Row, row, fight the powah.

Because Viral said so.((current status = almost fully recovered and running late to pick up final portfolios, which I am really not looking forward to))

If you aren’t an Internet troll/Gurren Lagann fan, you have no idea what that means, so let me enlighten you: it’s a rap lyric from the main “theme” of the show, “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii” etc. The Engrish isn’t terrible, though the lyrics are somewhat hilarious (particularly the refrain, “row, row, fight the powah,” which has achieved minor meme status all by itself).

As my brain slowly pieced itself together following illness, I was rewatching the Gurren Lagann Parallel Works videos–sort of like official AMVs (anime music videos) created by Gainax and set to different musical tracks from the show–and it occurred to me that much of the music is comprised of different versions of the main theme. We are given the same lyrics set against different background tracks, ranging from electronica/hip-hop (“Rap wa Kan no Tamashii… Datta… yo…”) to orchestral/operatic arrangement (“‘Libera me’ from hell”), and each background track evokes a particular response in us, whether we’ve seen the show or not. (Yeah, I listened to the full soundtrack before watching the whole show.) “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii da! … Kamina-sama no Theme [etc.]” has a funky, casual aura with its twangy guitar and its beat, whereas the piano-accompanied beat of “‘Libera me'” and the crash of opera vocals gives us a sense of build-up, of imminent danger, perhaps warns us that something tragic will happen, that there will be survivors who will overcome regardless. (Which is, incidentally, how the track is used toward the end of the show.)

All of which is well and good and interesting, but to get to the point, my illness-fuddled brain was thinking about this in terms of using music as a thinking exercise in the classroom–sort of like a follow-up to the playlist exercise I mentioned in a previous post. Namely, this would resolve one major problem I’ve faced in my literature courses: the fact that students will latch onto the most obvious message of a theme without considering formal elements at all. This essentially means that if you give them 3 readings about love in various contexts, you end up with 30 essays telling you that the readings are about love. (Hello, Captain Obvious.) But perhaps a good way to get students to think about how they approach the formal elements of literature would be to show them how we approach different versions of the same song differently–i.e., how formal elements of music, namely the small/large shifts in background track, are meant to shape our reaction differently even though the lyrics are exactly the same.  Simply put, “row, row, fight the powah” will always literally indicate a story about struggling to overcome, but the connotations of this message obviously change as we move through the different versions of the song. Additionally, since students aren’t likely to know the song, they won’t be bringing any biases to the table, which (like my “Look of Love” exercise) should give them more freedom to interpret.

I imagine this exercise would take quite a bit of class time, so perhaps–using Blackboard, Ning, or other course technology–the songs should be posted to be listened to as homework preceding the class discussion. Then, in class, they could individually free-write their response to each track, and then work in groups of three to discuss/refine these initial interpretations, before reconvening as a class to relate all this back to the importance of analyzing formal elements in literature. Since music is a form of pop culture they love and respect, this may help in getting them to acknowledge that it’s the portrayal of things, and not the given subject matter, that shapes our interpretation and response to literature.

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About INSIDE A(DJUNCT)CADEMIA

We are academics. We are halftime, part-time, anywhere/anytime. We are degreed. Underpaid. Overworked. Our name is adjunct, and we are many.
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