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"We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams." — Willie Wonka
In 2011, Katy Perry was honored by American Music Awards with a Special Achievement Award for Having Five Singles at Number 1. This award was a special achievement because she had been the first female artist to tie this record with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. These five singles were released from the commercially successful album Teenage Dream: The Complete Confection. 1 Building on the popularity of her album, she followed up with the 2011-12 California Dreams tour, which eventually was captured in the Katy Perry: Part of Me, The Movie.
As I sat and watched this movie I couldn't help asking myself as an educated consumer and educator: what are the messages this film presents? On a surface level Part of Me is a combination of performance-based music video, interviews, and archival footage that follows the dream, career path of gospel singer Katy Hudson. Raised by evangelists, Hudson moves to Los Angeles to pursue stardom in the eyes of the global music industry and of young-adults around the world.
Throughout the film Perry is repeatedly captured telling the audience to follow their dreams and, most importantly, to be themselves. I wholeheartedly think this is a great lesson for young adults, but Perry is anything that resembles reality. Fantastically enough, her concert is a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland trapped in the world only Willie Wonka could confection. Full of vibrant color and themed with candy, Perry's film nonetheless left me wondering about its subtext. Beneath the spectacle, what was this text reinforcing about stardom? About the role of gender? About the representation of love and respect? About the nature of religion in America?
These questions, in turn, raised some broader issues in my mind about how my students read visual texts in consumer culture. More specifically, I want them to take the skills they have acquired throughout the year to examine texts that are closer to home: music videos. Teenage Dreams and aspirations constantly compete with nightmarish fears and anxieties. Media, more specifically popular culture, often reflect and amplify
that ambivalence. A media subtext often promotes an emotional war between the negative and positive aspects of consumer culture and our interaction with it. As a culminating project students will produce an argument that applies their growing knowledge of rhetorical appeals, rhetorical situations, narrative structures, visual frameworks, by answering a retired Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition question. Instead of writing about literature from the canon, students will take the tools they have acquired and apply the question to a different kind of text, music video.
Towering eight stories above the Chicago cross-streets of Division and Western rests Roberto Clemente Career Academy (RCCA). A monolith of black steel beams, Clemente's vertical campus looks more like an office building rather than an educational domain. At one time the school contained 3,000 students, but due to the influx of elementary charter schools and their collective suggestion to their students not to attend Clemente, our school population slid down to 1,100 students. A year ago, we only had 880 students. At that time, 96% of our population was on free and reduced lunch and 21% of our students were Special Education students. Additionally, we have a mixed student population, with about 69% Hispanic, 27% Black, and 4% other. 2 Despite the changes that have occurred in the building, RCCA is once again a growing neighborhood school.
In January 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation created a foundation study entitled GENERATION M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Their findings revealed that eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend almost as much time immersed in media as lost in sleep. This averages out to be roughly 7 Â½ hours during which children, tweens, and teenagers are exposed to media on a daily basis. 3
Media is all around us and it is necessary for students to have the skill to interpret it. The curriculum for Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition asks students to read texts responsibly by focuses on the three literary genres of poetry, fiction, and drama. Because of its traditional curriculum, the AP class rarely affords opportunities to read texts that go beyond the canon. The intent of this unit is not only to have students translate the critical techniques they have learned through the year to different kinds of texts, but to also take highly technical language and test them against a visual text.
As Americans we are inundated with consumer culture. It is what defines or defies us. That consuming power which it bolsters constantly reminds us that reading a text responsibly is extremely challenging on several levels: the first being, consumer culture is horizontally challenged in that there are so many different texts that we have access to (advertisements, items of popular culture, sub-genres of culture, etc.). The second level of consumer culture can be said to be vertically challenging in that. As we explicate one cultural text, many subtexts 4 emerge. For instance, the tagline for Katy Perry's documentary Part of Me is "[b]e yourself and you can be anything". Her music video for the track "Part of Me", yes carries the same title, features Katy eyeing her boyfriend making a move on his female office counterpart. In that very moment of the video Katy confronts her boyfriend, breaks up with him, and drives away. At the level of the text, the first few seconds of the video narrative would suggest the moral lesson that when your partner treats you poorly, you move on. Well, this message is immediately
complicated by the next series of events. Stopping at a local gas station Katy spots a bumper sticker for the United States Marine Corps stating "[a]ll women are created equal, then some become Marines." Katy grabs her ice tea and storms off to the gas station ladies room where she cuts her hair, binds her breasts with an ace bandage, and hides under a hoodie.
