This summer, I’m teaching Cultural Significance of Rap and Rock at Montclair State University. It’s my first time teaching it, and it’s also the first time anyone has taught it completely online. The course is cross-listed under music and African-American studies. Here’s a draft of my syllabus, omitting details of the grading and such. I welcome your questions, comments and criticism.
The course has twelve modules. For each module, you will do some reading, listen to some music, and watch some video. You will then do a series of discussion posts. These will include:
- Writing short essays
- Creating playlists
- Making online music (don’t worry, no experience required)
You are also required to respond to at least two discussion posts by your classmates per module. In an online class, these posts and responses have to do the work of classroom discussion. I will not be grading you on your grammar and spelling. I’m more interested in whether you are engaging with the material, asking questions, and learning meaningfully.
There will not be any exams. Instead, you will be asked to listen and think critically, to find information independently, and to consider difficult political and philosophical questions with no easy answers.
The text is What’s That Sound? An Introduction To Rock And Its History by John Covach and Andrew Flory. It is a very thorough history of rock and related pop styles. It comes with a useful online playlist. However, its coverage of hip-hop is limited, so we will also be reading extensively online.
A note about listening to music for the class (and for your life generally): You will be able to do all of your listening via streaming on Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud, and so on. While streaming is convenient, the sound quality is not so good. Laptop speakers don’t handle bass frequencies, and earbuds usually don’t either. To fully experience the music, listen to CDs or vinyl through decent headphones or real speakers whenever possible.
Module 1: Your Music
You probably signed up for this course because you have a personal interest in rock or hip-hop, or both. This makes teaching easy for me, because people always learn best when they’re personally invested in the material. We’ll start the class by having you tell me and each other about your personal tastes and sensibilities.
Module 1: Read, Listen and Watch
Covach and Flory introduction
Discussion 1a: Favorite Song
Pick a song that you find exceptionally pleasurable or meaningful. Embed a link to it in your post, and in a couple of paragraphs, explain why you like it. Is it the lyrics? The melody? The beat? The instrumentation? Does it remind you of a certain time or place or person?
Discussion 1b: Least Favorite Song
Pick a song that you find exceptionally annoying or distasteful. Embed a link to it in your post, and in a couple of paragraphs, explain why you like it. Is it the lyrics? The melody? The beat? The instrumentation? Does it remind you of a certain time or place or person?
Discussion 1c: What Makes Music Good?
Describe aspects of music that make it good, by your standards. Give a few examples of artists or songs who you think embody the highest musical quality.
Discussion 1d: What Makes Music Cool?
Describe aspects of music that make it cool or popular. List some songs that are hot right now among your friends. Is cool the same as popular? Or does a song have to obscure for it to be cool? Can a bad song be cool?
Module 2: Rhythm
It’s sometimes said that rock is European harmony combined with African rhythm. Rock began as dance music, and rhythm continues to be its most important component. This is even more true of hip-hop, where harmony is minimal and sometimes completely absent.
Most rock and nearly all hip-hop is organized in groups of four, counted simply as “one two three four, one two three four.” In rock, the kick (bass) drum usually plays on beats one and three, while the snare drum plays on beats two and four. This accenting of the second and fourth beats is called the backbeat, and it’s a rhythmic style common to all American vernacular music, including blues, country, jazz, R&B, gospel, funk, techno, and of course, hip-hop. Beats one and three are the “strong” beats, and in many kinds of music, those are the beats you clap on. But in American pop, you clap on the backbeat.
Module 2: Read, Listen and Watch
Covach and Flory Introduction – Who’s Playing What: Instrumentation In Rock (pp 18-19)
Explains the ultra-important concept of swing, and how it has changed over the past decades. Don’t worry about the technical music stuff, just watch the videos and listen to the music.
The great blues musician Taj Mahal explains to a German audience how to clap on the backbeat. (“Schvartze” is German for “black.”)
Another European audience is clapping on the wrong beats. Harry slips an extra beat in at 0:44, realigning the audience with the correct beats.
This traditional Afro-Cuban rhythm is everywhere in rock and hip-hop: in the drums, of course, but also in the rhythms of guitar strumming patterns, basslines, horn and keyboard parts, and everywhere else.
Son clave is also known as the Bo Diddley beat. This is why.
More Bo Diddley beat from the 1950s.
A strong Bo Diddley beat on guitar and harmonica is a good way to evoke early rock and roll, as U2 does here.
A more current usage of son clave in the snare drum pattern.
Discussion 2a: Groove Pizza
Use the Groove Pizza app to create a beat. You can start with one of the Specials, use the Shapes, or just work by trial and error. Copy and paste the link to your beat into your post. What musical style or genre do you think your beat belongs to?
