Tag Archives: song-writing

Slow, slow, quick-quick-slow


Rachel Thomson

I’ve been reflecting on the funny temporalities involved in changes and continuities. The way we go backwards in order to go forward, and how nothing happens – then it all comes at once. Knowledge captured in truisms about buses and dance steps.

Learning, development, change, love, understanding: all those important things happen in in this jumpy, staggered kind of way. Not the smooth lines that graphs suggest. I’ve been thinking about this because we are at the ‘end’ of the Sexology & Songs project – or at least the project funding is at an end, and like good researchers and youth workers, we need to evaluate the impact of the work, for ourselves and for our funders the Wellcome Trust. During the first session 13 weeks ago, at the start of the winter, participants and workers were asked to rate themselves between 1-10 on the following items:

1)            If I asked you to stand up on a stage now and sing in front of a room full of people,                   how confident would you feel? Answers ranged from 9-1 (average 7)

2)            If I asked you to talk about sex in the room right now, how confident would you                          feel? Answers ranged from 10-2 (average 6.5)

3)            If I asked you to carry out your own research project, how confident would you                          feel? Answers ranged from 8-1 (average 5)

4)            Write one thing that you would like to get out of doing this project:

The workers said:

‘Have helped participants to write and perform their own song’; ‘Write a song and perform’; ‘Confidently talk about sex and have knowledge about sexology’

The young people said:

‘Learn guitar’; ‘Play at least one instrument’; ‘Perform’; ‘Play an instrument’; ‘Learn how to create songs in different genres’

Over the course of the project a pretty consistent group of young women managed to turn up every Wednesday evening, through a long winter, interrupted by the Christmas break. A core group of professionals also got there almost every week: musicians, youth worker and a researcher – and some of us dropped in and out over the project. This is the core of relationship based work, the reliable turning up and being there whatever.

I kept in touch with the work of the group through Ester’s blog and occasional visits. I was there for some wonderful moments along the way as well as seeing the group do their thing on the big night at the Round House. The group process was not straight forward. It took musicians, researchers and youth workers a while to work out how each other worked. It took a while for the girls to get to know each other and to start working together. Not everyone got on stage at the Roundhouse, but everyone turned up on a Wednesday night in March to evaluate the experience.

Originally we didn’t have any time scheduled for evaluation, and the build up to the performance was so intense and exciting there wasn’t really space for thinking about endings earlier on. I had planned to do some work with the girls on the train back from London, but realised how silly that was. We were all full of adrenaline and full of stories about the night and about the past. Lots got said in taxis to London Bridge and on the train back to Brighton that had not been said in the 13 weeks before. It felt like a really important time, just before the end, when things could still happen. And anyway, I had to change at East Croydon. Fortunately an extra session was squeezed out of one budget and hooked onto another and the group came together for some reflection and to think about whether they wanted to get involved in a new music project that would be happening at the youth centre involving one of the same musicians.

I was really happy that everyone turned up. I was there in the place of Ester, who had been a stalwart for the whole 13 weeks but just couldn’t make it. The group felt a bit subdued though and I was thinking about how sad this gathering might be for some of the participants. It was important that we had a good ending. We started with some memory work, I asked the young women to write down something about the day and night of the performance that they would like to remember and something about the process of the project that stuck in their minds.

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The 13 weeks: 

My confidence improved during the project; having somewhere to go and sing and eat and talk and stuff; all the new people I met; performing; learning bass and playing Uke; seeing ideas and confidence develop; getting to know everyone, having a lot of fun and making some great original music; everyone and everything have been amazing and I wouldn’t regret it for the world; hearing solos; the development of the group from a starting point of not knowing each others, learning about sexology, research, songwriting, playing and singing and achieving the songs and memories; the food and the games: apple, banana, cucumber, DimeBar, egg, frankfurter, grapefruit, hamburger, icecream, jam, kitkat, lemon, melon, Nutella, orange, pineapple, quavers, rhubarb & custard, strawberries, toasted waffles, upsidedown cake, vanilla essence, water, xtra large, yam, zebra bars.

