May 2010 Archives

#4: Reading response to 70's and 80's music

While reading the chapters in our text on music in the seventies and eighties, I found that there were a few areas that were of particular interest to me as a musician. First, was the area of Art Rock that emerged as a transition between the 1960s ad 1970s. Second, I took notice of the degree of separation between black and white musicians during this time and, especially in the early eighties, the difficulty black musicians had in breaking into the mainstream for a variety of reasons. Third, I would like to briefly discuss punk and their failed attempts at satire. Finally, the concept of MTV and what it has done to the musical landscape in America.

As a classical musician I find that I both appreciate and detest the idea of "Art Rock" in the late sixties and early seventies. I appreciate the concept for a number of reasons. First, I am glad to see classical elements coming to the forefront as part of the history of rock and roll in America. The inclusion of the Style of Bela Bartok for example in Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I also get the impression that it was not only about the inclusion of style or the orchestra (which groups like the Moody Blues used to great effect), but they also attempted to incorporate portions of actually classical songs within their music as well. While that disturbs me a little bit (which I will attempt to explain below) part of me takes the attitude that it is a great way to expose individuals to the classical repertory that would not normally come to it of their own volition. I also find that the use of this so called "Art Rock" can be useful tool in a course like Music Appreciation to set up various topics like opera for instance. I think in an earlier post I had referenced Queen for this very purpose, but perhaps the Who and their rock opera would be a better approach. Also a synthesis can really be seen between literature, art and music through this genre as well which can open student's minds to how the varying parts of the humanities affect each other throughout history.

On the other hand, I find this music to be a little disturbing. For one, the insinuation that this music was elitist gives me the impression that some critics of the day felt this music to be trending towards "high art". The fact that this music would be seen anywhere near high art is, quite frankly, a bit disturbing to me. In my humble (and as my wife would say, hoity-toity) opinion, this music tracks nowhere near where high art does. The inclusion of some classical elements, an orchestra, or adding a rock beat to a classical tune does not high art make. And perhaps I show my arrogance as a classical musician, but I find it rather insulting that this music would even be considered in this vain.

The second thing that disturbs me (at least with some of the groups considered in this category such as The Who) is that it seemed to be far less about the music they were producing and far more about manufacturing an image that would sell. Fast forward into the modern era and I think we have the same concept of manufacturing and image to sell a product on crack. I think it does music, both classical and popular, a disservice to worry more about image than content...especially since we seem to be heading down the track of dumbing down Art Song, which is my performance art. Perhaps not in the same way, but with the idea of aiming at the lowest common denominator and allowing those with minimal or no talent to be successful in the field through gimmick instead of talent, work ethic and artistry!

On a personal note, I will say that I find it rather ironic in a way and insightful in another that the groups that I have tended towards listening in rock music tend to be "Art Rock" groups such as the Moody Blues or groups that incorporate classical instruments and style into their music such as Ben Folds.

Moving onto my second topic of the plight of the African American in the popular music world, I guess I find it very ironic that an industry that produced so many singers in the sixties who were at the forefront of the social protest movement was actually ding their level best to separate themselves from the very people they were protesting for. Now perhaps that is not a fair assessment. After all the record companies were not the ones protesting, they were just reaping the rewards (after they caught onto the concept anyways). But the fact that white musicians were trying to separate out the contributions of the African American on the art of rock and roll and begin to attribute their influences to themselves (can we say Eric Clapton and his comment about playing like a white man) is perhaps a bit disheartening. It was almost the ultimate in being hypocritical. Perhaps I am mischaracterizing this a bit, but I believe the sentiment is in the right place.

Disco music (which had the dancing elements that so many wanted) had a difficult time making it onto the radio. Although this eventually turned into a very popular music of the seventies, one cannot think that the universal dismissal of the music all together was, as the book noted, racially motivated. Also, the fact that it needed white groups such as the Bee Gees to popularize the music (and Saturday Night Fever to put it over the hump for record labels and radio stations) it follows the same paradigm of the early seventies where white musicians "annex the territory" which finally brings the music to prominence when perhaps it should have been there all the time. What makes this perhaps more interesting is that fact that disco served to bring people together across racial and sexual lines, so it seems ironic to me that a music that would bring the masses together was on some level scoffed early on by the industry.

