Chapter 8 - ‘Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?’: Identity in popular music
Andy McKinlay1, Chris McVittie2
1School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, The University of Edinburgh
2School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management, Queen Margaret University
Issues of how popular music relates to musicians and listeners and of how it relates to broader
society are central to understanding identities in a social world. This chapter examines these
issues using the perspective of discursive psychology, an approach that prioritises the study
of social interaction and discourse in order to understand how people negotiate identities in
everyday life. From this perspective, talk about popular music is seen to offer possibilities for
identifying oneself and others in ways that accomplish specific social actions, including
justifying career choices, criticising actions of particular groups, or enacting prejudice against
others. Music itself offers similarly diverse possibilities, such as identifications with musical
lyrics, the negotiation of previously marginalised identities, and challenge to prevailing
understandings of local norms. The meanings of popular music are continually being worked
and reworked in identity terms.
Keywords: discourse; discursive psychology; hip-hop; identity; popular music; prejudice; rap
“Whoever likes my stuff, likes my stuff. But just know Slim Shady is hip-hop. I grew up on
hip-hop, it's the music I love and it's the music I respect. I respect the culture . . . that's me”
When we talk about popular music, we have a certain sense of what that description might
involve. The term popular music is often taken to refer to a genre of music that is
contemporary, and that is ‘widely experienced and/or enjoyed’ (Hesmondhalgh and Negus
2002, p.2). Yet the meaning of producing, listening to and enjoying such music, has for long
been debated across musicology and related disciplines. Such debates centre primarily on
what is taken to be the value (or lack of value) of different forms of music. As Frith (2007,
p.257) writes, music critics have often drawn a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’
music: ‘serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is
aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them (because it is ‘useful’ or
utilitarian’)’. In contrast to such views, many writers have recently argued that distinctions of
this sort say more about the person offering the distinction than about the value of different
genres of music. On this view, ‘popular music’ is a particularly loaded term that is commonly
used to criticise forms of music that do not reflect the individual preferences of music
One especially relevant example is that of rap music, or hip-hop. Critics have argued
that rap music reflects norms and values that are shared only by particular groups and,
moreover, that these values are socially divisive in enacting prejudice (Lillian, 2007). On
such grounds, it is argued that the socially excluding features of rap music rule out the
possibility of it being considered to have any intrinsic value. By contrast, Caldwell (2010,
p.236) argues that the defining feature of musical value is ‘whether an artist’s songs are
widely consumed or not’. Citing the example of the rap musician Kanye West, Caldwell
points to the popularity of West’s music as demonstrated by the volume of sales of his work
and the music awards gained by West during his career. For Caldwell, the consumption and
recognition of this work offers clear evidence of the worth of West’s music as determined by
a wide and diverse listening public.
Here we do not propose to enter into debates as to what is to count as musical value.
These debates however are of interest to social psychologists for other reasons. For, matters
of whose interests are reflected and enacted in popular music, how popular music is taken up
(or not) by a wide social audience, and how it relates to broader culture all go to the very
heart of identities in a social world. These issues provide the focus for this chapter.
Identities and discourse
In order to examine the relationships between popular music and identities, we draw upon the
perspective of discursive psychology. From a discursive perspective, identities are not
straightforward descriptions of who we are or of how we are located in patterns of social
relations. Rather, identities are what we do as we live our lives in interactions with others and
within the social and cultural contexts that we inhabit. Thus, discursive psychologists point to
how identities are continually in flux, negotiated in the moment-to-moment of interaction
(McKinlay and McVittie 2008, 2011). The negotiation of identity is accomplished in
discourse. As people describe themselves or others in specific ways, so they are identifying
themselves and those around them as particular individuals. The descriptions that are on
offer, of course, are by no means final or fixed. Any description, whether a claim to identity
or the ascription of identity to another, is available to others to accept, challenge, resist, or
rework according to the requirements of the interactional context. From a discursive
perspective, therefore, to understand identity we do not seek to work out who the person
‘really’ is but instead we examine how the person is identified in his or her social interactions
with others. Thus, the discursive study of identities becomes the study of what identities are
claimed, ascribed, resisted, or reworked and how this is accomplished in discourse.
More than this, discursive psychology draws attention to the action orientation of
discourse. Discourse never comprises ‘neutral’ description; instead it is always directed
towards some social action outcome. People can always be described in a range of different
possible ways: according to the oft-quoted example, one person’s freedom-fighter is another
person’s terrorist. The version that is deployed is designed towards some end, whether
justifying, praising, criticising, or otherwise. Identity is no exception: the identities that we
claim, resist, or rework are directed towards some outcome depending on the demands of the
local context. In order to examine identity, therefore, we have to examine not just the
identities that are available in any passage of discourse but also the functions that these
possibilities might serve in social terms (Potter and Wetherell 1987).
