The 1% of a Popular Music Class
I’m taking a risk writing this, I suppose. It’s not about politics, well it is, but by that I mean the politics of running a course where every student feels they have a personal stake in the content.
I occasionally encounter students that I would place in the 1%. That is, the one percent who ruins it for everyone else. Usually, these students start early in the term with complaints about how the class wasn’t what he/she thought it would be. I didn’t play anything good or relevant to their generation, and I spend far too much time on boring historical music.
Okay, fair enough. It’s a popular music history class that begins in 1829. Recordings made prior to the mid-1920s are admittedly pretty poor quality, and are generally so far removed from their conception of pop music that they often place them at the same level as avant-garde classical compositions.
But then the complaints continue. If only I could connect to the students, and realize that they took the class to just sit and hear good tunes, rather than force them through decade after decade of “oldies,” songs that are at this point quaint and meaningless (and yes, they group the MC5 in this category). And why do I make them learn so much? Can’t we just watch a bunch of videos?
It is difficult, balancing the precious needs of individual students whose identities have largely been carved out of their devotion to particular bands and genres, but who may not yet have a notion of the historical trajectory that led to their current favourites. I suspect this isn’t so much a problem, say, in a math class. Never mind the necessities of adhering to the course calendar description, the practices of other professors teaching additional sections, the academic requirements demanded by the department, or the bureaucracy inherent in mounting another course (ideally one that dealt with pop music from the 1830s to the 1950s as a requirement before the “fun stuff”) that can stretch out for years as conflicting courses, space shortages, program requirements, and funding obstacles get in the way.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t, at this point, predict the long-term relevance of Adele, Lil’ Wayne, or Bruno Mars, and so, they don’t make it into my 12-week course on popular music history. To be fair, neither do Debbie Gibson, Color Me Badd, or Richard Marx, all of whom I deemed as the central threads of pop culture fabric at some point in my disillusioned (and slightly myopic) youth. As it is, our textbook does a poor job of addressing North American pop culture, so I’m left with the task of sandwiching Canadian content between episodes of Led Zeppelin and Madonna. I probably haven’t reached my CanCon quota of 35% (good thing I’m not a radio station), and I’m guilty of canonizing what little we have offered pop history to date. There’s about 10 minutes on the Asteroids and Beaumarks from the 50s, one unit on the 60s: Joni, Neil, Gordon, Ian and Sylvia, Guess Who, and a little Lighthouse, and another on the 80s/90s: Handsome Ned, Tragically Hip, Spirit of the West, Jr. Gone Wild, Blue Rodeo, k d lang, all of whom were recently given cultural cred in that bible of Canadian music books, Have Not Been the Same.
I make mistakes of course. Too much time on the Beatles this year, not enough on Pink Floyd. Too much focus on gender, not enough on class. Maybe a few too many country hits creeping in, with few examples of jazz. That video excerpt on punk is far too long, as is the one on metal. Oh well. I keep revising as the years go on, knowing I’ll never get the class where I want it.
I’m not writing this from the perspective of a jaded, grumpy professor, although to this point it appears as though this is my angle. What I’m really concerned with are two things: 1) our tendency to sideline the musical experiences of others in favour of our own preferences, thus insisting that a small selection of songs and artists are worthy of study; and 2) extending from number 1, our refusal to see other perspectives, even in something as simple as music, contributes to the ever-widening gaps we see in our society, whether they be music taste-, class-, gender-, sexuality-, race-, or experience-based. University should be about expanding your ways of viewing the world by seeing things through another lens. Now, most students (like 99%) go through this at some point in their degree, and I hope it happens, even at a very minute level, with music in my classes. I’m disappointed, however, when that fails and a student cannot appreciate how a teenage girl might have felt seeing Robert Plant or Paul McCartney sing for the first time.
I think that every music/genre/artist/era deserves attention. I may not like it, you may not like it, we may not understand it, but somebody does, and that means something.
The controversial Bryan Adams blog that appeared a couple weeks ago is evidence of how these kinds of taste-making processes are manifested on a site like ND. While most might see no problem with the appearance of a review on Adams, others might see it as a threat to the space in which they can freely express their love for a very specific kind of music. At a certain level, maybe ND should be a site that filters out reviews of mainstream pop acts, so as to preserve our sacred roots music space. At another level, who is the site to block great music writing such as Alan Harrison’s, or to decide where that very fine line between roots and non-roots lies? And, more seriously, how can we, as listeners and practitioners of a genre that is predicated on experimentation, openness, and equality, deny access to music/artists that maybe don’t quite fit our notions of what is good, independent, or ‘rootsy’?