Full and empty handed

by Rachel Thomson

I finally made it to one of the evening sessions for the Sexology & Songs project. A combination of my ridiculous schedule and caution from the practitioners has meant that the research agenda has kept in the background of this project, with an emphasis on the formation of a confident group able to work together on music. I really wanted to get involved but was told not to come ‘empty handed’. So I had to think what could I bring that might be interesting to the young women and relevant to the research aims of the project which are to engage with ideas of social change in relation to young people’s sexuality.

I’ve just moved house and one of the consequences is that I have been sorting through my ‘personal archive’ – things that have survived successive edits of my life over the years. These kind of objects are not just records of a particular time and place, but have come to be emblematic of that time and place in the absence of all that has gone. In this way we start to build our stories and our memories around special photographs or mementos. The things we keep can also be a symptom of unfinished business – we are not ready to let them go yet. I found this with half finished writing projects that can’t be thrown away.

Those interested in memory understand, a memory itself may come to stand in for something unresolved that can’t yet be digested. Working with objects and memory is both emotionally rich and potentially unsettling. We have discovered this in our research into families where we have constructed interviews with three generations of families around their ‘favourite things’, inviting them to choose and share objects that represent their past and their present/ future. It is a user-friendly research method, people get to choose their objects and the stories they want to share rather than be interrogated by an interviewer. Yet we can also be surprised by the stories that our objects want us to tell and how deep we go when we construct conversations in this way (See Thomson 2012).

Show & Tell

So, in a hurry, I chose two things to share at the session. Things I still own that capture something of my life when I was 16 years old. The first was closely linked to the focus of the project on music – tapes.

photo tapes

When I was 16 in 1982 music was becoming liberated from the record player. Tapes allowed us to take music with us  ‘on the move’ using our Walkmans to become stars in our own music videos (also a recent invention). Tapes also gave us the chance of creating our own mix tapes that we then shared as ways of expressing the inexpressible to each other. The technology made new things possible and as creative young people we realized these affordances in ways that its designers had never imagined.

My second object was a home-made book made for me by my best friend at the time Jessica Eaton. The book features pen and ink cartoons and water colour illustrations of a night out, where two young punks meet their fantasy lovers.

photo book

As I shared the book I explained to the group that until I met Jess I had imagined that I might study art. But recognizing her superior talent concentrated my energies on words and observation – the things that lead me into social research. Until this moment I hadn’t realized that this was the message that my object carried. I was asked how the book was ‘about sex’ and I explained that sex was there – sex is always there, but it was part of the background. As 16 year girls on the our narratives were structured along the lines of ‘getting off’ with the objects of our desire. But the real focus was usually friendship and adventure. The music gave us a way of connecting without having to put it all into words.

 Sharing my objects gave rise to lots of talk. One young woman, D was excited because she knew Jess now a successful artist. P was excited about the tapes and the music. She knew most of the bands and loved the retro-aesthetic. She wants to buy an album but she doesn’t have a record player. As a group we talked about what objects that we might choose to represent our pasts. Several of girls talked about soft toys from early childhood that they had kept and which provided comfort. Musician Zoe chose an image of her 16 year old self in Kerrang magazine that had just been loaded onto her Facebook page by a friend. Objects that might represent now and the future were harder to choose. P knew it was her tablet that contains everything – her music, her contacts, her dreams.

 We then got out the lyrics that the girls had brainstormed in the first workshop about sex in the past, the present and future and ideas that what was once private and innuendo was now public and ‘in your face’. We also talked about how despite some obvious changes there are also continues in teenage life.

Raw and cooked – data and songs

In the second half of the workshop we got down to work. One group developing the original ‘Wild and Tamed’ song that had emerged from working with Ester’s ‘Good Sex’ data. The other group wanted to concentrate on singing. The issue of covering other people’s songs vs creating a song  came up a discussion point. Some members of the group were only interested in singing covers, while others were engaged with the task of making music and lyrics from scratch. The Wellcome Trust who are funding this project only want new songs and this is a sticking point for some of the girls. Moving between the language of the musician and the researcher we talked a bit about places in-between the ‘raw’ of song-writing and the ‘cooked’ of covers. We could think about ‘sampling’ as a strategy for taking from the past or present and making the material our own by putting it together in new ways. We also talked about writing new words to old songs and got excited by the idea of rewriting Jolene from the perspective of an old woman after Ester’s account of Dolly Parton’s Glastonbury performance where she joked with the audience how in retrospect maybe Jolene should have taken her man after all.


