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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

February 03, 2010

A bunch of words about lyrics

I have a lot of problems doing English lessons or activities based on song lyrics. This is not to slam people who do manage to make a worthwhile lyric-focused English lesson. Paul Hullah (ex- Miyazaki U. colleague and currently teaching British Literature ad Culture at Meiji Gakuen) once gave a very good JALT presentation on using lyrics in the classroom, but this has never gelled for me personally. Even though I know that lyric lessons are, generally speaking, not considered to be hardcore English study and are thereby used largely as supplementary or novelty material, my own experiences using lyrics in the classroom have always left me cold and, yes, cynical.

Here's why:
Lyrics aren't discourse-based. That's just a fact. In teaching university students, my focus has always been upon helping learners understand how English is used as discourse and to start using it themselves in extended meaning-focused texts. These classes are usually content-based and very much purpose-oriented.

More to the point, people don't talk, write (except for ..... well.... songwriters), or use English in general, in the manner found in song lyrics! Choices of lyric are often made primarily to suit the beat or meter, for alliteration or rhyme, or even just because it rolls of the singer's tongue more easily. Many songwriters don't pretend to have their lyrics make complete sense or even make much sense at all. Many rock lyrics are built around initially improvised vocals in practice or jamsessions- it's not as if each phrase is chosen with a point to communicate.

As an example, two of my favourite lyricists are the early Brian Eno, and David Byrne (both with Talking Heads and post-TH as a solo artiste). But here's the catch- neither ever gave much credence to the 'message' of their lyrics but rather how the words sounded acoustically or rhythmically, as an enhancement to the music and not vice-versa- much like a modern painter might not paint an object but focus upon the textures and colours for their own sake. In this regard, Eno and Byrne are certainly amusing and clever lyricists but they don't have cohesive 'messages'. It's certainly not discourse in the normal sense. It may be artistic and amusing but as fodder for an EFL lesson??? No.

But even when lyricists are trying to make sense they often come up short- and the result is that much more bizarre. We are so inured to many such well-known lyrics that we overlook the absurdities they hold, oddities that would not bypass the filters of an EFL student. Try the middle section of The Eagles 'Take It Easy' on for size:
Well I'm standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (why Winslow, Arizona is central or in any way important or even meaningful here remains a mystery)
It's such a fine sight to see
There's a girl my lord
(My lord! An actual girl! Sounds like something the Comic Book Guy would say)
In a flatbed Ford slowing down to take a look at me (fair enough)
Come on baby. Don't say maybe. I've gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me (So let me get this straight, a girl in a truck, whom he has presumably never seen before is giving him the eye and his response is that HE MUST KNOW IF HER SWEET LOVE WILL SAVE HIM. Hmmm- I'm not surprised that he's hanging out on corners because this seems to be pretty psychotic behavior).

Or how about Elton John's 'Your Song', often presented as the quintessential romantic from-the-heart love ballad? (Although given Elton's state at the time he was probably dedicating it to cocaine).Let's take a look at some of the lyrics as Elton describes the intimacies of songwriting process, trying to come up with descriptions worthy of his love object:
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
'Cause a few of the verses well they got me quite cross

(As we all know when we are a struggling with writer's block the natural thing is to do is to climb onto one's roof and kick some moss down, which is marginally better than standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona I suppose).
Then, Elton appears to be getting whimsical:
If I was sculptor (OK. With this set-up we now expect something along the lines of 'I still could not capture your essence'- or something like that. But instead we get--- wait for it)
But then again no.
(What the hell is this??? It's not coherent, it's not grammatical, and it sure doesn't take the sculptor motif anywhere: "You know, if I was a sculptor. But I'm not." That's sure is a romantic sentiment, Elton!) And he continues:
Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show,
I know it's not much but it's the best I can do
(Hmmm. I understand that the bottom line is his modest dismissal of his lyric (does it come as any surprise?) but what on earth does the carney reference have to do with anything before or after? No wonder he's already apologizing for his song before he's even finished the thing!)

