This study aims to show that sexism exists in all facets of society by exposing its existence in the widely unexpected area of country music. Within sociology, much work has been done on sexism in the popular musical genres of rock and rap, but little attention has been given to country music. The focus of this study is an area of society where sexism is often thought to be less salient. In order to do this I will use a perspective developed from sociological perspectives on culture, gender, and music, and look at popular country songs for sexist lyrics. Using a series of indicators for sexism in music lyrics, I analyzed popular country songs in the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The study finds that many sexist themes exist, including depicting women in traditional gender roles, describing relationships with women in unrealistic ways, and attributing a woman’s worth strictly on the basis of her physical appearance.
This study involves an examination of sexist ideologies in country lyrics that portray women in a stereotypical and negative manner. The particular kind of music explored in the study is country music, a popular genre in American culture today. Theoretically, my analysis is based on perspectives from the sociology of culture, including the sociology of music, and the sociology of gender. In the sociology of culture and music, a great deal of research has been done about how pop and rock music portray femininity and what it means to be a woman. However, relatively little work has been done about how the lyrics of artists communicate certain aspects of gender. Country music is an area where sexism would be unexpected because it is viewed as wholesome by American society, especially when compared to other genres of music. Country music is often labeled conservative, which is what makes it seem innocent and wholesome. This analysis thus precedes to offer a strong test of sexism in society as it focuses on a kind of popular music that is generally least thought of to portray sexism.
This research is situated in the sociology of culture and music and the sociology of gender. Within the sociology of culture, the sociology of music is of special relevance because music is considered a type of art that reflects certain customs and beliefs of the society within which it is produced. The sociology of gender will be the specific thematic lens used to do an in-depth analysis of each selected song. A brief review of these subfields of sociology will clarify the framework of the present study.
Sociology of Culture and Music
The sociology of culture is a well-established area of study. Culture can have many meanings, but it typically refers to the values or beliefs that are unique to an individual society (Bharadwaj 2007: 131). Originally, anthropologists studied culture, and their definition of culture included everything that was not part of the natural, physical world. Sociology does not use culture as such a broad concept, but rather, as one dimension within a society, next to politics, economy, and other non-cultural social aspects (Deflem 2008). Within culture in general, popular culture in particulr is defined as anything that is consumed by large audiences of people within a society with the purpose of entertainment (Finkelstein and Langer 2007). Various forms of popular music are situated within the broader field of popular culture.
The sociology of music is approached from a cultural perspective, meaning sociologists study “issues dealing with subcultures, reproduction of inequality, globalization, identity formation, and social movements” (Dowd 2007: 250). One area of interest for the sociology of music is the organization of music and its mass production in the market (Dowd 2007: 252). This raises the question of what makes for popular music and why. It is also important to study the distribution of songs once they are made and how artists, labels, and producers actually earn money.
A lot of work in this area is applied specifically to certain musical genres and their differing themes (Dowd 2007: 253). Specific genres of music have subcultures that coexist with the music, which leads to another area of study. The role that subcultures play in music can be very profound. The subculture for a genre of music can be studied and used to make generalizations about the music without ever actually looking at what the content of the music actually implies. An example of this would be looking at how fans of heavy metal music dress and act and then assuming the music is sexist because most of the fans seem to be very aggressive males (Dowd 2007: 258).
Sociologists of music have generally not paid due attention to the lyrical content of music (Dowd 2007: 254). It is important to study the lyrical content of music, because without knowing the content in great detail, one cannot assume the response to the music. The lyrical content of a song is as equally important as the response to the song because the lyrics themselves could directly or indirectly influence the response. The specific words chosen for a song are not simply random. They were made by a deliberate choice by songwriters, who, like producers have the ultimate goal of earning money. Lyrical content must be studied in the same systematic manner applied to analyzing the instrumental parts of music. Sociologist Dowd hopes that more research can be done on musical content in the future perhaps to make better analysis of genres (2007: 260).
