Tag Article List: Music

“This is music!”: What Stranger Things’ Eddie Munson Reveals About the Power of Metal

Ashley Butterworth Brumbelow
University of Georgia
Athens, Georga, USA


The wide reach of digital technology has further diversified student perspectives in the contemporary classroom and what was once considered mainstream has become less pronounced due to the vast assortment of television programming, music, and other forms of media available. Still, this diversity is often not reflected in school curricula. Though examining music as text is a common practice in the secondary English classroom, the songs selected for study are usually representative of mainstream trends and rarely include selections from alternative genres like punk rock, rap, or heavy metal. These genres are avoided due to misconceptions surrounding how their messages affect young people, despite the potential for many positive outcomes. Educational applications for metal music, though seemingly dissonant, can disrupt exclusive and limiting social norms in school settings, provide a sense of community for socially “othered” youths, and have long-term emotional benefits. This paper explores the social/emotional and literary potential of integrating metal music as text in the secondary English classroom, using Stranger Things character Eddie Munson as a frame of reference. Implications for practice include employing the metal genre to engage socially “othered” students and pairing these texts with canonical pieces to examine themes of nonconformity, social justice, and resisting oppression.

Keywords: metal, music, literacy, secondary English, Stranger Things

Author Bio

Ashley Butterworth Brumbelow teaches honors ninth-grade literature and Advanced Placement English Language and Composition in North Georgia. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in English education and master’s in curriculum and instruction through the University of North Georgia, she is pursuing a Ph.D. in language and literacy education at the University of Georgia.

Suggested Reference Citation


Brumbelow, A.B. (2024). “This is music!”: What stranger things’ Eddie Munson reveals about the power of metal.  Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, 11(1). http://journaldialogue.org/v11-issue-1/this-is-music-what-stranger-things-eddie-munson-reveals-about-the-power-of-metal/


Brumbelow, Ashley Butterworth. “This is Music!”: What Stranger Things’ Eddie Munson Reveals About the Power of Metal.  Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2024, vol 11, no. 1, http://journaldialogue.org/v11-issue-1/this-is-music-what-stranger-things-eddie-munson-reveals-about-the-power-of-metal/

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Pop Culture and Politics: Engaging Students in American Government through Art, Music, and Film

Laura Merrifield Wilson
University of Indianapolis
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA


Strategically and thoughtfully employing popular culture in teaching political science can enable students to better understand, analyze, and relate to the material. In a discipline that can be viewed by students as too boring, too distant, and too polarizing, the use of relevant music, TV/film clips, toys, memes, and other popular culture artifacts can engage otherwise unengaged students in a meaningful way. This paper argues that using popular culture in teaching political science can demonstrate relevance, serve as a generational translator, expose the bias of experience, and enable an expression of self. In demonstrating relevance, popular culture makes material fresh and applicable for students; by operating as a generational translator, the material transcends the time in which it originated; biased experiences are exposed through popular culture mediums through which students are comfortable projecting new and different ideas that challenge what they already know and believe; finally, students can learn to express themselves in relationship to the material by using these mediums with which they are already familiar but in a new and intentional way. Watching clips from the hit TV show “Parks and Recreation” (2009) can illuminate the complexities of the bureaucracy and the role of regulation in everyday life; likewise, listening to the award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton” (2015) with clever lyrics regaling the debates of federalism demonstrate the passion and ideas behind such constitutional conflicts. This paper first provides an overview that establishes the value of applying popular culture specifically to political science pedagogy before reviewing the relevant literature. It then charts the four ways in which popular culture can be beneficial to teaching and learning political science, concluding with a larger analysis of the advantages and potential for such approaches.

Keywords: political science, politics; government, TV/Film, music, memes, cartoons, popular culture

Author Bio 

Laura Merrifield Wilson is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Assistant Director of the Strain Honors College at the University of Indianapolis. Her research specializations include American political behavior, campaigns and elections, and politics in popular culture. She hosts and produces “Positively Politics” on WICR 88.7 “The Diamond” as well as serves as a regular political analyst and commentator in various news outlets. She believes politics is important and should be accessible and easy enough for anyone to meaningfully engage. Wilson completed her Bachelors in Theatre (2008) and Masters in American Politics (2010) from Ohio University and her Masters in Women’s Studies (2014), Masters in Public Administration (2012), and PhD in Political Science (2014) from the University of Alabama. 

Recommended Citation


Wilson, Laura M. “Pop Culture and Politics: Teaching American Government through Art, Film, and Music”. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. vol. 7, no. 3. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-3/pop-culture-and-politics-engaging-students-in-american-government-through-art-music-and-film/


Wilson, L. (2020). Pop Culture and Politics: Teaching American Government through Art, Film, and Music. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 7(3).http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v7-issue-3/pop-culture-and-politics-engaging-students-in-american-government-through-art-music-and-film/

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Constraining the (Im)possible: Improvisation and Violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home

Hannah Ianniello
University of Notre Dame, Sydney
Petersham, Australia



This paper will explore the role of jazz improvisation in the characterization of the protagonist in Rafi Zabor’s 1998 jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home. I suggest that Zabor represents the process of improvisation to not only enhance the enigma of The Bear’s ability as a jazz musician, but also to enhance his capacity towards violence.

Through the exploration of the actual process of improvisation in the research of Paul Berliner, Ingrid Monson and Alyn Shipton, Improvisation in a real jazz context is collaborative and exploratory. However, Zabor, like many other authors (such as Michael Ondaatje, James Baldwin and John Clellon Holmes) represent the process of improvisation as solitary, violent and explosive. Authors choose to represent this creative process as violent in order that they may use the music-making as an artistic response to dramatic events and violent occurrences in the characters’ lives.