This approach offers two particular advantages in the present case. First, it focuses
attention on how people make sense of popular music in their everyday lives. We need not
attempt to determine from an external perspective the relative merits of popular music, or the
implications of any definition for people’s sense of inclusion or exclusion from listening,
enjoyment, or social participation. Instead, we can examine how individuals identify or do
not identify with music: how in talk about music they accomplish identity work for
themselves and for others. Second, by treating music as discourse, we can consider how
popular music makes available identity possibilities. As with other forms of discourse, music
lyrics draw upon, reproduce and rework shared social understandings of people, actions,
events, and so on. In doing so, music itself provides a site for the negotiation of identities.
The identities that popular music offers up will inevitably resonate more with some listeners
than others, but they do nonetheless construct and propose possibilities that might be
understood in a broader system of social relations. Talk about popular music and music itself,
then, both provide fertile ground for the discursive psychologist to study identities.
Music talk and identities
Here, a useful starting point is the question of how a listening public understands the music to
which they listen. In a study of the perspectives of users of digital music, Carlisle (2007)
explored how young people aged between 18 and 22 years talked about consumption of
online music. As well as being listeners, the majority of participants were musicians or
involved in the music industry and talked about both making music and listening to it.
What Carlisle found was that in describing digital music her participants used three
broad forms of talk, or ‘repertoires’. The first repertoire, which Carlisle terms the ‘romantic
repertoire’, emphasised the value of musicians’ expertise and skill. This repertoire privileged
musicians’ knowledge of music over that of the average listener, and was used to criticise
listeners who freely distributed and illegally downloaded digital music for failing to recognise
the value of musicians’ efforts. Within the second repertoire, termed the ‘consumer culture’
repertoire, online music was described as produced primarily for financial reward. Here,
participants identified musicians in two highly contrasting ways: those who simply made
music to make money, and ‘real musicians’ who made music for the love of doing so and not
for financial gain. Listeners, consequently, were identified as people who had to differentiate
between music of value and music produced for money. Moreover, the participants described
listeners as entitled to download music (illegally) for this purpose, in that ‘real musicians’
would not object in that they are not motivated by financial reward. The third form of talk,
the ‘multi-cultural repertoire’, was less directed towards making music or downloading it
than towards listeners and their judgements of music. Within this repertoire, all online music
was treated as having value for someone and the range of different forms of music had
potential to communicate across cultural barriers. The participants used this repertoire to
distinguish between two types of listener: those who appreciated the broad potential of
different forms of music and those who did not. The latter group were criticised for failing to
recognise this potential and for attempting to impose unwarranted judgments of quality or
tastes, that is for being in effect musical ‘snobs’.
From Carlisle’s (2007) findings, there are three points of immediate relevance here.
First, each of the three repertoires proposes specific music-related identities for musicians, for
listeners, or both. Second, these identities are mutually inconsistent across the repertoires. For
example, musicians cannot consistently be identified as people with specific knowledge and
skills (‘romantic repertoire’) and as people who produce music merely for commercial gain
(‘consumer culture repertoire’). Similarly, it is difficult to describe listeners simultaneously
as individuals who are entitled to download music in order to judge quality (‘consumer
culture repertoire’) and as individuals who should refrain from imposing judgments of quality
(‘multi-cultural repertoire’). Finally, we can note that all these identities are bound up with
specific action outcomes. For example, actions of justifying or criticising downloading of
digital music, and of justifying or criticising judgements of musical quality are inextricably
interlinked with how musicians and listeners are identified in these passages of talk. This
demonstrates how identities are negotiated in talk about music and used to accomplish
outcomes in the immediate context.
Claiming identities through music talk
As noted above, identities of musician and listener can be constructed in very
different ways. Let us now consider contexts in which people claim for themselves particular
versions of these identities. One such instance comes from a study by Xanthapolou (2010) of
interviews conducted on evangelical television programmes. A main focus for these
interviews was that of ‘defectiveness’ in Xanthapolou’s terms, with interviewees being
invited to provide accounts for personal shortcomings or failings in not living up the
standards required by allegiance to a higher entity (God). One interviewee, Jessie, describes
how she ceased singing in the church choir in order to form a band and pursue a musical
career. Elsewhere the ability to write and perform songs, and choice of career based on this
ability might be evaluated positively. In this instance, however, that is less likely to be the
case, with withdrawal from the church choir in favour of pursuit of individual desires and
reward potentially being treated as just the sort of failing that the programme is discussing
and Jessie being held accountable for her choices. Here we see how Jessie accounts for her
actions. (Transcription symbols used in the extracts in this chapter are shown below.