The anti-disco sentiment that followed from the rock based radio stations only seemed to fuel the flames of the social divides that exist within our country. As Garufalo points out, "While rock radio could have demonstrated the connections between hard rock and black music for its listeners, it fanned the flames of the racism instead." To be fair, however, the blanket statement from the rock community that "disco sucks" does not intern mean that all people who hate disco are racists. In fact, while there are similarities to the music, they are both different forms with their own unique following. I also have a difficult time calling everything racism just because it is a black vs. white issue. I know that the previous statement may sound like it coming out of left field, but say both disco and the rock of 70s were born of white musicians and the rallies were still held and radio stations waged campaign that said disco sucks. Would we still hold the same view? Is it narrow minded of us to think that just because there are black and white people involved that it is a racially motivated issue? (Is this perhaps a good springboard into a discussion on race relations in a college political science course?) What of Louis Armstrong saying the Bebop was a fad and like Chinese music? Since he is a black musician speaking about another predominately black art form we call say it perhaps a choice of his to hold the opinion. If he was white, would we then automatically say that it is racially motivated and that all who agree with him are racist? Why can't we hold are own opinions even when they have color involved without being deemed racist? Why can't reasonable people disagree? (My apologies for the tangent) Having said all that, with the way the music was promoted (or the lack there of) perhaps there was a bit of a racial divide being created by the labels that trickled down to the radio stations. For the DJs perhaps a lot of the disco sucks movement was less about race and more about protecting their turf!?! Good topics for discussion...

The trend carried into the 1980s as well. Look at MTV for example and their reluctance to include black artists. As a matter of fact, we can look at MTV and their apparent reluctance to include American artists all together. It took the power and foresight of an artist like Michael Jackson to finally break the barrier and even that was with a great deal of reluctance. It seems that in the modern era that black artists have found their own groove and popularity with hip hop and R&B, but the fact that we seem to base everything off of the white middle class demographic for so long was a bit least in my opinion. At least this offers us the opportunity to look at racism in the last 30 - 40 years (or perhaps "social justice" as new found academics and media refer to the cause today).

Punk musicians of the 1970s...I am having a hard time first seeing music anywhere in this form. But let's put that issue aside because that is a different debate all together. However, their intent to be the "anti" everything movement I think took things way to far when they started to incorporate swastikas, Marxism, etc. Robert Christgau states in our text that these antics were certainly rock parody and should be considered as such. I couldn't disagree with him more on this point. This is no where near parody and I would say at minimum is rock insensitivity and at worst...well...I will leave that one alone. I guess what makes things worse for me is the fact that the music itself used these anti-Semitic tools, concerts were promoted by them (for example "Special Extermination Night"). Now I realize that the idea of rock and role, and especially that of punk is not to appeal to the norm and be socially sensitive. The idea for many of these musicians was to show injustices (such as music in the 60s) or to be anti-establishment. However, as our author points out "that fine distinction, which is rife in punk's recapitulations of itself, over-look the importance of historical meaning". It is the one thing that we talk about as individuals, groups, and nations...those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it. In this case it is not about forgetting their past, but ignoring the significance of that past in order to fulfill their anti-establishment needs. Seriously! They were trying to be satirical using one of the worst losses of human life as their backdrop. Did the drugs get to their brain and truly make them that dense? The only other conclusion that can be made is that Christgau is absolutely wrong. These people new exactly what they were doing with these images. I understand the need to create controversy...but there are rules of decorum (which these groups were completely against, this I understand) or how about just sensitivity and understanding. If those are out the window...well, it seems to me that it goes against the very nature of what music is (which perhaps explains the entire Punk Rock movement completely). Regardless, what a bunch of flippin' idiots!

Finally I would discuss the music video and the influence it has had on music over the past 30 years of so. That fact that most early music videos were done by ad based producers explains a great deal to me, but does not alleviate the problem that I have with them. Perhaps rock music has turned into a complete performance art. I do not mean the rock concerts themselves (although those are so choreographed it is hard to distinguish at times), but rather the fact that all music now days seems to have a need to be accompanied with a video. The texts (in my opinion) have been dumbed down enough. There is no metaphor in many of them, and, if there is, it is so weak that it doesn't take someone who is overly bright to put two and two together. But to make matters worse, we have music videos that it seems everyone relies on for the piece de resistance...half of which have nothing to do with what is actually being said in the song (and has made me wonder for years how the industry has survived). It seems to me the art of music is far less about music and far more about visual appeal (weather in video format or on stage). My how the mighty have fallen so...although, if I look at modern through the lens of a performance art, I think it is remarkable successful at what it attempts to do (both in practice and in capitalist terms). I think there is a place for this music...and in education for that fact...the question is where and how and what is it the means to an end of (I would hope it is not a means to the end of itself).