In addition, the figure of The Bear is a metaphor for characters (or musicians) who have led violent, suppressed and hidden lives. As he skulks in the shadows and avoids the authorities, he searches for a sense of self and tries to create human connections with those who help him. Music, and improvisation, seems to be the key to his identity and yet the music-making process often injures the people he cares about most, and forces him to question the essence of his impossible being. Improvisation, then, is a tool through which Zabor suggests that violence is inherent in both the creative process and the search for identity.

Keywords: Improvisation, violence, literature, jazz, Zabor, creativity, music, performance, outsider, suppression

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The process of jazz improvisation live on stage is, at it’s best, illustrative of the process of creating something new through the breaking down and reshaping of traditional ideas. Many authors, including Rafi Zabor, Michael Ondaatje and John Clellon Holmes, choose to represent this creative act as something akin to violence, even though the reality of music-making does not, in itself, seem to be an obviously violent or destructive process<sup>1</sup>. In addition, the context of violence that surrounds these representations of improvisatory performance highlights the contrast between music and violence while simultaneously suggesting the two elements are necessarily intertwined.

Although the number of novels specifically about jazz musicians is not large, jazz and literature have been intertwined since the early days of jazz – through novels, short stories and narrative poetry. Within this relatively small field, violence is a feature that recurs in various forms. However, the relationship between jazz and violence in literature is rarely recognised. This relationship is important for two reasons: it is a reflection of the history of the development of jazz; and is also emblematic of the artistic concern with the process of creation and the destruction or reconfiguration of conventional ideas.

This paper will explore the role of jazz improvisation in the characterization of the protagonist in Rafi Zabor’s 1998 jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home. This surreal novel is is essentially the story of a talking, saxophone-playing bear in New York City, who decides he wants to become a jazz musician in order to define his identity. I suggest that Zabor represents the process of improvisation to not only enhance the enigma of The Bear’s ability as a jazz musician, but also to enhance his capacity towards violence. Zabor’s novel is by no means the only novel to explore the relationship between jazz and violence, yet nowhere is the character of the musician more explicitly represented as the violent outsider seeking his place within a modern society.

In order to examine the role of improvisation in Zabor’s novel, it is necessary to reflect upon the type of jazz the characters within the novel play: free jazz, post-bop and fusion. Paul Berliner argues that these styles go some way towards an “ideological rejection of former jazz conventions” and blend other styles of music such as rock into the idiom (122). The jazz in this novel therefore not only breaks the conventions of music from a pre-jazz era, but further challenges early forms of jazz such as New Orleans jazz, swing and even bebop.

Most significant in Zabor’s representation of the jazz musician, is the importance of improvisation. Philip Alperson argues that nearly all human activity is a form of improvisation, but that improvisation in the artistic sense is essentially “spontaneous achievement within the constraints of the possible’(274). What is compelling about Zabor’s representation, however, is that he has done away with the “constraints of the possible” altogether, by presenting the jazz musician as a representative of the impossible: a talking, saxophone playing bear.

In his study into the meaning and method behind improvisation, Thinking in Jazz, Berliner suggests that it is a misconception that improvisation is only about performing with spontaneity and intuition (2). Yet many novels about jazz do imply that musical inspiration comes from intuition alone<sup>2</sup>. This creates a romanticised vision of the jazz musician, which often suits literary representations of these characters. However, in his comprehensive study, which involved interviewing and working with many jazz musicians throughout America, Berliner argues that there is, “in fact, a lifetime of preparation and knowledge behind every idea that the improviser performs” (17). This is perhaps what Alperson means by the “constraints of the possible” in his definition of improvisation: the limitations of the instrument itself and the performer’s skills will provide the boundary for the performance.

Yet, if Zabor’s musician himself is impossible, then surely there are no constraints on the music. The Bear’s jazz, because of its very unfeasibility, has the potential to have an impact in a way that no other musician has ever been able. Because he is a bear, he moves outside of the constraints of our human world – and so does his music. This renders him the ultimate artist: unrestricted, except by his own mind. Yet, still the question remains, why does Zabor represent him as a jazz musician? And perhaps more importantly, what is it about improvisation that is so important to this novel?

Like the majority of subjects in novels about jazz musicians, The Bear is a front-line player<sup>3</sup>. This means he is most often the leader of the band he performs with, and not only has the opportunity to express his individuality through the music, but does so by standing at the front of the stage. This is no coincidence. The role that improvisation plays in jazz provides Zabor with the means to give his bear a new form of communication, and The Bear is placed in the front of the band so that what he plays is presented with as much power as possible. In addition, his physical position of facing the audience opens a direct line of communication and allows for maximum impact. As Ingrid Monson argues:

When a musician successfully reaches a discerning audience, moves its members to applaud or shout praises, raises the energy to dramatic proportions, and leaves a sonorous memory that lingers long after, he or she has moved beyond technical competence, beyond the chord changes and into the realm of “saying something.” (1-2)

The idea of communication is crucial to Monson’s somewhat romantic description of improvisation. Yet, the concept of “saying something” also highlights the importance of adding meaning to the music, as she suggests the act of communication through the music is made significant through “the reciprocal and multi-layered relationships among sound, social settings, and cultural politics that affect the meaning of jazz improvisation’(2 my emphasis). In his complex study of when and how music has meaning, Lawrence Kramer describes music as “the art of collapsing distances” (3). This highlights that it is not only jazz and improvisation that act as forms of musical communication, but that all music has the ability to do so.