Sociology of Gender
The sociology of gender is very well established field of study. The sociology of gender looks to explain the social phenomena where members of a society define and perform roles around the dichotomy of masculine and feminine. Sociologists of gender study both gender roles as well as sex roles (Sydie 2007: 247). Gender roles are roles that are acted out to portray masculine or feminine qualities, based on what the actor chooses to portray. Sex roles are the roles that actors are born into based on their biological sex, and based on how a specific society expects a male or female to behave. Some would argue that members in society tend to use gender roles to perpetuate the idea that men and women are extremely different. If people are often confronted by the media and told throughout daily life that the sexes are so different, then it is easy to believe that the differences are real and lead to inevitable inequality. Feminist theory argues this inevitable inequality to occur every time women assume their role below men.
The sociology of gender confronts this notion of a predestined dichotomy and questions media practices that make such differences seem natural or permanent (Sydie 2007: 247). Feminists work to show that biological differences between humans do not make assuming these roles acceptable to subordinate minorities of the population in society (Sydie 2007: 248). Gender ideology is an important area of sociology of gender because it looks at how both men and women construct their reality and identity based on beliefs that are reproduced in the media. These beliefs can justify gender status roles and the natural level of inequality that occurs within society (Kroska 2007: 1867). Gender ideology is also relevant in the sociology of culture because it can be studied in the same manner as the racial hierarchy has in the last century (Bharadwaj 2007: 139).
The observations made by feminist scholars relating to the inequality that women face in modern society can be applied to the music industry when considering that it seems to be that sexist music makes the industry large amounts of money. Therefore, male artists are making money off of the exploitation of women. Research much be done to understand how and why there is sexism within the music industry.
Relevance for the Present Study
The topic of women in popular culture is important for sociologists today because women are still far from achieving equality with men socially, economically, and politically. Music permeates all areas of modern society and affects many millions of people. The music industry is tightly woven throughout many facets of the media. From commercials to news articles, music is part of everybody’s daily life. What is sociologically fascinating about popular music is that messages coming from artists through their lyrics can affect behavior, even though people listening to music may not be aware that sexist ideologies exist in the lyrics they are hearing. Fans of popular music may say they listen to music for the beat and other aspects of the sound, but often, they may be listening because the music affirms long held beliefs that they have about culture. Music listeners are registering the words of musical lyrics in their minds, even when they might not realize doing so. If the words of the songs are registering at all, then they need to be analyzed to see what messages are being portrayed to the listener. With music being so pervasive throughout society today, sociologists must investigate the relationship between music and society’s values and customs, and how music might affect people’s behavior. Sociology therefore also needs to study the imagery of women in popular music, especially when it could have an impact on the way that society views a majority of the population (women).
In order to deeply analyze musical content and lyrics, one must identify what is sexist, why it is sexist, and what implications can be drawn from the overarching themes produced from the music. A perspective meshing feminist theory and cultural theory is able to achieve this. Socialization occurs every day in every social institution. If sexism is part of socialization, sexism needs to be studied.
It is important that researchers look at the actual content of music itself to make inferences about specific genres of music. While one might also study the reactions that people have to specific genres, until one has a full understanding of the lyrical content, one cannot have sociological understanding of a genre of music, for it is the lyrics themselves that are the true heart of the music. As one attempts to study lyrical content, one must be mindful of the issue of gender in music, as themes of sexism and gender stereotyping are prevalent throughout society and in popular culture. Clear and precise themes of sexism need to be drawn out based on specific phrases in each song. Once themes of sexism are identified, one can see what implications are made about women. Most importantly, once these themes are identified, one can begin to see beyond the explicit sexism that is obvious in lyrical content and delve into the implicit sexism that might be even more damaging to both men and women in society.
Some would argue that sexism will exist in most facets of the media, including music. Based on that, I expect to find sexism in country music, even though it would be unexpected. In order for a song to be considered sexist in this study it will have to make reference to women in a way that generalizes, stereotypes, degrades, demoralizes, objectifies, or threatens physical or sexual harm. Some of the themes that arise could be very arguably sexist. This means that some scholars would argue that a statement is sexist and other scholars would disagree. In order to achieve thoroughness, I will explore any statement that could be considered sexist by scholars, even if most might disagree.