#3b: Assignment using popular music

As I teach college, I have geared this assignment towards an American Government class that I will be teaching with the political scientist on my campus.

Assignment in Pro-war vs. Anti-war music

"Viewed as an original historical source, popular music reflects the diverse attitudes of the American public at different times in history. Music presents insights and multiple points of view as well as an emotional impact which other historical documents, particularly written, often lack. Through music, history comes alive and students can connect directly with people and events which may otherwise seem remote to them. As such, rock and roll can be a particularly powerful tool to introduce recent historical events and issues."

The objective of this assignment is to look at wars of the 20th and 21st century and the sentiments that existed through the lens of popular music. Popular music has been used to voice viewpoints the public had of every war during this time frame.

To give students an overview of the popular music used as forms of social protest and/or support.
To have students look into the text of a piece of music to determine what the sentiment of the song writer/performer truly is.
To recognize opposing points of view...that reasonable people can disagree and how those people present their message.

Audio recordings (CD, mp3, YouTube clips) that are from the time period or as historically accurate as possible. Copies of song lyrics that the class should look at more in depth.

Time frame:
2 class periods, one to focus on the pro-war movement and one to focus on the anti-war movement.

Using the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a spring board, begin a discussion of music that students may be familiar with that voice an opinion of these wars. Play a few examples of songs that are reflective of these two wars as a way to begin the discussion.

Begin a discussion of these songs in WWI playing various examples through the Vietnam war (and perhaps a few more from the current time). Discuss with the class how songwriters and performers used the music and the text in each varying time period.
Is it effective in delivering the message?
How did things change from WWI - Vietnam and later?

As part of the above discussion, look at one or two songs of each type in depth and discuss how the text is used.
What makes the text and effective (or ineffective) tool?
Does the music work to support the text and help deliver the message?

Pick a piece of music and ask the students to decide whether the point of view of the song in pro-war and anti-war.
What in the song indicates that it takes this particular position?
Is it effective in delivering its intended message?

One of the pieces I think would work well for this assignment is "Travelin' Soldier" which was remade by the Dixie Chicks. The song is rather nebulous so there is not a right or wrong answer...only a very well supported answer. One of the things I would stress is forr students not to view s music video since it may persuade the way they view the song. The video is one person's representation and they should use the song itself (music and text) to determine what their point of view is.

There is a multitude of information out on the web that responds to a search for "popular music" and "education". However, there is not as much information when a search is conducted for "popular music " and "high education" with the exception of a myriad of textbooks out from any number of publishers. The most fruitful search that I used was "popular music" and "lesson plans" which looked like it would be a 'dud' so to speak, but there actually was a great deal of information out there.

The problem for me is that my focus tends to be in higher education since that is where my duties as a teacher lie for the most part. Many of the lesson plans that I was able to locate are more specifically for 6 - 8 graders with 9 - 12 coming in a somewhat respectable second (however, I am sure this number would even out with a little more searching).

There were a few sites that I found to be of use to me and, I suspect, would be very useful (at least to a degree) to any number of 6 - 12 teachers and perhaps even younger. The first of these sites was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame where it appears that they have had an initiative for a number of years to collect lesson plans from teachers who have found the incorporation of popular music into their teaching to help students understand topics from music al form to the civil rights movement, to poetry, to social protest, to war, etc. There are 52 lesson plans currently on the site with more being added to it as teachers submit them I would suspect. While the lesson plans are designed for 6 - 12 use, I think they could be adopted and modified to work for the higher education purposes that I might find to be useful.

Another site that I found useful gave a lesson plan for discussing poetry with popular music as the spring board. For students who may not have much exposure to straight poetry I find that this would be an effective approach to introducing them to this medium and perhaps the tools that poets use in their writing. The only drawback here is that there is only 1 lesson plan.