Yet it is the immediacy of the act of improvisation – composing on the spot – that makes the sense of communication in jazz more vibrant than in other forms of music. Indeed, numerous recent empirical studies into the state of jazz performances highlight how important this live composition is to audiences, as Burland and Pitts posit:

Spontaneity and uncertainty offer a sense of excitement as does the immediacy of the event: the sense that the music is being formed “in the moment” and that the audience is part of that process resonates with research on jazz musicians and audiences. (527)<sup>4</sup>

Monson’s concept of “saying something” through improvisation is also a reminder that an important part of the jazz performance process is collaboration. The improvising soloist relies on the support of his or her band for the establishment of the melody, harmony and rhythm, and on their complicity in the act of creation. A common metaphor used by musicians to describe what it is like to improvise in a jazz context is that of a conversation. Yet Berliner has a more comprehensive metaphor for a jazz performance: that of a journey, where the musicians

must take in the immediate inventions around them while leading their own performances toward emerging musical images, retaining, for the sake of continuity, the features of a quickly receding trail of sound. They constantly interpret one another’s ideas, anticipating them on the basis of the music’s predetermined harmonic events. (348)

In addition to this complex collaborative journey, the act of improvisation provides an interesting narrative context for these characters. An episode of improvisation is also a public display of something incredibly intimate: the moment of creation. As Alperson suggests, improvisation is interesting to audiences and readers alike because “we are actually witnessing the shaping activity of the improviser. It is as if we the audience gain privileged access to the performer’s mind at the moment of creation” (274). Improvisation then, is the act of creating music in a public or live setting, through the combination of technical skill, musical knowledge, personal history, collaborative intuition and emotion.

The concept of improvisation is substantial enough to be the subject of numerous books and much critical material (cf.Alperson; Berliner; Carvalho; Kamoche and Cunha; Lespinasse; Monson; Szekely; Dean and Smith), and it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper to cover all nuances of the form completely.

What is interesting about the representation of improvisation in literature, is that fact that author’s often take this process of creation and render it violent. The music itself even becomes a kind of victim of violence. Where the music is cut up, reconfigured and broken down through the process of improvisation, violence is represented as an element of the music-making process. Of course, it is possible to see this fragmentation and reassembly as simply a creative process that is neither violent nor destructive. For instance, in his description of jazz composition, Paul Berliner describes the process of altering a melody through improvisation as follows:

Pursuing subtle courses, musicians carry over the inflections and ornaments of particular phrases to embellish other phrases. Venturing further, they may extract a figure’s salient characteristic, such as melodic shape or rhythmic configuration, and treat it as the rudiment for new figures. (146)

Berliner’s attempt at a realistic description of the process of improvisation is focused on the embellishment, extraction and treatment of a melody. However, I argue that the language Zabor uses to describe this process is quite different because of its suggestion of violence. It is the representation of the creative process that is of concern here, not how that process is achieved in real life. For instance, in contrast to Berliner’s description, Zabor describes his fictional character improvising with a very different emphasis:

First thing he did was start dismantling the tune. He played a series of violent lower-register honks, then some angry, disordered runs that violated the cadence at the end of the chorus. And there went the tempo: the rhythm section was forced to break ranks and stutter … the Bear applied more pressure, the time splintered like boxwood. (45)

Zabor’s Bear dismantles, disorders, violates, and splinters time and his fellow musicians have to “break ranks.” While improvisation in jazz is not necessarily a violent or destructive process in reality, Zabor’s extract highlights how improvisation can lend itself to being described as such. Zabor represents the same process as that which Berliner describes, yet Zabor has chosen to foreground the potential violence of the act, and in doing so he focuses the reader’s attention on The Bear’s aggression and determination in the scene. This suggests that there is an inherent violence in The Bear’s music-making process. Just as a painter may cut up or rip an image to reassemble into a collage<sup>5</sup>, a jazz musician may break a melody or harmony apart to make something new. How an author chooses to describe this act is what determines whether it is viewed as violence or not. When an author does represent the music as violent, the music often becomes a reflection of the character’s psychological state.

One of the most interesting psychological elements of The Bear Comes Home is that, when considering The Bear’s mental state, it can also be read as a complex exploration of the relationship between racial identity and jazz. The ongoing social, scientific and authoritarian persecution of The Bear leads to a personal existential crisis and The Bear uses his music to respond to his victimisation.

The late 1990s was a very different time for jazz and racial identity compared to many earlier jazz novels such as Herbert Simmons’ Man Walking on Eggshells and Ann Petry’s The Street. The US Civil Rights movement ended in 1968 with several Civil Rights Acts being passed between 1964 and 1968. The most contemporary racial conflict to the novel were the 1992 race riots, instigated by the police beating of African-American man, Rodney King, in Los Angeles. Significantly, at around the same time the United States became involved in the Persian Gulf War, which went some way to shifting the focus of racial discrimination in the US towards Iraqis, and to reducing the perception of African-Americans as the “other” (Sidanius and Liu 685).

By the time of Zabor’s writing, jazz, having arguably reached its peak of popularity in the 1940s, was no longer the sound that represented popular tastes. In a recent study into the current state of jazz gigs, audience members agreed that “jazz venues should be small and intimate” so that listeners can “immerse themselves in the experience” (Burland and Pitts 527). Burland and Pitts’ study also argues that current audience members are “knowledgeable about jazz repertoire” and therefore attend performances with specific expectations about what they will hear (523). This suggests that these audience members are unlike the large dance audiences of the 1930s and are more educated and critical. In addition, as Brand, Sloboda, Saul and Hathaway argue, jazz has been suffering “a noted decline in the prevalence of attendance at concerts particularly … in North America and Europe over the last decades of the 20th century and into the 21st century” (635-6).

Thus jazz was almost seen as cult music by the late 1990s, existing largely in the underground scene of small bars with an air of exclusivity. Zabor draws on this underground world as a perfect setting for the arrival of The Bear who slips in and out of small dark clubs, avoiding too many questions because these are places where unusual characters are accepted.