Discussion 2b: Breakbeat Science
Choose one of the beats discussed on this page. Pick a song from the post that you like particularly and post a link to it, along with the breakbeat that it samples.
Discussion 2c: Rock Beats
Post links to three rock songs with great beats, along with the names of the drummers.
Discussion 2d: Hip-Hop Beats
Post links to three hip-hop songs with great beats, along with the names of the producers.
Module 3: What is Rock?
You probably know intuitively what rock is. But it is surprisingly difficult to come up with a clear cut definition. Does rock need to have a backbeat? Does it need to use guitars? Does it need to be blues-based? Where is the boundary between rock and blues? Between rock and country? Between rock and R&B? Are Aretha Franklin or Miles Davis rock because they performed in rock venues to rock audiences? Is “When I’m Sixty-Four” by the Beatles a rock song because it’s on a rock album? Is “On The Run” by Pink Floyd a rock song or a techno song? Is “Rapture” by Blondie a rock song or a disco song? Is “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers a rock song or a country song? Belle & Sebastian and Iron Maiden both play “rock” – does that mean they are meaningfully playing the same kind of music?
Module 3: Read, Listen and Watch
Covach Chapter 2
Chuck Berry combined blues with country in order to appeal to both black and white audiences. The combination was startling in the 1950s, but now it just sounds like rock and roll to us. Berry’s showmanship is as distinctive as his music.
Another artist who combined country and blues, and who had an attention-grabbing stage presence. Also, like many white artists of his era, he borrowed liberally from black music. Compare Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog.”
The music starts at 3:00, but it’s worth seeing the whole thing to get an idea of what TV was like in 1964. It’s interesting that the second song, “Till There Was You,” sounds more like a Latin ballad than a rock song. To understand why the audience was so excited about the Beatles, watch the rest of the show and get a sense of how stuffy and dull popular culture was at the time. It’s also interesting to consider how much the Beatles created the template for boy bands like One Direction. Certainly, no one in 1964 could have predicted that fifty years later, the Beatles would widely be regarded as artistic geniuses. Will Zayn Malik someday be as respected an artist as John Lennon?
Sometimes comedy gets at the truth best.
Discussion 3a: Classic Rock
Choose a “classic” rock song, defined here as one recorded before 1996. Why was it popular when it was released? What makes it meaningful to you now?
Discussion 3b: Modern Rock
Choose a “current” rock song, defined here as one recorded in the past five years. What makes the song sound current, as opposed to a classic rock song?
Discussion 3c: Rock Song Structures
Choose a rock song and analyze its structure. Follow the example of the song analyses in Covach and Flory. Give a list of the sections with their start times. For example:
2:05 Guitar Solo
2:44 Chorus x2
Sometimes it’s not clear which section is which. Not all songs have clear verses and choruses. Describe the different sections as best you can.
Discussion 3d: Rock Movie Review
Write a short review of a movie about rock music and culture. It can be a documentary or a fictional story. Examples: Stop Making Sense, This Is Spinal Tap, The Last Waltz. You can find more suggestions here and here.
Module 4: What is hip-hop?
As with rock, you probably have a good intuitive idea of what hip-hop is. And as with rock, there is a great deal of confusion around the boundaries. What are the elements necessary for music to be hip-hop? Does it need to include rapping over a beat? Rapping, talking rhythmically over music, is much older than hip-hop. When blues, rock, or R&B singers rap, should we retroactively consider that to be hip-hop? What about spoken-word poetry? Does hip-hop need to include rapping at all? Do singers like Mary J. Blige and Aaliyah qualify as hip-hop? Is Run-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith hip-hop or rock? Is “Love Lockdown” by Kanye West hip-hop or electronic pop? Do the rap sections of “Rapture” by Blondie or “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift count as hip-hop?
Module 4: Read, Listen and Watch
Covach chapter 12 – The Emergence of Rap (pp 448 – 457)
At least among Spotify listeners.
Rap is much older than hip-hop.
James Brown documentary, especially from 1:51 onwards
If a single person can be said to have laid the groundwork for hip-hop, it’s James Brown. His black pride, sharp style, swagger, and blunt directness prefigure the rapper persona, and his records are a bottomless source of classic beats and samples.
Spoken word poets like Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets were another crucial hip-hop precursor.
The great DJ beat juggles and scratches “God Make Me Funky” by the Headhunters and “Take Me To The Mardi Gras” by Bob James (though the latter song had to be edited out of the movie for legal reasons.)
This video captures the birthplace of hip-hop with crystal clarity: New York City in the pre-Giuliani era.
