Saturday, December 26, 2009

Beatles Projects [Original Post Restored]
Sorry, Christmas got in the way of finishing this. I'm curious what you all think about what The Beatles' best song is - the usuals and the lurkers - if you are a Beatles fan especially. This post is stupidly long, so I can't blame you if you just skip down to the end to see what my students came up with and why.

First, I have to back up a little and bore you a bit with the actual rationale and theme for the class, and why i had the kind of students I did. At my school, all students now take a core Gen-Ed curriculum that includes a series of classes designed to spread across all four years, based not on subject matter as much as different learning emphases.

In their first year, every freshman takes a writing class from an English professor, and a "first year seminar" that could be taught by a teacher in any department. Every first-year seminar is held together by a theme and a central text (Different every year. This year, all freshmen read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma") and a handful of films they all watch. As sophomores, they all must take 2 classes one term that are "linked" together: professors will have made some effort to coordinate. Some History professors link with Literature classes, for example; there are lots to choose from.

I'm not sure what Seniors are required to do (some kind of "capstone" experience), but the Junior seminar class is one that emphasizes collaborative, and "problem-based learning." The idea is to make the course interdisciplinary in a way that invites them to bring their own majors, perspectives, knowledge to the subject matter (students are encouraged to take Junior seminars outside their major), with the task of approaching a central problem, in dialogue with others presumably bringing their own perspectives. My Beatles class was one of these Junior seminars. Assigning a problem for the semester, and emphasizing group work, are not things I would ordinarily do, but were required elements that fulfilled general education goals.

As for the content of the class, I had my own interests in approaching The Beatles as subject matter, mindful that my students would not all be music students (5 of the 20 turned out to be), or necessarily be musicians of any kind. I couldn't make it a class with any technical music discussions, and didn't want it to be an overly history-ish class (which still would have been interesting), or turn it into a Beatles trivia festival (which would not have been). I wanted the class to be somehow focused on the appreciation of the music: the experience of listening to it, thinking about it, knowing it, while considering important context that helps shape that level of appreciation.

So, my starting point was this: consensus says The Beatles were great. The Greatest Band Ever, even. If that's true, what makes them so? What is the substance behind the canonization? Is it in the DNA of the music itself? Is it just their personalities? Just George Martin's (Geoff Emerick's) expertise? Just Brian Epstein's brilliance? Just the luck of the right worldwide musical attitude at the right time? To be a true exploration in this direction, we had to be open to the possibility that in fact they were not so great after all, and open to the likelihood that they at least weren't always great.

This is a concern I have that's not limited to The Beatles. We regularly teach and assume greatness in the arts, and in music especially. Yet, we rarely say why, at least not with anything more than what can sound like trivia (Beethoven expanded the orchestra; some of his symphonies have more than 4 movements; sometimes there is no break between them, blah blah). Once in the canon, it's just assumed worthy of praise. Music education rarely criticizes, say, Beethoven's 8th Symphony for being a bit lame compared to the others. It's even more rare that we ask why the 7th is so great in comparison. And it's easy to see why we don't: it's hard to say why. Really hard. And puts the person leading the charge in a pretty vulnerable position, which teachers rarely enjoy.

It would invite conversation that doesn't have a simple or, surely, fact-centric answer or conclusion. It asks students to be aware of and develop what they think about the merit of a song, rather than asking them to remember what we tell them is important. It's harder to grade. And it shows some Very Serious Evaluations to be based on little or nothing that can be demonstrated, or based on reasoning that can be asked away by a determined (and usually miserably cynical) adversary. That's because no matter how you answer the question "What Makes [insert music] Great?", they can respond by firing back: "what's so great about that?", as they can to any response you give that question, and so on. That approach can be an important turn designed to explore deeper and expose our own assumptions, or it can be a rhetorical ploy without constructive purpose except to question the whole notion of musical value in the first place.

And on some lame level, these cynics do have a point. After you dig through enough "what's so great about that" questions, the support for artistic evaluation will indeed show itself to be resting on essentially groundless belief - like all values. (It is - as the story goes - turtles the rest of the way down.) The issue really is whether you take this realization to be the end of the conversation (as some do - It's all just opinion, they scoff), or take it to be the beginning, the opening that makes the conversation possible at all (as I do).

On another level, I wanted to subtly raise the issue of what any of that stuff means to regular people like us who just like music. Is saying a song is good, or great, the same as saying I like it? How do we think about differences or overlap between those two kinds of evaluation? Is close listening necessarily the best? Or the best indicator of great music? What's the other way to listen?

[As an aside (yet another), this last issue was a difficult one for me, influenced by a book I read over the summer in preparation called "How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll" by Elijah Wald. You have to read a book with that name, right? As it turns out, it's a bit inaptly titled (inapt if the point is to indicate the content, maybe not if the point is to sell books). The subtitle is more on point: "An Alternative History of American Popular Music." The Beatles aren't even really discussed until near the end. There, he makes the case that popular music was on the precipice of a huge cultural breakthrough, bridging the black-white divide, when - inspired by Bob Dylan mostly - The Beatles stopped making rock and roll music and started making rock music, leading the masses of white American youth toward music that wasn't for dancing but was for listening, reopening a huge cultural gash that persists today as strongly as ever.