The song selection in this paper was made by consulting Billboard.com. Billboard selects songs based on a number of factors, including album sales, downloads, radio airplay, touring sales, and plays on social media sites. First, songs were selected based on their peak on the Hot 100 Billboard chart. If more than one song tied at the same peak position, the number of weeks on the chart was used. After the songs were ranked based on these criteria, lyrics were analyzed to find any reference to women. The top-ranked song that referenced women at all was used. Songs that featured a female artist on the track were excluded. If an artist did not have songs on the Hot 100 Billboard chart, then the Billboard album charts were used. After identifying the most popular album on Billboard, the most downloaded song on iTunes on that album mentioning women was used. The complete list of selected songs is included in the Appendix.
Focusing on musical content, the song lyrics are examined to see how they imply gender differences and sexism in any of the following ways:
– by depicting women in traditional gender roles (for example, “I kept her barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen”);
– by using (slang) words that portray women as inferior (for example, “Those bitches bow down to me”);
– by implying that a woman’s worth is determined by her appearance (for example, “I loved her because she was beautiful”);
– by the use of female pronouns when referring to objects or ideas (for example, “My car is so awesome; she is one sweet ride”);
– by portraying women as a group with negative stereotypes (for example, “All women are conniving”);
– by suggesting that a woman is an object, especially a sexual object (for example, “She had one purpose and that was to please me as my trophy”);
– by referring to women primarily as strippers or other sex workers (for example, “All the women in my life work the pole”);
– by referring to forcing sexual acts on a woman (for example, “If she doesn’t want it, I force her to want it by making her do it anyway”);
– by referring to violence against women in a positive manner (for example, “If she gets out of line all I have to do is slap her back into place”).
On the basis of this approach, the lyrics of the selected songs were taken at face value and analyzed as if anyone could have written them. In this study, the goal was to capture the precise image of women that is portrayed to a first-time or casual listener of the song who knows nothing about the song other than the words that are actually sung. Only male artists portraying females were studied to highlight the theme of sexism. I expect that the findings of my study will show that sexist lyrics are represented in much of popular music in the United States today and, additionally, that such sexism occurs even in unexpected areas like country music.
As expected, many of the country songs had positive messages when analyzed at face value. Many of the songs were about relationships and how much the singer loved his significant other. However, there were also sexist themes present as well, which will be explored in this section. The themes that were positive were also very unrealistic. They depicted “perfect” relationships similar to fairy tales. This could be detrimental to both males and females because it provides unrealistic expectations about relationships. It is also interesting that many country artists had songs about perfect relationships, but also had songs about miserable break ups. The contradiction between songs makes it hard to decipher which is the more dominant message.
The most common theme in the country songs were not sexist. The theme could be described to say the man loves his significant other very much. In this study, thirteen out of twenty songs had this as the theme. A good example of this is Garth Brooks’ 1999 hit “Lost in You.” This song has lines like, “There’s no more waiting, holdin’ out for love…Heaven knows, I’m head over heels and it shows…I’ve played every field, I suppose, But there’s something about you when you’re around…Lost in your wonderful ways, heaven knows.” Another common illustration among songs within this theme was getting married, for example Brad Paisley’s 2007 hit “Then” talks about when he proposed to his girlfriend. He says, “I got down on one knee right there, And once again I thought I loved you then…But now you’re my whole life, now you’re my whole world…And I just can’t believe the way I feel about you girl.” Songs like this really put focus on the actual wedding or engagement itself and not what happens in life after the wedding. This gives it a fairy-tale feeling, without focusing on any of the other important aspects of spending one’s life with someone else.
Another common gender-neutral theme that appeared in country music involved missing one’s significant other if the relationship did not last. This brings a more realistic view of relationships. When a break up song happens in this genre, the majority of songs did not blame the woman for the break up. A few of the songs did, but most of them were like the Rascal Flatts song “What Hurts the Most” of 2006. The main line of this song is, “What hurts the most, Was being so close, And having so much to say, And watchin’ you walk away, And never knowin’ what, Could’ve been, And seein’ that lovin’ you, Is what I was tryin’ to do.” Another song that had a more realistic view on relationships was Travis Tritt’s “Best of Intentions” of 2000. He actually mentions the unrealistic nature of the fairytale fantasy with specific metaphors. For example, he says, “Said I’d give you the world somehow…Never could build you a castle, Even though you’re the queen of my heart, But I’ve had the best of intentions…Now some people think I’m a loser, ‘Cause I seldom get things right, But you make me feel like a winner.” Tritt sings about the expectation that he deliver a fairy tale type relationship, when he does not possess the ability to give the girl of his dreams this wish. He laments the fact that he, apparently, has lost her. This is gender neutral because a male or female could feel this way.