London and the Roundhouse: I met to many nice and wonderful people who have inspired me; Dan Gillespie from the Feeling’s speech and performance; the girls singing and meeting other people; train and taxi journey home; me and Rita turning the studio into a mini club; being blown away how everyone on stage pulled it out of the bag for the gig; everyone pulling together and performing on stage alongside all the other groups to an audience and live broadcast cameras.

We stuck our memories on the wall, but the girls were reluctant to make their memories visible and didn’t go up and look at them. I said I would record them and let them have them back.

We then all completed a post-it to record what we had learned over the project, about ourselves, about music, about sex and about research. Again they went on the wall and are recorded here.

What I learned about myself? How hard it is to get somewhere every week; always busy; I learned I enjoy working with a mixture of researchers and musician and young people to create a project; I found confidence in music; Me? Nothing; That every time I sing my confidence grows but I’ll always be nervous.

What I learned about music? I learned piano; You can be anything you want even berrie strongbow; Voices sound great together,; It’s hard to write a good song – it takes time and beautiful voices; Song writing is a good way to say what you are afraid to say; I learned music and chords on the uke.

What I learned about sex? That sex education is mostly focused on the negative and misses important stuff about enjoyment and choice; Don’t have sex because you will get pregnant and die; Different views on sex; I learned everyone should be talking about sex a lot more. Once its talked about its not a big deal, makes me realise that it is important to be open; It all comes out in the end; That sex is anything you want it to be.

What I learned about research? Flying penises; That research can be a way of making a stand about something; Research can be important for yourself; That research can be in many different forms and can be really interesting and inspiring and can capture a snapshot in time; Universal confusion and constant questions; Umm, ways to research other than interviews; It’s all research; I’ve learned so much from the research on the project.

And then we had a good old sing. Started with one of the musicians’s own songs that had been used as a warm-up over the weeks. Once together then we tried in in rounds, culminating in four groups singing a phrase apart. Exhilarating! Then we sang the songs the group had made together. Starting with our cover ‘I’m Adored’ which told the story of the group’s journey, the beautiful lyrics moving everyone in the room and then ‘Agree to Disagree’ which left us on a high, full of energy and excitement – able to see what we had created together. Cate Ferris, the musician who was there to begin a new strand of work was blown away by what the girls, their beautiful voices, the emotion in their lyrics, the inventiveness of their songs. What a great moment!

Cate then performed herself, sharing her loopy, poppy music and inviting the girls to join in. People were shy, unsure, at the start of something new.

You can listen to our songs and watch a film of our 13 week process here and read more blogs on the sex and songs project  here






How many historians does it take to start a cover band?

Six weeks ago the young women and practitioners from the Brighton Sexology and songs project performed live at Camden Roundhouse as part of the Wellcome Collection’s Institute of Sexology season. Many of the women at the Brighton hub, did not want to write original music (or engage with sex research). Instead they wanted to sing and perform covers or songs they loved. Here’s historian Lucy’s Robinson reflecting on the project and what a historian can learn from a cover band.

How many historians does it take to start a cover band? 

Lucy Robinson

When we began the sexology and song-writing project we imagined that the young women involved would undertake some sort of original research and then write songs about it.When we began, we thought about encouraging the song writers to undertake their own original research, perhaps through conducting interviews. And we imagined that they would take inspiration from the content and translate it into original lyrics and music (in part because Wellcome were funding us to produce original songs). It quickly became clear that the young women participants, the youth worker and music practitioners had some different priorities.

The practitioners wanted to concentrate on building a secure and supportive environment in which to build a collective group identity, and the young women wanted to sing songs that they already knew and liked.  The young sexology song-writers didn’t want to write songs.  They wanted to cover and recover them.

