Mentor Text Wednesday: Songs In A Discordant Voice

Mentor Texts: Another Nightmare in America – Cory Branan (listen here)

American Tune – AJJ (listen here)

Writing Techniques:

  • Voice
  • Adopting a persona
  • Writing a protest piece

Background – I’m a music fan. I use music in many ways in my classroom. It matters in my life so it features in my work.

As I was waiting for my vinyl copy of Cory Branan’s fine new album Adios to arrive, I was reading some writing about it. As an English teacher, and fan of the craft of songwriting, I was especially enthralled by a song-by-song breakdown of the album that was featured on NoiseTrade’s website. Branan is one of the finest songwriters working today, and a chance to see him explain where the songs on this album came from was exciting. (Also, on NoiseTrade, you can get a sampler of three songs from the album, including this one. It’s like Costco. Try these, than buy the megapack!)

As I read, there was a link to this video of Branan performing a solo version of the album’s protest song, “Another Nightmare in America.”

As Branan speaks about assuming the voice of a racist cop, a position quite removed from his own life, I knew this would be a great mentor text. In some ways, Branan uses this exercise to express his feelings, whilst also working to attempt to understand that point of view. (This is to say nothing of having a writer give insight into his craft. We should be training our writers to seek this type of thing out!)

Songs sung in character are not new. Heck, as a Springsteen fan, I’ve already used them in the classroom. However, Branan’s song reminded me of another that I’ve brought into the classroom as a protest piece, “American Tune” by AJJ. (formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad) I paired them as mentor texts this week because each obviously speaks in the voice of a less than savory character, but also because they speak of things that are quite current and relevant in the world our writers live in.

How we might use them:

Adopting a persona/Voice – These two techniques pair very nicely in these pieces. In each, the writer actually had to adopt a persona to find the voice of the character. Both of these pieces are written in a voice so different from that of the writers’, a persona so removed from their own, that there is much to look at for our writers.

As a writer, putting yourself in the headspace of a character is an important exercise. Much of the advice given to writers is a variation on “write what you know.” While this is arguably sound advice, especially for young writers, I’ve found that some of a writer’s best work may actually be a result of trying to write what they don’t know.

In “American Tune” the narrator is bragging about the benefits of privilege as a straight, white male. The members of AJJ aren’t “that guy.” I’ve brought this song into the classroom before to have students analyze, but I didn’t think of it as a mentor text. However, consider the voice they’d have to assume to write like this. What a great exercise.

In Branan’s case, we have the unfortunate benefit of it being a very hot button issue, something that could bring out a heated response. I infuse global issues and social justice material into my courses regularly, and this is an interesting way to approach it. Explore the issue by assuming the persona and voice of the person you least agree with, or identify with. What a powerful exploration that could be.

Writing a protest piece – In exploring social justice issues, I often encourage students to write. I want their pens to take their minds for a walk, to give them time and space to mull over ideas. They live in a world that is highly based upon instant gratification, and as a result, they have a tendency not to take that time.

For them to take on this voice, to play this role as a writer, they’ll need to do some reading and thinking. A critical look at the news, and reporting about the issue they’re focusing on will be beneficial, and may yield quotes to help inspire them – quotes from actual primary sources, people who hold the mindset that they’re seeking to explore.

This research, for me, is a key part of using these songs in class. I want my writers to use their learning in their writing. In a multigenre project, or a zine, a poem, or set of lyrics in this kind of voice would work very well, as an expressive piece, showing a differing viewpoint, a breadth of study and consideration. It also shows a willingness to stretch, to try a challenging piece, which is important to the growth of a writer.

As an act of protest, this kind of writing is powerful. It’s almost satirical in nature, which is fun for them to explore. There’s a power in co-opting the language of the oppressor. There’s also a rich conversation about the impact of the writing. How will an audience take it?

In assuming this voice, both of these artists use language in powerful ways. They take phrases and imagery that we know, and through their use, they add a touch of darkness. AJJ’s use of the image of finding a lucky penny highlights the privilege the narrator has. He doesn’t need luck, he has privilege. Similarly, Branan’s racist cop uses many familiar phrases, turning them on their head. Gang vocals shouting a line from ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ makes it pretty clear that there is anger here.

I’m a fan of storytelling in my music, and these songs do a fine job of that. I like that the stories are in your face, and challenge a listener. Music should do that sometimes, as should storytellers. I think this is a fine lesson for our writers, a good challenge for them, that could have many teachable ripple effects in a classroom.

What other pieces in a “discordant voice” can you suggest? How else do you use writing to help your students work through their ideas in their writing? Do you use writing as a way to get to some of those deeper conversations?

As always, connect with me on Twitter, @doodlinmunkyboy, or feel free to comment below to connect.

-Jay

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