Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Feeling Ok

          Last night, while winding down after teaching a night class, I flipped to the Sundance channel.  Reservoir Dogs had just started and I had to watch the iconic opening scene.  One part of that scene is Tarantino deconstructing Madonna’s Like a VirginIt reminded me how much I also love to deconstruct music while listening. And I get easily fixated on a band or on an album.  Some examples include, Wincing the Night Away by the Shins, Blowout Comb by Digable Planets, Fantasies by Metric, or The Suburbs by Arcade Fire, or Tetsuo & Youth by Lupe Fiasco, just to name a few.  Recently, I have read brilliant analyses of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, including the album cover.  On my commute to campus today, I decided to listen to Best Coast’s California Nights in its entirety (yes I have a long commute).  As the music blared while barreling down the highway, I found myself deconstructing the songs and the album from a multimodal perspective.  Music is one of the most original multimodal texts in our society and some of the earliest texts we interact with in our lives. While I often tend to focus on lyrics, it is the juxtaposition of dark lyrics and pop hooks that often reel me into a song. As a child raised during the ascent of MTV (even though we didn’t have cable and watching at friends’ houses or only seeing the most popular on Friday Night Videos on network TV had to suffice), I started thinking about the construction of the music videos from this album too.  What I intend through this post, is to discuss my own deconstructive process with this album as I closely and repeatedly listened and share some pedagogical implications.  The idea is that I am learning through my own practice of close reading a multimodal text; a full length indie rock studio album.  Plus, it is a great excuse to write about one of my favorite albums of 2015.  

            Best Coast is a band from California who have been in regular rotation for me over three albums. When California Nights debuted this summer, I fell instantly in love.  I am drawn to fuzzy guitar juxtaposed over dark lyrics especially when sung with falsetto tones.  All summer I have played my favorite tracks, added to playlists, and have shared several individual songs on social media.  I went to see the band at the Chicago Metro with my sister and friends.  Upon listening to the album prior to the show, I started getting the feel for a far greater cohesion between songs that was quite intentional rather than a collections of individually great tracks.  Now, my interpretation of the album after several listens is that it is a singular narrative arc about an acrimonious relationship that the lead singer, Bethany Cosentino, can’t get over. While critics have pointed to Best Coast's lyrics as lacking depth, I find them to be perfect for the feel they are trying to create in this album. Feelings of elation, self-doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, anger, and obsession.  My joy in the album comes not from the lyrics and the music but the synergy between the two. Combined in multiple ways to create a narrative about obsessive love, the album becomes more than a sum of any of its individual notes, lyrics, or songs.  What follows next is my attempt to describe how I have come to closely analyze this album.

With the guitarist, Bobb Bruno after the show

Best Coast at the Chicago Metro


         The album contains 12 tracks and begins with Feeling OK.  A poppy opener that is bright, yet Cosentino reveals her state of depression.  “My doctor says that I should take it.  At least I won’t have to fake it.”  But the chorus repeats the promise of a new relationship letting the listener know that “it's love that has her feeling ok”.  The guitar begins with one note and is light (:06-:20) while Cosentino’s voice elevates throughout (2:40-3:00).  Track two, Fine Without You, comes from the perspective of a friend’s advice that the now apparent break-up is out of her hands (:01-1:05).  Mid verse the song switches from 3rd person to 1st person (1:05-1:34) where she muses, “now I pace alone in my room, wondering how to be fine without you”.  The guitar drives throughout delivering a feeling of urgency and tension. The last verse is quick paced while the guitar drives home the last 30 seconds in a much more frenetic pace.   Yet in the next song, Heaven Sent, it appears the couple has gotten back together.  “When you were gone, I wasn’t good, I wasn’t fine” is a nice allusion back to Fine Without You.  Initially the guitar is measured but more raucous than the previous tracks. Consentino repeats “you are the one that I adore” and then the guitar goes off the rails (2:36-3:10).  It serves as foreshadowing that the relationship is unbalanced as adoration does not equal love and this is destined go off the rails as well.  The next song, In My Eyesopens with “I wake up alone, I look at the phone there’s no one there.”  Some of the cleanest guitar on the album is in this track, yet the guitar whines throughout much like the lyrics.  “I face the fact that you’re not ever coming back. …What hurts the most is that its done and I don’t remember having fun, but you’re in my eyes.” As the guitar is foregrounded, Costentino’s voice soars giving the feeling of a great summer track, but the lyrics are anything but reminiscent of a summer romance.  This completes the first 1/3 of the album.  Four songs about love gained, lost, regained, and torn apart. Following this arc are three songs about looking inward to find answers about why the relationship has failed. 

            So Unaware, When Will I Change, and Jealousy all seek answers.  “What is life?  What is love?  What’s the meaning of it all?  Do I even care or is it just that I am so unaware?” This reads like a journal entry from my 20s.  By this point in the album, anyone who has suffered through this type of break-up can identify with Cosentino’s lament.  At one point as she stretches the lyrics, “so unaware”, and "I'll never understand you" repeatedly the drums beat singularly (2:45-3:00), giving the sonic metaphor of beating yourself up over a failed relationship. In fact the drums are much more prominent throughout these three songs.  The next two tracks are similar in structure and inward focus.  Track 8, California Nights, is the pivot point of the album.  After 7 songs of guitar-driven pop, California Nights sets an ethereal mood both musically and lyrically.  “I never want to get so high that I can’t come down to real life and look you in the eyes and say baby you’re mine.”  This is the nadir of her feelings.  "California nights make me feel like I could die. But I'll try and stay alive".  Musically, it is such a stark contrast to every other track and punctuates her despair.