Why the Marines? Why the binding of her breasts? Why hide under the hoodie? What is the role of gender and masculinity in this video? The video goes on to complicate things even more as we see recruit Perry in basic training, off to war, and when she isn't too busy serving her country, dancing in fatigues under a massive American flag. While the video started off as a great moral lesson, it is suddenly turned into a mocking of the traditional narrative of a rejected man enlisting in the Marines. Using the presented narrative twist, this video serves as text that is confronting and challenging traditional cultural norms. How does that confrontation embrace teenage anxieties or aspirations? What does that challenge pose for teenagers? While I don't necessarily want students to overthink everything around them, I do want them to analyze the stories being told and the ideological subtext being presented to them.
Consumer culture lends itself neatly to high school teaching in that it is accessible and appealing to students. Additionally, popular culture functions as a means by which society's fears, anxieties, and dreams are realized in popularized songs and stories. Through this unit I plan for students to use the (adjusted) lens of critical analysis (rhetoric, etc.) to explore responsible readings of consumer culture.
Why the music video?
In an age where MTV isn't literally music television anymore, the music video still provides a tidy educational package that is readily available via Internet video outlets like YouTube. 5 The music video provides an interesting hybrid cultural object in that it clearly is a promotional material made my record companies, but it also contains ideological implications. While I could use television advertisements, the length of the music video provides more for analysis. Television shows also present an interesting lens, but there are obvious problems with the variety of texts television generates. For instance, would students focus on a particular show, season, genre, or network? Movies, too, present a difficulty in that their length can make it difficult to develop workable viewing assignments. All in all, music videos are readily accessible, they are available in a variety of genres, and their length provides for in-depth reading.
The idea of this unit is that students will take analytical approaches information that they already have learned in AP Literature and Composition in order to analyze the ideological values American cultural consumers are taking in on a moment-to-moment basis. The unit overview will be separated into three separate segments:
1. All media are constructed
2. Constructed medium has a blueprint with which it functions
3. Reading and understanding all levels of the blueprint is necessary for the function of the construction
1. All Media Are Constructed
We often make the assumption that people know that popular cultural production items are constructed with a specific voice (rhetorical appeals) and audience in mind (rhetorical situations) and that aspects of mass media (representation, censorship, propaganda, bias through mass media, popular culture, digital media, etc.) inundate us nearly every moment of our waking lives.
2. A Constructed Medium Has a Blueprint in Which it Functions
Like all other examples of texts we are going to review the application of rhetorical appeals, rhetorical situations, and narrative structures. Additionally, we will be using the concept of mise-en-scène to evaluate/read the visual structure of a variety of different media forms.
3. Reading and understanding all levels of the blueprint is necessary for the function of the construction
After familiarizing ourselves with the construction of media and the rules in which it functions we will be questioning visual representations of gender, class, race, sexuality, etc.
This unit has a variety of objectives it will be adhering to: the Illinois State Board of Education English Standards, the College Readiness Standards, and Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As of the Spring of 2012 the Common Core State Standards have been adopted in 46 states. Simply stated, the Common Core integrates the skills students must demonstrate in order to be college and career-ready. 6
Currently, there are two federally funded consortiums, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) 7 and the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium. 8 Illinois has adopted the PARCC framework to use as a foundation to measure student achievement.