There were a number of articles discussing popular music and education (and higher education) that I found might be useful in beginning to try to put together a lecture in a course, etc. I have included the links to these articles here as well.

In addition to these sites, there are about a dozen others that I tagged into my bookmarks that I can refer back to. Many of them are just general k-12 lesson plan websites that have some material incorporating popular music and/or popular culture into various activities in the classroom. Here are just a couple of them.

#2: "We've Come A Long Way"

"We've come a long way from Leslie Gore to Lil' Kim to, well, Lady Gaga at the moment!"

Have we really come a long way? I would say it more like this at the moment..."What the hell?" I could begin by railing against the music video industry in the first place. There are many videos from the 80s through today that have nothing to do with the "music" they are conveying. They are merely there for the purpose of shaking ones "booty" and trying to sell records. I can perhaps understand that to a degree but what the heck has happened to the music? What has happened to a person's self respect and self worth? What has happened to the idea of innocence in general?

Let me discuss music first. I am not a k-12 teacher but rather a college professor. I like to try and "pick a fight" at the end of my semester of "Music Literature and Appreciation". I do it partly for giggles, but more to see what they have learned in the course and also to see how well they can create an argument for what they enjoy listening to today. Essentially my argument is this...most popular music today has not progressed; but rather it has regressed...and to the lowest common denominator.

The lyrics of songs no longer really hold all that much in the line of imagery (take our Lil' Kim song for example). Perhaps this is because our audiences believe into the notion of the \ instantaneous gratification factor and don't have the attention span or the desire to actually have to think about a piece of music. To quote one of my students "I work hard all day, the last thing I want to do is go home and put on a piece of music that will actually make me think...force me to interact with it on a deeper level. I want something superficial that I can just put on in the background." I think that is all fine and dandy, but why is it the musical arts that are the ones that we seem to want to have to think about the least? Why does every facet of the music industry produce the same carbon copy of educated guess would be because life in the music world is not about the music, but about how fast one can make the almighty dollar.

I can go deeper into the rabbit hole. What does the music of today's popular music actually say? That is to say, let us take away the lyrics of today's popular music and see what we have left. In many cases a song will contain three...perhaps four or five chords, many times being played away in one of any number of standard rhythmic concoctions. Perhaps a nice beat is established to go along with it all as well. The trouble is that you can find ten, twenty, a hundred songs that all use the same chords in roughly, if not exactly, the same way with the same beat and even with similar melodic lines. To take this point further, how many times have you been listening to the radio thinking, by the introduction to the song, that your favorite song is about to come on only to find out that it is not your favorite song but one that sounds very similar to it? What does the music actually say? What is it attempting to convey, if anything? Or is it merely a convenient backdrop to put words over the top of with no care as to how varying harmonies and rhythms may affect its meaning? The "music" in today's culture means hardly anything, it is only the words that audiences are interested far as the music goes. It seems to me more like a glorified poetry reading with chordal accompaniment going on in the background.

Next comes the inevitable question from my students. "Well then what would you suggest? And not music that is only instrumental. What music that has words does what you are saying ours doesn't?" My answer is to look at art song of the 19th century. Take the Erlk├Ânig of Schubert for example. The text tells a compelling story of a child being tormented by a supernatural being as his father attempts to get him home in order to save him. But more importantly, the music that Schubert writes to this text emphasizes that text and becomes a part of the story itself. In many of the art songs of the 19th century, one could pull the text from them completely and the music would stand alone as a solo work and actually have relevance.

How have we fallen so far that music has become so much less about the music? Has technology progressed over time? Sure it has. I bring this up only because this is the logical step that people take to show the progression of music. So we have progressed in music to the point where you don't need to be able to play the instrument (or at least well)...the computer does it for you. You don't need to be able to sing on pitch...the computer will be able to fix that for you. It seems to me that all you need is perhaps some half way decent lyrics and a good body to go flaunt in public.

I suppose this leads me to my second point...we have moved to a society that is about sexual appeal...and by sexual appeal I mean how little can you wear, and/or how much can you shake your "money maker" so to speak. This is evident in the music videos of today, and especially the live performances of today. It was one thing when music videos didn't make any sense back in the 80's or they played out like completely unrealistic mini soap operas. We have transformed into a society where the videos need not make any sense to what we are singing (which can range from sexually suggestive to downright sexually explicit) as long as you show as much skin as possible. It is more about the moves than it is about the music...or at least what little music actually remains. We appeal only to the most primitive aspects of people and leave any type of sophistication behind us.