Kanye was an emerging star when this was filmed, and far from the most famous rapper in the movie.
A British rapper of Caribbean descent. This video is one in a series of freestyles.
A look at the rhyming methods of some of the greatest emcees.
Discussion 4a: Classic Hip-Hop
Choose a “classic” hip-hop song, defined here as one recorded before 1996. Why was it popular when it was released? What makes it meaningful to you now?
Discussion 4b: Modern Hip-Hop
Choose a “current” hip-hop song, defined here as one recorded in the past five years. What makes the song sound current, as opposed to the classic hip-hop song you posted?
Discussion 4c: Song Structures
Choose a hip-hop song and analyze its structure.
Discussion 4d: Hip-hop Movie Review
Write a short review of a movie about hip-hop music and culture. It can be a documentary or a fictional story. Examples (feel free to use one): Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, Krush Groove, Wild Style. More suggestions here and here.
Module 5: Moral Panic
Since its earliest days, rock has been the subject of consternation by authority figures. In the 1950s, there was a widespread belief that rock would lead to moral corruption, juvenile delinquency, and even the collapse of civilization. The panic over rock has subsided in the past few decades, but it has been replaced by an equally strong moral condemnation of hip-hop. There is an unmistakable racial undertone to this panic; America commonly expresses its fear and hatred of racial minorities, immigrants and poor people through fear and hatred of their music. This tradition did not begin with rock—jazz and ragtime faced similar condemnation in the early part of the twentieth century.
Beyond simple racism, why are rock, hip-hop, and other popular music styles so threatening? Why did we come to associate rock with sex and drugs? Why does our stereotype of musicians and music fans involve drug abuse and other destructive behaviors? Do all cultures associate music with sin and degeneracy, or is there something peculiar to America?
Module 5: Read, Listen and Watch
Covach and Flory Chapter 7
In a 1921 essay for Ladies Home Journal, the head of the Music Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs describes the threat posed by jazz to America’s moral fiber.
A Christian publishing service lays out the case that the African-derived rhythms of rock are “carnal and demonic.”
While the article above is objectionable in its racism, it is not wrong that America’s love of African musical practice is related to an interest in African spiritual practice. Timothy Brennan believes that we are unconsciously drawn to the musical expression of African spirituality as a way of resisting imperialism and capitalism. When authorities demonize rock and hip-hop, they are really expressing anxiety about the music’s anti-authoritarianism. Musicians and fans have internalized this demonization, and in many cases, turned it into a point of pride.
Dylan has claimed that this was not a song about drugs. Supposedly, he intended a double meaning, using “stoned” in the biblical sense of being stoned to death for a crime. It probably is still mostly about drugs.
One of many rock songs that sees partying as a form of liberation from the stifling grind of everyday life. Rock musicians took the criticism that they were amoral and irresponsible and turned it into a badge of pride.
Titled for the British national anthem, the politics of the song are not terribly subtle. Punk pushes the rebellious attitude of rock and pushes it to its most nihilistic extreme.
Hip-hop has taken rock’s embrace of its “sex and drugs” reputation to another level entirely. Is the gangsta rapper persona an extension of punk nihilism, or is it an ironic inversion of stereotypes about urban black people? Or both?
In 2006, Amy Winehouse used a flawless recreation of 1960s Motown to tell an autobiographical story of the drinking problem that led to her death a few years later. Is she warning us about addiction or glamorizing it?
Discussion 5a: Why Drugs?
Why do you think that making and enjoying music is so closely associated with alcohol and drugs in our culture?
Discussion 5b: Socially Destructive Music
Find a song that you think is socially destructive or harmful and explain why you chose it.
Discussion 5c: Socially Constructive Music
Find a song that you think is socially constructive and explain why you chose it.
Discussion 5d: Generational Shift
Find an example of a song that was once considered to be immoral, harmful, and completely without merit, and which has since come to be regarded as a valid, legitimate work of art. Explain what changed.
Module 6: Studio as Instrument
Most of our experience of music comes through recordings. The creative process of making a modern recording is very different from composing on paper or performing live. Rock is an art form about making records, and the creativity in making records is only partially in the songs and the performances. A major part of the art form is the creation of sound itself. It’s the timbre and space that makes the best recordings come alive as much as any of the “musical” components. Outside of the narrow confines of the classical music world, we’ve all developed a consensus that the recording is the One True Song. The recording studio gives you control over the finest nuances of the music that live performers can only dream of. Hip-hop is even more recording-centric, since most of the music consists of synths and samples that are far removed from a “live performance.” The digital studio erases the distinction between composition, improvisation, performance, recording and mixing. The best popular musicians are the ones most skilled at “playing the studio.”