Since the adoption of the PARCC framework, Chicago Public Schools have created a document called The Literacy Content Framework (Version 1.0). 9 Within that framework is the Literacy Planning Guide. The Literacy Planning Guide requires that all high school units (10 weeks long) should include: the reading of 3-5 short texts, the reading of 1-2 extended texts (at least 2 informational texts & 2 literature texts a year), a daily routine writing, 4-6 analyses per quarter, the writing of 1 research paper per quarter, the writing of 2 narratives a year, and a variety of assessment (baseline and quarterly assessments).
There are four main strands to CCSS for English, but Chicago Public Schools has only implemented two of the four: Reading Literature/Informational Texts and Writing. 10 The Common Core State Standards I have selected for this unit are:
1. Reading Standards for Literature 11-12.1 — Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
2. Writing 11-12.1 — Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. 11, 12
These skills will be addressed in a writing exercise where students will use their newly acquired analytical tools to perform an Performance Assessment based on the following 2011 AP English Literature and Composition Free Response question (Form B): In The Writing of Fiction (1925), novelist Edith Wharton states the following, "at every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity." Choosing one of the short stories we have studied, write a well-organized essay in which you describe an "illuminating" episode or moment and explain how it function as a "casement," a window that opens onto the meaning of the work as a whole. Although students would normally choose from a list of suggested novels, I would instead challenge students to look at these illuminating episodes as a reflection of mainstream ideological values.
This unit will contain three main literacy shifts:
1. Students will institute regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary (tier I, tier II, and tier III)
2. Students will build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational text
3. Students will have their readings and writing grounded in evidence from the text
In literacy shift one, it is expected that students will institute regular practice with complex text and its academic vocabulary (tier I, tier II, and tier III). Using the works (music videos) of Katy Perry, Eminem, Coldplay, or Beyoncé won't generally meet the standard definition of a complex text. For example, Perry's "Teenage Dream" measures at about a 2-4 grade reading level. But clearly, this text is much deeper than what a 7 or 10-year old would read on a surface level. The multidimensional measure is much greater. In each instance, a teacher will have to assess will the qualitative measures of a text (meaning, knowledge demands, language features, etc.) along with doing some reader and task analysis (complexity of content, cognitive capacity, prior knowledge, etc.) to developing well-thought out text based questions.
Literacy shift two focuses on students building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational text. Students, even in a high school literature class, need more access to non-fiction. AP English Literature doesn't depend on the use of non-fiction texts, but in reality, most of what my students will use in career readiness skills are viable through non-fiction texts. These texts will also help students develop ideas about literature through the citation of strong textual evidence as provided in both fiction and nonfiction pieces.
Literacy shift three has students grounding their reading and writing in evidence from text. Since students are using direct parts of an assigned text to support one another, the unit allows the practice of this skill. This will also allow me to help them incorporate texts into an argument. I'm hoping that these "illuminating incidents" they choose to write about will be further illuminated by the rhetorical, narrative, metaphorical, thematic features we identify through our discussions.
Mass media by definition, lends itself to an immense history. This section is intended to provide brief overviews that can be useful in class and support the foundations of this unit.
A Brief History of the Collaboration of Moving Pictures and Sound
From the camera obscura of ancient times to the development of the daguerreotype in the mid 1800's, the art of reproducing images has developed and changed for centuries. Despite this longstanding visual development, motion pictures weren't truly developed until the late 1800s. During that time many inventors/artists played with a variety of different ways to create the illusion of the moving picture. It wasn't until Thomas Alva Edison and his team of inventors developed the Vitascope that moving pictures as cinema became commercially successful.
Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, cinema grew and expanded. The cities of Chicago and Los Angeles grew into film meccas. During this time orchestrated scores, or pressed recordings would be synchronized to the moving picture screen to enhance mood. It wasn't until Warner Bros. released The Jazz Singer, in 1927, that the synchronicity of speech and image was reached. 13 While The Jazz Singer only contains particular segments of coordinated sound, the film has been credited as being the first talkie or film with accompanied sound.
