music as social action :: Blog
As we approach the 1960s in America and zero in on how pop music connected with the issues of the era — as well as why the imagery of the ’60s protest singer has wielded certain power over later generations of musical protest — there are countless sources of literature and documentary film attempting to summarize and contextualize the social scene. Notably, last fall saw the premiere of famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' latest multi-part installment: "The Vietnam War."
The 10-episode series is available for viewing to PBS subscribers. For our immediate situation, it may be of interest to examine what music not only was chronicled by the documentary but was used on the film's soundtrack itself. To that end, PBS has compiled Spotify playlists of the music featured in each episode. In addition, music journalist David Fricke has written liner notes for the series' soundtrack, which can be read here. In this text — which covers and comments on an impressively wide variety of music, some of which we've discussed thus far — Fricke pushes some well-traveled discourses about how rock music was inextricable from the experience and understanding of the United States' involvement in that war, even going so far as to claim that "Vietnam was the first rock & roll war." Note, too, the way Fricke discusses the double-natured communication of some songs, specifically the way a cover by another artist (from another social group) changes and/or adds layers of meaning to the original — as we've begun to examine.
Participation! In the interview with Theodor Adorno that we watched, he says that a protest song about the Vietnam war is unbearable — not based on a musical criticism but because, in his view, something as serious as a war should not be trivialized as a pop-culture commodity. How might he react to someone referring to the conflict as a "rock & roll war"? What work is being done — and on behalf of whom — when a war is framed in this way?
For your first assignment, you chose a song and applied theory from our class and readings thus far to determine what elements of protest and/or propaganda it manifested. Your choices of songs ranged widely — some typical choices from the canon of topical pop, plus a few interesting ideas and creative defenses. We're off to a good start!
Here's a playlist of the songs used in the first assignment:
One student's selection isn't available via Spotify: Eminem's "The Storm" freestyle can be heard here.
This week, you read your first selections from Dorian Lynskey’s 2011 book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. I mentioned this class would cross paths with current events, right? The Atlantic just this week published an interview with Lynskey — a Q&A that deals with many questions relevant not only to your reading of her work but to the overall arc of the course. (Pay particular attention to a question midway through about the history of culture wars, which is our topic for next week!)
The general question being considered in this interview is whether or not the increased activism of the Trump presidency thus far has revived the spirit of protest music. Have you heard new protest songs? Tell us, and include links!
As we enter week 2 and begin turning toward a relatively chronological view of topical-music history in the United States, here are a couple of accessible pieces that make good introductions to this work: (1) the story of "John Henry," one of the most popular American folk songs, and (2) an account of when it was always hammer time in folk music.
Participation! In regard to the first piece, about John Henry — Think of a pop song you know and/or like that tells a story about a fictional character. (Examples: "Eleanor Rigby," "Major Tom," "Mr. Wendal," "St. Jimmy," or, relevant to us next week, Nina Simone's "Four Women"!) What is the story and theme of the song? Why did the author(s) choose to relate a fictional character instead of a real person? What work does a literary narrative do that a documentary account couldn't?
In our first class, we had an exercise individually and together — an attempt to write down our initial conceptions of what a few foundational terms mean:
socially conscious song
What's similar about those terms? What's different? Are they applied within certain contexts?
A chief goal of this seminar will be to carry forward these preconceived notions and begin applying them to the music and theory we will encounter — and to see what changes, if anything, about them. Will they work the way we think they will? Will they require updating?
Participation! Assist in creating that record by posting the definitions you wrote down during class, in the comments here.
In our first class discussion, we've brought up the concept of culture and how it can be divided into different levels and claimed by certain social groups. In other UCSD comm courses, you've likely encountered the work of Stuart Hall, who was instrumental in creating the scholarly field of cultural studies — one of the first academics to suggest that the study of popular culture was as important as examining so-called "high" culture.
Consider that (alleged) difference between "high" and "low" culture, how those delineations have been presented to you, and where you straddle that line in your daily experience.
Previously, on my personal blog, I looked back at a 1915 essay that was influential in establishing that binary — and the lasting effect it has on America's view of itself and its culture.
Participation! Read the Van Wyck Brooks essay linked there (or here). What do you think about his perspective on American culture? Do we still divide the culture between this binary? For what purpose — what work is that doing, and for whom?
Welcome! As mentioned here and in the syllabus, this blog will be run as an off-site place to continue and expand our discussions of protest songs, propaganda music, and the social movements with which each interacts and acts through.
Looking forward to meeting all of you next Friday — in the meantime, the following short video from Vox is a good scene-setter for our explorations along a similar scope of history and genres.
Bring to class any thoughts or questions spurred by this, especially in relation to the assigned readings!