As The Bear dons his hat and trench coat to step into jazz clubs and meet his idols, he also has to try and stay under the radar to avoid the police and the scientists who would like to study him. It is in this climate of hiding, suspicion and the need to play music that The Bear tries to find out who he really is and how he can exist within the human world. I argue that Zabor uses The Bear’s continual search for his place in society through his music as a metaphor for the desire to have one’s racial identity accepted.

Prior to the beginning of the novel, The Bear has been working with his best friend, a human called Jones, as an “act” – he is a street performer who is led by his master to do human-like things, such as dance, drink beer and playfully wrestle with Jones. When he is performing on the street, The Bear hides his true identity and pretends to be enslaved:

When Jones led him home toward evening, The Bear’s walk rolled him shoulder to shoulder, his head swayed genial and empty, his face was vacant and his eyes were glazed … The Bear knew how to behave in company. (Zabor 9)

However, when The Bear arrives home, he relaxes, takes the chain out of his nose and puts his feet up to have a beer (10). When he is outside his home, he is performing and adhering to stereotypes of what people think a bear living in a metropolis should be. He performs the appearance of slavery, of dependence and disciplined behaviour. Yet he is not happy. This performance is something he desperately wants to shed. After one encouraging experience performing jazz with Lester Bowie, The Bear finds he is no longer able to keep up the performance of slavery, feeling as though he is about to “slip away”: “Time and the city were pounding him to a powder, and something weaker was fighting for life in his heart” (Zabor 32). He chooses to drop the act and takes the ring from his nose and bleeds all over the back of a taxi. The rest of the novel leaves him searching for a way he can be defined now that he is no longer simply a dancing bear.

The Bear, as an animal trying to exist in the human world, is a symbol of the outsider, or the other, but is also a symbol of violence. In this case, Zabor continually makes us aware of his animal status by never giving him a name and always referring to him as “The Bear.” In addition, The Bear is always willing to show his teeth to get his way, and we are reminded that his huge form cannot be disguised. Jerome Stueart posits that The Bear is, however, not bear enough and is “like a man in a bear suit”(198), arguing that we are only really made aware of his difference through the awkward sex scenes, as he fears hurting his human girlfriend, Iris, in the process of penetration. I argue that it is not only in the sex scenes, but also in the musical scenes that we are made aware of his “bearishness.” He bares his teeth at the audience, terrifying them with his potential violence, without even meaning to:

He reared his head back to take a larger breath, and had he been aware of his audience he would have realized that the sudden sight of his open jaws – great white tearing teeth, livid purple gums and broad, slavering tongue – had made it collectively gasp and jump back a foot. (Zabor 23)

It seems at times as if The Bear is unaware of how terrifying and strange he can be – particularly once he has decided to drop the guise of being Jones slave. Yet it is after this scene described above that The Bear is able to begin to really consider where he stands in relation to the human world.

When The Bear forms his own group, his music is suggested to show traces of both bebop and free jazz. In his discussion of one of the landmark albums of the free jazz era, Coltrane’s Ascension, Alyn Shipton argues that the “collective free playing” had “power, collective passion, and primal screaming qualities” (740). While Shipton admits that free jazz can be inaccessible or difficult to understand, he suggests another way of listening to the music:

If preconceptions about harmony, melody, and swing are suspended, and the music is approached in its own terms, it becomes a series of profound, impressive and frequently uncomfortable statements. (741)

Thus while the music may be both “profound” and “uncomfortable,” it has the capacity to be heard as a collection of statements or claims. It is almost as though it is a search for a sound, experimental and explorative. Ornette Coleman, who was partly responsible for the development of free jazz, is described by an old friend, Dewey Redman, as having a “a restless, questioning mind,” which not only reflects free jazz, but the characterisation of Zabor’s The Bear (Shipton 774). Coltrane himself, who is one of The Bear’s idols, also described the music as a process of searching (cf. Shipton 759).

Indeed, The Bear often uses the music as a means of searching for answers and exploring the anomaly that is his existence. Therefore, the music becomes a tool through which he can search for himself and Zabor describes this process as somewhat destructive. The Bear breaks apart the music that he knows to make something new in an effort to understand his desire to create music. In addition, through this process, he hopes to discover something about his own identity. As he records some music, he slips into this kind of philosophising:

There was a kind of shuttered tumult in him, as if all this equivocal music were being generated by a drama taking place from behind the closed doors of a room somewhere deeper in the house of his nature than he could bodily reach … but all he could do here … was use what he knew about music and the horn to make some sense out of such [an] echo of [the] real. (173)

But by the end of the novel, as his band members sit between sets with bleeding fingers (literally) he is convinced this search for identity through his music has led to nothing but violence:

What have I done? The Bear asked himself … Violence to everyone around me, the usual price of my obtaining any kind of pleasure at all. Does making an artistic statement sufficient to the fundamental questions my existence has proposed really require this much breakage? (457)

Therefore, by the conclusion, he has not found his identity, but instead has found that his musical response to the discrimination he has faced has led him to enact both intimate and performative violence upon others. His own acts of violence are explained as being a response to his identity crisis, which he attempts to solve through music. Zabor portrays the creative process as a violent act that is influenced by, and has influence upon, the psychological state of the performer.

In addition, The Bear has no answers: The uncertainty of who he is in relation to the human world remains. If the novel is viewed as a commentary on racial identity in the late twentieth century, Zabor seems to suggest that creative collaboration is not necessarily enough to bridge the gap between different ethnicities because of the imbalance of power – physically and socially. An underlying concept here is also that creative expression through improvisation cannot define who we are as individuals and how we relate to one another.

