Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What is great about popular music in 2008?

This is the question that my Popular Music Survey students answered last on their final exam. It was designed as an open-ended question, and the only way for them to really get it wrong was by not answering the question. In the total scheme of points and grading and all of that, it wasn't worth much toward their overall grade on the exam. But from time time, I like to offer moments at the end that, after all the other perfunctory questions and essays, my students can use to think about the class material and express thoughts applicable to their own musical lives. Call it a "warm fuzzy," if you will.

I debated using the word "great" but chose it over "positive" or "good" or "worthwhile" and others. Musicology wrestles with "great" for many great reasons, but I feel that it can be great to simply use "great" once in a while. You can never have too much positive thinking...

Two main themes emerged from my students' answers as I graded their exams: it is great that popular music today is diverse and that it is easily accessed. Students in this class are undergraduate juniors and seniors. I've easily got a decade-plus on them which puts my experience of music in 2008 in a hazy, rosy, nostalgia for music from my past--what it was like back in the good ol' days of 1998 or even 1988. *sigh* I wasn't surprised by their appreciation of easy access to music today, and they gleefully blaze past me in their navigation of and awareness of HOW to gain access to whatever they want. But most answers alluded to a variety of popular music. Interesting.

Anyway, the meaning of diversity for my students had been demonstrated to me on the last day of class a week prior to the final exam. It hadn't been planned that way necessarily but was the outcome of a group exercise to wrap up the semester. My textbook did a strange job of talking about music "today," a fault I find common among historical surveys in general, so we took matters into our own hands. Each student brought in a song released between 2000 and 2008 to play in class. When they introduced the song, they had to explain how it represented something about popular music between 2000 and 2008. Simple as that. Every student brought something, and we started chronologically and worked through the decade (so far). I have the luxury of small classes so time wasn't an issue. We listed everything on the board, and selections ranged from Fall Out Boy, Kelly Clarkson, Sisqo, Mary J., Pearl Jam, Kanye, The Hives, and...I, unfortunately, neglected to actually write the list for myself...others.

Diversity. It's a big, tricky and ubiquitous term for Generation PC. It may just beat out "great" as far as the multiplicity of interpretations it carries. I think my students recognize the different ways that music sounds today, that not everything is rock, that the mainstream really doesn't exist, that everything matters (especially when it's so accessible!), and so on. Everyone knew the Britneys, but few seemed especially tied to genre or style or even that concerned about it. As one student said, "It's all good." Hadn't heard that one in a while....

I quickly realized that maybe I have grown comfy and cozy within my own music collection and need to start spending time investigating the sounds of music in 2008 and less the theories and debates about music in 2008. This is time that I have to create somehow in days already bursting at the seams...but that will be a post for later.

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