Jessie: God really challenged me
(.) >and I had wr↑itten< (.) a whole album worth of
so:ngs (0.4) e:rm (.) ↑non Christian songs but just
kinda like out of my own experience and they were
just s↑itting in (0.2) in a- (.) a b:oo:k (0.4)
a:nd ↑God really said to me J↑essie? you’ve been
that wicked lazy ((pointing with hands)) servant
(0.3) who: is just playing it safe ↓a:nd I’m: I’m
not having it (.) ↑so I guess right then I had a
dec↑ision (0.3) whether (0.2) to: (0.2) ↑stay
c↑omfortable and keep singing in the church (0.2)
and you know doing the ou and a:r (.) o:r (0.2)
↑push myself forward (.) as a singer song wri:ter
(.) and get a band together and start rec[o:rding]
Jessie: (0.4) a:nd (.) I di:d ((nodding))(0.2) ↓because
(0.2) I felt the lord had challenged me
(adapted from Xanthapolou 2010, p. 686)
This extract forms part of an extended response following the interviewer’s
introduction of the topic of ‘playing it safe’. In responding, Jessie takes up this topic in
describing her previous action of singing in the church choir as an example of precisely that
action. In doing so, she presents ‘playing it safe’ as reprehensible in that it reflects a failure to
make good use of a God-given talent. By characterising her previous actions in this way,
Jessie evaluates herself in highly negative terms as ‘a wicked lazy . . . servant’. This
evaluation becomes all the more emphasised through her attribution of the description to
‘God’ himself, constructing her previous identity and actions as highly criticisable. The
actions that she has taken to address these shortcomings by pursuing a musical career thereby
become laudable rather than any indication of ‘defectiveness’. Thus Jessie presents her
abandonment of the identity of choir-singer and the adoption of the identity of musician as
matters of fulfilling a religious duty instead of merely personal choice.
Music talk of course is as available for the negotiation of collective identities as for
individual identity. For example, ever-increasing use of the internet including social
networking sites and ease of access through rapidly developing information and
communication technologies have led to a proliferation of online music forums where users
can share and discuss musical preferences. Two points of particular note arise here for the
study of identities. First, in using such sites members often identify themselves by selecting
screen names that describe musical preferences. Members of hip-hop chat rooms, for
example, often use screen names such as Snoop Dog, Slim_Shady, lil_kim, or screen names
that are designed to identify with hip-hop culture generally (e.g. GaNgStA_BoY).
Interestingly, even contributors to the chat room who do not share a like of hip-hop orient to
this expectation, using names such as never_hiphop, or RAVER1 (Rellstab 2007). Second, a
community that is organised around music preferences will often promote their collective
identities and seek to exclude others who do not share these tastes. For example, in a study of
an online community for fans of the rock band R.E.M., Bennett (2013) notes how fans
construct the band as producing music for the ‘thinking’ fan. Intruders who do not accept or
who question this description will be targeted by members who do share the community’s
identification of R.E.M. Members of other music-based communities similarly seek to
enforce their agreed boundaries of identities when faced with attempts to infiltrate their
online activities for ideological reasons rather than expressions of musical preferences
Even for groups or communities that are not primarily organised around musical
preferences, music talk can provide central elements of collective identities. This becomes all
the more relevant when understandings of music provide a sense of a shared history and
current identity. Clary-Lemon (2010) points to how Irish immigrants living in Canada draw
upon appreciation of music in developing a shared Irish history and culture that can be
celebrated in their chosen multicultural homeland. Constructing identity in this way can,
however, bring its own problems. Sharing enjoyment of music with others makes for
inclusion within a group or imagined group with similar tastes; at the same time that
preference can mark out members of the group as being different from others in the broader
community. Although such differences might be accepted and celebrated in some contexts,
they can prove more problematic in others. Thus, for example, groups in north-east Brazil can
draw upon imagined notions of folklore and commonality in constructing identities that
reflect the essence and history of the region. As such representations become more popular,
however, they can identify the groups as part of a romanticised past that differs from
contemporary Brazilian life (Sharp 2011). Thus, managing and popularising inclusion can
simultaneously give rise to exclusion in terms of the identities that result.
Ascribing identities to others
Just as talk about music is available for constructing identities for oneself, either
individually or as a member of a social group, so too it can be used to ascribe identities to
others to accomplish specific actions. One such example is seen in a study by Saghaye-Beria
(2012) of the testimony given to a US Congressional Hearing held in 2011 into ‘The Extent
of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s Response’.
