The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by Joe Knap, Bay High School, Bay Village, OH


One of the more difficult literary concepts to teach is irony, especially ironic point of view. Not only do students often miss the subtle linguistic clues, they become distracted by the issue of author’s intent. Whether it’s the classic essay by Jonathon Swift, “A Modest Proposal,” the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or a well-known poem such as W.H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” students often have trouble recognizing the discrepancy between the writer and the speaker’s viewpoint. By using contemporary music, the teacher enlists a methodology that engages auditory clues, has a recognizable stance, and attracts student interest.


The students will:

  1. Recognize ironic point of view in contemporary music by
    • identifying auditory clues in the music selections which enhance the meaning;
    • becoming sensitive to the connotative diction;
    • establishing the tone of the work;
    • using their knowledge of the musician’s stance to establish the discrepancy between the speaker and the artist’s viewpoint.
  2. Appreciate the purpose and effect of ironic point of view.
  3. Transfer and apply their understanding of irony to literary examples.


This unit should be used at the grade level where ironic point of view is either introduced or most intensely studied, probably high school.

Time Frame

This unit may be as short as a couple of days to as long as two weeks, depending upon the students’ knowledge and the depth of study the teacher desires.


CD/tape player; recordings and lyrics to selected songs.


Considering that the students need to carefully study the words in the selections, the students need to have printed lyrics and poems. This unit may be integrated within an existing literature unit or it may serve as an introduction to ironic point of view. The following format is one example of a possible organization of this unit.

Day 1: Having previously studied verbal irony and the reasons people use it, the students may begin this unit by discussing the use of different character types in advertising. Recognizing that a “voice” or persona may be employed by advertisers for different reasons, students will begin to grasp the concept of differentiating the speaker from the message. From there, students can be prepared to separate the speaker from the artist in music and literature.

Day 2: Phil Ochs’ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” will provide an attention-getting introduction to ironic point of view. Introduce the song by reviewing the typical sensibilities of folk musicians of the mid-to-late 1960’s. Review the Kitty Genovese episode in New York City, a situation where a woman was repeatedly attacked next to an apartment building but no one called the police. Tell students to pay special attention to the musical accompaniment for this song. After playing the song, discussion will focus on what issues Phil Ochs is dealing with and what stance he is taking on these issues. While students will recognize that Ochs doesn’t agree with his speaker, they may have trouble pinpointing what he is advocating. Discuss the ironic effect of the piano and percussion.

Days 3-6: Two more songs may be discussed to enrich the students’ understanding of irony. Both Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” illustrate memorable and misunderstood ironies. Class discussion may include such topics as whether the voices in these songs are those of the artist (ironic point of view vs. dramatic irony) and how the issue of author intent impacts our interpretation.

Day 7: Have students read W.H. Auden’s poem “The Unknown Citizen.” Discussion of ironic point of view can virtually parallel previous discussions, and Auden’s stance arguably is not entirely disconnected from Phil Ochs’ outlook.

Days 8-10: An additional or alternative literary connection would be Jonathan Swift’s famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” This essay provides at least two days of discussion on Swift’s use of ironic point of view. As with Ochs, Springsteen and Young, Swift is dealing with an emotional issue of his time, and through an ironic persona, is trying to influence his audience’s outlook. Like Springsteen, he is misunderstood by many in his audience.



The final evaluation of the unit will evolve from a series of assessments made throughout the unit. Daily evaluations may include observation of student reaction, question and response, the assessment of homework and quizzes. Periodic evaluations may include in-class writing exercises or tests. Ideas for end-of-the unit writing assignments are outlined below. The final evaluation of this unit should answer two questions:

  1. Does incorporating this unit increase the students’ interest level?
  2. Does the unit enhance the students’ understanding of the current curriculum?

The conclusion of the unit may include an essay/paper reflecting the students’ insights on the use of irony. Using higher-order thinking skills such as comparison/contrast, cause/effect, synthesis, or evaluation, students might be asked to react to one of the following prompts:

  1. Compare/contrast the purpose or effect of a lyricist’s use of ironic point of view to that of one of the writers studied within the unit.
  2. Discuss the difference between the tools of the musician and the tools of the writer that are used to enhance ironic works.
  3. Evaluate which work was most effective or artistic in presenting it message.
  4. Identify and analyze examples in advertising, the media, politics, school, or society where the ironic persona is being used.
  5. Write a creative work employing ironic point of view. For example, following Swift’s lead, select a current issue and using an ironic voice, try to lead your audience toward your position on the issue.

Selected Recordings

“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” by Phil Ochs (The Best of Phil Ochs/A&M Records, 1988)

“Rockin’ in the Free World,” by Neil Young (Freedom, Reprise/Columbia Records, 1989)

“Born in the U.S.A.,” by Bruce Springsteen (Born in the U.S.A./ Columbia Records, 1985)