Just when I thought my disdain for “My Heart Will Go On” couldn’t be any stronger—it weakened. A chorus of 200+ voices has redeemed—at least temporarily—this song which I can attest from my travels is popular everywhere.
I recently gave my second “Culture Series” presentation. My first was a lecture on the history of religion in the U.S., which I delivered about three months ago. This recent presentation was of a much lighter nature, which I advertised as “Music with Matt: An Acoustic Adventure Through Five Decades.”
The format was fairly repetitive, the content varied. For 75 minutes or so, I walked students through recent world history, picking a year based on a song I wanted to perform, and first offering a quick snapshot of significant historical events that year.
I then offered a few questions for reflection and discussion, usually based on either the meaning of vocabulary used in the song, the meaning of particular lyrics, or on a theme or message the song or songwriter was conveying. After that I put up a picture on the screen and called for guesses as to the upcoming band and even song. After revealing the answer, I proceeded to play on my acoustic guitar the song itself.
The set list looked as follows, with year, focus of the discussion, and some highlights.
“Let it Be” (Beatles, 1970)
Discussion focus: Meaning of “hope”, “reconciliation”, “ “brokenhearted”, “hour of darkness.”
Highlight: I wasn’t sure if the whole presentation would be a solo performance or a sing-along, but was hoping for the latter; I was delighted with how many joined in singing this song, hands even waving in the air.
“Fire and Rain” (James Taylor, 1970)
Discussion focus: Shared personal stories with one another about losing people close to us, about romances ended, and about being depressed or sad for a long period of time.
Highlight: This was the saddest and most low-energy song of the presentation, and fortunately students were quietly attentive throughout the whole thing. For a large room of students in a weekly gathering where off-topic conversations are rampant and language barriers make it easy to lose focus, I was pleased with the students' attention level.
“Freebird” (Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1974)
Discussion focus: Students talked about break-ups and excuses they’ve given or received from their former significant others. I'm increasingly less surprised by some of the English words and phrases my students know, especially expletives. I think movies and music have a big influence.
Highlight: This is a song that can’t be done justice only on an acoustic guitar. So, I cued up the beginning of the five-minute guitar solo, then asked for volunteers to come join me on stage for an air-guitar session. Most didn’t know what that meant, and I wouldn’t tell them…I just told them to trust me.
But either shyness, coolness, or self-consciousness inhibited anyone from joining me, until I told a few students who were late who didn’t get their ticket (which ensures they are credited with attending the lecture and thus helps their grade) that if they air guitared with me I'd give them one.
The three students who came up pretty much just watched me rock out for a while, revealing some of my best moves, including throwing my air guitar into the air and catching it on beat. The students seemed quite entertained. My “street cred” went way up after that stunt.
“Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson, 1983)
Discussion focus: Nothing really, other than my "clever" joke connecting Neil Armstrong with Michael Jackson.
Highlight: Probably my moonwalk. Or the movements that I chose to call a moonwalk. I unfortunately could not get anyone to join me. They did cheer for me though. They're so kind and gracious to me.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” (Billie Joel, 1989)
Discussion focus: Despite being, in the opinion of some, one of the worst songs ever written, it makes for a fun U.S. historical survey through the last few decades. I threw up a few of the people mentioned in the song (e.g. Nixon, Kerouac, Stalin, Dimaggio) and quizzed students knowledge of these figures.
Highlight: Probably the groans after I shouted out “one more verse!” after previously singing four verses.
“Wonderwall” (Oasis, 1995)
Discussion focus: Talked about what it means “to wonder” at something or to call something “a wonder.”
Highlight: The ubiquitous singing! I didn’t expect so many people to know this one.
“Time of Your Life” (Green Day, 1997)
Discussion focus: Though the song is actually about a breakup, it’s used enough as kind of a farewell song (half of you under 33 probably had this played at your high school graduation). I had students discuss what they’ll miss most about our school upon leaving.
Highlight: Looking out and seeing one of my Taiwanese students asleep in the front row, in the seat closest to me. Can’t please everybody.
“My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion, 1997)
Discussion focus: No discussion; I just confessed how much I disliked the song, and that I was making a sacrifice to play the “crowd-pleaser” for them, knowing how loved it is all around the world.
Highlight: Two highlights. First, two Venezuelans boys standing up and holding each other, doing the “king of the world” pose. But the real highlight was when I stopped singing at one point to listen to everyone singing back at me—it was seriously one of the more beautiful, sublime musical experiences in recent memory.
It sounded like a lullaby, with their soft and calming voices singing to me, singing like they were at an evangelical Christian worship service. I told them afterwards that they had totally redeemed the song for me. I wish it had been recorded so I could re-listen to it again and again. I also had several students write in their journals (which they hand in to me weekly) about how touching the experience of that song was for them.
“I Will Follow You Into the Dark” (Death Cab for Cutie, 2006)
Discussion focus: We talked about some of the meaning of various lines in the song, exploring in groups the meaning of such lines as the title line, as well as “fear is the heart of love” and “if heaven and hell decided that they both are satisfied.”
Highlight: Maybe a student from Spain who was so annoyed with himself for not guessing from the picture that the upcoming song was by Death Cab. They don’t really have a stand-out, flashy, memorable look, so I don’t know why he was so frustrated.
Probably that feeling of pride and hipness that comes from impressing others with your extensive musical knowledge, especially of who’s popular but maybe not too mainstream. I like to talk about my love of Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse, or Arcade Fire whenever I want people to like me more.
“Raise Your Glass” (Pink, 2010)
Discussion focus: Talked about the meaning of several idioms used in the song (e.g. “lose our minds”, “party crashers”) while also reflecting on experiences of being included or excluded and being an insider versus an outsider.
Highlight: Everybody standing and joining in. I’ve gathered that this song’s pretty big outside of the U.S and would be well-received. It was a nice finale, and nice to hear afterwards and in the following days how much fun students had. Students are quick to complain about Culture Series for different reasons; so...partial mission accomplished!
Experiences like this are some of the brighter moments in a job I feel very fortunate to have for this season of my life. I find there is much more opportunity here for both me and my students than simply the teaching and learning of a second language.