I think a good reference to this may be the movie "Music and Lyrics" which came out a few years back. The movie opens with the band "Pop" and their poorly constructive and overly fake music video to their hit song Pop Goes My Heart which is definitely in the vain of the mini soap opera. Conversely we have the young pop singer in Cora Corman whose opening song is Buddha's Delight which is humerous only in that it is a meal on most any Chinese menu. The video that she is making when we first see her is for this song and, in truth, has nothing to do with the lyrics, but rather it portrays sex and shows her shaking her thing. In fact, when Alex Fletcher writes her a song at her request, his co-writer suggests that her addition of sexually explicit music and dance moves is perhaps inappropriate for the type of song she is singing to which she replies "they like it when I dance". I realize that a fair chunk of the music business is selling records...I realize sex sells...but where in all this did we lose the music? Further more, where in all this did we lose our self respect...

"We've come a long way from Leslie Gore to Lil' Kim to, well, Lady Gaga at the moment!" I disagree with this statement in many fact I would say "how did we come so far only to digress and have music become the simplistic music that it is today?" I realize that popular music is important to our youth (and yes I listen to popular music as well...I am not a classical zealot). But it seems to me that one of the issues is that so many of the big money makers who shape the musical landscape...performers and businessmen alike, have no idea about the history and, more important to me as a stuffy, classically trained singer, have no idea about what the music is saying...the MUSIC...we have lost the MUSIC. As long as it makes a buck who cares about the music. There was a time when we revered "the music". Now we only revere those who get up on stage and perform what is left of "the music".

On another note...I realize that it is a bit ironic that I am taking this course on using popular music and culture in the class room when I hold such opinions. The truth is, that as much as I disdain where we have gone in many respects, I find myself using popular music and culture as a way to bring students into the deeper forms of music and to help them explore varying topics regarding our society. You don't have to like something to know that it can be an effective tool and to have a desire to use that tool in a better way...

I write today to discuss the intent of our school board to turn the direction of public education in our school district back to an emphasis of the "basics" and turning away from the use of "popular culture" in education. While I realize that test scores in the fundamental areas of public education are not where the district would like them to be, I do not believe the answer to the issue at hand is to abandon the material that our students come to us already having full working knowledge of and ability to relate with. Instead, I would submit that, what we should be doing is using the popular music and culture that our students know and understand to open their minds up to the information they need to posses.

To illustrate my point, I would like to show two examples of where this approach may be relevant. First, I will discuss the application of music and pop culture within an American History course. Second, let us discuss how the use of pop culture may be used as a way to expose students to music history and repertoire.

What is American History and how does pop culture interact? Let us take a simple example...presidential elections. Every four years (and if you think about the way our primaries work in the modern era, you can say perhaps even every two years) we elect a president in the United States. Yet, how many students know how we do this, why we do this or, in many cases, even bother to pay attention to elections at all except to spout off the current talking points about the candidate that they "support". How do you interest a student in a topic like this...a topic that they need to understand as it is vital to our society? What if we were to approach it from the music that various candidates use in their campaigns?

Each candidate that runs for president, beginning back with the primary elections, has a slate of "popular" songs that they use at every campaign stop. In addition they usually have one or two songs that are their "theme" songs for the campaign. Many of the songs that are used are songs that they know...songs that they listen to on the radio on a daily basis...songs that they have heard because their parents currently listen to them and have listened to them from the time they were little children. The use of popular culture here can open a door to American History and "critical thinking" to coin a term that they may well not have had a way into...a way of accessing. It opens the doors to questions that students need to interact with and can use to improve the basic reading and writing skills you so desperately want to improve. Questions like...why do candidates change their campaign music when they travel to various parts of the country? Why do the "theme" songs they use change over time? What does the music a candidate uses say about the message they are attempting to relay to the voting public? This in turn opens the door to reading further on the subject of presidential elections and how the electoral process works. It leads to exercises in writing about presidential campaigns that force them to think about the process and the tactics used in our electoral process. When a student has interest in a topic, they are more likely to read about the topic and are more likely to take interest in their own attainment of knowledge.

