Friday, October 9, 2009

Experimenting on Angsty Children

I've become increasingly interested in my students' music lives, particularly their knowledge (or lack of it) about bands that I consider classics of teen angst, like The Smiths, The Cure, and lots of others that kids have been wallowing to for a few decades. Over the years I've found a certain subset of students who are aware of these bands, usually through an older sibling or an aunt/uncle. Those kids tend to be the ones I would have considered the cool kids if I were in middle school with them now. Their bangs cover their eyes. They wear black. They smirk.

A few days ago I was teaching a class and I happened to mention Madonna (who knows why?) and a girl said, "Who's Madonna?" My jaw dropped for a moment and I was about to admonish her for her negligence when it hit me. Madonna doesn't translate. She's not actually timeless. Her songs from the 80s and early 90s sound dated now. I mean, who among us regularly pops in La Isla Bonita or True Blue and really rocks out? Once a year maybe, but there are other bands that we do still listen to with regularity, bands that still sound fresh, like the Pixies or Depeche Mode. It's no wonder she hasn't heard of Madonna. Madonna appeals to old people now, people who liked her when they were young. Young people don't care.

This realization made me think about which bands from my youth still sounded fresh, which ones would teenagers today latch on to and make their own the way I did with bands from before my time. Along with all the contemporary music I listened to back then, I also played my parents' Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin albums. I discovered Bob Marley as if he hadn't died with I was in kindergarten. Even a lot of the music I listened to as a surly teen was technically before my time. New Order's first album came out in '81, the Violent Femmes' in '83, and The Smiths' in '84. I was in grade school then and wouldn't discover these bands until junior high when my sister and my friends' siblings showed us what we needed to know to be cool.

So I am going to conduct a little experiment. I've created a playlist of 20 songs that I liked when I was 13. Songs that were cool. I'm going to burn a few CDs and give them to a few students who have already expressed some interest in one or more of the bands. I will ask them to listen to the CDs over the weekend and answer a few questions about them. The questions are:
  • Have you ever heard this song before?
  • Do you recognize the band/singer?
  • Can you name the band/singer?
  • Can you name the song?
  • Do you already listen to this band/singer?
  • Do you want to hear more like this?
  • Rate this song an a scale from 1-5, 1 meaning you hate its guts, 5 meaning it's freakin' great.
On Monday, we'll chat about what they thought. I want to know how deep their exposure has been, and I guess I also want to get a chance to be a part of exposing them further if they so choose. I am grateful to so many people who turned me on to cool music, and I think it'd be rewarding to hear what these kids like to listen to when they are staring at their ceilings, hating school, hating life, wishing for adulthood and freedom. Isn't that what we were thinking about then? It's the memory I have when I listen to so many of these songs. I'd also like to know how they know what they already know. Who's their source?

Wish me luck, and here's the playlist:
The Smiths - Girlfriend in a Coma
The Pixies - Wave of Mutilation
Violent Femmes - Blister in the Sun
Fugazi - Waiting Room
Pixies - Monkey Gone to Heaven
Nirvana - Breed
Violent Femmes - Gone Daddy Gone
The Cure - Why Can't I Be You?
Morrissey - Every Day is like Sunday
Depeche Mode - Personal Jesus
Morrissey - Suedehead
Depeche Mode - Never let me down again
U2 - Sunday Bloody Sunday
Nirvana - Heart Shaped Box
Echo & the Bunnymen - Lips Like Sugar
The Stone Roses - I Wanna Be Adored
Jane's Additcion - Jane Says
Dinosaur Jr. - The Wagon
The Church - Under the Milky Way
U2 - New Years Day