6 Reasons Literature Teachers Should Teach Pop Music Meanings
Literature teachers and professors keep looking for ways to be culturally relevant. It's kind of a buzz word these days, and everyone thinks it's going to keep students interested, attentive, and learning. So, teachers use memes, cultural references, and examples based on Star Wars or Taylor Swift to get points across to their students seeped in entertainment and culture. Well, I'm here to tell you that studying popular music in your literature classroom won't just be "culturally relevant"; it could revolutionize the ways your students think about literature and culture. Pop music is everywhere, and it has a lot to say to us about who we are and where our culture is; thus, we need to understand it. And since our students probably listen to it more than we do, they need to understand it even more.
But you may not be convinced yet, so I've written up a few reasons to argue my point as well as several helpful song suggestions for starting your lesson plans. Enjoy!
1. Pop music will prompt intense discussions because students are already familiar with it.
If you want to know what students are listening to, ask to borrow one student's phone for a minute and ask permission to look at her music files or to open her Spotify account for a moment. Chances are that most students are going to be listening to at least a smattering of the most recent Billboard Hot 100 hits. Taylor Swift's going to show up on most people's iPhones, and Kanye West, Drake, or The Weeknd are going to show up on other's.
But even if you can't find those big names or an iPhone to borrow, you and your students hear these pop stars at weddings, in grocery stores, at restaurants, or on the road when someone with larger-than-necessary speakers pulls up next to you.
You and your students are already listening to pop music, and it's going to be easy for you to transition into teaching them to understand pop music because they're already familiar with Swift, Kanye, Drake, and The Weeknd. Those big names (and so many others) already have "street cred" with your students in a way that Longfellow, Bryant, and Blake use to have with the readers of their times.
You can capitalize on this familiarity by playing a music video or a pop song in class, pulling the lyrics up on the overhead projector and leading your students through serious discussion questions. Leave the questions open-ended as much as possible (What do you think it's about? What does he mean here? Should she care about this? How does this affect us?), and the discussion will flow because students like discussing things they know a little about and that they already care about.
2. Pop music democratizes the classroom.
Pop song discussion can lead to heavy student engagement, but be careful. They may know more about the songs than you, and here's where it gets even more exciting: Because you are discussing something that you both know (possibly) the same amount about, the discussion can be less teacher-student based and almost more peer-peer based. You can work with your students to find answers rather than take them down a pre-determined trail of leading questions to ultimately explain to them what a poem means or why it's significant.
Sure you still know a little bit more than they do, and you've (hopefully) already done some research before class, but I've learned so much from my students when I talk pop music with them because they have interesting, valid opinions on songs because they are members of the audience the song was intended for. Thus, their opinions, however different from mine, are important and worth discussion and can lead to me changing my views on a song.
In a democratized classroom environment where everyone's individual opinion is important, you can have more enthusiastic and more interesting discussions with students who otherwise feel like their opinions mean nothing when discussing poets Shelley or Keats.
3. Pop music can be shallow, but it can also be very deep.
You read my blog post's title, and you thought, "Oh, great. Someone wants me to talk celebrity gossip and Taylor Swift's boyfriends in class."
But that's only a fraction (sometimes a small one depending on what's currently popular) of the music out there. Don't forget that pop stars are real people too--real people who struggle with things just like an indie artist or 18th century poet would.
Here are a few examples:
- I made a podcast on Mike Posner's "I Took a Pill in Ibiza" which is a grappling with the nature of a desire for fame and wealth and then a coming to grips with the reality of what's truly important in life.
- I've written many things and recorded several podcasts on Twenty One Pilot's music. If you're not an outright fan, you may have at least listened to "Stressed Out" when it made #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song (which I have an explanation for) is about wanting to go back to a simpler time and to avoid the pressure of having to accept adulthood. "Ride" by the same band is also a great song to teach; it's about wondering if one would risk one's life for another.
- "Can't Feel My Face" and "The Hills" by The Weeknd are, respectively, about drugs and adultery. The first one is an excellent example of personification, and the second one makes the discussion-worthy statement, "When I'm f**ked up, that's the real me."
4. Even if a pop song doesn't seem deep, chances are that it still says something about the culture it was written for.
Wife April was telling me just the other day that Katy Perry's new song "Rise" struck her oddly. She explained to me that the song was written for the 2016 Olympics but that it also was antithetical to the reason the Olympics were started--to bring honor to the Greek pantheon of gods.
Unlike those competitions, Perry's song is all about how "[v]ictory is in my veins" and how powerful the narrator is. If you look at other "Rise" lyrics like "[o]h, ye of so little faith," you even see that in the context of this song, she's positioning herself as a god-like figure who others (that she must overcome) are doubting.
After listening to this song, you can ask your students what they think the Olympics are about and what they should be about. You can discuss the way different songs or poems position a person in relation to peers, "betters," and "lessers" (or if the songs even acknowledge such things). And you can discuss humanism and other philosophies. But, here's the real kicker. You can pull an old poem from your literature anthology that positions its writer in a certain way (haven't found one myself just yet), and compare it to "Rise." This can lead to all sorts of great discussion about how culture changes and how perceptions of self and perceptions of obstacles to the self's actualization can change.
If you're looking for more songs that reflect on their cultures, you can try "Cheerleader" by OMI, "Cool for the Summer" by Demi Lovato, "H.O.L.Y. by Florida Georgia Line, and "Take Me to Church" by Hozier.
5. Music is the 21st century's poetry.
Whether we like it or not, music has taken the place of poetry. Where Western Civilization used to abound with professional poets, I only know of a handful of living poets who survive on their poetry, but there are too many full time musicians to count.
Lyrical verses spoken or read largely disappeared or waned as music-playing technology came widely available in the early 1900's. It's not true in every case, but "words + melody" seems to be more powerful and to resonate with listeners better than just words. At least, that's why I think we hear SO much music and so little poetry.
But in any case, there isn't much poetry going around, but there's more music than there's ever been, and with the rise of inexpensive recording software and affordable recording equipment, there's more music being written than we can ever hope to listen to.
But a few things haven't changed. The purpose of music (like poetry) is often to create something beautiful for people to listen to. Music is a form of self-expression. Music can be extremely deep. Artists use music as a celebration of life. And music is a medium in which artists can try to make sense of life and what it means to be human.
Everything we loved about poetry still happens in music, and since these are the thoughts, the indicator lights, and the musings of a generation, if you like poetry as a means to study another century's people or thoughts, then how much more important is it for you and your students to understand the generation and era that you're a part of?
6. Your student needs to be able to decode popular music.
The Hot 100 can be a goldmine of hot topics and important discussions about life and what literature (in which I'm including music here) can mean for a civilization, a culture, or even a single person. And that's one place where we want to be as literature teachers right? Bringing the civilization and the culture together and hopefully helping them to mean something personal to the individual. We want to inspire. We want to show a student something deeper, and we want to make a difference for that student.
Popular music--the music that your students are listening to--is where your student is at, but he or she is underprepared to grapple with that music. Maybe he or she just listens to it for fun, doesn't think about it, or doesn't know that he or she can find deeper meaning there.
It's your job as a teacher to get your students to confront, think about, and test the ideas, feelings, and thoughts they find in literature. And popular music is one of the best, most convenient, and most fun places to do that.