Sometimes, the love being sung about was not for a significant other, but for a mother or daughter. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It ThroughDecember” of 1973 says, “And my little girl don’t understand, Why daddy can’t afford no Christmas here…Heaven knows I’ve been working hard, Wanted Christmas to be right for daddy’s girl.” Alabama’s “Song of the South” of 1988 talks about respecting one’s mother for working hard for her family by saying, “Well momma got sick and daddy got down.”
The next most common theme was depicting women in traditional gender roles and depicting men as stereotypically masculine and women as stereotypically feminine. This theme was present in ten of the twenty songs in this study. Males were depicted as being masculine in multiple songs. Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” of 1982 demonstrated this by saying things like, “I’ve got a shotgun a rifle and a four wheel drive, And a country boy can survive…I can catch a catfish from dusk til dawn…Cause we’s them ole boys raised on shotguns…And we can skin a buck…My Grandpa taught me how to live off the land.” Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” of 2011 says that using a red solo cup makes a man more masculine. He said, “And you, sir, do not have a pair of testicles, If you prefer drinking of glass” which was ironic because later in the song he said, “But I really hate how you’re easy to crack.” This can even be extended to males who get a “feminine” name, as is seen in a song by Johnny Cash.
The Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue” of 1969, tells the story of a man whose entire life revolved around his name. He sang, “Well my daddy left home when I was three…But the meanest thing that he ever did, Was before he left, he went and named me Sue…And it got a lot of laughs from lots of folk, It seems I had to fight my whole life through…Well I grew up quick and I grew up mean…I’d roam from town to town to hide my shame…That I’d search the honky tonks and bars, And kill that man who gave me that awful name…And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name…Bill or George, anything but Sue, I still hate that name.” This song is about a dad who chose to give his son a girl name so that society would “toughen him up” in his father’s absence. He wanted his son to be picked on, so that he would become tough. This relates to the theme of gender roles because the father felt the surest way to cause the son to be an object of ridicule would be to name him a feminine name. By the father’s belief system, women are clearly weak, meaning his son would have to prove his strength by constantly fighting. Clearly, this makes the argument that women, unlike men, are too weak to fight. The “boy named Sue” must fight to prove his manhood.
The popular country song “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams, Sr., of 1951 is a good example of a song that depicts women in a traditional way. The song uses the metaphor of cooking to describe her. It has the lines, “Hey, hey, good lookin’, Whatcha got cookin’?, How’s about cookin’ Somethin’ up with me…Hey, sweet baby, Don’t you think maybe, We could find us, A brand new recipe.” This song uses two references to traditional women’s roles. First of all, it references the female’s appearance, which is indicative that what is most important about a woman is how she looks. Secondly, it asks what she has cooking. This references the traditional gender role of women being in the kitchen, cooking for men. This notion is then turned into a sexual metaphor, when Williams asks if she can cook “something up” with him. Again, a third notion of traditional gender roles is reinforced. The woman must look good, cook, and finally, produce sexual satisfaction for the man.
In a similar manner, Trace Adkins’ song “You’re Gonna Miss This” also depicts women’s milestones in life as very gender specific. The song has the lines, “She was starin’ out the window of their SUV, Complainin’, sayin’ “I can’t wait to turn 18, She said, “I’ll make my own rules”…You’re gonna miss this, You’re gonna want this back, You’re gonna wish these days, Hadn’t gone by so fast…Before she knows it she’s a brand new bride… [She] starts talkin’ about babies and buyin’ a house, Daddy shakes his head and says, “baby, just slow down”…Dogs barkin’, phone’s ringin’, One kid’s cryin’ and one kid’s screamin, And she keeps apologizin’… Huh it’s hard to believe, but you’re gonna miss this.” Adkins implies that the girl’s goals should be, even an 18, family-oriented. She should be thinking about having children. It is surprising that this song does not mention the girl going to college or having a career because today a majority women do want to achieve those goals.