This Hearing, as the name suggests, was set up in the aftermath of the attacks of the World
Trade Center in New York on 11 September 2001 and continuing unease and misgivings of
many Americans as to the presence and activities of Muslims in the United States. Much of
the evidence given to the Hearing focused on the issue of whether Muslim Americans were
becoming radicalised and the extent of any resulting threat to US security. Of particular
interest here is how speakers constructed evidence of radicalization. For some, radicalization
relied on a contrast between activities that reflected ordinary American values and activities
that signalled a departure from these values. Thus one witness at the Hearing Melvin
Bledsoe, in providing testimony relating to the conversion of his son to Islam, described how
his son changed from being ‘a normal American kid who ‘loved swimming, and dancing,
listening to music’’ (2012, p.518) to a practising Muslim who ceased all these activities. In
this context, the absence of enjoyment of music was claimed to demonstrate that Bledsoe’s
son had been ‘brainwashed’ into becoming an entirely different person.
According to Bledsoe’s testimony, then, listening to music should be understood as an
ordinary part of everyday life. On other occasions, however, listening to music can be
described as just the opposite: something so exceptional and unacceptable that it provides the
legitimate basis for formulating a complaint about the person or people who do engage in it.
For example, as Stokoe and Hepburn (2005) note, music especially when described as loud
can readily be reformulated as noise, thereby removing particular qualities that might suggest
it is enjoyable and presenting it as a breach of accepted norms of everyday behaviour. Thus,
‘what one person counts as ‘delightful music’ may be defined as a ‘hideous cacophony’ by
another’ (Stokoe & Hepburn 2005, p. 648). Defined in this way music becomes a
‘complainable’ (Edwards 2005), indicating reprehensible and criticisable behaviour on the
part of the listener.
In a similar vein, Dixon and Durrheim (2004) point to how descriptions of music are
interwoven with descriptions of place to identify others in a prejudicial fashion. They cite the
example of Scottburgh, one particular coastal town in South Africa. In the apartheid era, the
beachfront and environs of the town were classed as ‘whites only’, whereas post-apartheid
these areas are multiracial allowing access to all. Changes such as this, however, have not
been well received by white South Africans who holiday at Scottburgh. As Dixon and
Durrheim note, the complaints made by white South Africans in response to these changes
are not founded in race itself but instead in the activities of those now allowed to use the
beach. We see below one holiday-maker, Mary, describing what she would like to
experience on the beach.
Mary: I want to be in a natural situation. I don’t wanna be with music blaring. And
the wilder it is, the whole, generally all of us
Peter: Want a bit of peace and quiet.
Mary: Ja, we want to be in nature. (Dixon and Durrheim 2004, p. 467)
In this description, we see on offer a contrast between what white South Africans
would wish from the beach and what happens there now. Here nature is linked to ‘peace and
quiet’ and contrasted with the activity of ‘music blaring’. These activities are themselves
bound up with the space in which they took place or now occur. Taken together, they make
for identities associated with relaxation and tranquillity that have given way to identities of
victims of unreasonable and criticisable behaviour by others. Far from being a pleasurable
activity that is enjoyed by many, listening to music is here presented as associated with
unwanted change and culpable behaviour.
Similarly, in a study of white US college students, Foster (2009) points to how talk
about music can provide a basis for racist talk. Instead of grounding complaints about fellow
students in race itself, interviewees could seek to avoid being viewed as prejudiced by
complaining about the activities of fellow students, listening to music included. Below we see
one interviewee, Kaitlin, talking about her black roommate and the ‘weird’ activities that she
and her friends engaged in while in the room.
R: like all the time ((laughs)) they’re over there, and they just do stuff that
(.) I don’t do, like they move the table and like da:nce in the middle of our
R: Which I would never do with my frie(h)nds
I: Like listen to music?
R: Yeah, like rap which doesn’t bother me like listening to rap music but I
just find it kind of weird ’cause I wouldn’t have my friends over and like
breakdance all over my living room like they do ((laughs))
(adapted from Foster 2009, p. 693;
I = interviewer, R = participant)
Above, Kaitlin develops a criticism of her roommate based upon the actions of that
roommate and her friends in the house. These actions, invoking descriptions of listening to
and dancing to music, need not in themselves be grounds for criticism. Kaitlin, however,
contrasts them with what she and her friends do in the same situation: ‘I would never do with
my frie(h)nds’. This contrast, and the characterisation of her roommate’s and her friends’
actions as ‘weird’, presents these actions as exceptional. Foster notes that, in the course of the
interviews, the students repeatedly complained about the actions of fellow (black) students
who played loud (rap) music together and danced. These descriptions were offered as a basis
for others being legitimately annoyed at such behaviour. Their complaints, moreover, were
always targeted at black students who were portrayed as the only students who did engage in
such complainable music-related behaviours. As Foster points out, identifying black students
in terms of music-related activities allowed students to present themselves as non-racist in
that none of their complaints were grounded in issues of race itself. Nonetheless, the
characterisations of black students’ actions as annoying, and consequent identifications of
black students as unreasonable people, allowed the white students to enact prejudice,
defending their own actions and blaming black students for ongoing lack of racial integration.
