By Teachers, For Teachers
My recent travels abroad have made me question what affect today’s pop music, constantly streaming into kids’ ears through their iPods, is having on our students.
While in Argentina, the young man helping us at the hotel smile and began singing along when a new song came on the radio as he found our reservations on his computer screen. The music was Tango—you know—accordions and everything.
The young man sang quietly, but unabashedly. Another receptionist, a young girl next to him, began swaying her shoulders, as if someone had just come up from behind and put their arms around her. It was a slow love song, and I thought it was quite beautiful. It was obvious Argentina’s younger generation takes their music just as seriously as ours.
You don’t need to be at teacher to see how hooked our youth has become to music and their portable music devices—MP3 players, iPods, cell phones—they now carry more music in something the size of a lighter than all the CDs I’ve owned in my life.
Not that music itself is a new obsession among the young, but the ease with which kids can now access it makes it seem like it’s more popular than ever. They are plugged in when they wake up, when they walk to school, in between class, IN class, after school, on the bus, at the mall, and even at the dinner table. It’s been an amazing thing to see—the evolution that began with the walkman and has ended with iTunes.
The question that terrifies me is: What is coming out of those earphones?
The Reprecussions of Rap
I love hip-hop and rap. LOVE IT. In fact, I grew up listening to it, and I didn’t listen to much else. I know every song of Cypress Hill’s “Black Sunday” by heart. If you gave me a beat, I could rattle off more verses of Biggie Smalls, Talib Kweli, and Wu-Tang Clan than all my students put together.
To demonstrate iambic pentameter to my students, I rap Shakespeare’s sonnets, and have them beat their desks to the stressed syllables. I own turntables (yes, for records), and next school year I have decided they will take up permanent residence in my classroom.
But today, I think rap music has become one of the worst parts of our culture.
Whew. It was hard for me to say that, but there it is.
When rap first came out, it was revolutionary. Public Enemy, NWA, Snoop Dogg, Tupac and Biggie. It was new and fresh. It brought to life aspects of America not many people had realized existed until then. It showed us the plight of African-Americans in our poorest cities, and reminded us that we still had a long way to go before true equality could ever exist. And it boldly met these problems with a justified anger, with a new twist to Rhythm and Blues that let us really get funky and freaky. In short, it was cool, and it had a message.
But here we are, thirty years later, and not only has mainstream rap failed to evolve, it has become petty and ignorant. Gone is the political anger that resonated from Run DMC and Chuck D. Gone is ANY sort of message aside from a love of material wealth (which includes women, who are possessions not people) and a hatred of, well, not The Man anymore; now a rapper’s angst is focused only on Haters, whoever the hell they are supposed to be.
Eek! Lil’ Wayne is the New Bob Dylan?
Today, the biggest guy in rap is aptly named Lil’ Wayne - highlighting rap’s current level of cultural importance. His most popular song, Lollipop, just repeats the suggestive phrase “lick me like a lollipop (yeah)” over and over with other references to drinking and sex.
Unfortunately, it is the most popular song on Lil’ Wayne’s newest album, and he is the most popular rapper in the world right now. He is The Beatles. He is Bob Dylan.
Can you honestly say you think a 13-year-old-girl should be learning this song by heart? No? Well guess what, there are millions of them who listen to that song twenty times a day, and even know the dance that goes with it.
Of course, I’m being hard on rap, but this kind of ridiculous drivel is evident in ALL the music our kids listen to. One of the most popular songs in 2010 has been “I’ve Gotta Feeling,” a techno-dance song by The Black Eyed Peas. Here is the last verse:
Here we come
Here we go
We gotta rock
Now we on top
Feel the shot
Rock it don’t stop
Round and round
Up and down
Around the clock
Saturday and Sunday
Get get get get get
With us you know
what we say
The song is really just a list of clichés followed by the days of the week, earning will.i.am, their main songwriter and performer, more money than I’ll ever make in my life.
If a 9th grader wrote this as part of my poetry unit, I would fail them, and maybe set up an IEP meeting, because I might worry something was wrong with how their brain was processing language.
I get it that it’s got a cool beat and is fun to dance to. It’s about partying and sex. But really, I would love to sit will.i.am down and ask him just what in the hell he is trying to say with his music.
And I would ask him and Lil Wayne this question: “Do you think your music is good for your youth audience in any way, I mean, do you think it benefits ANYONE?”
Granted, I could also post lyrics from Doggystyle and NWA, and could give an analysis of their lyrics in just as stark a light. But the difference is that with them it was NEW, and they really did have a message our country needed to hear at the time. But after thirty years, rap is nothing but a parody, and rappers are these ridiculous caricatures who stand for nothing but their own personal gain.
Music Influences Who Students Become
Like I said before, it isn’t just rap music. Look up the lyrics of any of your kid’s songs, and you’ll be surprised, and a little confused as to what they are even about. You’ll also be mortified.
Here’s the thing: when I was in Argentina this year, watching the young boy and girl sway to a Tango love song, I couldn’t help watching them with awe and admiration. They were raised listening to this deep, cultural sound, and it had made them who they were. It was a part of them, and I thought about our kids back home, and what kind of music had bonded into their beings.
In Argentina, a poignant love song in the Tango is a part of every kid’s soul. In the US, the souls of our kids are made up of “She-she-she lick me like a lollipop (yeah).”
So it has been with a heavy heart that I have turned my back on rap. Although it hasn’t been too hard for me, because to me, Lil’ Wayne isn’t rap or hip-hop. He is nothing.
But the biggest issue here is that our kids don’t stand for anything anymore, because the music they listen to doesn’t stand for anything. They are focused on material wealth, and other things, because our music has lost its deeper themes. Today’s music is about sex, partying, and things, and nothing else.
So when I see all these kids on campus, and at the mall, and on the streets plugged into their iPods, I know they are bonding with the music that is absorbed into their bodies every day, and it is becoming a part of who they are. The problem is that they are absorbing guys like Lil’ Wayne, or as I call him, nothing. And they are becoming nothing, because that is what our music has become, especially rap, my first love.
As for me, I’m still going to listen to the hip-hop of my youth, and the underground artists out there who still have a message. But it will always be with mixed feelings. Maybe next time I teach Romeo and Juliet to my 9th graders, I’ll rap these lines:
“My only love sprung from my only hate, too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me. That I must love a loathèd enemy.”
Better yet, I’ll recite it to my students with some Tango music in the background.
How do you think music impacts our students? Share in the comments section!