My 11 yr old, 5th grade son has been singing a certain song non stop. He loves music, sings frequently and enjoys different types of music. I pretty much have my radio set to two stations, 80s music and K-Love. So when I heard him sing, “Once I was seven years old my momma told me / Go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely..” my first thought was that’s good advice. Then he continued with, “By eleven smoking herb and drinking burning liquor..” Okay, now you have my attention. He went on to sing, “Once I was eleven years old my daddy told me / Go get yourself a wife or you’ll be lonely…” This is where I stopped him. “Smoking herb”, “liquor”, wife at eleven?
Wait…What? I had to ask my musical child what the song meant.
Me: “What are you singing?”
Him: “7 Years”
Me: “I heard that part, but what is it about?”
Him: “I don’t know”
Me: “Those are some strange lyrics. What do they mean?”
Him: (blank stare)
Me: What is the artist talking about? What does he mean to get a wife at eleven?
Him: “I don’t know, it’s just a song!”
Just a song? Just a song? Did U2 not having something to say in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”?Can we glean nothing from John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Is Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” just a song? Did “War” by Edwin Starr not have a message?
My son opened my eyes to the need for my students (and my own children) to be able to analyze lyrics in order to really hear what is being said. Artists have something to say, and I wonder how much is missed while we are bopping our head or tapping our foot. To be able to really hear and interpret the lyrics of songs is a skill that I want to give my students.
I can think of so many amazing and powerful songs from environmental issues with Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” to humanity issues with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Discussing social injustice in Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” or “Glory” by John Legend. How many of my students can sing R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” but have never really heard the words? What does Sister Hazel mean when they ask you to “Change Your Mind”? What do Katrina and the Waves mean when they say they are “Walking on Sunshine”? Why does Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” always make the listener feel like they can run through a brick wall? Was Louis Armstrong delusional, hopeful or realistic in “What a Wonderful World”?
These are questions I want my students to be able to answer or at the very least know that they should be asking. The flipped side to this is that it becomes very Scarlet Letter and every lyric, in every song, is over analyzed until it no longer resembles a song. This is not my goal. I want my students to listen with active ears and when they hear something that perks their interest or makes them question the artist’s meaning, that they will stop, reflect, and ponder before singing the song over and over as they walk around the house.
I have discovered that “7 Years” is about a man wanting to be a good father so that his children will want to visit him when is older. Being able to interpret songs is a skill that
I hope I can share. My desire is to open the possibility that there is meaning in any lyric, even in the absence of meaning. Don’t believe me? Well… “Mah Nà Mah Nà…!”
I plan to work this summer composing a list of songs, analysis, and artist bios to use in my lyrical resources. If you know of a song that must be among them, please share in the comments.