After the break the ‘Wild and Tamed’ group  worked with Marina and Ester to build a melody for their embryonic song. A combination of improvisation and experiment enabled different members of the group to make their mark on the song and to build a richer sound. After a while I went downstairs to check out the ‘singing group’ finding R and C with musician Zoe in a cavernous dance studio with great acoustics and plenty of background noise from what sounded like an indoors football match next door. The group were sitting with a lap top, guitar, sheets of lyrics and mobile phones. It took me a while to understand the method which involves calling up backing tracks and lyrics on You Tube, working out the chords and strumming along. We started together with Jolene – once on our own with Zoe’s guitar and once with Dolly and her band which made us all feel like amateurs. The girls remarked how great the room was because the background sound made it easier to sing without being too self-conscious. After lots of fussing and texting we got onto solos and C began with a rendition of ‘Keep your head up’ by Ben Howard. The girl has an awesome voice! Even the 5 aside football went quiet as we all listened. I realized that singing covers is an entirely different game to song writing. Then we listened to Ben Howard doing the original YouTube and I recognized how distinctive C’s cover was. I also noticed something in the lyrics – the line ‘lookin’ out at this happiness, I search for between the sheets’ and thought how this captures the place of sexuality as part of a wider canvas of longing, desire and emotion. We agreed that it was a beautiful lyric.

I’m walkin’ back down this mountain
With the strength of a turnin’ tide
Oh the wind’s so soft on my skin,
The sun so hard upon my side.
Oh lookin’ out at this happiness,
I search for between the sheets.
Oh feelin’ blind and realize,
All I was searchin’ for was me.
Ooh all I was searchin’ for was me.

(Ben Howard, Keep your head up)

R. is nervous about singing a solo, saying how she will sound crap in contrast to C, who then has  another go, this time giving her rendition of ‘Electric Feel’ a much more sexy and upbeat number.

I said ooh girl
I said ooh girl
Shock me like an electric eel
Baby girl You turn me on with your electric feel
I said ooh girl
Shock me like an electric eel B
aby girl Turn me on with your electric feel
(MGMT Electric Feel)

Just when it seems too late R gets brave and sings Ella Henderson’s ‘Yours’. It is exquisite and heart-felt. She knows the words without the lyric sheet. We listen with reverence as her voice and feeling fills the room. Its only later that I discover this is the first time she has sung solo. A big moment for her and the group.

The moment waking up
You catch me in your eyes
That beauty on my pillow
They haunt me in the night
And I will find my strength to untame my mouth
When I used to be afraid of the words
But with you I’ve learned just to let it out
Now my heart is ready to burst
(Ella Henderson ‘Yours’)

So what have I learned this week about sex and social change? Well, I am aware that some things don’t change. That young people are fragile and that our hopes and dreams are made in private and built in interaction. Sometimes the only power young people have is the power to say no. Audiences are important and can be very small and ephemeral. Other people’s music gives us a scaffolding to express ourselves in more or less safe ways. We make ourselves vulnerable in performance yet this itself is a route to recognition and community. Starting from scratch is a big ask, and there are lots of ways in which creativity can emerge from the re-use and re-animation of existing material. This is true of the research process as well as the process of being in a media saturated culture characterized by proximity to a vast digital archives.  And sexuality – its always there, sometimes in the foreground, more often in the background – all mixed up with love, hope, loneliness and desire. I hope that I was able to bring something to the party, even as an audience of one, eager to hear, witness, document and share the ephemeral work of the project. Making the the private a bit more public in a safe and honest way. That for me is the essence of research.


2 thoughts on “Full and empty handed

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