Now one teaching point that some teachers claim to get out of such songs is finding some colloquialisms or cultural nuances and 'teaching' them, using the song as a contextual backdrop. Well, maybe, but by the same token I could do the same thing by showing my students an NHL hockey game and use that to point out a few announcer colloquialisms and justify the whole match as being emblematic of Canadian culture... but, hey come on, this is waaaay down the priority list in terms of holistic, academic, well-rounded, English education.

While I'm on a roll, let me bring up two very popular pop songs that act as virtual poster boys for EFL lyrics but have started to grate on me:
1. Imagine-John Lennon
OK- this songs hangs together well- it is coherent and cohesive, it makes sense lyrically. There is a lot to sink one's philosophical teeth into here- the guy is saying that if there was no private property and no religion, there would be no murder and people would live as one. OK- I don't buy the simple panacea John describes and I don't think "all the people living for today" will be helpful in bringing about the brotherhood of mankind but at least there's material here for debate where one can legitmately say, "I think Lennon is full of it. This is pie-in-the-sky idealized crap. Human emotions aren't that simple...".

But what bothers me is that many teachers don't really put Imagine's lyrics up for this type of debate. Rather, it is treated as a default 'good thing' because, hey, John is talking about love, peace, and brotherhood! In other words, teachers are ignoring the actual lyrical content and focusing instead on the 'correctness' of the sentiment, with all the edu-political baggage that entails.

2. Tom's Diner- Suzanne Vega-
This must be the all-time standard EFL classroom lyric, in no small part due to Vega's incredibly clear diction. But what irks me about this fleeting, stream of consciousness, slice of life lyric is that I regularly hear EFL teachers say they are using it to TEACH the present continuous (or present progressive, if you prefer) -"I am sitting in the morning... I am waiting at the counter...".
Well sorry sensei, but first if EFL students can actually hear and decode the lyrics THEY ALREADY KNOW THE PRESENT CONTINUOUS! Trust me on this. Kids absorb this pattern from as far back as Eigo De Asobo on TV or neighbourhood Eikaiwa introductory classes.

Secondly, this pattern is not actually used much in real speech or writing. Think about it. How often do you say, "I am ---ing"? Perhaps in response to the question, "What are you doing?", and, discursively speaking, that's about it! There's no productive, discourse-based, natural reason to use a string of "I am ---ing" patterns. Also, generally speaking, a narrative is in the past tense unless you are specially marking it for literary effect- as is Suzanne Vega.
(Sidenote- Luka is a far superior Suzanne Vega song for students).

On the other hand, one of the bigger benefits of lyrics in an EFL classroom is probably the internalization of stress and meter that students can attain if they become comfortable with a certain lyric. For example, although I'm sure we can all agree that the Spice Girls' 'Wannabe' is one of the two or three most execrable pop songs ever written, you cannot fit "So, tell me what you want, what you really really want" into the number of beats allowed if you are using katakana pronunciation. You just cannot. You'll go about 15 over the limit. It really forces you to acknowledge English sentence stress and de-stress patterns.

[Tangent 1- I don't think the above is the case with Japanese lyrics. Since Japanese- being mora-based- is already quite regularly timed in normal speech, sudden and unusual stresses tend to occur quite often in J songs if the note demands it. Note how often the usually de-stressed 'shi' in 'ashita' (or any similar mid-word 'shi') can be drawn out unnaturally. Same with the usually imperceptible (to many English-speaker ears at least) 'o-u' combinations. In fact it sounds similar to the way in which many Japanese-language beginners might (mis)pronounce the language at first (wakarima-soooo-ka?).
End tangent 1]

[Tangent 2- I realize that the negative pay off with students internalizing the stress patterns of many pop lyics is that they often start to use 'wanna' and 'gonna' in situations where it is better not to sound inelegant- and it often sounds forced and artificial as well, especially if the rest of their English phonetic system hasn't caught up with those popular contractions. End tangent 2]