            However, Track 9, Fading Fast, bursts as a bubble gum pop song reminiscent of The Ronettes or Madonna's True Blue.  But, lyrically juxtaposed to the sound Cosentino croons, “This love will be the death of me, but you’ll always be a part of me, in dreams when I close my eyes” but then screams "get out of my head, get out of my head, get out of my head" (1:28-1:38)!  My favorite track is Run Through My Head.  Another guitar driven song that alludes to a back and forth that the relationship hasn’t fully ended in the first verse but the guitar plucks a single note that sounds like picking at a proverbial scab that won't heal as a result.  The second verse cleverly switches to single guitar chord progressions while Cosentino begs, “all that I wanted was a second chance, so I could convince you to take me back”.  The songs ends sounding like an anthem proclaiming “all of the things I never said run through my head, run through my head" and the guitar and drums parallel the anger.   Finally the album ends with Sleep Won’t Ever Come and Wasted Time.  Meloncholy, like California Nights, Wasted Time serves as the coda for the album. Cosentino's voice sounds like it is in a canyon as she sings “I don’t really mind, all of this wasted time. Just wish that I had to something to show for it”. After 11 songs asking every possible question for why the relationship has failed, only one thing is left. Resignation. 

            I fell in love with many of these songs this summer. After this close listen, however, I can’t think of these songs as independent 3 minute pop candy but only as an integral part of the narrative arc of the album.  That changes how I listen to them and how I hear the music.  And now how I watch the videos.  The video for Feeling Ok seemed odd to me at first. Now though I see Bobb Bruno, the guitarist, as the disinterested boyfriend at the end of the video (1:59-2:08).


 Heaven Sent, is filmed as if in dreamlike state with Cosentino adorned in a wedding dress. The intense affection is in her own head and not grounded in reality but in obsession.


By closely listening, re-listening, and deconstructing the album, I have gained new perspective on the lyrics, the music, and the videos and have an even deeper connection with the album.  It ranks right up there with the examples I shared above.

            So what does this have to do with teaching and learning?  When I have participated in #HiphopEd chat, I have tweeted that we should treat songs as texts and albums like literature.  

             With the emphasis on close reading, I think we need better ways to tap into the purposes for doing so.  In this case, I had an authentic purpose because I love the music.  So many instructional examples of close reading I have seen, are formulaic and remove any possible joy of critical analysis.  Close reading should lead discovery, appreciation, and deep learning not be a set of prescribed routines to meet the CCSS.  We closely read, view, and listen for many purposes.  Many of which are to add meaning to our lives.  We need more examples of how to closely read multimodal texts to extract their rich meanings. Music is an often ignored text in favor of images or videos.  Music often serves as in integral mode in video production.  Providing students opportunities to analyze, write about, create, and remix music can be a powerful use of multimodality for learning. With that power also comes a need to support these literacies.  

             After being meta about my own experience, there are a few constructs that I believe can support students literacies. First, reading an album as a text, led to several intratextual connections throughout.  Repeated listenings tuned me into to repeated phrases across songs such as "fine without you" and "so unaware" which are also song titles. Sonically, there are intratextual connections in the ways the guitar or drums sound or they way voice is foregrounded or backgrounded to the music.  An album also affords intertextual connections to other music, movies, and life experiences.  The variety of modes continually multiply the possible connections and meanings to be made.         

            Writing about music is challenging even with critics reviews as mentor texts.  Citing lyrics was easy but I needed ways to describe the instruments and the vocals.  I needed language about how music is used such as falsetto, chords, etc.  In a blog I was able to link the music so you, the reader, could listen and evaluate my interpretations. Textually, I could also mark the points in the music or music video to reference my own text.  If this blog was composed in a traditional essay format, I wouldn't have the affordances of images, songs, and videos to share.  This experience has only reinforced the critical need we have to teach kids a metalanguage (Kress, 1996; Serafini, 2014) about multimodal texts.  I would add though, we need another layer of meta-language about the modal interactions the create communicative ensembles (Jewitt, 2013). Analyzing the individual modes are insufficient to recognize the cross modal dependency to communicate the narrative.  We need to foster instructional opportunities to recognize these sites of multimodal intertextuality.  Music is an optimal media source for doing so. 
            Finally, close reading of multimodal texts invariably leads to encounters with remixes and subsequent analysis of those texts such as this cover of Wasted Time by Dntl Fan Fiction led by Jimmy Tamborello of The Postal Service.  A cool cover as an invidual track but the music doesn't match the mood of the album.  Or how songs get represented in music videos. All have implications for students’ own multimodal compositions and how they design messages that overlap modes.  A future iteration of this analysis could include a video of me talking over the music and pausing to point out parts of the song I want to highlight. Perhaps a podcast or vodcast would be a better medium.  These are all design choices (NLG, 1996) I need to decide on so that I can best share my interpretations. Students need spaces to design and redesign.

            I recognize that my critical analysis of this album is rooted in my own fascination with Best Coast and my love the genre. But the possibilities for teaching close reading of multimodal texts through the use of students’ own media fascinations are promising.  While I have been called an incredible music snob, this exercise makes me value even more that reading is intensely personal and that we should capitalize on the music and texts that youth love. They can be leveraged to teach the art of close reading and how it reframes the meanings of texts to foster transacting between the reader and the text rather than rote approaches to extracting seemingly fixed meanings.  I have yet to read a review of this album that analyzes it from my perspective.  I may be way off but I think my listening and examples ground my interpretation. While I hope you listen and come to appreciate this album in the ways that I do, it still enters the pantheon of seminal albums that constitute the soundtrack of my own life.   More importantly, I was able to construct MY own interpretation by transacting with the band and that has me feeling ok.  We have choices to make pedagogically because youth deserve to feel more than ok about their literacies practices.  

Authors note:  I often use blogging to spur my own academic journal writing.  I hope this does the trick. If it doesn't, I am happy to DJ your next event.