A Rebel with a Theory
With sociology as her “lens on life,” Donna Gaines’ music expertise and love of writing illuminate the redemptive properties of popular culture
by Johanna Ebner,
Public Information Office
Donna is a punk rocker. This statement is a reference to a song by the punk rock band the Ramones and an apt description of Donna Gaines. “Edgy, smart, and fast,” describes the music Gaines loves, and it’s a phrase that has been used to describe her.
Gaines, a social worker, sociologist and journalist, and a lifelong devotee of rock music, is a self-described “misfit.” At least that is the way she depicts herself in her most recent publication, A Misfit’s Manifesto: The Spiritual Journey of a Rock & Roll Heart (Villard, 2003), a personal narrative and the sociological memoir of trying to come to terms with a lifetime of marginality, personal alienation, and addiction. In the introduction she says music “has the potential to obliterate pain, transform experience, reinvent meaning, alter feeling states. It can change personal identity and cultural history.” Gaines views music as her saving grace. “Music was the only thing I enjoyed that wouldn’t eventually kill me,” she explains.
“A Misfit’s Manifesto was torture to write because it was my own private truth. I remember crying while writing part one of the book, the part more focused on my own youth, through self-reflection and a narrative of my past,” said Gaines. “I wasn’t born Dr. Gaines. I was born someone that I hated and desperately wanted to break off from. But her discovery of sociology at a community college in 1970 proved thrilling and life altering. “I began to understand myself in a social context, bound by rules, roles and norms. That was liberating.“
Self-exploration, Public Engagement
The Misfit’s Manifesto was a self-exploration about how one is constituted as an individual. “All of my work is from Durkheim,” explained Gaines. “Sociology allowed me to push through when things got too difficult. If I don’t have the courage to examine my own social truth, how can I reflect on others? The personal is the sociological; any of my sufferings are open and out there. If someone else can connect to it, maybe it can liberate them as it liberated me.” Gaines questions how we become who we are meant to be, how identity is formed by popular culture. The book is an ethnomethodology of the self from a structural point of view.
As a self-identified public intellectual, Gaines uses personal experience to demonstrate how sociologists can write for general as well as academic audiences on popular and disciplinary issues. She believes that it is important to be socially engaged. Like many sociologists, she has burned the candles at both ends in order to live up to her mission, writing, teaching, speaking, and advocating for young people. In developing her writings and teachings, she has combined her love of street culture, politics of youth and music with her passion for sociological theory.
Gaines grew up hanging out in Rockaway Beach, Queens (a surf town made famous by the Ramones). “I was born with a sociological imagination,” said Gaines. “It’s the way my brain was wired. I looked at groups and social norms and began to reflect on them. I spent puberty hanging out on street corners and began to notice my neighborhood as being ethnically divided. Rockaway Beach was primarily Jewish and Irish, and they hated each other.” From working as a social worker to appearing on TV talk shows as a heavy-metal expert, Gaines has built her career and life around cultural sociology and rock and roll.
Her mentors range from the punk rock group Ramones to Stanley Aronowitz. Gaines said, “I admire people who have guts and do what they believe in. People like Bennett Berger, Terry Williams, and Paul DiMaggio are accessible authors who write with passion. Of course I am most inspired by my late mentor Lewis Coser. He introduced me to the masters and encouraged me to do sociology by any means necessary.”
Getting Culture at ASA
Gaines has written for Rolling Stone, Ms., the Village Voice, Spin, Newsday, and Salon. Her published work has appeared in various types of publications, from underground fanzines to professional journals (i.e., Contemporary Sociology) and textbooks. Her subjects have included music, tattoos, suburbia, youth, gendered culture, intergenerational love, and spirituality. She earned her MA and PhD in sociology from the State University of New York-Stony Brook where Coser was her dissertation Chair. She has also taught at New School University and Barnard College of Columbia University.
With support from Carla Howery, Lewis Coser, and then-president Kai Erikson, Gaines organized the ASA Section on Culture as a graduate student in the mid-1980s. She went to the ASA meeting in Washington, DC, with purple hair, a black leather jacket, and a petition. Her motivation was both structural and personal.
“In the 1980s, before Cultural Studies exploded, departments of sociology would not fund us to travel to give papers anywhere except the ASA, so founding the section was essentially a scam to get funding to give papers such as ‘Star Trek and the Ethics of Technology’ or ‘Youth Fanzines and Social Movements,’ somewhere,” said Gaines. “The personal motivation was to carve out a place for myself in mainstream sociology. Through the section, I met some amazing people—Aronowitz, DiMaggio, etc.—and my mission was accomplished. I found a place for myself in the discipline, a voice, and an arena.”
In Gaines’ first book, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids (Pantheon Books, 1991), she used sociology to explain the suicides of four teenagers. She provided a portrait of “rock and roll kids” and an analysis of their interests in heavy metal music and Satanism. This was a poorly understood world with compelling questions about what society might do to help this alienated group of young people. The book was also her dissertation.
These were suburban kids who listened to heavy metal so it seemed perfect for a punk rock, youth-oriented sociologist who had studied Durkheim and knew her rock and roll. “Teenage Wasteland was an emotional component from my own history,” said Gaines. “I was sensitive to youth being labeled. The Village Voice contacted me when the suicide pact occurred because they wanted someone who understood suicide, youth, suburbia, and metal music. At first I wanted to go there, to Bergenfield, and say, ‘Please, don’t do this,’ but you can’t walk up and say that to people who don’t know you. So I hit the street to examine them in context and I asked, ‘Who are these kids?’’
Her next book (HarperCollins, 2006) is a work of young adult fiction, addressing critical issues, such as faith, addiction, domestic violence, and family. “I’m a writer that loves sociology. Sociology opened my eyes and my heart; it explains the world to me, everyday.”
You can visit Gaines’ website at www.donnagaines.com.