Blake Shelton’s 2011 hit “Honey Bee” has very a specific gender dichotomy that perfectly divides masculine and feminine and male and female. The song is full of lines like, “If you’ll be my soft and sweet, I’ll be your strong and steady…You be my glass of wine, I’ll be your shot of whiskey…You be my honeysuckle, I’ll be your honey bee…You be my little Loretta. I’ll be your Conway Twitty.” This song seems to imply that men are extremely rough, while women are soft and gentle. It provides can give specific expectations on both males and females and could create confusion about what a relationship is really like. In a world in which women have made great strides in the effort to be politically and culturally equal to men in society, one would think these ideas are outdated. Yet, this song is still quite popular in 2011, meaning its implications about gender roles are still prevalent in our society.
Some of the country songs in this study also have the theme of attractive women get/deserve attention more than other women. This theme was in four of the twenty songs. In the 2001 song “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You” by Brooks and Dunn everything the narrator loves about his love interest is listed. For example, he says, “The way you look, the way you laugh, The way you love with all you have…The way you kiss, the way you cry, The way you move when you walk by…I love your attitude, your rose tattoo, Your every thought, your smile, your lips…The way you talk, the way you tease.” While the song does mention mostly physical traits, there is also a disturbing trait. The line, “the way you cry” is disturbing because it one has to wonder why it should please a loved one to see a woman cry. It seemed that everyday things were listed, including this. It is strange that someone would love to see someone they love cry, no matter what caused the crying. Love does not equal pain, and to imply that love is somehow related to pain and hurt might be correlated to an ugly trend in our society – the trend of domestic violence.
The last theme found was in three of the twenty songs in this study. It was that men should try to get sex from women, no matter what the circumstances are. In Kenny Chesney’s 2009 hit “Out Last Night” he goes as far as to say men can even lie if necessary to get sex. His song says, “We went out last night, Like we swore we would not do, Drank too much beer last night, A lot more than we wanted to…Well last night I was everything, When I got a few drinks in me, I was a doctor, a lawyer, a senator’s son, Brad Pitt’s brother and a man on the run, Anything I thought would get the job done…Hitting on everybody and their mother…There were people doing body shots up on the bar…Everybody started loving on each other…Well the fact that I’m still breathing, Means that I must have survived, And that I lived to go out with my friends again tonight.” Once again, there are no consequences when men engage in meaningless sexual escapades. The bar scene equates an open season on hunting women, and the more kills, the better. Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” also goes in the same direction by saying, “But I have to admit the ladies get smitten, Admiring how sharply my first name is written, On you with a sharpie when I get to hittin’, on them to help me get lucky.” The implication here goes beyond women as targets for the bedroom. Women are also portrayed as low in intelligence, easily fooled, and easily convinced to accept the narrator’s sexual advances.
Overall, the country music songs were found to be very conservative. Traditional themes were most common, with content that was reminiscent of fairy tales. Even though many of these songs are old, they are still very popular today. It shows that the messages in country music have not really changed all that much over the last forty or fifty years. It is a different genre when compared to the other four genres studied. Most people would assume that country is less sexist or has the least detrimental type of sexism within its lyrical content. However, one might also argue that it is more dangerous when sexism is buried within the lyrics. People might think this is “quality” music on the surface and really take the lyrics seriously. The idea that this is wholesome music is really what makes it necessary to study the underlying sexism that exists within it.
In conclusion, country music did have sexist themes. Therefore, sexism exists in an area where it is unexpected. This provides evidence that sexism permeates areas that are thought to be wholesome. There are limitations to this study. The analysis was based almost solely on songs selected from Billboard chart ratings. In order to get a better representation of each artist’s specific themes about women, their whole body of work would need to be studied, not just one song. It could also be that while some artists had one very popular positive song about women, they may have several other songs that are not as popular but that are extremely negative about women. One limitation of this study is that only twenty songs were used, and an analysis more than twenty songs could have been studied per genre so that more representation would have been present. Additionally, a similar study could be done on female artists who portray males. A comparison between the two studies might show a lot of similarities, especially in songs about relationships. If female artists depict males at fault for failed relationships, it would show that it is just a matter of blaming the other person and possibly not based on gender.