Identities in music
We have seen how people in talk about music claim identities for themselves and ascribe
identities to others. We now turn to consider the arena of music itself. Music can be used to
construct a diverse range of social phenomena and events in particular ways. For example,
Flowerdew (2004) analyses the case of a promotional video devised by the City of Hong
Kong. This video was accompanied by a musical soundtrack that combined Chinese music
and Western music, a combination that promoted the theme of Hong Kong as a multicultural
city where ‘East meets West’. On a similar note Edwards (2004), in an analysis of the music
selected for use in the memorial service held after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade
Center, notes that organisers drew on a combination of musical choices to mark the occasion
as reflecting both a sense of grief and a desire for vengeance against those responsible for the
Of greater interest to the discursive psychologist, however, are the identity
possibilities offered up in music lyrics. As with other talk, music lyrics provide a realm for
construction of identities for self, others, and social groups, and for the enactment of social
processes that can be inclusive, exclusive, or prejudicial. Writing on the notion of
‘manipulation’, van Dijk (2006) argues that music as part of discourse in a broad sense
provides the same possibilities as any other discourse for ‘positive self-presentation and
negative other presentation expressing ideological conflict . . . enhancing the power, moral
superiority and credibility of the speaker(s), and discrediting dissidents, while vilifying the
others’ (p.380). Thus, music can act as a locus for establishing moral assessments of respect
and disrespect (Buttny and Williams 2000). As however van Dijk (2006) also points out,
‘discourse structures are not manipulative; they only have such functions or effects in specific
communicative situations and the way in which these are interpreted by participants in their
context models’. What this means is that we cannot simply ‘read off’ the meanings of music
lyrics; rather again we have to examine how individuals in specific settings relate to, take up,
or challenge the identity formulations that are on offer.
Constructing identities in music
Perhaps the most obvious case of the construction of identities in music occurs where specific
songs provide identities that individuals take up and enact in their own lives. Such an identity
can be found in the work of the singer Avril Lavigne who in her song ‘Skater Girl’ proposed
a form of femininity that could be viewed as alternative to other prevailing forms. Kelly et al.
(2005) point to how schoolgirls in British Columbia (Canada) drew upon this ‘skater girl’
identity in making sense of their own activities and experiences at school, contrasting their
identities with those of their peers. As one student, Jessica, explained
‘pop stars sing mainly about ‘love and relationships’, whereas alternative bands write
songs that ‘have meaning’ and are ‘worth hearing’. The lyrics are ‘about them
growing up or them having trouble with friends, not liking school or dropping out’’
(Kelly et al. 2005, p.138)
By identifying with music that had meaning for them, the skater girls constructed
identities that rejected the notions of emphasised femininity commonly found among other
schoolgirls. Below we see another student, Grenn, describe how the skater girls’ identity
work was received by other students.
‘They ((the preps)) don’t agree with the way I look. They don’t agree with the way I
act. They just don’t agree with my music. They don’t agree with like anything about
me, right?’ (adapted from Kelly et al. 2005, p.141)
The contrast between the skater girls and other students is clearly expressed in the
description above. By identifying themselves as ‘skater girls’, the girls were able to criticise
and challenge prevailing (and unwanted) forms of femininity while claiming identities of
greater authenticity, grounded in the music to which they listened and the actions it described.
In other instances, the identity possibilities that music makes available are rather more
contested. Brown (2011) cites the example of the phrase ‘no homo’. This phrase originated in
the lyrics of many hip-hop songs in the 1990s, especially those of The Diplomats, Juelz
Santana, and Cam’ron. Since then, ‘no homo’ has gained wider currency, appearing in
contexts that include other hip-hop lyrics, discussions on internet forums, and youtube
postings. It is also found in everyday conversations, as in the following instance of two
(male) students making arrangements to meet up to study: ‘Are we meeting up tonight? No
homo’ (Brown 2011, pp. 299-300). As in this example, the phrase is commonly found after a
speaker has made an utterance that might be taken up as ‘inadvertently gay’ and is used to
ward off any inference of homosexuality. For such reasons, critics have argued that such uses
of ‘no homo’ amount to blatant homophobia that reflects the prejudiced culture of rap music
(Catucci 2009; Matson 2009).