Module 6: Read, Listen and Watch
The Beatles are widely regarded as the best rock band in history. However, they weren’t exceptionally great instrumentalists or singers. They wrote a lot of brilliant songs, but that isn’t the reason we revere them today. The Beatles are considered great because of their prowess in the recording studio.
A great song won’t grab you unless it’s realized as a great recording. Listen to three different recordings of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity” to understand what the producer adds to a song in the studio.
Perry was part of a generation of dub reggae producers who pioneered the studio mixing console as an instrument unto itself. For Perry, recording a performance of musicians was only the first step of creating the music. By muting and unmuting tracks on the tape and manipulating the sound with echoes, Perry lay the groundwork for the production methods of electronica and hip-hop.
Another Jamaican dub producer performs a mix. You can see how he literally plays the mixing board like an instrument, shaping the track by turning different instruments up and down and by turning the echo effect on and off.
Eno has produced classic albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay, and others. By his own description, Eno is not a very “good” musician, but he is adept at combining and manipulating sound in the studio. He was also an early adopter of the process of using the studio for creating songs, not just documenting them. He encourages the bands he works with to come into the studio with no material prepared, and to improvise with tape rolling, with the idea of shaping the music via editing. (Lee Perry was a major inspiration for this approach.) While studio improvisation was an unusual method outside of jazz in the 1970s and 80s, it’s become standard procedure in pop songwriting.
Dave “Rave” Ogilvy explains how he shaped the sound of the inescapable summer jam of 2012. Behind the simple melody and chords lies a staggeringly dense and complex soundscape.
Discussion 6a: Sledgehammer Mix
Create your own mix of “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel using this online mixing board. When you load up the site, you’ll notice that the left two tracks are soloed and panned left and right, respectively. This is the reference mix. I recommend that you first listen to the song all the way through with the default settings to acquaint yourself with the mix. Be sure to listen for the balance of each sound and its placement left to right in the reference mix. Then mute the left two tracks and bring up the other volume faders to create your own mix. As you do, try listening to each track in isolation. When you have completed your mix, post a link.
Optional challenge: mix Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
Discussion 6b: Realistic Recording
Choose a “realistic” recording, one that accurately represents the sound of people performing live. It could be an actual live recording, or a studio recording with a live sound. What makes it sound realistic?
Discussion 6c: Hyperrealistic Recording
Choose a “hyperrealistic” recording, one that sounds like a perfected or enhanced live recording. What makes it sound realistic? What makes it sound artificial or manipulated?
Discussion 6d: Surrealist Recording
Choose a “surrealist” recording, one that could not possibly have been recorded live using instruments. What elements make it sound unreal? How would it affect you differently if it were somehow created “live” with acoustic instruments?
Module 7: Electric Guitar and Electric Bass
Aside from the human voice and the drum kit, the most characteristic sound of rock is electric guitar. The earliest experiments with electric instruments date to the 1910s, with experimental systems for amplifying violins and banjos. The first commercially produced electric guitar was the National Guitar Corporation’s 1932 lap steel, nicknamed the “frying pan.” Electric guitar was initially used for Hawaiian-style music, and then in big-band jazz. The electric bass was invented in the 1930s as well, but did not become popular until the 1950s. Early guitars were prone to feedback, which was considered to be a technical failure. Rock guitarists discovered that feedback could be desirable, giving a more intense and angry sound. Jimi Hendrix pioneered the idea of guitar feedback as an instrument unto itself.
Module 7: Read, Listen and Watch
During his short life, the first high-profile electric guitarist in jazz set the template for generations of players.
Les Paul was a technological innovator. He developed one of the first solid-body electric guitars, a model that is in widespread use today. He was an early adopter of studio techniques, most notably overdubbing, which allowed him to layer multiple tracks of guitar and vocals. He also experimented with tape playback speed, allowing him to record a solo at a normal tempo and then play it back at twice the speed and an octave higher. This “chipmunking” effect continues to be a common technique, for example in Kanye West’s sped-up soul samples.
Jimi Hendrix treated the guitar amp as an electronic instrument unto itself, best exemplified by his performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock.
Metal guitarists took Jimi Hendrix’s guitar style and added technical virtuosity, sometimes carried to ludicrous extremes.
What is the the difference between rock and pop? One simple answer: guitar versus synthesizer. In the 1980s it was considered a grave sin for a rock band to use synths (though many did, they just had their keyboard players offstage.) Does Van Halen still rock if the song is synth-driven? At the time, there was a strong feeling that guitar was “real” and “authentic”, and that synths were “fake.” In retrospect, it seems like much of the anxiety around synths was that they were somehow less masculine than guitar. Now that bros have embraced electronica, the distinction doesn’t seem so dramatic.
