deep significance in terms of institutional prestige and gender identity performance.