Finally, the primary way The Bear hopes to define himself is by comparing himself to other musicians, and by being accepted by them. Musicians initially don’t take him seriously, as many are afraid to play with him or think he is just a “novelty act” (Zabor 43), reflecting the history of early black minstrel performers in America (Gioia 8). Once most musicians and audiences do accept him, however, it is as a musician and not as a bear. He is respected and even admired, embarking on a big performance opportunity at the end of the novel. Stueart argues that the reason the musicians finally accept him is not only because of his musical ability, but also because of the fact that he is a bear:

Other jazz musicians are the only ones taking him seriously, and this might stem from the fact that jazz is improvisation – working off the material you have to create something new. The Bear is an improvisation of a jazz musician, literally. A playful detour from the mainstream melody, an offbeat that still works, a harmony only heard if one modulates the right chords. The Bear, being improvisation on his own part and Zabor’s improv, fits in well with the other improvisos who play instruments with him in various gigs throughout the book. (207)

Thus, Stueart suggests that The Bear himself is a kind of improvisation, and as such, he “fits in” because of the fact that he is a bear. While I agree that there is a possibility that his fellow musicians acceptance of him does come from their willingness to accept new ideas, I would dispute Stueart’s equating of jazz improvisation with Zabor’s “improvisation” of The Bear as a character. As previously argued, one of the qualities that makes jazz improvisation so arresting is that it is immediate and live; it evolves unpredictably and is only repeated if it is recorded and can be played back. Perhaps this is the manner in which Zabor wrote the character, but it seems simplistic to equate the two so fully.

Nevertheless, as Stueart suggests, The Bear, like African-American jazz musicians before him, finds some acceptance through jazz. Ultimately, it seems to be a legitimate occupation for him, as it was for early black jazz musicians struggling to find their place in society in the early twentieth century (Sidran 31). By the end of the novel, although he has found a place where he can be accepted, The Bear remains dissatisfied: He fears the violence of his music and has an incomplete love affair with Iris, his white lover. He muses over “this lucky-in-music-unlucky-in-love routine: I won’t have it” (Zabor 473), reflecting the pattern of so many jazz musicians’ lives. His identity as a bear has finally been made redundant in his professional career, but it still has an impact on how he relates to women and perhaps the human race generally – where the human race represents the dominant race, that is, the white population of America.

Similarly, Zabor suggests musicians are capable of attacking one another through music, as The Bear responds to some unwilling collaborators by unsettling their sense of the music. Zabor portrays this attack as violence against both the music and the musicians:

As the Bear applied more pressure, the time splintered like boxwood beneath the weight of his phrasing and the home key collided smartly with two or three others, motivic fragments flying off at the edges like electrons from a critical mass about to go fission. (45)

In this way the ruptured music is represented as a weapon with which he can control his fellow musicians; he unsettles them to the point that they are forced to comply with the way he wants to play. In the context of the narrative, The Bear performs with violence in order to claim his place as a serious musician. Therefore the music becomes a means of fighting for respect, and for breaking down assumptions that he is a gimmick. It becomes the means for him to prove that he is not simply a saxophone playing Bear, but rather, an accomplished musician.

However, towards the end of the novel, when The Bear has finally established himself as a musician first, and a bear second, there is still violence in the music that he plays, and he hurts the musicians he works with – though with a different intention and outcome (457). Zabor thus explores a form of performative violence that occurs when performing music physically hurts the musicians. After The Bear takes a long solo at a gig, one musician says to him, “Next time you want to kill us use a gun, all right?” (457), suggesting he has pushed the rest of the band too far, exhausting them with his stamina. This question causes The Bear some self-doubt, unsure if he should be collaborating with humans at all: “What have I done?” (457).

The Bear does not want to hurt people, and his potential violence becomes emblematic of his personal struggle throughout the novel: How can a bear relate to humans without destroying them? He fears causing harm in his friendship with Jones, who may be incarcerated for helping him. He fears physically hurting Iris, his human lover, when they have intercourse, and finally he fears hurting his fellow musicians as they perform.

By the end of the novel, he hides himself away, disappearing into the wilderness to be alone and unable to “budge [a] brute rock with [a] bit of misremembered, half-accomplished song” (478). This line suggests that The Bear has tried to use music to change the “brute rock” of his existence and his complex relationship with humans. However, he has found that his music is not enough to actually change his world, no matter how much he would like it to have an impact. The music has enabled a dialogue between himself and human beings, but it has not actually solved the problem of his relationship with humanity – he is still a bear, and he is still stronger, bigger and more violent than a human.

The Bear’s consideration of a “misremembered, half-accomplished song” suggests that this is how he sees the jazz he plays: broken, fragmentary and perhaps unfinished. He sees his own performance ability as having not yet reached its peak, and therefore his own narrative is unfinished, and the music reflects this. His feeling that his song cannot move the physical world suggests that perhaps the meaning of the music is not enough. The music has failed to produce the bond he hoped to create, and the suggestion is that perhaps he was asking too much of the music. If examined in the context of music making as a representation of the creative process, The Bear’s position at the end of the novel suggests that if artists have an expectation that their craft will improve their life, they will be disappointed.

Zabor represents jazz and improvisation as an art form that has the capacity to transform sound into a means of manipulating both musicians and audiences physically and psychologically. The idea of breaking music down, pulling it apart and disrupting the key or time signature is used as a metaphor for the disruption of conventions in relation to identity, race and social history. Conversely, violence within the narrative also becomes a metaphorical tool through which to explore the creative process – particularly the process of improvisation. Physical or visible violence may be a metaphor for psychological disturbance or suffering, while psychological or musical violence is at times a metaphor for deeper emotional concerns within The Bear. The history of The Bear’s “slavery” and the music he makes has an impact on how the music is both performed and received by the audience. The music embodies and sometimes absorbs the violations, breakages and damage from The Bear’s life.