We came to realise that our assumptions about what constituted research, and what constituted song-writing both privileged a certain sort of production.  Although we had been tasked with writing ‘original’ music,  it didn’t seem  appropriate to make the young women become song-writers when they didn’t want to be. And it was not clear how enforcing our agenda would fit with our wider responsibility to facilitate a sense of ownership of the project and enable the young women’s self-expression. When two slightly different points came together the problem shifted out of the way. Firstly, we could read cover versions as a creative active engagement rather than a lack of creativity, secondly we could read historical research as much closer to a cover version than it is to singer song-writing.We weren’t training the young women  to be researchers – rather they were training us in their modes of re-enactment; an active and creative intervention in a cultural circuit. One that brought together the legitimacy of publically celebrated singer-songwriters, with their own experiences and voices.

The young women in the project’s resistance to write in favour of performing well known tracks pointed to a lack of confidence in their own skills.  They were not comfortable in producing music that would give them their own voice and instead deferred to the expertise of established successful singer song writers like Adele.   The young women in the project may have lacked the confidence to initially define themselves as song writers, but that did not mean that their decision to sing other people’s songs was an abdication of their own creative potential.  The collective act of singing covers together can be read as democratising, the redistribution of an individual star’s success amongst a group of young women sharing lines, taking turns, and making their consumption an active process.  When they sang in rounds, with one voice building on another, it helped the individual voice fit into the collective chorus. The cover version is therefore an active, re-enactment, rather than a low quality replay of the original track. (Furthermore, as Farrell Williams, George Harrison, and Country Joe Macdonald have all learnt the originality of an ‘original’ composition may not be that simple either.  Subconscious or conscious musical plagiarism suggests how often it is that ‘melodies align’ across time and genre, even unwittingly).[1]

In the current cultural context it isn’t really surprising that the young people in our project did not have any concerns about the inauthenticity of the cover version.  The cover band is bigger business than ever.  The karaoke machine and the dance mat provide regular opportunities to put yourself in the original artist’s place.  Computer games like Sing Star, for example, combine karoake with role play of the journey from starlet to stardom. There are a number of well established local and national music festivals that specialise in tribute acts; TribFest, Glastonbudget, Fake Festival, Wannasee Festival to name just a few.  Dermot O’Leary’s Live  Lounge developed the cover song as a cunning, knowing and creative intervention.  Whilst the TV talent show certainly isn’t new, the dominance of a very particular reality TV or ‘gamedoc’[2] format situates the cover song at the centre of the creative process.

In X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Voice, and the earlier incarnations of the format, Popstars and Pop Idol, good singers get their break at audition by singing someone else’s songs, chosen from a list of pre-agreed choices.  If they ‘make it their own’ well enough, they might get through to the next stages of the competition after which they will be reliant on their mentors or judges to choose the right song, costumes and arrangements for them.  To be a real star, you need to be packaged and scripted by a real star-maker.  The line between the individual artist competing and the star-maker behind them blurs all the time. It gets pretty hard to work out who has won, or failed, when the songs bomb or are popular with voting audiences. It’s worth noting that professional tribute acts have generally had a difficult ride in musical gamedocs,  perhaps that is because they embody the tensions around what counts as original and what counts as a cover.

In the media literate group of young women in the song-writing project, it wasn’t surprising therefore that the act of choosing what song they would cover was in itself an active process. It was also a process that ended up fulfilling both sets of practitioners’ expectations: it helped cohere the group and allow the project members to situate themselves within that group as individuals.  The discussions around finding a song that spoke to everyone, or that everyone knew,  involved developing a shared musical language.  Being the person who had their song chosen, or insisted that they would only sing their own song choice, positioned individuals in the group.  Having your choice of cover chosen by the rest of the group had a status of its own.  In other words, the participation in this project was less focussed on the participation in the production of a song, and at least as much focussed on participation in, and negotiation of, a collective experience.

