Saturday morning, November 14, 11–11:50 CST
Popular Music Interest Group
Christine Boone (University of North Carolina Asheville), Chair
10:50 - Zoom room opens
11:00 - Welcome, introductions, explanation of topic, format, and etiquette
11:05 - Maya Gibson (University of Missouri): “Monstrous Men”
11:13 - Tanya Honerman (University of Kansas): "The Music of 'Monstrous Men'"
11:21 - Trevor de Clercq (Middle Tennessee University): "The Musicians Behind the Monsters"
11:29 - Emily Milius (University of Oregon): "Monstrosity in the Classroom: Is it Really Worth It?"
11:37 - Response from Will Cheng
11:45 - Open discussion
11:55 - Publication awards presentation
11:59 - Thank you, goodbye
The word monster comes from the Latin monere, which means to warn. Monsters warn. We disavow monsters to differentiate them from ourselves but the truth is that everyone has, couched within, monsters-in-waiting. We have a duty to regulate these monsters within.
In a moment of self-reflection, and to paraphrase MJ, “I’ll start with the woman in the mirror.” Not so naïve as to feign innocence, I ask, what have I done? I lecture regularly on subjects as varied as blackface minstrelsy, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Beethoven. I am not a proponent of “cancel culture,” yet in full disclosure, I can’t bring myself to watch Surviving R. Kelly, or Leaving Neverland—and it’s not because I don’t care to know, but rather because I think I know and I refuse to retraumatize myself for the sake of good “art” or good scholarship. Am I a hypocrite? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I remain open to changing my mind while staying ever mindful and protective of my own tender humanity.
In the classroom I do my best to model a sense of curiosity in most things, which means that controversial topics are open for discussion. Students tell me it makes class meaningful. We set and maintain guidelines of mutual respect and monitor ourselves regularly. Music opens up channels to speak about what sometimes seems unspeakable in ordinary discourse. At the end of every semester a handful of students will sidle up to me and call me brave. I don’t feel brave. What I do feel is an obligation to help heal the wounds of the past, without doing harm, with and in care. Music allows us to broach difficult subjects in contained musical frames. Using music as a tool to talk about what’s eating us helps to regulate the monsters within. That’s not something to shirk, it’s something to treasure.
The Music of 'Monstrous Men
I do not think it is a question of if we should include these problematic artists in our lessons; if there is a pertinent musical element in the example, then there is surely a valid reason for using it in class. Rather, I argue that it is both a question of how we can incorporate these examples and also why it is important to include the uncomfortable parts of their histories alongside the music.
How: Robin Attas discusses three models for integrating social justice topics alongside musical examples. The same models can be applied here with some adaptations. I argue that if a lesson plan calls for “plug and play” examples, then perhaps music by these artists should not be included; there are plenty of examples by unproblematic artists we can use to enrich our lessons. If the lesson allows room for discussion through a “concept model” or to create a larger unit via the “social justice model”, then these examples would be able to serve as a point of entry into discussions on power, danger, and prejudice.
Why: Thanks to the constant stream of information flowing through all depths of the internet, students are likely savvy to the happenings in popular culture. Over the past five years, conversations about power, danger, and prejudice have occurred on a grand scale through the #MeToo movement and more recently through the Black Lives Matter movement. Music is not free from either of these conversations and it is imperative that we find ways to facilitate discussions on where music falls within these movements as well as throughout history. I believe it is our duty as educators to provide students with a space not only to learn musical concepts but also to engage in meaningful conversations about the music and its creators.
The Musicians Behind the Monsters
When teaching my first-semester music theory class, I have used the Michael Jackson song “Black or White” to transition between the topic of traditional blues forms and more pop- oriented blues structures. There are a number of reasons why I find “Black or White” to be a good musical example, a central one being the bass line by Terry Jackson (no relation to
Michael), which is frolicsome and groovy but also harmonically clear and forward in the mix. Yet “Black or White” is also a very problematic example, given the multiple allegations of child sexual abuse against Michael Jackson. It would not be difficult to find a substitute example for my lesson plans. But if I cancel Michael Jackson, I also cancel Terry Jackson and his signature bass line. Is that fair? Sadly, Terry Jackson cannot voice his opinion, since his career was cut tragically short in March 1991 when he died at the age of 28 while on tour for Reba McEntire, months before “Black or White” saw commercial release (in November 1991).
In my brief discussion, I consider the fallout from avoiding the music of monstrous musicians on the legacies of their musical collaborators. What are the side effects of cancel culture, particularly on the work of the often faceless and nameless studio musicians, songwriters, engineers, producers, and other support personnel? This question seems especially relevant to college music teachers, given that most students, if they enter the music industry, will be working in these behind-the-scenes roles. As part of a solution, I propose de-emphasizing celebrity culture in the classroom and instead focusing more on the larger picture of people involved in a recording. Ultimately, I argue against avoiding these problematic examples in favor of providing a more comprehensive context for all music we use in the classroom.
Monstrosity in the Classroom: Is it Really Worth It?
After learning horrific details about musicians we love—e.g., John Lennon, Michael Jackson— we are met with a choice: to continue listening to, analyzing, and using these examples, or to abandon them and look for other material. Some of us, for our own benefit, are able to separate the artist from their art, while others are able to disregard accusations as false, or ignore them completely. In discussing this kind of “willful forgetting,” Claire Dederer says, “forgetting is easier for some than others” (Dederer 2017). In my discussion, I consider how trauma survivors, who are likely in every college classroom, can be triggered at the mention of musicians accused of these crimes.
Trauma wreaks havoc on the mind and body, eliciting responses including hyperarousal of the nervous system, intrusive thoughts, dissociation, anxiety, and depression (van der Kolk 2014). The 2015 documentary film, The Hunting Ground, shows how common sexual assault is on college campuses—where many of us teach— and how our universities hide it. By acknowledging the amount of assault on campus, we must consequently acknowledge that we have taught, and will teach again, survivors of trauma. In this light, teaching works by musicians with well-documented accusations of abuse can remind trauma survivors of their experiences; doing so risks sending them into states of high alert or dissociation, or even forcing them to relive these experiences. Such stimuli can cause students to detach from class, school, or even music altogether. For these students, who are disproportionately women and minorities, it does not make a difference what others think about the validity of the accusations; their trauma- surviving bodies do not care about separating art and artist. For anyone who continues to use these examples, I ask: is it really worth it?