It’s funny because it’s true.
Watch as much as you can stand.
A legendary session bassist who has played on more than ten thousand recordings, ranging from rock and pop classics to film scores to TV theme songs.
The irresistible grooves on Paul Simon’s Graceland album are driven in large part by the fretless bass of Bakithi Kumalo. Later, Simon released a version of this song with just the bass and vocals.
Discussion 7a: Great Guitar Sound
Choose a song that has a great guitar sound—it does not need to be a rock song. Who is the guitarist? What equipment are they using? Can you describe how the guitar sounds?
Discussion 7b: Great Bass Sound
Choose a song that has a great electric bass sound—it does not need to be a rock song. Who is the bassist? What equipment are they using? Can you describe how the bass sounds?
Discussion 7c: Rock Without Guitar
Find a rock song with no electric or acoustic guitar.
Discussion 7d: Is The Guitar A White Instrument?
Consider the Dave Chappelle skit with John Mayer. Also consider “Protect Ya Neck” by the Wu-Tang Clan, in which GZA contemptuously asks, “First of all, who’s your A&R, a mountain climber who plays an electric guitar?” Given that many of the early electric guitar pioneers were black, do you agree that the guitar belongs to white music now? If you agree, when do you think this change occurred?
Module 8: Synths, Drum Machines, Turntables and Samplers
Aside from the human voice, the most characteristic sounds in hip-hop are the synthesizer, the drum machine, the turntable, and the sampler. The skills needed by a hip-hop producer are quite different from the ones involved in playing traditional instruments or recording on tape. Rock musicians and fans are quick to judge electronic musicians like hip-hop producers for not being “real musicians” because sequencing electronic instruments appears to be easier to learn than guitar or drums. Is there something lazy or dishonest about hip-hop production techniques? Is the guitar more of a “real” instrument than the sampler or computer? Are the Roots “better” musicians because they incorporate instruments?
Module 8: Read, Listen and Watch
The veteran DJ and producer recreates a classic Eric B and Rakim beat and talks about the source samples.
A window into the creation of a Yeezy beat.
From a series where producers choose three records blindfolded and have to sample them to create a beat.
Most basslines in hip-hop are played on keyboard, not bass guitar. Jae Deal walks you through the process of creating bass sounds on a classic Moog synth.
The 808 drum machine is one of the cornerstones of hip-hop. It remains as popular now as it was in the 1980s for its deep, rich kick, punchy snare, and other distinctive sounds. Vintage 808s are expensive collectors items now, so most rank-and-file producers use samples or software emulators.
Programming a drum machine is different from playing a drum kit. Egyptian Lover shows you how it’s done.
Samplers let you play back digital audio recordings by tapping on rubber pads. While samplers were originally standalone pieces of equipment, now they are more likely to be controllers for computer software like Ableton Live. Ableton’s Push controller is a particularly futuristic sampling interface.
A Bulgarian producer uses synth modules, a drum machine, and a record of Motown acapellas to create a track from scratch in five minutes.
Scratch documentary (first 20 minutes; the rest is optional)
Before affordable digital samplers became available in the late 1980s, early hip-hop DJs and producers did most of their audio manipulation with turntables. Record scratching demands considerable skill and practice, and it has evolved into a virtuoso form analogous to bebop saxophone or metal guitar shredding.
Discussion 8a: Great Synth Sound
Choose a song that has a great synthesizer sound—it does not need to be a hip-hop song. Who is the player/programmer? What equipment are they using?
Discussion 8b: Great Drum Machine Sound
Choose a song that has a great drum machine sound—it does not need to be a hip-hop song. Who is the player/programmer? What equipment are they using?
Discussion 8c: Great Turntable Scratching
Choose a song that has great record scratching—it does not need to be a hip-hop song. Who is the DJ? What record are they scratching? (This may be difficult to find out.)
Discussion 8d: Hip-Hop Without Synth
Find a hip-hop song with no synthesizers or drum machines.
Module 9: Sampling
Hip-hop is built on a foundation of existing recordings, repurposed and recombined. Samples might be individual drum hits, or entire songs. Even hip-hop tracks without samples very often started with them; producers often replace copyrighted material with soundalike “original” beats and instrumental performances for legal reasons. Turntables and samplers make it possible to perform recordings like instruments.
There are few artistic acts more controversial than sampling. Is it a way to enter into a conversation with other artists? An act of liberation against the forces of corporatized mass culture? A form of civil disobedience against a stifling copyright regime? Or is it a bunch of lazy hacks stealing ideas, profiting off other musicians’ hard work, and devaluing the concept of originality? Should artists be able to control what happens to their work? Is complete originality desirable, or even possible?
