Hearing History through the Sounds of Sesame Street

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Kathryn A. Ostrofsky received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania. Her book manuscript, entitled Sounding It Out: Crafting American Culture in Sound through Sesame Street, is under contract with the University of California Press. She is an Instructor of History at Angelo State University where she has taught U.S. history, film history, and global history of media & communications, and has lectured for rock ‘n’ roll history.

Could you briefly describe your project?

I use the sounds of Sesame Street, a children’s television program now in its 46th season, to examine broader themes in twentieth century U.S. cultural history. In its planning phases starting in 1967 through its early seasons beginning with its 1969 premier, Sesame Street’s creators conceptualized it as part of the Great Society, a mass-media version of Head Start that would experiment with how to address poverty and racism through universal preschool education. Its producers, performers, and researchers drew upon their previous experiences of using sound in advertising, social science, and political activism, and applied those techniques to a new audience. Throughout the 1970s, minority activists from Sesame Street’s audience and from its own staff contested the meanings audiences might take from the program’s use of music and spoken language to represent racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities. Sesame Street “sounded out” the 1970s, using sound to construct a fictional ideal neighborhood and serving as a site for debate and a vehicle for experimentation about what that ideal should be. The resulting evolutions in the structure and aesthetics of the program reveal changes in the cultural politics of race and class that forged a new media climate, shifted the nation’s underlying values about education and the arts, and altered Americans’ concepts of community identity and public service.

What led you to this topic?

Home sick from class one day, I did what I used to do as a child in the same circumstances: watch Sesame Street. I had a reaction that I think is familiar to many historians approaching their hobbies or entertainment. Suddenly, I could not help but analyze the program historically. It seemed to reflect so much change in music, cultural politics, and media representations of race, that I wanted to read about it. Nobody had written about the topics that interested me, so I began conducting primary research. Most scholars seem to do this later in their careers (like Jill Lepore on Wonder Woman, or Sean Wilentz on Bob Dylan), and many a skeptical professor suggested it might make a good second book, but did I really want to define myself professionally as a scholar of Sesame Street? Yes, I do, because themes fundamental to twentieth century U.S. history yet often studied separately—race, mass media, social science, commercialism, childhood—all intersect on Sesame Street.

One can imagine that there are a number of ways to approach Sesame Street as a historical artifact. What contributed to your decision to place the aural at the center of your analysis?

I was drawn to Sesame Street as one place in which old music remained well-known, reached new audiences, or became reinvented and imbued with new meanings. Much music history focuses on styles and songs at the time they were new or at the height of their popularity, but most of the music heard and known at any given time is old. Repetition breeds familiarity, which allows for participation. That is how a pop song becomes a hit, how an ad sells a product, how children learn, how social movements gain strength, and how public celebrations become community rituals. Sesame Street tied all that together, so I explored how its staff used and discussed familiarity and participation. This allowed me to think more broadly about how musical form and style can reveal the histories of culture, commerce, politics, and identity.

What particular sources proved the most useful in your work? Did you draw on other disciplines’ methodologies in your “reading” of an aural archive? If so, how?

My work combines three major types of sources: close textual analysis of hundreds of hours of video and audio recordings (treating sound as a historical source); archival documents, including Sesame Street’s production, research, and public relations records, that preserved the discourse surrounding the meanings and uses of sound (treating sound as a historical subject); and my interviews with Sesame Street’s performance, production, and research personnel, who have shared insights on their careers and on Sesame Street’s contributions to American culture.

I engage with a lot of scholarship from other disciplines. Some, especially psychology and communications, became primary source material as I traced Sesame Street creators’ assumptions about and contributions to changing theories of media and cognitive development. I drew upon scholarship from critical disciplines including musicology, literature, and television studies, for their discussions of form and style. Scholars in critical disciplines often think of history as background for deeper understanding of texts; I flip this around—I use their work on how people imbued texts with meaning as context for how my historical subjects discussed and employed sound in pursuit of cultural, social, and political goals. Sometimes people assume this means I am not an historian, but “reading” sound is quintessentially historical. Historians always look for new sources, then analyze whatever sources we find according to our methods, standards of evidence, and understanding of context. For an eloquent demonstration of this, see Greg Goodale’s Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age (2011). I am part of a small but growing contingent of historians who “read” sound because it opens up a whole new source base that will make us reevaluate our understandings of history.

What advice would you offer to others beginning or working on dissertations?

Read, listen, and teach outside of your area of specialization. Resist the urge to focus too narrowly and the fear that without knowing everything about your subfield you will fail to construct an original dissertation argument. The opposite is the case: you can’t think outside the box if you’ve kept your training so narrow that you don’t understand what defines your box. My most formative experiences as a student were taking classes in non-U.S. and Early Modern history and attending interdisciplinary seminars. Ultimately, engaging widely contributes to your specialization—you never know where you will notice a parallel or a puzzle that will make you think differently about your own research.

What might someone outside of your field take from your dissertation?

The behind-the-scenes documentation gives historians of marginalized groups new insights into how African Americans, Latin@s, and others contested media representations both inside and outside organized movements. By reconstructing the historical narrative of Sesame Street’s research questions, assumptions, and conclusions, my work may help education scholars contextualize the relationships that informal education and acculturation have to formal schooling. By focusing on a program produced for children but watched, loved, shaped, and critiqued by adults, my work demonstrates the centrality of children’s culture to American mainstream popular culture experiences. To the interdisciplinary field of sound studies, I model how to use the cultural politics of media to integrate the study of music with that of voice and spoken language.

Most Americans are somewhat familiar with Sesame Street, and many have nostalgic memories, but few are aware of the program’s social science underpinnings and political context. Thus, a behind-the-scenes look at Sesame Street will make the familiar strange, and may help connect a reader’s own cultural experiences to broader historical trends.

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1 Comment

  1. Fritz Bernazzi on

    Wonderful blog title. My kids are watching sesame street RIGHT NOW! I love it. I was doing research on woman who have impacted society as a whole. Somehow this site came up and the Title just lured me in. Great read though. Thought I’d share a crazy story. My mother would have her mary kay consultants come by when I was young, To keep me from interrupting them I’d be glued to Sesame Street. Flash forward now and I found, in my research, a link to the very same woman who made all of that history. Mary Kay Ash. http://marykaytribute.com/HerLife.aspx Life is simply fascinating!

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