The most important class I ever took: Rock-and-roll history
I'm not a musician. In fact, I am basically the opposite of a musician.
I am not the kind of person who is ever going to write an album or play in a band — I haven't even picked up an instrument since elementary school. I blanch at the sight of sheet music, and it would take a lot of coercing just to convince me to sing at karaoke. But still, there is little doubt in my mind that the most important class I ever took in my 12 years of grade school and four years of college was a semester on the history of rock and roll in eighth grade.
This isn't a dig at calculus (that comes later) or a swipe at my major, English. Rather, I would argue that learning about rock and roll is as important as learning about history, or creative writing, or critical thinking and analysis — because they are one and the same.
"Rock and roll history," of course, isn't a class typically offered at traditional junior highs or high schools. I happened to spend seventh through ninth grade at Northstar Middle School, what my school district deemed a "choice school" — basically, a public junior high that doesn't give grades and is presented to students as an alternative option.
At Northstar, we called our teachers by their first names and played capture the flag instead of running track. When I was there, the school was little more than a conglomerate of blue and silver portables tacked on to the back of the local high school, but to me it was a haven, a place where we were allowed to opt out of standardized tests and learn about the warlords of Japan rather than the history of Washington State.
Naturally, then, my English teacher was a New York transplant to the suburbs of Seattle, an ex-rocker who invigorated 14-year-olds with an impassioned obsession with George Orwell's 1984 and Alejandro Jodorowsky's Brazil. Vince also taught History of Rock and Roll, a course that was sneakily filed under "English" and not "elective" credits. While we didn't read any books in the class, we did do a lot of writing — not essays, but music reviews.
Starting with the roots of rock and roll, the course was a survey of the most influential music of the 21st century, right up to modern day. Most periods were spent with the lights off while Vince passed out sheets of lyrics and plugged his iPod into speakers to introduce us to Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The Kinks, Janis Joplin, The Talking Heads, The Sex Pistols, or Siouxsie and the Banshees. After the song finished, we would be called on to express our thoughts on the spot. Then we would respond to each other, sometimes in fiery debate (I once passionately defended Poison, a decision I now deeply regret). Sometimes we would do free-writes as the tracks played. For many of us, it was the first time we really listened to Heart or Pink Floyd or Bikini Kill, the first time we heard the name Merry Clayton or had one's mind blown by Ginger Baker's drums in "White Room."
Admittedly, Vince didn't invent the music class, but for most students in the country such courses tend to be hands-on experiences, like orchestra and band (and the quality of such courses can vary greatly). And while yes, learning an instrument changes the way your brain works, the "music [taught] in the schools is based on conservatory models of musical transmission with roots in Western European art music," Professor Clint Randles of the University of South Florida writes for The Huffington Post.
Randles points out that while the average American teen listens to about four and a half hours of music a day, that music tends to be digital — created through "software, keyboards, touch pads, guitars, and drum kits." But while teens might spend 18 percent of their lives listening to pop, hip-hop, rap, and rock, classical music only accounts for 1.4 percent of music sales in the world. As Randles says:
Yet, nearly all school music offerings are classical music-based.
So, we have a supply-and-demand crisis in school-supported music teaching and learning. Music classes do not offer what most students want to learn. As a music teacher in the state of Michigan for nine years (before becoming a music professor), I saw many students who loved music, but just didn’t love the school music options. Only 10 percent of students at the secondary level nationally end up enrolling in music classes. [The Huffington Post]
In other words, while students are attracted to music, they're alienated by the kind of music that schools decide is important. And maybe they're onto something.
The political impact of Tchaikovsky is, let's face it, basically irrelevant, but rock and roll is a rich history of reactions that still reverberate throughout our culture. The history of rock and roll is a history of race, of gender, of class, of protest, and it is tied deeply into the structure and struggles that underlie society's foundations. From the protest music of the Vietnam War era to the boundary-pushing sexuality of David Bowie in the 70s to the dirty urban angst of the 90s, chronologically tracing the turning points in rock music is not so different than flipping through the pages of a textbook.
The evolution of rock has the same tension, reaction, and reinvention that defines the Western world's own growth through the second half of the century: Punk, pushing back on the highly educated (and occasionally unlistenable) art and prog rock movements, reclaimed music for the masses by not giving a damn if one could sing or play a guitar. Prog rock itself was a response to the bubbly, if simplistic, guitar rock that proliferated on the radio in the '60s. And of course the very idea of rock and roll itself sponged up music that had long belonged to black artists although, with white musicians at the helm, it thereby became "acceptable" — and commercial (to white people, anyway).
Rock and roll bridges other conversations, too — about drugs, depression, sex, and domestic violence. While I probably listened to words and themes in the music that weren't yet at my level of maturity, I also realized for the first time how dangerous alcohol can be and to avoid horse tranquilizers at all costs. As I was eyeing the red-haired British boy on the opposite side of the classroom — my first real crush — I was also learning about female empowerment and my own sexuality by listening to the lyrics of Riot Grrrl tracks. Now that I think of it, every sex-ed class should come with a mixtape of The Breeders, Heavens to Betsy, and L7.
And I don't expect Vince had a difficult time convincing anyone that the History of Rock and Roll should be an English class. After all, as anyone who has listened to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell (or basically any hip-hop album at all) knows, lyrics are often literary feats of sound, rhythm, and word — not so different from poetic meter. "As human gods aim for their mark/Make everything from toy guns that spark/To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark/Easy to see without looking too far/That not much is really sacred," is as poetic and devastating as a line by Sylvia Plath. Many have argued convincingly that Dylan ought to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
And here's another reason why thinking and writing critically about music should be part of anyone's education: It's so hard — just short of describing a color to someone who can't see. The music editor of LA Weekly, which discontinued album reviews in 2011, justified the decision to Noisey in part by saying "it's very difficult to describe music in words. I could spend paragraphs describing a sound and it wouldn't compare to even a few moments listening to the track itself." Any reader of Pitchfork would agree.
We spend 12 years in school learning how to talk about literature (and thus know how to tell when a strange line in a T.S. Eliot poem ought to be Googled before deeming it pointless). But we never learn how to talk or write — and thereby think — about the very music that we plug into for hours and hours a day.
So let's shake off the notion that rock and roll, hip hop, or any other genre created after 1900 isn't important — didn't we do away with that kind of thinking years ago, anyway? Learning about The Dark Side of the Moon is as essential to being a citizen of the Western world as reading The Great Gatsby, and just as it is important to reinstate the impact of writers like Nella Larsen, one must turn an evaluative eye on X-Ray Spex, Grace Jones, and Yoko Ono. Grapple with Erykah Badu and Beyoncé, read up on Mitski and Yuna. Tear down the cannon. Rewrite it. Reexamine everything. Ask questions. Listen. Keep listening. And then maybe, if you're so inclined, make something of your own — I'll leave that part up to you.
But most importantly of all, let's bring rock and roll into the classroom. Let's take it as seriously as the history of the Cold War or the literature of the Civil Rights Movement — because rock and roll is those things.
And let's be honest: It's way more useful than calculus ever turned out to be.