Module 8: Read, Listen and Watch
John Oswald is an experimental composer best known for “plunderphonics,” his term for remixing well-known recordings like Michael Jackson’s “Bad” by means of tape splicing and vari-speed.
This six-second drum solo is one of the most important samples of all time. It has been used in uncountably many hip-hop songs, and is the basis for entire subgenres of electronic music.
A more in-depth exploration of the Amen. Don’t worry about the technical concepts; just listen to the music.
The opening of Led Zeppelin’s song “When The Levee Breaks” has also been sampled extensively, by artists ranging from Dr Dre to Björk.
This Nas track is remarkable for a few reasons. The samples that form the instrumental backing are hilariously random. The entire chorus is scratched together from other Nas songs. Finally, a single syllable of a Biz Markie song is taken out of context and given a new meaning.
Another hip-hop classic that samples from an unlikely source, a lounge jazz cover of a terrible Jefferson Airplane song.
Sampling is not unique to music. Kirby Ferguson argues that every art form is built on remixing.
Discussion 8a: Direct Sample
Find an example of a song containing a direct audio sample of another song. I recommend using WhoSampled.com. Post links to both songs and explain how the sample was used. Does it form the basis of the beat? Is it a background texture? Does it run throughout the song or just appear once?
Discussion 8b: Quotation
Find an example of a song containing a quotation or interpolation of another song.
Discussion 8c: Lawsuit
Give an example of a song that was the subject of a lawsuit around sampling, plagiarism, or credit. Do you think that the outcome of the lawsuit was fair? If so, why? If not, why not. Examples: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke; “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.
Discussion 8d: Sampling Ethics
Do you think that sampling without permission is morally acceptable? If so, why? If not, why not?
Module 10: Race
The history of race in America’s music is as fraught and complicated as the history of race in America generally. The white majority has subjected African-Americans and other people of color to every kind of oppression possible, all the while being fascinated by their music. In her essay entitled “Rap, Minimalism and Structures of Time in Late Twentieth-Century Culture,” the ethnomusicologist Susan McClary writes:
Narrative accounts of music in the twentieth century ought to (but rarely do) find at their core the succession of Black genres that stamped themselves indelibly on the lives of generation after generation: ragtime, blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, doo-wop, soul, rock, reggae, funk, disco, rap. This, I would argue, is the most important tributary flowing into today’s music.
A large part of the explanation for this startling cultural emergence has to do, of course, with the exceptional vitality, creativity, and power of musicians working within these idioms. But quality alone does not guarantee reception — especially when it springs from a long marginalized, even despised segment of the population. What kinds of conditions allowed for the displacement of a dominant tradition by one of negative prestige?
Given its ubiquity, black pop music would seem to be the element most clearly responsible for converting our collective sense of time from tortured heroic narratives to cycles of kinetic pleasure. As Prince sings, “There’s joy in repetition!”
Module 10: Read, Listen and Watch
Paul Simon has built a career out of borrowing from other cultures for his musical ideas. Sometimes his imitation of a style is successful enough that the originators of the style adopt his imitation—“Bridge Over Troubled Water” has become a legitimate gospel standard.
After Paul Simon appropriated gospel, the world’s greatest gospel singer appropriated him right back.
Berry Gordy founded Motown with the goal of marketing black artists to mass white audiences. He had some of his greatest success with a very young Michael Jackson and his brothers.
This song was written for the Jackson 5, but Berry Gordy rejected it. Instead, it was recorded by a white group modeled exactly on the Jackson 5.
Michael Jackson was a complex and troubled person. Some of his biggest psychological struggles played out on his face. He underwent heavy plastic surgery and skin lightening treatments, to the point where he was practically unrecognizable. This song seems to suggest that he wanted to live in a post-racial future. It is difficult to know what to make of the song, and the surgeries. Was Michael trying to morph himself into a white woman? Michael’s unprecedented commercial success was a point of pride for a generation of black people, but that pride has been made bittersweet by his apparent desire to change his race. In his song “Slow Jams,” Kanye West turns this conflict into a wry joke: “She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson, got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson.”
In the 1980s, there was very little overlap between the rock and hip-hop audiences. Run-DMC sampled and referenced rock more than most hip-hop groups of their era, and their manager, Rick Rubin, convinced them to cover an old Aerosmith song. They even brought Steven Tyler and Joe Perry into the studio to record the vocals and guitar. Not only was the track one of the first major hip-hop hits, but it also revived Aerosmith’s career, turning them from has-beens into one of the biggest rock groups in the world.