Brown (2011), by contrast, argues that such criticisms proceed upon a
misunderstanding of how ‘no homo’ is used in rap music. For Brown, ‘no homo’ operates in
the reverse way to that suggested, in allowing hip-hop musicians to introduce the possibility
of homosexuality into their music and thereby to provide for masculine identities that differ
from the homophobic versions that previously dominated. In doing so, the music offers, even
if tentatively, wider opportunities for inclusion and diverse identities than before. Thus, the
identity possibilities made available by rap music are not static but always fluid, changing
over time to enable and to reflect more diverse and pluralistic versions of identity (Kunzler
2011). In order to understand the effects of discourse such as ‘no homo’, therefore, instead of
adopting external perspectives, we have to examine how this discourse is used and treated by
people in ‘specific communicative situations’ as proposed by van Dijk (2006).
Contesting identities in music
Rap music differs from other forms of popular music in its emphasis on verbal rhymes. As
Alim (2009) comments:
‘Rappin, one aspect of hip-hop culture, consists of the aesthetic placement of verbal
rhymes over musical beats, and it is this element that has predominated in hip hop
cultural activity in recent years. Thus, language is perhaps the most useful means with
which to read the various cultural activities of the Hip Hop Nation.’
(Alim 2009, p. 272)
It is no surprise therefore that the lyrics of rap music have attracted considerable attention.
We noted above debates as to the extent to which rap music lyrics allow for or marginalise
homosexual identities. Other critics have argued that rap music is divisive also in promoting a
predominantly black male culture that is not only excluding of others but indeed prejudicial
towards them. Lillian (2007), for example, argues that the lyrics found in rap music are
degrading to women if not outright sexist. She proposes that, although such lyrics fall under
the right of the First Amendment of the US Constitution to free speech, these lyrics meet the
linguistic criteria for what would otherwise be regarded as ‘hate speech’.
Arguments such as this, however, point again to the need for close examination of the
lyrics found in rap music and how individuals relate to and make sense of them in identity
terms. Richardson (2007) examined the discussions of a group of young African American
women relating to depictions of women in rap music videos. One particular video, performed
by an African American male rap group called ‘Nelly featuring the St. Lunatics’, depicted
scantily-clad women simulating sexual acts watched by male viewers who threw money on
their bodies, in a manner similar to a performance ritual used by strip dancers (a ‘Tip Drill’).
The lyrics in this video gave rise to somewhat divergent understandings of female identity, as
BE: Why you say it’s degrading?
ED: Because. Foreal. You just don’t.
You ain’t got to say all that. Know what uhm saying? Like you said, Some
women are and some women ain’t. But, the way they was puttin it, was like,
females. Point blank. Period. That’s in that song, females. Generalizing just all
the females like that. But, know what uhm sayin, you’re right. It is some tip
drills out here. It is. But then again, it ain’t some.
BE: That’s true.
ET: Well, a lot of the lyrics in the song is degrading to women. For instance, it
said, ‘It must be yo ass cause it ain’t yo face.’ He said, ‘It ain’t no fun unless
we all get some.’ You know what uhm saying, so. Basically, meaning we gone
run a train on you.
(Richardson 2007, p. 796)
In the discussion of ‘Tip Drill’ above, we see ED arguing that the lyrics are indeed
degrading to women. She claims that, notwithstanding that women differ markedly in their
willingness to engage in the sorts of performance that is being depicted, the lyrics portray all
women as sexual objects who will take part in ‘tip drills’. In taking up this point, ET voices
some of the lyrics that she has heard that refer to anatomical features. She continues by
referring to other lyrics suggesting that the inference is that, regardless of their own wishes,
women are expected to provide sexual gratification for men (‘we gone run a train on you’).
Not all of the participants, however, share these interpretations. Following her minimal
agreement in the extract above BE thereafter continues:
BE: But that’s not degrading if the girls is wit it. It’s some girls who wit dat. I
don’t think it’s degrading. It’s girls who is like that and they down for the git
down, just how the boys is. Know what uhm saying. I don’t. I don’t know.
(Richardson 2007, p. 799)
In this turn we see BE disagreeing with ED’s and ET’s assessment that the video is
degrading to women. She argues instead that the video and lyrics are referring only to ‘some
girls’ and not to all women. She also argues that ‘girls who is like that’’ would participate in
such activities willingly and not due to pressure to do so (‘they down for the git down’).
Accordingly the identities presented are left uncertain, as is the issue of whether or not the
video and lyrics should be regarded as sexist in their portrayal of women.