These talking pictures presented a new frontier and a new problem for cinema. At first, film only featured the visual capturing of acting and not of speech. Once this transition to sound happened, actors were expected to speak and sing as well as act. 14 This transition is clearly and wittily depicted in the popular 1952, Stanley Donen musical, Singin' in the Rain. 15 It was around the late 1930's that the musical became widely popular among motion pictures, but it wasn't until the 1950s that films actually featured the rock and roll genre.
In 1955, the film Blackboard Jungle popularized the song "(We're Going to) Rock
Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and His Comets. 16 During the 1950's social anxieties were heightened by this new musical genre and oftentimes it was cited as the provocateur of teenage rebellion. Originally published as a novel in 1954 by Evan Hunter, The Blackboard Jungle was widely popular; so much so, that director and writer Richard Brooks decided to turn it into a warning about cultural misfits and the threat of juvenile delinquency. 17 Instead of serving as a warning about cultural decline, it spurred teenagers to commit acts of vandalism in both Minneapolis and Hartford as well as far off as London and Dublin.
Previously in 1954, Bill Haley had already popularized rock and roll through the song, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," but it didn't nearly have the impact of "Rock Around the Clock." 18 Popularized by the film, Haley's song streaked to the top of the Billboard charts and stayed in the #1 position for 24 weeks. 19 In Todd Leopold's article "The 50 Year Old Song That Started It All," he points out that "rock 'n' roll is often a series of accidents — the right people, the right chemistry, the right sound. Bill Haley created an outstanding rock 'n' roll record, and he knew how to put it across." 20
The rock and roll revolution was widely disseminated by Top 40 radio stations and the popularity of 45 rpm records, but also by the spread of television. Full scale commercialized television began towards end of the 1940's. Variety shows like The Texaco Star Theater, featuring Milton Berle, were made available to be viewed in the comfort of American homes. From about 6,000 television sets in 1946 the numbers rose to roughly 12 million in 1951. By 1955, the year Blackboard Jungle came out, half of all U.S. homes had a television set. On August 7th, 1955, Bill Haley and His Comets performed their highly popularized hit "Rock Around the Clock" and followed up with "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" during Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town. 21 Now, popular music had a televised face and body to accompany the sound.
Popularity grew with variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and paved the way for Top 40 music to enter into living rooms across the country through another access point. This assortment of artists ranged in race, culture, age, and genre; Cancelled in 1971, the show featured a variety of artists during its 1068 episode run; to name a few: B. B. King, Elvis Presley, Jackson 5, Jefferson Airplane, Johnny Cash. 22 Nevertheless, television continued to feature musical acts on shows like American Bandstand and Soul Train. Additionally, late night television programming and films starring musical acts helped carry this combination of motion picture and sound through the 60s (Hard Day's Night) to current times (Katy Perry: Part of Me).
During the 1960's there were about 640 community antenna television stations throughout the United States. Access to not only variety shows, but news, sitcoms, and dramas was also sought after by people in both rural and urban areas. As this desire for televisions increased, the demand for additional access, programming, and channels increased as well. Prodded by the sports industry, New York City helped provide local cable to those interested in local basketball and hockey games. New broadcast networks appeared. Around the time of the decline of The Ed Sullivan show, there were about 80,000 cable subscribers in New York. This began the development of cable networks
Like Time Inc.'s Home Box Office (HBO), ESPN, and TBS. 23
Time Warner invested much of its money in niche programming and marketing. Generally speaking, it was a great idea for their investment. At the time record companies already provided music videos as free promotional material. This free material provided low cost programming that featured music. On August 1, 1981, MTV was launched and their first aired music video was, ironically, the song, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by The Buggles. Just as the invention of talking films had presented a dilemma for some actors with dubious voices or accents, so MTV threatened radio performers with the challenge of face-time. MTV took on a variety of roles through the next two decades. The decline of network ratings within the first decade resulted in the development of their own programming: The Real World, Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, Total Request Live, The Hills. 24
Once again, technology provided more access to cultural texts with the advent of social media networks, where music videos can be seen 24 hours a day. Additionally, many of these networks allow users to have choice over their content and to provide uninterrupted videos at the click of a mouse. Venues such as YouTube (2005) already provided channels that allowed accessibility to particular record labels and artists.
