The handwritten lyrics to Janet Jackson’s 1989 song “Rhythm Nation” are currently on display in the Museum’s Women Who Rock exhibit: With music by our side/to break the color lines/let’s work together/to improve our way of life/Join voices in protest/to social injustice. The song exhorts social change in the face of injustice, using music – and by extension, rhythm – as a unifying tool. It’s the perfect platform to talk about song structure (verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) More important, “Rhythm Nation” provides a unique point of view from which to draw conclusions about its author and her era.
We use the chart-topping hit as an example of songwriting in our Rockin’ the Schools class based on women songwriters, “Women Who Rock: Songwriting and Point of View.” We developed the class curriculum (one of three Women Who Rock–based courses) with a strong English–language arts focus in conjunction with the Women Who Rock exhibit. This gives students the opportunity to really explore ELA concepts while learning about the importance of women songwriters from Tin Pan Alley to Top 40 radio. Male and female middle school and high school students appreciate the dedicated listening to five songs from beginning to end, and we value their opinions and readings.
Since we started teaching “Women Who Rock: Songwriting and Point of View” in October, we have been impressed by students’ interpretations of point of view, whether they are analyzing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” or Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song.” The students are exceptional at identifying rhyme scheme, metaphors and poetic devices, and their enthusiasm for inferring point of view within cultural and historical terms is infectious. Aretha Franklin’s “Think” elicits revealing responses as wide-ranging as a feminist hymn to an anarchist anthem. Ellie Greenwich’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” as recorded by the Crystals usually receives the most fervent response, with students applauding after hearing the irresistible hook. An eighth grader last week astutely observed that the song's nonsensical syllables, “da doo ron ron,” likely represent the excited heartbeat of “a chick who’s crushing on some dude named Bill.” It’s pretty thrilling to watch students draw informed conclusions from different perspectives while learning about the ever-present voices of women in the music industry.