At the end of my semester, I had my second level composition students write a little journal about a record or song that they would call a favorite. This activity was literally inspired by a dream that woke me 5:30 that morning. I was trying to herd a bunch of students in a public place and find us all somewhere to sit. It wasn’t working, so I just started saying, “Write about your favorite song!” It fit with what they needed to do that day (an analysis exercise), so I brought along my lifelong mentor Dave Marsh’s book The Heart of Rock & Soul, read snippets from a few entries and had them write their own.
Perhaps because I’ve devoted most of my life to music and I’ve been a little estranged from that work lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about these journal entries, especially what they had in common. My students are a pretty diverse group. Though the largest fraction are young women and a few men (white, Black and Hispanic) from my area, in these classes I also have students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Cameroon, Pakistan, China, Japan, Iraq and Iran. I played with the demographics all kinds of ways, but the most interesting aspects of the journals are the ties that bind them together. Though most students wrote about being attracted by the sound of a record or a song, that isn’t what yielded the most interesting connections. I am taken with all the ways my students use their music.
The most common single tie that binds responses together is a sense of belonging. Sometimes that feeling is microcosmic, like a student writing about her boyfriend buying her fries when she had too much to drink. But often it is on a larger scale—how a whole family chimes in repeating “Oh, Christmas Tree” for the entirety of the song’s lyric or how an entire family associates Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with the student as a little girl or Katy Perry’s “Firework” with another, singing it to her uncle each year when she went to visit him.
Sometimes, it is about the George Strait or Joan Sebastian, Dad or Mom used to play in the car, or the Lebanese singer Fairuz who reminds my Iraqi student of her once-normal life back home, from the breakfast table to getting dropped off at school.
Sometimes it is about a family with a musician, like the memory of being a little girl and thinking her aunt was Joan Jett (or the other way around) because she had seen her aunt’s cover band play “I Love Rock & Roll” long before she knew anyone else sang it. Then there’s the grandfather who made up his own words to Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” when he sang it to his granddaughter, and the memory of playing Elvis for him when he was recovering from heart surgery. I believe that student plays the guitar herself.
Those who aren’t motivated to play music still use it for motivation. One student has drawn on Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” to navigate her way through difficult situations; another has used Logic’s “Everyday” to put up with juggling too much school and too much work. Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” encourages another student to honestly express her emotions and keep moving forward. One uses music to “make my mood better and make me think deeply.”
These private uses often relate to pain. A number of the journals above dealt with the loss of a loved one, the song lending the writer a way to carry that pain. One student’s father always talked about when they’d share a beer on her 21st birthday but he died when she was 19, so she associates life after him with Cole Swindell’s “You Should Be Here.” Another student uses Son Lux’s “All Directions” as a way to appreciate the moment and life’s constant state of change. Another talks about how Twenty-One Pilots’ “Migraine” speaks to the battles in his head.
Some of these battles are literally to keep getting out of bed in the morning. One young woman loves The Black-Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love” because it helps her deal with “all the hate in the world.” Another young woman writes about how Sufjan Stevens “Mystery of Love” helped her through her first heartbreak and “come to terms with what had happened.” Another tells how Breaking Benjamin’s “Until the End” gives her the upper hand in ongoing battles “with severe anxiety and depression.” Her journal is echoed by yet another young woman’s journal about J. Cole’s “Once an Addict,” relating “to every line” and using it to “overcome and better think about my situation.”
|J. Cole, "Once an Addict" art|
If anything is a sign of the times, it has to be the amount of anxiety and depression that surrounds us. The world is changing, rapidly, and the future is obviously uncertain and more than a little bit terrifying. Taken as a whole, these journals show how people engage with music to find ways to keep going and to find each other. I didn’t categorize these, but the range of emotions my students used to describe their music says a great deal.
According to these students, their songs express relatable pain, yes, but that’s never the whole thing. They also make “my heart [feel] full” and help us “have fun.” They are reminders of “the best days of my life,” and they are “uplifting.” They are “smooth and catchy” and “romantic and playful.” My students’ songs calm and comfort as well as excite, and their songs counter worry and hopelessness with feelings of individual strength, strength in numbers and joy and love and peace.
It’s a wonderful reminder why I have been either writing music or writing about music since I was 15, and also a reminder that neither myself nor my students have to feel as alone as the world tends to make us feel. I hear all of these songs calling us to come together, and though we don’t yet quite know how, all of these students and their songs say the answer’s all around us.