Don't Run Away From Teaching Pop Culture
Check out the music children listen to, and you will hear rap and hip-hop songs about sex, violence, women as objects, and domination. Sometimes the questionable language is explicit and sometimes it's implicit, veiled in metaphors. Ask children if the content is appropriate or what the song is about, and you will get one of four answers:
"I don't know. I just like the music."
"I don't know, but it's OK because it doesn't have any swears in it."
"I know it has cursing in it so I listen to the 'clean' version."
"I know it's about sex and violence, but I like the beat."
When children think that music is inappropriate, most often they believe that the moral infraction lies with the use of profanity. If you clean up the words, you cleanse the moral space and thus are free to listen, they believe. In fact, YouTube is littered with tunes that are designated "clean" because censors have "bleeped out" the swearing in them. But that really isn't good enough.
There are two problems with editing out profanity and acting as if a song is subsequently appropriate for all listeners. First, it doesn't take a genius to figure out what words have been papered over and then mentally fill them in as the song goes by. Second, I think it is fair to assume that most parents and educators are far more worried about the larger meaning of a song—its message—than we are about a few bad words.
YouTube and most mainstream pop-radio stations don't clean up their playlists based on the messages embedded within a song. Can you honestly imagine a radio station that plays the likes of Lady Gaga and the rapper Flo Rida saying that its DJs will no longer play these artists because their messages are age-inappropriate for many listeners? Equally, can you imagine parents filtering radio stations to find those that only play "morally clean" versions of rap and hip-hop? Good luck. I once tried to find some age-appropriate Kanye West music for a class I was teaching. I was faced with either playing a short "clean" segment of an otherwise inappropriate song, or playing the karaoke version which, for most of my students, would be like sharing selections from "The Sound of Music."
The bottom line is that educators (and parents) can't run away from these issues, and we certainly can't keep the material from children unless we believe that a life without radio and the Internet is possible; similar issues arise with books and movies, including many of the topics covered within the Twilight and Hunger Games series. Keeping our children away from these aspects of popular culture will only serve to increase their craving for it, most likely making things worse once they finally gain access.
Although these issues are critical for parents, I'm going to focus here on what educators can, and I believe should, do to address this matter.
First, we must recognize that our students are surrounded by material that is, in many ways, not only age-inappropriate, but in some cases, morally inappropriate. Although what counts as morally inappropriate is certainly debatable, I would hope that most educators might agree on some topics, such as the barrage of rap songs that demean women or seem to promote violence as cool and exciting.
Second, we cannot sit back and let our students passively digest this material. No, instead, teachers should actively engage their students in discussions about the controversial material bombarding them.
More concretely, it should be a priority of all schools to develop classes around the lyrics in present-day music and to fully engage with the fiction that many of our children seek out. Literature classes provide a natural home for these topics; after all, great literature addresses moral challenges. Think Anna Karenina, Adam Bede, David Copperfield. So why not do the same for the song lyrics and for many of the most popular works of fiction on the market now? Or, if high school English teachers are too busy with other tasks, why not create electives centered around the moral issues that modern songs and books raise?
Let me illustrate with examples from my own teaching experience.
I work at a school for at-risk middle and high school students. A majority of them are highly engaged with the rap scene and admire the artists and the music they create. Many of our students also like to rap. My school has made forays into engaging students' interests in two ways, and both have yielded highly valuable educational moments. For one, we reach out during our morning music period. When our students arrive at school, many of them have traveled quite a distance and are exhausted. It used to be that they were greeted by a school lobby that seemed dead and dull. So, to liven things up, we decided to play music in the lobby every morning. But not just any music—music that our students pick for a morning playlist. Selecting songs entails choosing music that is appropriate. The way it works is that, in picking songs, students must first look up a song's lyrics and then pass along those lyrics to their homeroom teacher. The teacher reviews the material and, if he or she deems it inappropriate, approaches the student for a one-on-one discussion of why it is offensive generally, or why it might offend certain students and faculty members. Thus begins a conversation that is rich in emotions, cultural references, and moral attitudes.
In addition, our school addresses the pop-culture thicket through its radio program. Our students create material for the show, ranging from composing their own music to writing reports about musicians, movies, and video games. All of this material has the potential to be age-inappropriate. While we recognize that we have no control over what our students do at home, we guide them within the school with the hope that some of what we teach may wear off when they leave. So, when students want to report on a violent video game such as Call of Duty, we point out that the material is restricted to teenagers and thus inappropriate for our middle schoolers. But we don't stop there.
We use the conversation as a platform to discuss why the game isn't suited to students of all ages. When students want to report on a rapper, we seek in-depth appraisals noting that some of these artists have had difficult histories and often rap about their experiences. Again, this is a chance to talk about the issues, helping to sharpen students' critical-reasoning abilities and broaden their attitudes. And we see important gains, with students developing more-nuanced perspectives and becoming able to recognize inappropriate content and to discuss it intelligently. Needless to say, this is not a topic of discussion and education that ever ends. But it is a topic that should be part of teachers' responsibilities.
Bottom line: We can't hide from the explosion of music, books, and movies that contain either morally challenging or inappropriate content far beyond the mental grasp of the children who consume it. As much as we may wish to act like ostriches with our heads in the sand, we can't. We must confront this material head-on. My hope is that educators take on this task without hesitation, making it a priority and advancing learning and enhancing our children's moral awareness.
Vol. 32, Issue 20, Pages 29, 31Published in Print: February 6, 2013, as Confronting Pop Culture Head-On