Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Did you just sing that out loud?

When I was younger, I never thought too much about the lyrics to songs I liked, but things have changed since having kids, performing for certain audiences, and being a teacher, among other things.

I've used this example a couple of times already, but when I taught guitar at a high school, I gave my students an assignment to bring in one of their favorite songs and present it to the class. Among other things, they had to print off the lyrics and explain the meaning of the song.

More than once I was astounded at how naive these students were. (That or they thought I was.) We constantly dug into the lyrics, discussed symbolism and sort of translated them into clear, concise speech.

For some, this was shocking. Even though I prefaced the assignment with a mandate that the lyrics be PG or better,  occasionally I had to intervene, "Okay, that's enough for now. If you have questions, ask your parents about these lyrics, and please ask them not to get me fired."

Try this sometime: Print off the lyrics to your favorite song, and read them out loud, poetry-style, clearly and slowly, to someone you trust. Then talk about what you think each line means, and what the overall message of the song might be.

I tell you, though, if you do this exercise with most of what's on pop radio today, you need to make sure there are no children in the room. 

This all started when I was the director of a summer "School of Rock" program for KSM Music's SoundFactory. Interested students were grouped together based on relative skill levels and their expressed interests.

Each group of students - or band - was to perform four tunes from different genres. Three would be chosen by the instructor, and the students would choose the fourth. The course went very well, and we anticipated that the final concert would be a great experience.

But I will never forget one moment during that concert. In fact, it's the only thing I remember about that night. One of the bands was fronted by a nine-year-old girl, the daughter of an associate of mine. There she was on stage, jamming on her guitar, having the time of her life with a real, live band, and screaming, "KILL ALL THE ONES WHO DON'T A-GREE!"

I looked over at her mother just in time to see the video camera fall and her jaw drop to the floor. Then she looked at me, and her eyes said it all. "How could you?" I wondered the same thing. How could we have overlooked the lyrics? Why didn't we screen them to make sure they were appropriate?

These days we're pretty careful what gets played at our house, especially around the kids. We've already had the embarrassment of our three-year-old belting Kelly Clarkson's, "You don't know a thiiiiiiing about me!" And occasionally my wife will say, "Hey, will you look up the lyrics to this song? I want to know if I can like it or not." 

Back in the guitar class, I also gave a warning to my students. Roughly translated, it was this: "If you get in front of this class with your song and you 'just like the song for the beat,' or 'I don't really know what it means, I just like the music,' I WILL DESTROY YOU. AND I WILL DO IT IN FRONT OF YOUR FRIENDS."

My friends, I don't really care which music you like or don't. What I care about is that you have an awareness for the message you're hearing. Like it or not, on some level your brain is acutely aware of - and processing - the lyrics and they DO affect you, even if you're not consciously processing them.

Again, listen to whatever you want, but don't tell me the lyrics don't matter. You need to be aware of what is being said - and what is meant - by the lyrics. 

Lastly, I apologize in advance: I'm going to be posting my interpretation of some popular music lyrics, and you may not like it. Knowledge, as they say, is not all it's cracked up to be. 

Until then, happy listening!

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