Music Video Construct
There are three main kinds of music video: concept based, performance based, narrative based.
Some critics saw these videos as a hodgepodge of images over sound, which in some cases they were; but much of the critical response had to do with the time period in which music video skyrocketed. For a variety of reasons concept-based videos were most common with the advent of MTV. While record labels had used music videos as promotional materials, the music video came at a time that witnessed many shifts: artistically (modernity to postmodernity), technological (old media to new media), and just the newness of the medium in popular form. This mode also allowed for space for a director's or audience's metaphorical interpretations of texts versus literal representations. Some examples of this trend include Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" (1986), Nine-Inch-Nails' "Closer" (1994), and most recently OKGO's "This Too Shall Pass – Rube Goldberg Machine" (2010).
Performances-based videos spotlight the entertainer(s) performing their song. These videos are achieved in a variety of different ways. Sometimes they are either presented as concert footage; as in the U2 video "Where the Streets Have No Name" (1987) or Guns and Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" (1987). Other times they are presented as routines in front of groups, as portrayed in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991) or OKGO's "This Too Shall Pass – Marching Band" (2010)
These videos have storylines that accompany the song. Sometimes the visual narrative follows the lyric values of the song, but that is not always the case. Additionally, sometimes actors play out the narrative, but again that is not always the case. What all of these videos do have in common is that they relay a story to the audience. Some examples of this can be found in: Eminem's "Lose Yourself" (2002), Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy" (2010), Katy Perry's "Part of Me" (2011).
Close Reading of a Text – Mise-en-Scène
Commonly put into practice by the film journal Cahiers du Cinema, mise-en-scène is a French term meaning "putting in the scene": mise-en-scène gives students a language in which to discuss the visual aspects of a piece. There are a variety of ways this concept can be taught. Most commonly there are different versions to be found in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art, Louis Gianetti's Understanding Movies, and Robert Kolker's Film, Form, and Culture. Basically, mise-en-scène is essentially what it means in French; it is the director's composition of the visual text. These factors can basically be broken down into five separate categories: setting, costume/make-up, lighting, staging, acting.
Most commonly refers to the time and the place that is depicted by the actors' world. This is also achieved by the use of props. Important aspects to ask while looking at setting are:
- What does the setting tell us about place and time?
- What does the setting reveal to us about mood?
- What props have any special significance to the narrative?
These two attributes can also refer to the time and the place that characters inhabit. Additionally, costume/make-up can reveal aspects about characters and their role in the narrative. Questions students may want to ask about costume/make-up:
- How does costume/make-up function in relation to the narrative?
- Does costume/make-up reveal anything about our characters (or, their relationships to other people)?
- Does costume/make-up reveal anything to use about the place and time?
- Do costume/make-up serve as any kind of narrative marker?
While setting, costume, and make-up can set mood, lighting also conveys that effect. Lighting can tell an audience simple things like the time of day, or the manipulation of lighting can help draw the reader's eyes to a particular aspect of the composed frame.
Some questions students should use when thinking about lighting concepts:
- What does the lighting tell us about the time of day?
- Does the lighting highlight certain characters or props?
- Are certain characters lit differently than others via lighting cues (soft lighting, high-key lighting), or colors (reds, blues, greens, etc.)?
This functions as the choreography between the actor(s) and the camera. The level of intimacy between the actors and the lens can suggest many things about the actors' intentions, feelings, and mood. When students think about staging they should be asking questions like:
- What does the staging tell us about the relationship between actors?
- What does the staging tell us about the relationship between actors and props?
- What does the staging tell us about the relationship between the actor and the audience?
There are a variety of interpretations of acting. The important part to focus on is what does the acting convey about the relationship of the character and himself, the character and other characters, and the character and the audience. When looking at acting in a given text it is important to ask these questions:
- What about the acting provides other dimensional qualities of a character?
- How is the voice manipulated to create mood?
- What do the gestures of a character reveal to us?
