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And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers

August 31, 2009

As you may or may not have guessed from the title (which is taken from a Joanna Newsom song) and the associated image, The Treachery of Images by Magritte), today I want to talk about structuralism.

Earlier this summer, I was given the opportunity to teach a class session at Harding University’s Honor Choir for high school students.  For the subject matter, I was given carte blance and was, more or less, sent to town.  Since this was, in fact, honor choir and was attended primarily by chorus geeks (I a self-professed member of their ranks ) I reckoned that it would be best to stick to music related topics.  Blending my love for music and all things literary, I put together a section on the importance of song lyrics.

My primary goal was for the students to realize the importance of the words they are singing and hearing in their daily music consumption.  Too often I hear that listeners don’t pay attention to the lyrics of song, especially in regards to hip hop (the phrase “It’s not the words, it’s the beat!!” irks me to no end).  To achieve this goal, I juxtaposed songs that have decided poetic value with more contemporary songs that may not be deemed too important.

Because I so enjoy the musical stylings of Sufjan Stevens, I couldn’t resist putting him in there.  I placed his song “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)” in dialogue with Robert Burns’ poem “Afton Waters” (as performed by Nickel Creek).  I tried to set up both Burns and Sufjan as poets of the working class and draw parallels between their subject matter, sentiment, and end goals.

During the week, the students were learning seven different songs to be performed at the end of the week.  One of those songs was “Jabberwocky,” written by Lewis Carroll.  Having encountered this poem, and subsequent explication given by Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, I decided to connect the students to this song through structuralism!  With “Jabberwocky,” I connected the song “This Side of the Blue” by Joanna Newsom and threaded together the notion that both poets (Carroll and Newsom) are, more than anything, playing with language and having a good time of it.

I didn’t get too in depth in regard to structuralism because a.) they’re high school students and b.) I haven’t studied it too deeply for a few years and I didn’t want to strain myself too much with research on top of my thesis work.

It may be wishful thinking, but I think they understood the general concept of the slipperiness of signifiers and signifieds. And really, that’s all I could ask for; that, and getting to force high school students (who, in general, listen to terrible music [I know I did, much to my shame]) listen to both Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom.  Overall, it was a pretty great week.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 18, 2009 1:10 pm

    Great lesson! I remember being blown away when I learned about the gap between language and meaning! Getting high school students to realize that language is not to be taken for granted is something to be applauded. (As is getting them to listen to some GREAT artists.)

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