Rock History, What I Leave Out: An Introduction

August 24, 2008

In my non-blogging life, I teach a semester-long course on the history of rock & roll. Somewhere in the middle of the first semester teaching it, I realized I should have a disclaimer presented on the first day of class, written in bold letters:  While many, many bands are worth studying, they do not all fit into a semester long course.

The realization that they will not learn about their favorite band (even though they already know a lot about them) often comes as a shock to students, since what they like tends to be the center of their musical universe, not a moon circling a planet in a distant solar system in a galaxy far, far away.  What, you don’t teach about Christian metal?  No class on Jane’s Addiction?  Why can’t we learn about ‘80s hair bands, like Ratt and Poison?  That would be so cool!

But, even discounting the peripheral bands that students make the center of their lives, I inevitably have to leave important people, bands, and even entire genres out. One semester means roughly 24 classes, an hour and a half each.  If I want to make the class a rock & roll history course and connect the music to the social events of the day, i.e., why it is important to study rock & roll in the first place, then I have to talk about things other than just the music itself.  Otherwise, students make the same mistake that the Republican campaign did in 1984, overlooking the sense of bitter, bitter irony in Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”  Or they go through life not knowing who Medgar Evers or James Meredith were, and that makes me sad, because it’s pretty easy to listen to 1960s folk music in order to learn who those people were (even if some of the folk is a little overly didactic).

And, because a lot of my students don’t come to class armed with a knowledge of cultural history, I spend a lot of time on things that seem pretty simple to me, like learning that the shit economy in the early 1990s was part of seeing grunge (and Riot Grrrl, though that’s one of the things I don’t talk about) as related to Generation X.  Or that soul music is integrally connected to the Civil Rights movement.  Or that heavy metal owes a lot to the blues, but also a lot to the 1960s counterculture.  Or that punk is just one iteration of the frustration with the death of the counterculture.

Also, because many of them don’t come to class armed with a knowledge of pop music history—and that’s OK, because that’s what the class is, and I don’t expect a great background in it—I have to start with the basics.  I want everyone in my class to leave it being excited about music, but, just as importantly, able to talk intelligently about it with others, and this requires depth (and sometimes repetition).  And thus I have to leave more out.

So, as part of an ongoing series, I’m going to write about the subjects, artists, and genres I typically have to leave out.  These are all things that I consistently want to have time to teach about, but don’t get to because I want my students to have an understanding of the broad strokes of pop music writ large in history.  While the things I leave out are dessert, a tasty, valuable dessert, the things I teach are higher in nutrients—and still quite tasty.

The first artist of “Rock History, What I Leave Out” will be David Bowie.  So, come back on Tuesday to see my reasons for excluding a man I think is brilliant!

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One Response to “Rock History, What I Leave Out: An Introduction”

  1. Dan said

    You’re always going to be forced to leave things out due to time constraints.

    Back when I was teaching freshmen to love books, I found myself weeping at least once a semester over the discarded favorites that I had to ignore in service to the MIGHTY SEMESTER CALENDAR–you mean I can’t teach Shakespeare AND Marlowe? Austen AND Dickens? Boo, university. Seriously, seriously boo.

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