Improvisation, then, is a tool through which Zabor suggests that violence is inherent in both the creative process and the search for identity. He represents the music making as violence and destructive, even through the reality of improvisation may be anything but. He creates an impossible character in a possible world, enabling a representation of improvisation that stretches the constraints of reality. The result is an enigmatic, geninus musician whose violent “nature” makes him simultaneously the most creative artist and the most destructive social animal.


[1] Here, I refer to Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home(1998), Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter(1976) and John Clellon Holmes The Horn(1958), as a small selection of novels that make reference to many types of violence in relation to jazz. This broader study of the relationship between jazz and violence in literature was the subject of my PhD thesis, Drawn to the Slaughter: Violence in Narratives about Jazz Musicians.

[2] This can be seeing in Dorothy Baker’s 1942 novel, Young Man with a Horn, charting the life of a man driven to excess by his commitment to his music, and Herbert Simmons” 1962 novel Man Walking on Eggshells, which also explores addiction and intuitive musical ability.

[3] Front line players in novels, primarily play trumpet or saxophone. One significant exception is the character of Rufus Scott in James Baldwin’s Another Country, who is a drummer.

[4] Other empirical studies that emphasise the importance of live performance and improvisation include (Brand et al.; Doffman; Macdonald and Wilson). Yet it is important to note that the results of studies such as these may be affected by how audiences believe they shouldrespond both to the music and toquestions posed by researchers.

[5] Such as in the work of Pablo Picasso or Kurt Schwitters.

Works Cited

Alperson, Philip. “A Topography of Improvisation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.3 (2010): 273-79.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Eds. Bohlman, Philip V. and Bruno Nettl. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1994.

Brand, Gail, et al. “The Reciprocal Relationship between Jazz Musicians and Audiences in Live Performances: A Pilot Qualitative Study.” Psychology of Music 40.5 (2012): 634-51.

Burland, Karen, and Stephanie Pitts. “Rules and Expectations of Jazz Gigs.” Social Semiotics 22.5 (2012): 523-43.

Carvalho, John M. “Repetition and Self-Realization in Jazz Improvisation.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68.3 (2010): 285-90.

Dean, Roger, and Hazel Smith. Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. Performing Arts Studies. Ed. Bodman, Christopher. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic 1997.

Doffman, Mark. “Jammin’ an Ending: Creativity, Knowledge, and Conduct among Jazz Musicians.” Twentieth-Century Music 8.2 (2012): 203-25.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kamoche, Ken, and Miguel Pina e Cunha. “Minimal Structures: From Jazz Improvisation to Product Innovation.” Organization Studies 22.5 (2001): 733.

Kramer, Lawrence. Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Lespinasse, Patricia G. “The Jazz Text: Wild Women, Improvisation, and Power in 20th Century Jazz Literature.” Columbia University, 2011.

Macdonald, Raymond, and Graeme Wilson. “Musical Identities of Professional Jazz Musicians: A Focus Group Investigation.” Psychology of Music 33.4 (2005): 395-417.

Monson, Ingrid. Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Shipton, Alyn. A New History of Jazz. London: Continuum, 2001.

Sidanius, Jim, and James H. Liu. “The Gulf War and the Rodney King Beating: Implications of the General Conservatism and Social Dominance Perspectives.” Journal of Social Psychology 132.6 (1992): 685-700.

Sidran, Ben. Black Talk. New York: Da Capo Press, 1971.

Stueart, Jerome. “Portrait of the Artist as a Bear: Jazz, Nietzsche, and the Animal Mask.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 40 (2007): 197-213.

Szekely, Michael David. “Thresholds: Jazz, Improvisation, Heterogeneity, and Politics in Postmodernity.” Jazz Perspectives 2.1 (2008): 29-50.

Zabor, Rafi. The Bear Comes Home. London: Jonathan Cape, 1998.


Author Bio

Dr. Hannah Ianniello is an early-career academic and writer from Sydney, Australia. Graduating from her PhD in 2014, her research is based around the relationship between literature and music. She has delivered numerous seminars at the University of Western Sydney and University of Notre Dame Australia, and has had a research paper published with Peter Lang. In addition to her academic work, she is a novelist, poet and screenwriter and has won the 2013 West Field Screenwriting Award for a short film she wrote in collaboration with her husband.

Reference Citation

Ianniello, H. (2018). Constraining the (im)possible: Improvisation and violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 5(2). http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/constraining-the-impossible-improvisation-and-violence-in-rafi-zabors-the-bear-comes-home/

Ianniello, Hannah. Constraining the (Im)possible: Improvisation and Violence in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy. 2018. vol. 5, no. 2. http://journaldialogue.org/issues/v5-issue-2/constraining-the-impossible-improvisation-and-violence-in-rafi-zabors-the-bear-comes-home/

Lady Gaga Meets Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory

Kenneth Culton
Department of Sociology
Niagara University
Niagara University, NY, USA

José A. Muñoz
Department of Sociology
California State University, San Bernardino
San Bernardino, CA, USA



This paper presents methods for instructors to deal with student anxiety over theory courses. The method is an interactive class exercise that provides instructors with direction as to using popular music.  The paper accomplishes this through the use of several cases for including music in order to spark discussion and suggestions for helping students to interpret the theory presented.  Additionally, suggestions for incorporating writing assignments with the exercise are provided here. A table linking music to a theorist is also provided.



