Serious Listening: How I Created an Army of Music Writers

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Serious Listening

How I Created an Army of Music Writers

by Kaya Oakes
illustration by Nicole Neditch

THE REOCCURRING ANXIETY nightmare I have the night before any semester of teaching begins goes something like this: I walk into class on the first day to find that only a handful of students have enrolled in my section, and all of them take one look at me and walk out of the room. I can see why I worry about this; although I’ve been teaching writing for nearly a decade, I get mistaken for a student so often that I’ve considered having a T-shirt made up that says “faculty” on the front. This anxiety peaked in October of last year when I assembled a syllabus consisting of the following texts: Our Band Could Be Your Life, by Michael Azzerad; Chronicles, by Bob Dylan, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, by Jeff Chang, and Adam Mansbach’s Angry Black White Boy. Before you assume I’m a professor of music, think again: I teach research writing and composition at The Top Public University in America, as our stationery likes to remind us. And sometime during the last year, during a collaborative fellowship with the University libraries designed to improve research writing pedagogy at Berkeley, I hit upon the idea that I could wed one of the things I love—music, and good or decent writing about music—to what I do for work. And I assumed the administration would laugh me right out of the room.

When the class was approved, however, I was still worried: Who was going to sign up for it? Again, the anxiety nightmares began, this time featuring a group of kids who looked eerily like the clerks at the local hipster record emporium, all of whom laughed me off within seconds of my appearance. But then something unexpected happened: The course website got people’s attention. By November, I already had a waiting list of over 30 students. Perhaps this was because I’d dropped the key phrases “hip hop” and “emo” into the course description. Perhaps also undergraduates were tired of writing courses themed around the holocaust, dysfunctional families, suicidal female authors, and so on—the litany of “serious” course topics that instructors tend to fall back on simply because it’s easier to come up with writing and research assignments with those than it is with topics that night be fun to teach. Let’s be frank, though: The students who enrolled in my class thought it was going to be easy. Writing about music? Easy, right?

It can be. I write about music for this magazine, and in the past did so for other magazines, and if I was writing a quick record review, it was easy. When Kitchen Sink came together, however, and we decided we would not run reviews of anything, and instead feature essays about media, art and culture, some of us realized how ill-prepared we were to construct intelligible arguments or analyses about things we loved so much. When you’re that deeply immersed in something, your critical facilities are compromised, and it’s easy to veer toward hyperbole. Other than debating about records and bands in bars, I hadn’t engaged in a long-form conversation about music in a really long time. In fact, I was pretty sick of music in general, and had fallen into a pattern of listening to the same stuff over and over, or listening to nothing but NPR. So a big part of planning this class was ultimately selfish: If I could engage students in thinking about, writing about, and learning about music, maybe I could start doing the same after a long lapse.

The other pertinent factor in wanting to teach this class happened about three days before it started: I turned 35. This milestone may or may not have held any real significance outside of my brain; however, the apathy toward music described above has strong roots in the fact that I would try and identity with someone like Conor Oberst, but inevitably find that I had lost touch with the emotional sensibility of someone so young. Thirty-five, in the eyes of the 18- to 22-year-olds who crowded my classrooms on that first day of class in January, is pretty fucking old. Yet in all of the texts I was working with, the musicians had something in common: They had all operated in a musical world that existed outside of the mainstream, and then their genres had “crossed over.” Turning 35 felt to me like crossing over into adulthood, like it or not. So even though I am still not old enough to be the age of my students’ parents, there was a musical chasm between us that sometimes threatened to swallow me whole.

This gap became more apparent within the first month of class, when my students (who, to my immense relief, not only stayed in the room after the first day but turned out to be anything but obnoxious hipster types—the variety of personalities, musical tastes, socioeconomic backgrounds and tolerance for my rambling speaking style was vast, but every one of my students was smart, informed and curious—and I’m not kissing their asses, since the class is over) almost universally admitted they had never really listened to the author of our first text, Bob Dylan. Now, I know Dylan is old enough to be their granddad, but still… hadn’t they ever heard “Like a Rolling Stone” in the student brewpub? Nope. Hadn’t they seen the “video” for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that’s been copied a million times? Not really. Other than a few students who’d pulled Dylan albums off their parents’ shelves in high school and liked them, for the most part I had to teach Dylanology 101 from scratch. Chronicles is not a perfect book—only its first and last sections, focused on Dylan at the cusp of fame, are exemplary—but the students liked it, and liked Dylan’s music and sense of humor as well, and they wrote interesting and even compelling analyses of his albums.

Punk was a little harder to handle. Azzerad’s book is flawed by its very structure. It’s not the bands themselves who presented a problem for my students—they admired the ethics of the Minutemen and Fugazi, the endurance of Sonic Youth, and the pop sensibilities of the Replacements—but the fact that in every chapter, the arc of each band is pretty much the same wore all of us down in discussion. “So they get in the van, the van breaks down, they get an offer from a label, then someone overdoses/dies/they break up” might be a great Behind the Music episode, but stalls even the liveliest class debate.

Hip hop, however, the third and final musical genre we worked with, comprised the largest chunk of our semester and provided for the greatest number of awesome days in class. Not only did both Jeff Chang and Adam Mansbach agree to come and talk with the students, but I was also constantly reminded that hip hop, a musical movement that had begun to take off when I was in junior high, is the primary cultural force in the generation of people that I teach. So every day brought some new topic to the table—whether or not mainstream hip hop sucks (general consensus = yes), which artists were still making breakthrough and relevant music (Little Brother, Talib Kwali, Dead Prez, and Kanye West), whether or not MTV killed hip hop (probably), and the central question of Chang’s book, whether the hip-hop generation is or is not a fiction. If my students are firmly in the sights of the advertisers who target hip hop at its money-hemorrhaging demographic, I was pleased to find out that the voices of artists of (ahem) early-middle-age, like Rakim, Ice Cube (before the kiddie flicks), and Public Enemy were still relevant to their world perspective. And they had tremendous respect for Jeff Chang’s book, a heavily researched tome that manages to hold the attention of even the most Sidekick-and-PlayStation addicted early-adult audience. “This,” I told them several times, “is an example of how you can write about music and connect it to things that matter in your world.” In their essays, students linked bands and genres and ethical issues in music to sociology and politics and economics and race. They did cutting-edge research: Most of them found that in our school’s library of 10 million books, there was little-to-no serious scholarly work about contemporary music after the ’60s and ’70s. They had to create that scholarly work, and, for the most part, they worked hard at it.

Of course, I too had to construct that scholarly work, to make the course topic “real” in the eyes of academia. By the time the semester ended, I was completely exhausted. In spite of feeling like I had reconnected to music and had exposed 40 young people to new ideas about being critical listeners and consumers, I had also worked harder on assignments, lectures and discussions than I ever had before. “This is a serious topic” became my mantra, even when I was using Too Short lyrics as an example of simile, which meant that I had to work overtime to develop a pedagogy for a topic that was relatively unstudied in an academic sense. While it is nearly impossible to teach anyone how to write well about music, it is entirely possible to teach people to listen and think and write critically about it. And even if I never teach this class again, I take comfort in knowing that the people who took it at the very least now know the band setting for their college’s radio station, how to differentiate between good and bad lyrics, how to spot a musician who’s purely a commodity versus a genuine artist, and, best of all, how to defend their own taste—whether I agree with it or not.

“College Writing R4B: Adventures in Contemporary Music” will be offered again in the spring of 2007, pending budgetary approval. In the meantime, Kaya Oakes is one of Kitchen Sink’s senior editors, and she now remembers to charge her iPod regularly. 

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