That's a huge oversimplification of his argument, but the basics. He notes that in 1964, for the first time, Billboard stopped segregating charts with a separate list for "R & B" and "Pop", because so many of the same tracks had come to be on both lists. But by the end of that year in which The Beatles conquered America and first heard Bob Dylan, things had changed drastically enough that Billboard separated them again in 1965, and they remain so. It doesn't help, he says, that pop music histories and criticism are written primarily by white men who, well, don't really dance. So naturally this development toward "popular music as art" is constantly reinforced as one of great progress, rather than one of great cultural divide, as he sees it.]

Of course, in Beatles class, we didn't have philosophical discussions like that every day (what might be great about this? what might be great about that? what's the meaning of great?); in fact, we almost never did, directly. But that was sort of the underlying terrain the class was designed to walk across. My goals were for them to develop an intense familiarity with Beatles albums, and to develop an awareness of ways of listening and ways of evaluating. When the class was over, I wanted them to have thoughts and opinions and experiences to bring to the question "What's So Great About The Beatles?" (that was the name of the course).

So, instead of picking and choosing their most influential albums to study (which would have presumed the answer to the question), we went through every studio album and major single (at least the A-Sides). They had to know the music well enough to pass listening quizzes along the way, and for most albums (we did about one a week), they had to bring 2 paragraphs: one explaining their favorite lyrical moment and the other their favorite musical moment. What do they like, but also why do they like it. Many of them (like most of us) have lots of answers for the first part of that question, and not many for the second. Others have trouble with both halves.

Each week, they discussed their choices in their groups first and then we talked about them together as a class, trying to pull out the most astute observations, and I usually shared my favorites as well. That gave me a chance to introduce some very basic musical concepts to build on over the semester they could all appreciate and experience, regardless of musical background: meter, song form, instrumentation and texture, mode, melodic contour, things like that, as well as introduce them to some musical context - other recordings that especially seemed to inspire certain songs of The Beatles. Without really telling them explicitly how to listen, I was covertly trying to suggest ways of listening that I think all are rewarded by The Beatles at times.

All of that to say, I wanted the class to focus on their listening experience - both to enhance it hopefully, and to empower their evaluations and opinions with vocabulary and, well, practice.

That's the background for their project, which I told them about early in the semester and was presented by them during final exams earlier this month. They had 2 tasks. The first - which was due weeks before - was to develop a theory or set of criteria for what makes a great song, and argue for it, anticipating and answering obvious objections. Then, using the criteria, they had to determine which of The Beatles' original tracks was their greatest, and defend their selection. That was the problem for them to solve, essentially: which Beatles song was their greatest? Obviously, depending on their criteria, it could require research, could require contemplation, argument, or just judgment.

I had 4 groups of 5 and they all chose marvelously different approaches, emphasizing vastly different values. They had varying degrees of success justifying their choices, but they all offered substantial attempts to support their theories and final decision. All groups chose to list several criteria for greatness, which proved to be a difficulty in some cases: finding a song that did all of those supposedly important things well. But each had a different focus and priority. Here's a summary:

1. One group emphasized the issue of a timeless and universal message. They felt that to be a truly great song required a certain amount of simplicity within a unique perspective, so that there could be both honest personal expression that makes it different from every other song, but with wide accessibility and appeal, and a relatable message. I read their theory and predicted they would come up with "All You Need is Love", or "Hey Jude". Instead, they argued for "In My Life" and made a decent case.

2. Another group focused on the need for creativity, but emphasized that it be restrained enough that it could be appreciated by a wide audience. They were concerned with both musical and lyrical creativity. They chose "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". When I found out they were picking that song, I thought it would be the hardest defense, but they did the best job of any group.

3. The third group prioritized universal appeal and impact, and took a...transcendent view of "greatness", one that showed itself in the enormity of its effect on culture and the public. They picked "Hey, Jude" after studying global sales charts, number of cover versions, press mentions over time and a few other things like that.

4. The last group - somewhat similar to the 2nd - argued for the importance of creativity, but was less concerned that it be accomplished within a widely appealing framework. What was more important to them was that, to be great, a song had to challenge traditional boundaries. They found in "A Day in the Life" multiple genre-busting, somewhat experimental elements, from song structure to orchestration to narrative voice and other things.

We had a decent discussion about their process of deciding, and of coming to a consensus as a group. Most of them expressed some surprise at their group's final answer - like they didn't come out of it with a song they expected going in, but were pleased with it. Pretty much everyone agreed that the song they identified as the Beatles' greatest was not their favorite personally. And we finished with me arguing that what makes The Beatles so great is that just about no matter what your definition of great music is - as the diversity of philosophies in the final projects demonstrated - they offer shining, powerful examples in their catalog that would qualify as a good candidate.

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