Close Reading of a Text – Rhetorical Analysis
Introduced first by Aristotle, messages are conveyed with the use of three rhetorical appeals. It can be schematized like this:
It is important to acknowledge rhetorical appeals as an equilateral triangle, in that all sides are as important. These points of convergence are contingent upon three appeals: logos, ethos, pathos.
Logos relies on the logical appeals of an argument. This is where the message or the visual argument is to be found. This is when a text makes logical claims and provides evidence in support of those claims. Ethos relies on the ethical appeal of an author. This is how authors establish a persona. This can also be thought of as the credibility of an argument and offers a space in which the author can allow evidence to support their credibility as a source. Lastly, pathos relies on the emotional appeal of an argument. This is usually a reflection of the author's expectations of an audience.
Another aspect of close reading in reference to rhetoric are the rhetorical situations: exigence, audience, and purpose. Exigence is often confused with an author's purpose. In the case of rhetorical situations, exigence needs to be evaluated as what drives an author to write. Audience, is the simplest of all rhetorical situations: who is the audience the author is reaching for. Purpose, while often confused with exigence, is what an author wants a reader to do or feel when he or she has finished reading the text.
Reading the Visuals (Part I)
The opening scene of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is a perfect example of how our eyes read visual texts as a way to make inferences. The beauty of this scene is that it allows students to construct meaning by only looking. This can be taught in a variety of ways, but I think the key is that students will need to go back and revisit the text. After viewing this text students should be able to answer the following questions:
- What time of year is it?
- What time of day is it?
- Where does this story take place?
- What kinds of people live in this neighborhood?
- Who is the protagonist?
- What is the protagonist's name?
- Why is the protagonist inside?
- What does the protagonist do for a living?
Reading the Visuals (Part II)
Students can practice mise-en-scène using magazine print ads in this exercise.
Students will be given print ads from a magazine and should answer the following questions (Students need not be limited to these questions. Also, students may not be able to answer all of the questions based on the content of their ad):
- - What is this an ad for?
- - What does the setting tell us about place and time?
- - What does the setting reveal to us about mood?
- - What props have any special significance to the narrative?
- - How does costume/make-up function in relation to the narrative?
- - Does costume/make-up reveal anything about our characters (or, their relationships to other people)?
- - Does costume/make-up reveal anything to use about the place and time?
- - Do costume/make-up serve as any kind of narrative marker?
- - What does the lighting tell us about the time of day?
- - Does the lighting highlight certain characters or props?
- - Are certain characters lit differently than others via lighting cues (soft lighting, high-key lighting), or colors (reds, blues, greens, etc.)?
- - What does the staging tell us about the relationship between actors?
- - What does the staging tell us about the relationship between actors and props?
- - What does the staging tell us about the relationship between the actor and the audience?
- - What about the acting provides other dimensional qualities of a character?
- - How is the voice manipulated to create mood?
- - What do the gestures of a character reveal to us?
- - What is the product being sold?
- - Who is the target audience for this product?
- - What emotions is the ad trying to associate with the product?
- - What kind of assumptions does this advertisement present about gender, race, and/or class?
- - What kinds of ideologies are enforced by this advertisement?
- - What other beliefs and/or values are being sold?
Reading the Visuals (Part III)
In The Writing of Fiction (1925), novelist Edith Wharton states the following, "at every stage in the progress of his tale the novelist must rely on what may be called the illuminating incident to reveal and emphasize the inner meaning of each situation. Illuminating incidents are the magic casements of fiction, its vistas on infinity." Choosing a narrative music video, write a well-organized essay in which you describe an "illuminating" episode or moment and explain how it function as a "casement," a window that opens onto the meaning of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
Madonna's "What It Feels Like for a Girl" (2000)
Eminem's "Lose Yourself" (2002)
Coldplay's "The Scientist" (2002)
Outcasts's "Hey Ya" (2003)
Beyoncé's "If I Were a Boy" (2010)
Lady Gaga and Beyoncé's "Telephone" (2010)
Katy Perry's "Part of Me" (2011)
The Band Perry's "If I Die Young" (2012)
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