In Play it Again, an edited collection dedicated to the analysis of cover songs, Don Cusic defended the cover as a legitimate form of musical expression.   Cusic cited Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’ as a ‘glorious (if obvious) example of a cover in which everything goes right’.[3] But he also explained the economic circumstances in which the singer/song-writer is valued over the singer as performer.  In the commercial music industry if you don’t own the words, you don’t earn the money. ‘If an artist has no songwriting credit on an album, they have lost a revenue stream’. [4] The value of writing your own songs, tells us as much about the difficulty of avoiding exploitative contracts as a performers as it does about the cultural value given to authorship over performance, or to production over re-production.   Songwriters in bands own the actual words and notes they perform, even if they don’t own the name they perform under, style or public image.

I am suggesting therefore that the young women’s choice to cover rather than write songs intervened in the assumed passivity of their consumption in a way makes sense of the cultural world which they inhabit.  They demonstrated agency in the covers that they chose and how they sung themselves into the established songs that they sung.   But I recognise the conditions in which this freedom to choose NOT to produce takes place.  The values of the music market don’t map simply onto the cultural capital of performers’ and of audiences’ active investment in music.  What if a performer doesn’t want to make a cover their own? What if they want to be part of the original imagining of the song?

I wanted to think about the values of replicating an emotional attachment to the original artist’s recording by singing it in a new context and what light a historical approach might shed on the contested value of the cover version.  Two historical concepts sprung to mind; the first was the idea of the cultural circuit, that there is an active process to the way in which we fit our own experiences into the way in which we see ourselves represented in popular culture.  Secondly was the historical specificity of the idea of a cover version itself.

Al Thomson’s work on Anzac veterans used the idea of the ‘cultural circuit’ to explain how the oral history interviews he conducted in the 1980s with those who had fought in Gallipolli ended up with the interviewees describing scenes from the 1981 film Gallipoli, rather than giving voice to their own stories of their own experiences.[5]  He argued that the big public story as put together in the film, validated certain stories which Thomson’s interviewees then slipped around their own experiences.  They found a way of speaking for themselves by rehearsing the narrative that was already public.  Similarly, the young women involved in the project were not just active consumers and reproducers of cover versions, they were part of a conversation between the past and present.  Thomson’s cultural circuit could also suggest that when they were mapping their own song singing experiences into the song writer’s experience.  When the young women in the project attached themselves to an already established song, they found a space for their own experiences within an authorised musical narrative.

Furthermore, our idea of the cover version as inferior to singer/song-writing is historically specific, but it is also political. During the 1950s, according to George Plasketes, for example the cover version was shot through with the politics of race.  ‘It was [he wrote in 2005] beg, borrow and steals, as prejudice, plagiarism and [underpinned…] the widespread practice of covering songs. Whilst white artists Elvis, Pat Boone and Bill Haley produced an “appropriate sound” for segregated American by reproducing black artist’s sounds and styles.[6]   In Sixties Britain, Cilla Black was a young white female singer with a back story of Liverpudlian authenticity that traced her to the Beatles and the Cavern Club. Cilla Black’s cover of Dionne Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ was so close to the original that Warwick famously said ‘I honestly believe that if I’d sneezed on my next record, then Cilla would have sneezed on hers too.’.   (Forty years later, Warwick recognised that the producer, the star maker, Brian Epstein was the one who she should have blamed.[7])  In the late 1970s a group of left wing activists who called themselves Rock Against Racism, wrote an open letter to Eric Clapton, calling him out for making anti immigration statements whilst simultaneously making a fortune covering Bob Marley songs and emulating black musician’s style. (‘Who shot the Sherriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!)