Ok, a change of pace-
A good classroom lyric (obviously I think there are a some more worthy candidates if one is going to embark on a lyric lesson) is usually a narrative, one that is cohesive and well structured, as a narrative should be (meaning it NARRATES) and is not just laid out as a chant over top a beat. Two of the best artists in this mode are:

1. The Handsome Family-
No, not the brothers Hanson (don't even THINK about associating the two!) but the ultimate Americana Noir husband and wife duo. The lyrics are the focal point of the music and they are incredibly rich, bleak, distressing, and highly literate. They are also very very American. Brett Sparke's voice is sonorous and rich, and so is easy on learner ears. They also tend to focus upon narrative and character sketches, providing a framework that allows EFL students to grasp and appreciate what's going on in the songs.

2. Richard Thompson-
In many ways, Thompson can be thought of as a British equivalent to the Handsome Family. Highly literate, very English, also dark and brooding, his songs are full of richly drawn characters represented in captivating narrative, all expressed with a booming baritone.

All this translates well into the EFL classroom if one MUST do a lyric lesson.



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Comments

When I was studying Portuguese a few years ago, my teacher used a famous Brazilian song called "O Mar" (The Sea) in class. I and my classmates were all beginners, but we felt such a sense of achievement because we could recognize some words and understand the lyrics. We were also able to discuss in our limited Portuguese our feelings about the sea, about famous singers, about sad songs. We begged the teacher to play the song again and again....I've used songs with my Japanese students and there seems to be a sense of frustration when they can't get every word (for example, when I do a cloze exercise with the lyrics). They seem to "shut down" and, well, you can forget any kind of discussion. I know it's cultural, but it's so disheartening sometimes. I'd never base a lesson around music, just use it as an "extra". Some songs that might work are "Top of the World" and "Yesterday". One of my Japanese friends uses "Hand in Pocket" by Alanis Morisette. By the way, it's my Japanese students who seem to have the most problems with this type of lessons. Not the Korean students or Europeans. Not even the Middle Eastern students...

Thanks for the comment Dave.

I should probably point out that my focus in this blog entry was on lyrics, moreso than 'music' per se. I can understand the attraction of music in the classroom and the way in which songs and chants can cause synapses to fire. It's the choice and treatment of lyrics indeoendently from the underlying music that I was addressing.

I remember the story I heard from an Anglican chaplain who visited a woman hospitalized in a deep coma and who recited some catechisms from the Anglican prayer book to her. While chanting these supplications and prayers, which very much have a song-like quality to them, the woman started mumbling along with the prayers- they were embedded like a song into the deeper recesses of her brain and eventually helped to draw her out of the coma (no religious magic here, just the connection of the familar, repeated chant).

The almost subliminal power of music on the brain is well-documented in Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, among other books and studies.

Not much to add here except to say that I think teachers who use music in their lessons will often choose songs that they like, not necessarily songs that have any educational value. I think the same is true for TV shows and movies. I question the value of having students watch clips of the Simpsons or, say, Top Gun. I know there will plenty who disagree with me on this but I just think these types of activities are well beyond the level/abilities of the majority of uni students in Japan.

Fire away if you disagree!

Though I admit it takes a certain skill from a teacher to have meanigful lyric based english lessons with half of the class still awake and responsive for the reinforcement activities later, I would still want my students to discover the concept, lyric based or simply, poetry, by engaging their curiosity and honing their performance skills thus sparing me the burden of telling them, hey...guys this is important or asking HOTS question like how inference answers fleeting nature of life? In Quesci philippines, students perform in a monthly poetry slam. It is an animating literature program of the science high school. Students perform their own written poetry in the schoolgrounds and much talent is obviously demanded from them.   Their written works are sometimes an offshoot of  a poetry lesson like free verse or Ben Johson's. 

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