“Michael Jackson” chosen as the artist at least listen to five songs by that artist. Then, making reference to those five (or more) songs, explain how an examination of the artist’s music helps us better understand American history. You can focus on what we learn about the time period in which the musician was active, or you can talk about how America has changed over time, or you can do both.
Tips for an A paper:
- Dig deep. It’s a good start for you to see that, for example, N.W.A. is talking about racism, or that Sex and the City is about gender issues. But it’s even better if you can dig deeper, and say something more detailed and substantial.
- Theme. If you can develop a central theme, that’s also good. A whole paper about what we can learn about gender issues from the songs of Madonna, or modern-day views of politics and politicians as reflected in The Simpsons, to take two possibilities.
- Connections to class. If you can bring in relevant material from the course lectures it will generally strengthen your essay. For example, you might connect the portrayal of scientists in Star Trek to the Cold War, or you might connect what you see at the Nixon library to what you hear in the lecture on modern politics, or you might use what you learn from the lecture on America’s consumer culture while discussing your bus trip.
- Comparisons. Most of these topics ask you to make one choice—one band, one museum, one show. If you would prefer to do a comparison—portrayal of women in I Love Lucy vs. Roseanne, the music of Elvis vs. the music of Eminem, etc.—that is a very good thing to do.
- Nuance. It is entirely possible that your evidence will communicate contradictory messages. A TV show might be somewhat pro-war and somewhat anti-war. Your bus ride might suggest that we’re getting better about racism in some ways, but not in others. It’s good to see these kinds of nuances.
Here are a few thoughts to help guide your thinking:
- Not all musicians speak for the feelings and attitudes of the entire country. Perhaps a very popular musician like Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra does, but most artists have a target demographic. For example, The Sex Pistols were primarily a group for working-class white kids. Their music gives us very little insight into the feelings of senior citizens of the 1970s. Anyhow, you may want to consider the artist’s audience in your analysis.
- Most musicians have a few songs commenting on the race relations/racial politics of their time. This can be a good subject for analysis.
- Most musicians have a few songs (or more than a few) commenting on the gender issues of their day. Often, what they have to say—whether about women, or about gay people, or about masculinity—will be somewhat offensive to us.
- It is a rare musician that does not have something to say about the political issues of their era—maybe the Cold War, the Republicans/Democrats, the policies of the president, the Vietnam War, the drug use/abuse, police misconduct, etc. Sometimes, political issues are so controversial that they have to be addressed indirectly. As such, keep an eye out for the use of allegory and metaphor, as with The Wizard of Oz. Similarly, keep an eye out for double entendres, as with “Rocket 88.”
- Religion is another issue that shows up a lot in popular music. Interestingly, quite a few musicians (like Bob Dylan) have gone from being skeptics to being believers (he also went from being a Jew to being a Christian). It is also quite common for musicians to embrace non-western religious traditions, like Buddhism (the Beastie Boys, etc.) or Hinduism (George Harrison/The Beatles, etc.)
- You can also pay attention to language, and the kinds of things the musicians can and cannot say. Some things that were ok in the 1950s are not ok today. Some things that are ok today would not have been ok in the 1950s.
- Finally, it’s fine to use “backstage” information—like, for example, if you know there was a protest directed against the artist, or you know that the artist was censored. You can also talk about album covers, if you wish—these can be an important clue into the artist’s message(s). Just make sure that this sort of information is part of your analysis.
Here are a few things to avoid:
- Do not write a Wikipedia article. Knowing where a musician was born, or the name of their first hit is generally not relevant (unless you connect it to your analysis). As I like to say in class, this is not really a paper about Bob Dylan or the Beatles or Kanye West. It’s a paper about the 1960s, or the 1980s, or the 2000s. The artist and their music is just your evidence for your ideas about American history.
- Do not forget the EVIDENCE. If your paper does not make frequent reference to specific lyrics and songs from the artist, it will not be successful.
- Do not try to write a paper about how your artist influenced other artists. First of all, that sort of thing is hard to prove without the use of advanced musical theory. Second, that question is a subject for a musicology paper, not a history paper.
- Do not organize your paper by song (i.e. “In the first song I examined, I heard this…In the second song, I heard this…). Doing it that way will cause you to repeat yourself. Instead, you should organize by theme/subject (i.e. “One thing that is clear from listening to the music of the Beatles is that drug use was becoming common and socially acceptable by the mid-1960s. This is evident in several songs, including…”)
- Finally, note that the reason an artist says they wrote a song is not generally important to me. What is important is what messages you think the audience heard and why you think the audience responded to that song. For example, U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is about the civil war in Ireland. But that alone tells me very little about why the song was popular among Americans in the 1980s, many of whom had no idea a civil war took place in Ireland.