Is it okay for white people to enjoy hip-hop? How about to create it?
A large percentage of American popular music consists of white artists imitating black artists. In the past few years, there has been a new twist on this idea, white artists doing ironic “white” versions of hip-hop and R&B songs. Pomplamoose in particular has built a career on doing this. I didn’t post any of their covers, because they’re so irritating. Emily Wells is one of the few musicians who manages to pull the idea off without disrespecting the source material too badly.
Discussion 10a: Europe vs Africa
Find an example of an emblematic piece of traditional European music and an example of an emblematic piece of African music. What are the sonic aspects of the music that make them sound European or African to you?
Discussion 10b: Good Cultural Appropriation
What is an example of good (or at least acceptable) cultural appropriation in music?
Discussion 10c: Bad Cultural Appropriation
What is an example of bad (harmful, unethical, distasteful) cultural appropriation in music?
Discussion 10d: 8 Mile
In the 2002 movie 8 Mile, Eminem plays a version of his younger self as a struggling up and coming rapper in Detroit. The climax of the movie is a rap battle between Eminem’s character Bunny Rabbit and a rival rap crew led by Papa Doc. Watch the scene here (lots of explicit language.) The movie seems to be arguing that poor white people like Eminem are more oppressed than middle-class black people like his antagonist, and that in the hip-hop context at least, white people are actually the underdog. Do you think this is true? If so, why? If not, why not? Do you find Eminem’s victory satisfying, or does it disturb you?
Module 11: Gender
Both rock and hip-hop are dominated by exaggerated masculine and feminine stereotypes. However, both genres have high-profile stars who challenge stereotypical gender roles as well. Rock stars of the 1970s and 80s matched their straight male swagger with falsetto singing, long hair, tights, and makeup. Rappers have usually projected a more straightforward hypermasculinity, but recently, there has been some evolution, as artists like Kanye West and Drake embrace a softer, more vulnerable aesthetic.
Women have always struggled to find a place in rock and hip-hop beyond just being pretty faces. Some female artists have competed with men for swagger and toughness: rockers like Chrissy Hynde and Joan Jett, and rappers like Salt-N-Pepa and Missy Elliott. Others have embraced a softer, more introspective and emotional persona: Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Ladybug Mecca. Finally, there are the artists who combine aspects of traditional femininity and masculinity: Janis Joplin, Björk, Lauryn Hill. As society becomes more accepting of queer and trans people, so too are we beginning to hear more queer and trans voices in rock and hip-hop.
Module 11: Read, Listen and Watch
Little Richard was one of the earliest rock stars, and one of the first to challenge gender norms. He was bisexual and androgynous, and before playing rock and roll, he worked as a vaudeville drag performer. The tradition of rock stars wearing elaborate makeup traces back to him.
The Stones embody the traditional macho rock image, their long hair notwithstanding. The fuzzy, distorted guitar and affectation of black musical tropes adds to the overall manliness. Stones lyrics are usually heavily sexual, though this song is relatively indirect.
In the 1980s, nerd culture emerged from the fringes to become a subculture unto itself. New Wave rockers replaced traditional rock star swagger with geeky introversion. Hear how tense, awkward and anxious their version of “Satisfaction” is compared to the original.
In the 1990s, female artists created their own form of rock star swagger. PJ Harvey’s take on “Satisfaction” is slow, menacing, and poised to spring. Björk’s feral emotionality and unearthly vibe is a new form of swagger unto itself.
The archetypal glam rocker plays an androgynous alien rock star, one of many gender-fluid personas from his career. Here, Bowie explains the creation of Ziggy.
Disco emerged from clubs frequented by black, Latino and LGBT communities, it was popular with women, and it shared glam rock’s aesthetic of gender fluidity. It is no wonder that, as disco overtook pop culture, white rock fans found it threatening, to the point of holding mass record burnings.
The androgynous heir to Little Richard and David Bowie. Prince used his falsetto to sing in character as a woman, and his fashion sense to dress in ways that defied easy categorization.
Annie Lenox carries Bowie’s alien androgyny into electronica.
There is a long and ugly history of hiding the faces and bodies of thick, dark-skinned black women. Missy throws that history in your face by rocking a garbage bag and making it look fly.
Discussion 11a: Stereotypical Masculinity
Choose an artist who you think embodies a masculine stereotype—it does not have to be a cisgendered man. What aspects of their sound or style make them seem masculine?
Discussion 11b: Subverting Masculinity
Choose an artist who you think subverts a masculine stereotype. What aspects of their sound or style challenge the stereotypical idea of masculinity?