Just as the lyrics of rap music offer up possibilities for construction and reworking of
identities in the descriptions that they offer, so too do they open up such possibilities as the
music itself unfolds. Mullins (2013) points to how the female rap artist Rah Digga in her
work ‘Dirty Harriet’ challenges the versions of female sexuality found within what is still
predominantly a male-dominated realm. For example, Rah Digga takes up the description
‘bitch’ often applied pejoratively in rap music to refer to women and applies it to herself,
thereby neutralising its offensive overtones. By delivering her lyrics in a manner similar to
that of male rap artists and engaging in ‘battles’ with other (male) rap artists on this album,
Rah Digga stakes out her own power in this context and challenges male dominance in hip-
We turn finally to examine how identities are negotiated in rap ‘battles’. This example
comes from a study by Alim et al (2011) of rap ‘battles’ as a site for the coproduction of
black normativity. In these contexts, black emcees marginalise others in seeking to maintain
rap as a black space. Non black emcees both uphold and challenge this marginalisation, as do
non-black audience members. Black emcees monitor the audience reaction in looking to gain
support for themselves and undermine support for their opponents. We see this in action in
one extended rap battle involving a black emcee ‘Flawliss’ and Lil Caesar, a Latino emcee. In
the extract below, Lil Caesar challenges the skills of his opponent.
C: look it
this shit if funny as fuck,
his mind is crooked.
just like his fuckin•f ^feet, ^((looks directly at F))
F ((looks down at his feet)) ← sequential action
A1 ((looks down at Flawliss•f feet, begins head bob))
(.) mee:t defeat
F ((scans crowd to left))
A1 ((stops head bob))
(.) never heard what he said
^rhyming off the head ^((waves right pointer))
you should [go home and write instead.
A1 [((A1 shakes head from side to side with intensity,
begins to smile))
^put some [more [ti:me~under~the~pen
F [((F glances at A1))
A1 [((A1 stops shaking head, continues bobbing))
(adapted from Alim et al 2011, p.431;
C = Lil Caesar, F = Flawliss, A1 = audience member)
Here we see Lil Caesar attack Flawliss on two counts, first on grounds of personal
features that are described as ‘crooked’ and second, on the basis of his perceived (lack of)
rapping skills. We can see also that one member of the watching crowd (A1) appears to
respond favourably to this attack, with the crowd all the time being monitored by Flawliss for
their reactions. In his turns, by contrast, Flawliss does not attack Lil Caesar on the basis of
personal features or skills, but instead on other grounds:
F: how you gon me with her ((points to himself))
beef with her? ((taps on C’s chest))
just go on dawg ((waves his hand away))
go on and break my sprin-ka-lers
go on rake ma lawn
C [((C looks down, hand on chin, shaking his head while waving hand towards
go on shake along
(adapted from Alim et al 2011, p. 430;
C = Lil Caesar, F = Flawliss)
Earlier in this turn, Flawliss had introduced race and ethnicity in referring to his
opponent. Above he draws upon a popular stereotype of Latinos as people who commonly
engage in work involving manual labour or landscaping. We see also his reference to ‘her’,
characterising Lil Caesar as female and not a worthy opponent in rap terms. Flawliss
therefore seeks to marginalise Lil Caesar from the groups predominantly associated with hip-
hop in two ways, first in being Latino and not belonging to the dominant (black) racial group,
and second as being female instead of being part of macho hip-hop culture.
The ‘battle’ between Flawliss and Lil Caesar does not reach any final conclusion, with
issues as to whether hip-hop culture is to be treated as black, male, macho, or otherwise
remaining to be contested another day. Thus, the identities on offer, the meanings of these for
the immediate audience, and for a broader public are continually available for individuals to
take up, resist or rework, in local discursive contexts to accomplish particular actions. As
with other talk, rap music lyrics provide resources for the negotiation of identities even as
they are being produced. It is for individuals who participate in producing this music, or who
enjoy (or even do not enjoy) such music, to make sense of these identities in their everyday
We have seen ways in which people understand popular music and how they do or do not
identify with it. The examples considered here are necessarily drawn from particular
discussions, from specific songs, and in many cases from the talk of certain age groups.
Nonetheless, detailed examination of such instances highlights the diverse range of identity
possibilities that popular music makes available. Talk about music allows speakers to claim
specific identities, to identify others, and to mobilise concerns such as complaints or
prejudice. Music itself constructs and provides contrasting versions of identities, some more
attractive than others to different musicians and listeners. Thus, discursive psychology shows
how popular music is inextricably linked to identities in a broad range of ways. When we
claim or resist identities for ourselves, or attribute identities to others, we are all the time
engaged in accomplishing social actions. To return to the point at which we began, it is
unhelpful (if not incorrect) to regard popular music as ‘determined’ by social forces (Frith
2007): popular music, its meanings, and who we are in relation to it are central parts of our
lives as we live them and negotiate our identities in doing so.
Alim, H.S. (2009). Hip hop nation language. In A. Duranti (Ed.), Linguistic Anthropology: A
reader, 2nd ed (pp. 272–289). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Alim, H.S., Lee, J. and Carris, L.M. (2011). Moving the crowd, ‘crowding’ the emcee: The
coproduction and contestation of black normativity in freestyle rap battles. Discourse
& Society, 22, 422–439.
