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Paper Topic #2: Music

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Topic: Examine at least five songs by Jay-Z. 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.


Here are a few thoughts to help guide your thinking:

  1. 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 band enjoyed by working-class white kids, and their music gives us very little insight into the feelings of senior citizens of the 1970s. N.W.A., by contrast, spoke primarily to urban African Americans, and probably offers us little information about the mindset of wealthy Asian women. Anyhow, you may want to consider the artist’s audience in your analysis.
  2. Nearly all musicians have a few songs commenting on the race relations/racial politics of their time. This can be an excellent subject for analysis. If they seem to be consciously avoiding the subject, that itself is often instructive.
  3. 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.
  4. 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, and multiple meanings, as with “Rocket 88.”

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  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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 connected to your analysis.
  4. Naturally, musicians—like all people—change over time. It is entirely correct to see evidence of that change. For example, when the Beatles talked about “love” in 1963, they meant it very differently than when they talked about “love” in 1968. Ray Charles’ comments on race in 1962 were rather different than what he was saying (or, more accurately, was able to say) by 1992.



Here are a few things to avoid:

  1. 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, 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Do not try to write a paper about how the artist influenced other artists. First of all, that sort of thing is hard to prove without the use of advanced musical theory or extensive ethnographic analysis. Second, that question is a subject for a musicology paper, not a history paper.
  4. 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…”)
  5. Finally, note that the reason an artist says they wrote a song is not generally important. 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.


Sample of a good body paragraph:

As I listen to the music of Nirvana, it is clear that some—perhaps many—younger Americans of the 1990s had begun to rebel against the consumer culture that emerged from the post-World War II economic boom of the 1950s. The song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of the band’s signature hits, illustrates this. Its title, first of all, satirizes the name of a popular deodorant (Teen Spirit) being marketed to young people at that time. The band offers even more critical commentary in the chorus of the song:


With the lights out it’s less dangerous

Here we are now, entertain us

I feel stupid and contagious

Here we are now, entertain us

A mulatto, an albino

A mosquito, my libido, yeah, hey, yay


These verses speak to the belief that American culture has become passive and mindless, that the nation’s citizens were being “programmed” or even “infected” by corporations (“here we are now, entertain us;” “I feel stupid and contagious.”) The messages being sent by these corporations are presented as unsubstantial and meaningless (“a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido”—which were selected at random by the song’s composer, Kurt Cobain.) The name of the band is also an implicit critique of consumerism, as the Buddhist concept of ‘nirvana’ is the total absence of connection to Earthly goods and needs—pretty much the opposite of consumer culture. Cobain also opined regularly on this subject in interviews, with such observations as, “Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.” (www.nirvana.com/kurtbio.html).

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