Music, Sociology, Theory, Teaching, Student Anxiety, Subculture, Class Exercise, Undergraduate, Popular Culture


The challenges involved with teaching an undergraduate Social Theory course are oft reported. Lowney (1998) notes that students often enroll in Social Theory simply to fulfill a requirement for their major. Others cite the mental and emotional obstacles students face. Students are often “anxious and fearful” of Social Theory courses (Ahlkvist 471; Hickson and Stacks 262). Research into lowering student anxiety in theory and other core courses is a critical question explored by many scholars (Ahlkvist, 471; Ormrod, 191; Schacht and Stewart 329). From our anecdotal experiences and writings by Julie Pelton (107), we find students regularly report theory to be the most difficult Sociology course taken. Rumors tend to spread, thereby enhancing the fear and anxiety associated with courses in Social theory. Cases were discovered where instructors work around their students’ difficulty in understanding complex concepts by constructing a theory course that is both fun and enjoyable, resulting in students feeling more comfortable with theory (Flanagan and McCausland 311). As in many courses, the patience and willingness of the instructor to put extra work into a theory course goes a long way in regard to students conquering their fear of theory. One suggestion is looking to contemporary examples and current events as a method for simplifying concepts (Hickson and Stacks 263). This can involve strategies that incorporate intensive writing where film (Pelton 107) or other popular culture content serves to engage students.

Employing popular music in Sociology courses has been lauded by both instructors and students alike (Albers and Bach 237-238; Martinez 260). To date we know of no systematic exercise integrating popular music in a standard Social Theory class; however, in the field of Criminology and Economics scholars have used music to teach key theoretical concepts in their courses (Rothe and Collins 227; Hinds-Aldrich 7; Van Horn and Van Horn 65). This is surprising because courses in Social Theory are important universally required and central to the discipline (Orum 95). Jarl Ahlkvist made an effort to integrate music when teaching classical theory in his introductory Sociology courses (473-478). Ahlkvist used “Progressive Rock” bands Pink Floyd, Yes, and ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), to illustrate the theories of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber respectively (476). The music served as a “concrete organizing framework” to which students could “easily link abstract social theories.” (Ahlkvist 476) In short, the use of music enhanced students’ learning of social theories; however, there were some stated limitations. Notably, Ahlkvist found that his presentations of conceptually dense progressive rock actually decreased student participation relative to other introductory course topics (476). Moreover, he states, “most [students] initially dismiss this music from the 1970’s as largely irrelevant for understanding our current social environment” (Ahlkvist 480).  Ahlkvist writes that “A more ambitious extension of this technique might include the use of popular music that emerged in the aftermath of progressive rock.”(481) This paper does so, not entirely eschewing music from the 70’s, while still moving forward and presenting an interactive exercise that integrates various styles of popular music in the Social Theory classroom.

The musical tastes and stylistic preferences of youth have become more fluid and there is an “essential eclecticism of post-war youth culture” (Bennett 600). Musical tastes are less collective and genre based, reflecting what Bennett calls “neo-tribal sensibilities,” mirroring aspects of “late modern consumer society” (Bennett 614). Like other patterns of consumption, young people are clearly accustomed to individualizing, and even personalizing, their choices. Albers and Bach find that using popular music in the classroom “bridges the gap between the professional and the personal” (Albers and Bach 238). The personal in this case, the world of popular culture and mass media, is a common immersion for most students. The professional is represented by the structured norms apparent to students and emblematic of the typical classroom environment. Material culture in the classroom allows for instructors to achieve their goals by sparking curiosity and limiting defensiveness and conformity (Groce 80; Hoefel 71).

Drawing from the above-referenced experience, using music in Ken Culton’s introductory courses endeavored to bring music into the Social Theory classroom as well. As faculty members we are the bearers of institutional norms, and as faculty who may have chosen to teach Social Theory, we are often that much further culturally from the traditional college student. Using music and other forms of popular culture allows instructors to appear to be less intimidating and as such should be especially advantageous in the Social Theory classroom, where we commonly find students to be prone to intimidation (Pelton 107; Albers and Bach 239; Hickson and Stacks 262). Less fearful students are more apt to active engagement in the classroom. Martinez finds that “music has always been a springboard for discussion of issues, provoking students to use a certain amount of ‘sociological imagination’” (Martinez 415). The use of music in the classroom allows for “creating an active role for students” that involves the routinization of participation, thereby working to alleviate anxiety about a theory course (Macheski et al. 45). Finally, music in class can be used to create a “common language of discourse,” given that the students take course material and apply it to the music played in the classroom (Macheski et al. 46).

Albers and Bach explain that playing music provides an “opening” or “back region” that allows students to make important breakthroughs in their understanding of the material (239). The authors go on to state that “If students perceive themselves in a backstage environment, they are more comfortable, and they are thus inclined to interact with one another and with us” (Albers and Bach 239). Additionally, Martinez points out that with students’ connections to music culture, they discover that the concerns of social theorists are echoed by the artists they currently listen to—thereby altering their relationship to the entire enterprise (415). The ball is now on their side of the court, so to speak, since the invitation to participate has been delivered on their terms. It has been made appropriate for them to now speak, not as seasoned theorists, but as defenders and as translators of their own cultural artifacts. All of this, again, serves to bridge the gap between faculty members who are well versed in theory and comfortable talking about social theory and students who are not. We feel that bringing music into the classroom can help to alleviate this fear and anxiety. 

Scholars who study various music genres and subcultures observed that music and lyrics often serve to reveal hidden truths about society (Assante 10; Wood 4; Gaines 177-192). The insight may add value and depth to the music, as such in the eyes of young students whose development can be seen as a search for truth in the face of myriad contradictions put forth by power holding adults (Hine 45).