But given its limitations, this study can nonetheless be a gateway for future research. It would be very interesting, for example, to study the most popular songs of 2012 and compare all the themes of gender from each genre to show the most contemporary relevant themes in popular music. It would also be interesting to study songs by decade and see how the themes about women have changed over time. Such a study could be especially interesting if it incorporated artists that have maintained their popularity over multiple decades and continue to make music today. How would their themes change over time, if they changed at all?
The study I would like to do most in the future would be to analyze how fans of specific popular music genres interpret lyrics from all genres, including their own, and conduct a comparison between male and female fans. I think this would provide the most telling results on how the fans of various genres of music view their style of music when compared with others. This could also show how people who have not been trained in feminist theory may recognize the value of the focus of this study.
About the Author
Salem, South Carolina
Graduated Magna Cum Laude from University of South Carolina in 2012with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies
Currently working on MA at University of South Carolina in sociology
I would like to thank my committee members, Dr. Mathieu Deflem, Dr. Shelley Smith, and Dr. Brent Simpson, for their time, their patience, and their feedback during my work on this project. Without their direction and patience, it would have been impossible for me, as an undergraduate unfamiliar with the research process, to take on such a large task and see it through to completion. I am truly grateful for the willingness of Dr. Mathieu Deflem to serve as my mentor and chair. Without his guidance this work would not be possible.
The paper submitted for this journal is based off of the larger scale thesis devoted to the study of sexism in music, which I wrote in order to graduate with Distinction. I worked on the thesis project my senior year of college. In this paper, I focus on the genre of country music because it is the genre that would be least expected to have sexist themes. I conducted background research within the areas of sociology of culture, sociology of gender, and sociology of music.
This paper allowed me to see the process of sociological research. I learned how to do background research and how to write a thesis. I am very happy that I did this because it helped prepare me for graduate school and the type of research I will be doing in the future. It also allowed me to be the first person from the USC sociology department to graduate with Distinction.
This paper is being presented at the Southern Sociological Society 2013 conference. I will be using the other four genres from the original thesis in the presentation. I look forward to using this publication and the conference as a starting point for future research as well.
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Deflem, Mathieu. 2008. Sociology of Law: Visions of a Scholarly Tradition. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
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Finkelstein, Joanne and Beryl Langer. 2007. “Popular Culture.” Pp. 214-221 in 21st Century Sociology: A Reference Handbook, vol. 2, edited by Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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APPENDIX: DATABASE OF SONGS
- Hank Williams Jr.: A Country Boy Can Survive (1st most popular on iTunes)
- Hank Williams: Hey Good Lookin’ (2nd most popular on iTunes)
- Big N Rich: Lost In This Moment (#36 on Hot 100)
- Garth Brooks: Lost In You (#5 on the Hot 100)
- Alan Jackson: Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) (#28 on Hot 100)
- Brad Paisley: Then (#28 on Hot 100)
- George Strait: She’ll Leave You With A Smile (#23 on Hot 100)
- Alabama: Song of the South (1st most popular song on iTunes)
- Clint Black: Been There (#44 on Hot 100)
- Kenny Chesney: Out Last Night (#16 on Hot 100)
- Rascal Flatts: What Hurts The Most (#6 on Hot 100)
- Blake Shelton: Honey Bee (#4 on Hot 100)
- Brooks and Dunn: Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You (#25 on Hot 100)
- Trace Adkins: You’re Gonna Miss This (#12 on Hot 100)
- Toby Keith: Red Solo Cup (#15 on Hot 100)
- Travis Tritt: Best of Intentions (#27 on Hot 100)
- Keith Urban: Kiss a Girl (#16 on Hot 100)
- Tim McGraw: Please Remember Me (#10 on Hot 100)
- Johnny Cash: A Boy Named Sue (#2 on Hot 100)
- Merle Haggard: If We Make It Through December (#28 on Hot 100)