Plasketes situates the cover version as we now recognise it, in the Eighties.  ‘Since the 1980s, ‘‘Re’’ has been the predominant cultural mode. This condition is an endless lifestyle loop of repeating, retrieving, rewinding, recycling, reciting, redesigning and reprocessing’.[8]  Cover versions were easy (and cheap if you owned the rights) products to be churned out by pop factories to fill new satellite music channels and deregulated radio broadcasters. I would challenge the idea that the cover version is rooted in the Eighties. The idea that artists should produce their own work, rather than utilise their own musical talent to translate the song in their own way, is itself historically specific.  Brian Ferry blames Bob Dylan. But something does happen to the cover version in the Eighties.  The growth of new media platforms, editing techniques, affordable technology, the hang over of a DIY Post punk subcultural ethos,  and a group of cultural studies academics waiting to apply their new toy, post-modernism, to cultural production and consumption, gave new meanings to the process of re-use. So the Eighties doesn’t invent the cover band – but it certainly makes it worth thinking about.

These young women’s preference for re-enacting rather than producing music is much closer to my own historical approach than I had first thought – although I do love a good cover band.  My all time favourite is the seven piece tribute band ShoMaddyMaddy who perform two split sets, one as Showaddywaddy and one as Madness – it makes perfect sense.  I also feel ever so slightly guilty that I once convinced one of my favourite little boys that we were watching the real Lady Gaga in the back bar of a holiday camp in Cornwall.

But during the project I realised that the cover version also spoke to me as a historian. The tension between the cover and the original gets to the heart of debates over what History is for, or in National Curriculum terms what History is ‘good history’.  Is History a discipline with the goal of uncovering what happened in the past, excavating the data, piecing it together, producing a narrative? Or is it about finding an echo of ourselves in the past, or analysing the processes through which it has been produced?  What is so special about writing the original? Or being the first one to get your hands on a source, or the first to uncover some hitherto lost voice? In the most romanticised imagining of the historian, he, or she, is the explorer of a lost world,  uncovering forgotten artefacts through which to produce new historical knowledge.  Although that does sound pretty exciting, it isn’t really how I’ve ever worked.  I am much less interested in creating history through re-using evidence.  For me, historical meaning isn’t produced in the genesis moment of production alone, but in the dissemination, consumption and memory of a cultural artefact.  Singing someone else’s songs, like re-using someone else’s interviews, is therefore a way of having a conversation with the past, that keeps track of how it has been valued and maintained over time.

So what is the difference between historical analysis and a ‘cover’? The lesson of the Sexology and Song-writing project for me was to put my historical methods into practice.  I have no problem re-analysing someone else’s sources, so why shouldn’t they want to sing someone else’s song?  In fact, let’s go one step further, and take up their lead, exploring re-enactment, collectively but in our own voices.

[1] http://consequenceofsound.net/2014/05/10-famous-instances-of-alleged-music-plagiarism/full-post/

[2] Hill, A. (2002). “Big Brother: The Real Audience.” Television & New Media 3(3): 323-340.

[3] Cusic, Don, ‘In Defense of Cover Songs: Commerce and Credibility’, in Plasketes, G. (ed). Play it again: cover songs in popular music, ‘Ashgate. (2001) p236

[4] Cusic, Don, ‘In Defense of Cover Songs: Commerce and Credibility’, in Plasketes, G. (ed). Play it again: cover songs in popular music, ‘Ashgate. (2001) p223

[5] Thomson, A Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend, Melbourne, OUP, 1994

[6] Plasketes, G. (2005). “Re‐flections on the Cover Age: A Collage of Continuous Coverage in Popular Music.” Popular Music and Society 28(2): 145

[7] McMormick, Neil ‘Dionne Warwick: ‘I’m reaching out for something new’, The Telegraph, 15/03/15

[8] Plasketes, G. (2005). “Re‐flections on the Cover Age: A Collage of Continuous Coverage in Popular Music.” Popular Music and Society 28(2): 132

Yours is ours: sex, song-writing and research


On the 7th January our Brighton based ‘sex and song-writing’ group met up after the Christmas break. We chatted for about half an hour, catching up on Christmas, new years eve parties and the new wave of pressures at school and college as mock exams and coursework deadlines loomed. The group felt relaxed and lively – free from any ‘January blues’ or the tense awkwardness of the early weeks last Autumn.