Bennett, L. (2013). Discourses of order and rationality: drooling REM fans as "matter out of
place'. Continuum – Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 27, 214-227.
Brown, J.R. (2011). No homo. Journal of Homosexuality, 58, 299-314.
Buttny, R. and Williams, P.L. (2000). Demanding respect: the uses of reported speech in
discursive constructions of interracial contact. Discourse & Society, 11, 109-133.
Caldwell, D. (2010). Making many meanings in popular rap music. In: A. Mahboob and N.
Knight (eds.). Appliable Linguistics. London: Continuum, pp. 234-251.
Carlisle, J. (2007). Digital Music and Generation Y: discourse analysis of the online music
information behaviour talk of five young Australians. Information research – An
international electronic journal, 12, Article Number: colis25.
Catucci, N. (2009, August 7). “No homo”: Cause for hope in hip-hop? [Online] 20 December
2013. Available at:
Clary-Lemon, J. (2010). ‘We’re not ethnic, we’re Irish!’: Oral histories and the discursive
construction of immigrant identity. Discourse & Society, 21, 5–25.
Dixon, J. and Durrheim, K. (2004). Dislocating identity: Desegregation and the
transformation of place. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 455–473.
Edwards, D. (2005). Moaning, whinging and laughing: the subjective side of complaints.
Discourse & Society, 7, 5-29.
Edwards, J. (2004). After the fall. Discourse & Society, 15, 155–184.
Flowerdew, J. (2004). The discursive construction of a world-class city. Discourse & Society,
Foster, J.D. (2009). Defending whiteness indirectly: a synthetic approach to race discourse
analysis. Discourse & Society, 20, 685–703.
Frith, S. (2007). Taking Popular Music Seriously: Selected essays. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Hesmondhalgh D., and Negus K. (2002). Popular Music Studies. London: Arnold.
Kelly, D.M., Pomerantz, S. and Currie, D. (2005). Skater girlhood and emphasized
femininity: 'you can't land an ollie properly in heels'. Gender and Education, 17, 229-
Kunzler, D. (2011). South African rap music, Counter discourses, identity, and
commodification beyond the prophets of da city. Journal of Southern African Studies,
Lillian, D.L. (2007). A thorn by any other name: sexist discourse as hate speech. Discourse &
Society, 18, 719-740.
Matson, A. (2009, July 27). The continuing saga of KUBE morning host Eddie Francis and
American English’s current homophobic lexicography. [Online] 20 December 2013.
McKinlay, A. and McVittie, C. (2008). Social Psychology and Discourse. Oxford: Wiley-
McKinlay, A. and McVittie, C. (2011). Identities in Context: Individuals and discourse in
action. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Mullins, K.L. (2013). Black female identity and challenges to masculine discourse in Rah
Digga's Dirty Harriet. Popular Music and Society, 36, 425-443.
Potter, J., and Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond attitudes and
behaviour. London: Sage.
Rellstab, D.H. (2007). Staging gender online: gender plays in Swiss internet relay chats.
Discourse & Society, 18, 765–787.
Richardson, E. (2007). ‘She was workin like foreal’: critical literacy and discourse practices
of African American females in the age of hip hop. Discourse & Society, 18, 789–
Saghaye-Beria, H. (2012). American Muslims as radicals? A critical discourse analysis of the
US congressional hearing on ‘The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim
Community and That Community’s Response’. Discourse & Society, 23, 508–524.
Sharp, D. (2011). Performing the migrant, Performing home: Televised nostalgia in Northeast
Brazil. Latin American Music Review - Revista de Musica Latino Americana, 32, 181-
Spracklen, K. (2013). Nazi punks folk off: leisure, nationalism, cultural identity and the
consumption of metal and folk music. Leisure Studies, 32, 415-428.
Stokoe, E., and Hepburn, A. (2005). “You can hear a lot through the walls”: Noise
formulations in neighbour complaints. Discourse & Society, 16, 647-673.
van Dijk, T.A. (2006). Discourse and manipulation. Discourse & Society, 17, 359–383.
Xanthapolou, P. (2010). The production of 'defectiveness' as a linguistic resource in broadcast
evangelical discourse: A discursive psychology approach. Discourse & Society, 21,
Transcription symbols used in the extracts in this chapter are as follows:
((cough)) Transcriber’s descriptions of sounds appear in double parentheses
(.) A dot within parentheses indicates a brief pause between utterances
(2.5) Numbers between parentheses indicate a pause between utterances measured in seconds
e::h Colons indicate that the immediately preceding sound has been prolonged
> text < Left and right carats indicate faster speech
°I know° Degree’ signs indicate speech that is hearably quieter
↑ rising intonation
[ ] Square brackets indicate start and end of overlapping speech
^ Upward carat indicates non-verbal reaction