This is not the only application within the topic of American History. We could look at the pro and anti war movements, the civil rights era, messages to, for and/or about presidents or politicians in general, or the idea of censorship through the lens of popular music and popular culture.

As an educator in the musical arts, I find it especially important to find ways to interest students in music not only of their present, but also of their past as well. This leads me to my second example of bringing students closer to the music and the history of what has come before them.

Most students look at "classical" music as something of a bore. Perhaps many of you do as well. Music without words puts them to sleep, art songs are many times written in languages that they don't understand, and opera, well, what more do I need to say than the word opera. How do we bring students to this music of the that is not archaic, but rather music that serves as the foundation of the very music that they listen to today?

Let us take the topic of opera for example. We can approach the topic from popular music taking Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a microcosm of opera. The song, after all, was written for the group's album A Night at the Opera and is most often classified as a rock opera. The idea that an entire story (or in this case a nightmare) can be told completely in dialogue to speak exactly what opera composers have been doing since the days of Caccini and Monteverdi. What a great vehicle to use to open their minds to a world of musical thought that had previously been closed to them through stereotype and more than likely lack of availability (as we all know, we listen to what our parents listened to in a sense).

Why is this important to the functions of our students? Well, I could site study after study that indicates that students who listen to classical music tend to have more active brains and do better in course work and on exams. After all, what you put in you tend to get out. This is not to say that popular music is by any means inferior to that of classical music. However, one might argue that the advantage to classical music (and perhaps to the brain when listened to regularly) is its complexity and the wide variety of materials a composer brings into the process. To quote a great mind: "If I can write the songs of the nation, I do not care who writes the laws" (Plato). Plato emphasizes my argument. Music is powerful. It informs the mind. The higher the art you put in, the higher the result you get out.

On the same level, music has been a powerful influence on the lives of our students. Ignoring that is a mistake because it is as if we say to them that their music is no good, the messages they have learned are no good, and, perhaps worse, we do not give our students credit for the knowledge that they have already attained. There is no better way to deflate and uninspire a person than to ignore and give no credence to what they have learned before they have gotten to you.

Why do I write my justification with two examples of popular music and culture being used in the classroom you might ask? It is because popular music and popular culture are not getting in the way of providing students with a good education and the ability to read and write critically. Popular music and culture are the vehicles to open the minds of our young students to read and write in a critical way. Thomas Regelski notes in his article Reconnecting Music Education with Society that "schools as educational institutions are organized around conception of basic subjects - the traditional disciplines - that are largely taught for their own sake and that students thus see as 'merely academic'....most teachers and school administrators are unconcerned with whether lessons learned in school even have tangible applications - concrete counterparts - in personal life and society." Bennett Reimer makes a similar point in Comprehensive Education, Comprehensive Music Education: A New Vision saying "A great deal of schooling, for a great many students-perhaps most schooling for most students-is regarded by them as being largely or entirely unrelated to the realities of their lives outside of school. Their learning, therefore, is saturated with a sense that it consists of hoops to be jumped through, expectations to be met, disconnected from everything else in their lives that matters to them." To bring a student to the point where they have the desire to learn more than just wrote facts they will forget over time, and even perhaps by the time they take a standardized test, they have to have a vested interest in what they are learning. They have to find relevance and meaning in the knowledge and skills they are working to attain. And they have to have a way to approach the knowledge from somewhere that they understand. Popular music and culture are not the enemies of education, but rather they are the ways by which we can bring that education to our students and better prepare them for the lives they are working to achieve. Through popular music and culture, we can teach them to read and write critically, to comprehend, and to find relevance in the material we give them in the world the surrounds them so they will not only learn the material, but remember what they have learned and be able to apply it to their everyday lives when they are called upon to do so.

To conclude, popular music and culture are not the enemies of our educational system. They are not the reason why our students do not succeed in the areas that we find they are lacking in the most. If used properly, popular music and culture can bring the joy of life long learning to our students...and with true learning comes true synthesis and application of the skills necessary to be life long learners. I urge you to consider using this tool to the advantage of the school and our students rather than abandoning what our students know and can relate to for a system that they will have difficulty finding connection with as learners.

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