Towards the end of last term we seemed to have found a rhythm for the sessions, divided into four uneven chunks of time.

Chunk 1: The musician set up the equipment as the researcher and youth worker get out the food and drinks and chat to the girls about their weeks. The late comers arrive and youth worker Jo has the chance to have a 1-2-1 with any of the girls who might need one.

Chunk 2: We stand reluctantly in a circle, with several of the girls complaining of being too tired to stand and the musicians reminding us all of how important it is to use all of our bodies when we sing. We warm up, making strange sounds with our voices and shapes with our mouths. We shake out our bodies and then we start to sing. Usually a round. By now we can divide into 2, 3 or 4 groups and as long as the strong singers are evenly distributed we can hold 4 parts. Everyone always sings together – including the researchers, youth worker and musicians. Often a few of the girls drift away, staring at their phones, their lips barely moving. Sometimes they join in again after a while, other weeks they remain quiet.

Chunk 3: We divide into two groups. Musician Marina works with those in the group who are learning instruments and with one of the young women who is particularly interested in song-writing. We practice and rehearse our new song ‘Wild but Tamed’ each week until one D. brings a new song that she wrote on the way home from the group, noting down lyrics on her iphone and staying up late playing her guitar. This is a song about bad sex. ‘I was really getting down to it / whilst you were slowing down / and the last thing you should say is / is how your girlfriend’s out of town.’ In the other group, Musician Zoe works with those young women interested in singing. They take turns to choose a song that they like and they learn to sing it together, with some feeling more or less confident about singing solo in front of the others. Researcher Rachel Thomson described this process in her last blog, written last December.

Chunk 4: The two groups come back together and, if there is still time, each group performs for each other.


On the first week back after Christmas, we reminded the young women that we have 6 weeks to go until we perform at the Roundhouse, alongside the five other research/song-writing hubs from around the UK. When we went round and asked the girls individually if they wanted to perform, they all, confidently said yes. We turned then to the question of which songs we were going to perform and to the question we had continually wrestled with as to whether or not the young women would be able to perform covers of existing songs. One young woman in particular remained resistant to the idea of writing new material or to performing new material written by others.

Originally, the group was set up as a researching-song-writing-performing girls group. Before we started I imagined that the young women would do research about sex and relationships, use this experience to write their own songs and then perform these songs at the Roundhouse as original contributions to music and knowledge. As we have worked with the young women however, our research and performance aims and objects have been tempered by our desire to create a relaxed and supportive environment within which everyone can engage and explore their own interests and strengthens. These more participatory aims have meant there has been much less research and much less song-writing than I originally imagined and a lot more time spent being together as group, talking, bonding and singing together.

On the first week back after Christmas we agreed to continue working in parallel groups. In one we would continue writing and developing original material based on research about ‘good sex’ and in the other we would experiment with re-working, sampling and adapting existing songs. In the latter group we chose Ella Henderson’s Yours, a favourite of one group member that we had sung in previous weeks. As we learnt the song and wrote down the lyrics, we noted a parallel between the process of described in the song and the journey that the group was going through – a process of going from feeling uncertain and ‘afraid of the words’ to feeling confident enough to ‘un-tame my mouth’ and let the words ‘burst’ out. In Henderson’s version it is love that makes her feel strong and powerful, in our version it is ourselves – the group and the process we are engaged in.

We brainstormed words that described how the young women had felt in the early weeks (anxious, nervous, awkward) and compared this to how they felt now (relaxed, confident). We used these emotions to adapt Henderson’s lyrics and start to write a song about us and the journey we were half way through.