Discussion 11c: Stereotypical Femininity
Choose an artist who you think embodies a feminine stereotype—it does not have to be a cisgendered woman. What aspects of their sound or style make them seem feminine?
Discussion 11d: Subverting Femininity
Choose an artist who you think subverts a feminine stereotype. What aspects of their sound or style challenge the stereotypical idea of femininity?
Module 12: Authenticity
We look to rock and hip-hop to tell us the truth, to be real, to speak to feelings that normally go unspoken. We want our rock stars to write their own songs and sing them like they mean them. We want our rappers to keep it real. At the same time, we expect our music stars to be larger than life, to sound impossibly good at all times, and to live out a fantasy life. And many of our favorite artists deliberately alter their appearance, race, gender, nationality, and even species. To make matters more complicated, we mostly experience rock and hip-hop through recordings and videos, where artificiality is the nature of the medium. How important is authenticity in popular music? To what extent is it even possible?
Module 12: Read, Listen and Watch
The archetypal “fake” pop star. Every aspect of Britney’s sound and image has been carefully designed and enhanced. Her performances are compiled together from dozens of takes. Her producers then correct the pitch, timing, levels and equalization, and apply effects like delay and reverb. They also exaggerate her vocal fry by layering the sound of a guiro over all of her glottal stops. Is Britney not a legitimate musician because she is supported by a big creative and technical team?
The archetypal “real” rock band. They don’t sing or play exceptionally well, their songs are simple, and they’re ordinary-looking people with an unpolished look. Of course, the deliberate lack of image is itself an image. Are the Ramones more “real” than Britney Spears? Is their music better because of its lack of professional gloss?
An analysis of Bob Seger’s rockist anthem, “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
More explanation of the concept of rockism.
The disastrous Saturday Night Live performance referenced in the New York Times article above.
Michael conspicuously lip-synced this performance, and it is regarded as one of his finest ever. Why is it okay for him not to sing for real on television, when Ashlee Simpson is ridiculed for it? (Aside from the fact that Michael is so much better at it?) The conundrum becomes more clear when we consider that Michael is giving a dance performance, not a musical performance. The lip-syncing is an extension of the choreography to his face.
The Chili Peppers faced outrage from their fans when it was revealed that they had been miming playing their instruments during their Super Bowl halftime performance. Why do we expect “real” performances from rock musicians, but not pop stars?
Studio engineers have been using computer software to correct singers’ pitch since the early 1990s, but the practice only became widely known when T-Pain overtly used exaggerated Auto-Tune as a vocal effect rather than a corrective. The “T-Pain effect” makes it impossible to sing a wrong note, though at the expense of making the singer sound like a robot from the future. Is this the death of singing as an art form? Is it cheating to rely on software like this? Does it bother you that Kanye West can have hits as a singer when he can barely carry a tune? Does it make a difference to learn that T-Pain has flawless pitch when he turns off the Auto-Tune?
Discussion 12a: Good Authenticity
Find an example of a song where the sense of authenticity adds to its value or quality. Why is the song’s authenticity important?
Discussion 12b: Bad Authenticity
Find an example of a song where the sense of authenticity harms its value or quality. Why does the song’s authenticity get in the way?
Discussion 12c: Good Inauthenticity
Find an example of a song where the sense of inauthenticity adds to its value or quality. Why is the song’s inauthenticity important?
Discussion 12d: Bad Inauthenticity
Find an example of a song where the sense of inauthenticity harms its value or quality. Why does the song’s inauthenticity get in the way?
Choose a song that was mentioned in any of the Read, Listen and Watch assignments and construct a family tree for it. Identify at least one “grandparent,” at least one “parent,” at least one “sibling,” and at least one “child.” The parent should be an earlier song that is a clear stylistic precursor to your song. The grandparent should be a clear stylistic precursor to the parent. The sibling should be a song from the same time period as your song that has the same influences, the same stylistic parents and grandparents. The child should be a more recent song that your song has influenced.
If you are feeling ambitious, name great-grandparents, cousins and grandchildren! Your grandparents, parents, siblings and children do not need to be songs mentioned in the class materials.
Support each of your choices with evidence: direct quotations from artists, critics, historians, or other expert voices. You may use the readings from this class, or any other source. Sampling relationships like the ones shown on WhoSampled are also acceptable evidence. If you are feeling ambitious, name great-grandparents, cousins and grandchildren.
A note about Wikipedia: unlike many of your teachers, I am in favor of Wikipedia as a research tool. However, I do not want you to cite it as a source. While Wikipedia tends to be accurate, it is limited and deliberately bland. The references at the bottom of a Wikipedia page are valuable resources and you should most certainly read those.