Last night, I watched The Martian. Although much could be said about the use of music in that film, it also reminded me of Professor Green’s song Astronaut, popular with lots of my pupils in 2012. I thought it was a well-crafted, memorable song, and encouraged them to learn how to play it. Only when I listened to it again today did I realise that it’s about heroin addiction and rape. My initial response was one of embarrassment about my naivety, accompanied by a mixture of horror and relief that I’d used the song in school without any pupils, staff or parents raising concerns about it. I wrote an ‘OMG’-style post on Facebook, sure that my friends would respond with both encouragement and humour about my error.
Ten minutes later, I took the post down. I was remembering more and more songs that I’ve used in school and could be labelled as controversial. Sometimes I realised before including them in lessons or concerts, sometimes I didn’t: I’m sure that many other music teachers recall squirming back in 2008 as they were asked to ‘help with the singing’ on a group performance of Artful Dodger’s Movin’ Too Fast, which included the lyric ‘lay your dirty hands on me’. More recently I decided against letting a class of Year 7s perform Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass in an inter-form competition. Yet there have been times when I’ve deliberately chosen more sensitive or provocative material, or given full support to pupils when they suggest it: One unexpectedly moving Christmas concert performance was a Year 10 class mash-up of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ Same Love and Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready. To me, and I think to the pupils who participated, it had a more powerful message than any of the more seasonal items included in the same concert.
I know that lots of people complain about the over-sexualisation of song lyrics, and I’ve often discussed with pupils if it is appropriate to include particular lines or verses of a song in their performances. Regarding swear words, my policy was always that if a word would get you told off in a conversation at school, you shouldn’t sing it at school – we’d find a way to alter or avoid that particular section of the song. But I am not convinced that song lyrics (perhaps unlike music videos) have become massively more offensive in recent years; for example, I love The Beach Boys, yet some of their lyrics are very degrading to women. Last year, devising a homework project about broadway musicals, I realised just how many musicals include songs that, out of context, could easily be interpreted as offensive or inappropriate for use in schoolwork. Classical music is equally controversial (such as the rape scene in last year’s Guillame Tell at Covent Garden) and likely to embarrass or set off a fit of the giggles; I always avoided directing Christmas carols that mentioned Willie, breast, come, virgin and ass, because my own toilet humour-instincts could easily have landed me in trouble in the middle of a carol service!
Of course, language is different to content, and it was content that originally got me thinking. Should we avoid explicit language in the music classroom? Yes, if it contradicts school expectations for communication. Should we also avoid sensitive or unpleasant content? Not if we think our pupils are able to consider it with maturity, or if they bring the music to us without being aware of its implied meaning. Some might argue that music lessons are not the venue for grappling with difficult issues. But music is such a big part of our lives that it would be foolish to ignore its relationship with other big stuff. And I haven’t even touched on the potential for song-writing to help us come to terms with personal experiences – alongside Astronaut, Tori Amos’ Me And A Gun comes immediately to mind.
So, would I use Astronaut in my lessons again if the opportunity arose? Yes, without a doubt. Songs can help us to hear messages that often cannot be articulated or understood through speech or writing. Let’s keep singing, and talking about what we are singing, in our classrooms. Hopefully it will give our pupils the confidence to communicate messages of their own.
P.S. How to choose a photo for this post? This was taken in Ellesmere just before Christmas. The reflection draws attention to both the darkness and the light.