The following week we continued to work on this song as a whole group, working out the chords and picking out new harmonies led by musician Zoe. The girls joined in, developing new ideas parts they could sing and making suggestions for how to end the song. This was a new format for us, developing new material as a whole group and singing different parts together. It sounded beautiful and as I watched the group sing, one girl with her head back, I felt moved. This week the group seemed heavy. Several of the girls had been having a tough time and were tired, down or preoccupied. When I congratulated one of them for coming to the group – considering everything else that was going on – she said that coming to the group was time out – a relaxing space to forget about all the stress and everything else that was going on. Watching, listening and being there that week – I agreed.

Towards the end of the session, one of the group asked if we could do some last minute song-writing. Out came the box of ‘data’ and we looked at excerpts from interview transcripts about first sex. Words from the extract jumped out for song-writer D. ‘I did, I did, I did’. A 16 year old young women’s exclamation as she tried to make sense of whether or not she enjoyed her first sexual experience or not. Unable to find an empty room in the youth centre, we huddled in the hallway, musician Zoe, young song-writer D and me the researcher, scribbling phrases on to flip-chart paper. Then Zoe and D started to sing and the phrases became lyrics to be worked into a new song. More next time.


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.

Wild but tamed

As musicians Zoe and Marina were setting up the equipment last week we realized that the plain black wall on one side of the room is designed as a chalk board; moments later we set about covering it with graffiti, trying to come up with a symbol or image to represent our ‘sex and songs’ group.

photo 1

Quarter of an hour later we started, a large group of 11 women passing round a microphone that amplified, recorded and looped our voices. For me its strange how intimidating it can be to speak or sing into the microphone – I would happily stand up and present or lecture to hundreds of people, but I find it hard to think of a sound, note or word to say in that small, safe space. Maybe it’s because I know what’s expected of me when I stand up in a lecture theatre, but not in the unfamiliar territory of the sex and songs group. I wonder if the young women feel the same because despite several of them being confident enough to stand on a stage and belt out a song beautifully, most of them pass the microphone or mutter the odd word.

photo 2

This week we divided into three groups: those who wanted to sing, those who wanted to write and those who wanted to learn instruments. I was with the song-writers – to young women interested in writing poetry and / or songs. It felt more manageable in such a small group – earlier the group had felt unwieldy – hard to contain and keep focused in one space. The door kept opening and shutting and the phones kept coming out as some of the women disengaged.

In our mini-group of three we WROTE OUR FIRST SONG!! Not only that, but it was a song about sex, based on research, using a method that researchers might describe as ‘reanimating data’. It went like this:

The three of us each took a print out of survey data from a survey I conducted in 2010 with young people aged 16-25. For one month I visited colleges, sexual health clinics, youth clubs and universities and asked young people to fill in my questionnaire. The first section asked young people about themselves (age, gender, have you ever had sex etc) and the second asked about their sexual values and attitudes. They were asked to complete the statement: ‘good sex is….’ Filling in the blank with their own view of what sex is, or should be like. I received over 200 responses to this question and printed each of them out: a list of words, phrases and exclamations.

The three of us read through the list highlighting words that we particularly liked, phrases that jumped out at us. Then we threw down our favourites – Jamie Oliver style – on to some flipchart and a song began to take place….‘Fun fun fun, wild but tamed.’ One of the young women was quick to hear the song in her head, describing it as sounding like The Runways, Cheery Bomb. She played around with some guitar chords and a melody, her co-writer produced another verse and in the same room Marina taught another young women how to accompany her on the guitar.

One of us pulled up dumbot.com on the laptop to get a drum beat going and 10 minutes later we had a short, punky song. Wild but tamed. A series of short, punchy verses about ‘good sex’. Upstairs we performed to the rest of the group. There was still some shyness about using our voices and singing into the microphone but the girls thrashed it out….. ‘Fun, fun, fun. Wild but tamed.’

