Beth Pearson's Sociological Desert Island Discs

Published: 4 October 2019

Beth Pearson shares what music (and book) she would bring to a desert island and why

Les Back’s recent Frisby Lecture on sociology and music explored the various ways the practice of music informs the work of sociologists, from the link between playing music and lateral thought to experiences in the music industry shaping a radical approach to academia. Faced with solitude on a desert island, this list is sociological in the far more prosaic sense that it just tries to populate the island. That is, use music to create something a little more socially complex than a mound of sand and coconut water that doesn’t cost £4.

Which isn’t to say the list is without broader sociological relevance. I’ve never been persuaded by the “the song is whatever it means to you” line of argument; if so, how do we get meaningful access to others’ experiences through it? On that basis, most of these have a social or political dimension either in lyrical content or music. Most of them are also highly danceable, because, otherwise, what’s the point?

Controversy, Prince
The seven-minute version. It’s a response to the suspicion with which Prince was treated by the media and the implication that he ought to define himself for everyone’s benefit. So, it’s a statement of resistance and defiance, but also acknowledges that this is not a painless process: “some people want to die/just to be free”. I was once asked for my favourite line from this and it’s the chant “people call me rude/I wish we all were nude/I wish there were no black and white/I wish there were no rules”. There’s something obstinate about it, a bit childish, which, through being repeated, exposes the absurdity of what he’s being asked to conform to. It’s all this, and profoundly danceable: the swelling riff, the punctuating grunts. This is why it is one of the best songs of all time.

Unfinished Sympathy, Massive Attack
Also one of the best songs of all time. I was 13 when this came out. I played the album, Blue Lines, on my white hi-fi in my bedroom in our maisonette above a fish shop in a town in North-East Scotland. Like Soul II Soul, Massive Attack allowed me to hear somewhere else. I feel reverence for it, but never nostalgia – it always feels fresh.

Highlife, Auntie Flo
I listened to a lot of West African music in my twenties, which, as for many people in the UK who grew up hearing Paul Simon and not Fela Kuti, began with Duncan Brooker’s 2001 Afro-Rock Volume One compilation. This led to interviewing rappers in Ghana for a BBC Radio Scotland programme later that year; some blending hip hop with traditional Highlife music and the others looking to the West Coast of the United States. Highlife, which samples this Nigerian track, was the first time I heard the more recent wave of African music being incorporated into house music. Auntie Flo – or Brian d’Souza and Esa Williams - formed in Glasgow and used to hold regular club nights here. D'Souza’s relatives were expelled from Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule and Williams’ dad and his friends would play Detroit techno during anti-apartheid meetings in South Africa to put the police off the scent of resistance. The multi-directional process of musical exchange will always be slightly elusive – sounds can’t always be definitively traced to one place or another.

That’s Us/Wild Combination, Arthur Russell
This is at the melodic, light end of Russell’s work, though still with scratchy cello in the background. Like most of my favourite music, it has a tenderness and vulnerability in one way or another. You have to listen closer; it’s not coming to you. It’s about human connection, so I suspect it might sound rather devastating while stranded.

Take Me I’m Yours, Mary Clark
I’m no survivalist, but who doesn’t need 13 minutes of a disco classic on a desert island?

The temptation to say Shakespeare is there, for the sheer possibilities for endless one-woman plays. But I’m going for Pride & Prejudice – I’ve read it so many times I know I never get bored of it and the single narrator might be the closest I get to company for a while. Plus, Mr Bennett is a bit like my dad, so it’d be good to have him around.

Dr Beth Pearson is a member of the Sociology department here at the University of Glasgow and she is a lecturer in Media, Journalism and Communication. She is also an active member of both the Glasgow Human Rights Network and the Glasgow Latin America Research Network. Beth is broadly interested in human rights, the media, and Latin America. 

First published: 4 October 2019