Underground Harmonies: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York

By Susie J. Tanenbaum | Go to book overview

4
Boundaries and Bridges: Relationships in Public Space

Subway music promotes various kinds of contact between musicians, between musicians and their audiences, and among the audience members themselves. These encounters fit Erving Goffman's descriptions of "focused interactions" -- public gatherings that bridge the gap between urban anonymity and private relationships, falling almost midway on a spectrum of collective behaviors. In this chapter, relying on Goffman's work, I present the formal properties of subway music scenes, to show how the participants interact.

During fieldwork I learned that an exceptional amount of cooperation and self-regulation, even feelings of community, are generated in the audience circles. Moreover, these instances of focused interaction cut across ethnic and racial lines in ways that attest to the cultural complexity and sophistication of their participants. The textures and implications of these exchanges provide interesting commentary in the ongoing debate about cultural legitimacy. In fact, subway music scenes raise a number of provocative questions. Who decides what legitimate community and culture are? Who decides where they can exist? What are the appropriate uses of public space?


Unfocused and Focused Interaction

For close to thirty years, scholars have drawn on the work of Erving Goffman to explain collective behaviors in public space. 1 In the 1950s,

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