The Road to the Roundhouse


I arrived at Brighton Youth Centre on Wednesday night and announced to staff that I was here for the sex / song-writing / research / music / youth project. After a few moments of blank faces we figured it out and I was shown to a small cosy room upstairs. The confusion of what to call the project and how to identify what it had been labelled in the youth centre diary is telling of the diverse aims of this project:

  • To support the young people to understand current sex research
  •  To develop song writing and performance skills and an understanding of sex in popular music 
  •  To produce and perform in local venues and at a showcase event in London 

In planning the session our main concern was that the young women would turn up – for me a very familiar anxiety shared amoung researchers and practitioners. The worry that no matter how much planning and encouraging you do and how warm and supportive you are, you will be sitting in an empty room staring at your instruments and resources.

A key strength of our project however is that it involves not only musicians and researchers but youth practitioner Jo Bates who has worked in Brighton for years, building relationships with young women and practitioners in the local area. This means we are not starting from scratch.


6 young women came along this week – 5 returnees and 1 new participant. We started in a circle of ten women, stretching our bodies, relaxing our muscles, learning a four line melody and singing together. The atmosphere was relaxed and silly – laughing at how much taller I am then everyone else in the room and at what the staff in the office downstairs might think when they hear the almighty collective sigh from the ‘sex’ project upstairs.

We had agreed that the focus of today would be on singing and music – nothing on research and not much on sex. There was a brief chat together, going over the aims of the project and announcing (with a drum roll) that the group has a chance to perform at the Camden roundhouse on 17th February and to record a track that might be included in the Wellcome’s Institute of Sexology exhibition by 29th January. This was the ‘big news’ that youth practitioner Jo Bates had told the girls she was going to announce – the hook we hoped we keep the girls engaged and the end goal for our project.

We were in a small room with what felt like chaos all around us. The youth club was open for business and some of the young men using the building kept flinging open the door, calling out to the young women in the group, kicking over a bin and making loud noises as the ran off up and downstairs. As the drama downstairs unfolded, one of the group was drawn in to a performance that was perhaps more enticing than our own.


Upstairs we sang Lily Allen’s Smile and learnt Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Aloud. We tried I’m yours by Jason Mraz and listened to Ben Howard’s Keep your head up only to find that they were too hard and not known by most of the group. Most of the group love to sing and want to do nothing else. A few want to learn instruments – in particular the guitar, ukelele and keyboards. When research or song-writing are mentioned there are a few wrinkled noses or blank faces as the phones come out and snap chat becomes more interesting again.

As we searched on our laptops laptops for lyrics and guitar tabs, learnt new ukulele, guitar and piano chords and chatted in pairs  the symmetry of the group circle started to unravel. We lost our group focus and it became harder to sing together, to listen and to learn anything new. We noted down songs to learn for next week and learnt about the need for shorter, more focused activities.

Musician Marina brought us back together in a circle as we each made sounds on a different instrument. First gently and calmly and then as loud as we could. We ended enthused and engaged – no closer to writing original material or producing a song about research/sex/social change but a step closer to creating a space in which it might be possible to take the risks with our voices, instruments and ideas – the risks that will get our tracks written and recorded and that will get us to the Roundhouse in February 2015.


Sexology and Songwriting

Centre for Innovation & Research in Childhood and Youth

By Lucy Robinson

I’ve been involved in the Brighton Hub of ‘Sexology and Songwriting’, a collaborative project that brings together academic researchers with songwriters and young people. The workshops are part of the Wellcome Collection’s current sexology exhibition and are inspired by the findings from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL III).   The aim of the project is for the young people involved to become active researchers and song-writers, disseminating their research in the form of their own songs to be performed at Brighton’s Dome and potentially included in a recorded form at the Sexology exhibition in February 2015.

BYCThe different people involved in the Brighton Hub represent all the different elements of the project, academic researchers (myself, Prof Rachel Thomson and Ester Mcgeeney), musicians (Marina and Zoe who are associated with Rhythmix) and youth worker Joe from Safety Net. To some degree we also…

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