The Exercise

A great challenge in Social Theory courses, and many other courses for that matter, is getting students to read and think critically about the reading before class begins. Therefore, the teaching technique we describe in this paper involves beginning each class (or new theory) by displaying the song lyric and playing the song selection that corresponds to the listed theory in its entirety (See Appendix). In most cases the instructor would have come to class ready to play music either by using one of our suggestions or finding their own music. Additionally, the instructor could encourage students to bring in their own music. If the instructor plays a music video such as one may find on YouTube, then this video could add a visual dimension to a particular song before discussion. The lyrics can be posted on Blackboard for an ongoing discussion beyond the classroom. This approach, beginning each class with a song, was applied successfully by Albers and Bach (240). They noted greater student participation in sociological topics at the introductory level. The paper provides discussion having to do with how to extend this approach to sociological theory courses.

The authors feel that it is important for this exercise to be open-ended. The addition of rules and procedures, for the sake of appearances, merely reproduces the institutional imperative and undermines our collective purpose. Students desire involvement and they are less likely to participate if they fear their answer may fall beyond the scope of what the instructor finds acceptable. Under the most unspecified conditions student anxiety may still exist, but in this paper the argument is that it is mitigated by a true commitment to a sort of structured informality. In short, students are challenged, or forced into thinking, while being given the leeway to think critically. The essence of what the paper proposes is simply process: play a song, present a lyric, and ask students to discuss how it relates to Social theory. The four examples below outline this structured informality in practice; there is an introduction of a song and lyrics followed by comments about how an instructor could incorporate the music into class discussion.

The song “Meat is Murder” by The Smiths¹ is a pointed example of an effort to redefine the commonly held definition of a symbol, in this case “meat.” The vocalist, Morrissey, croons the following passage from the song, “Heifer whines could be human cries, closer comes the screaming knife. This beautiful creature must die. This beautiful creature must die. A death for no reason and death for no reason is MURDER.”

After presenting the lyrics, the instructor can begin the discussion by asking students in an open-ended fashion, to consider how the song relates to symbolic interactionism.² The notion of symbol can arise from this discussion. The instructor might then ask, “What symbol is this song about?” After establishing that “meat” is the major theme, the instructor can then ask, “What is the author trying to say about meat being murder?” Once students engage with the symbol topic, the instructor can ask, “How the meaning of symbols is generally determined?” and “How do most people view this symbol (meat) most of the time?” There is plenty of room for tangential discussions here (ex. ecological cost of eating meat), and they should be welcomed. Vegetarians in the class may certainly weigh in, as well as those who find these ideas foreign.  Students may conclude that many symbols in a complex society hold meanings that are subject to revision, often through the contention of various actors, just as observed in the classroom.  The instructor may also choose to revisit this and other songs during the course to illustrate theoretical paradigms, such as critical theory.

The song “No” by Vivian Girls is a droll anthem of sorts with an entire lyric comprised of just one word: No. “No” is repeated in various melodies and harmonized in a pop whimsical fashion throughout. In this case, the song itself may function as a “breach,” where the usual social order is disrupted. Similar situationally to Harold Garfinkel’s “breaching experiments” (Garfinkel 44-49), the song elicits breach filling behavior on the part of subjects who, when faced with the true chaotic nature of the social world, are compelled to correct it or fill the breach. The puzzle is for students to figure out this very fact. Some students may at first be confused and even offended by the lack of more traditional lyrics. This confusion will only contribute to the breach and thus strengthen the example by bringing forth more frustration.

One conclusion to draw from the exercise is for students to think more critically about their preconceived expectations. What counts as an acceptable song lyric? Why is the use of one word troubling? Students should be challenged to consider what makes a song lyric acceptable. If Garfinkel and other ethnomethodologists are ‘correct’, then the world is much more chaotic than realized. The ensuing discussion could be an attempt to find other examples where our expectations override our ability to see situations clearly. This discussion could begin with music, where the instructor might ask, “What are some other examples of music that challenge our sense of what is normal?” and “How did you react when you first heard (death metal, gangsta rap, etc.)?” The sounds used in a composition may allude to, or upend, our expectations.  

Known to be an empowering, uncompromising, strong, and likely feminist figure in popular music, Lady Gaga espouses the virtues of acceptance in “Born this Way.” In the bridge of “Born this Way,” Lady Gaga sings “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen, Whether you’re broke or evergreen, You’re black, white, beige, chola descent, You’re lebanese, you’re orient. Whether life’s disabilities, Left you outcast, bullied, or teased, Rejoice and love yourself today, ‘Cause baby you were born this way.”

Though postmodernism is a regularly debated concept, George Ritzer describes it to be “more accepting of the stranger,” where, unlike modernity and its attempts to eliminate ambivalence, the postmodern world is seen to be “more tolerant” (228).  Ritzer states that “The postmodern world is destined to be a far more uncertain world than modernity, and those who live in it need to have strong nerves.” (228)

Before attempting to grasp postmodernity, students need a sense of modernity as a project of intensifying bureaucratization, social stratification, and order. The instructor might ask students, “What are some ways in which (modern) society is segregated or stratified?” Next, “How dodes Lady Gaga’s song respond to this trend of stratification?” From here, the instructor may choose his or her own emphasis. One obvious direction is to question how “postmodern” a society is or is not. This could be effectively framed by asking students “Are we or are we not living in the world described by Lady Gaga?” Postmodernism has also been characterized as “a lack of concern, playfulness, and self-centeredness” (Ritzer 228). This is reflected in the exhortation to “be a queen” and the emphasis on “I” in the lyric above. Students might be asked to consider if these proscriptions are in fact the best way to better the world? Or, is there something more, namely collective action, missing from Gaga’s utopic vision?

“Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard is a classic country tune that many students will find humorous. ³ It is emblematic of an era, specifically a prideful affirmation of “small town” values and rejection of the amoral other. Ferdinand Toennies’s Gemeinschaft or community is certainly on display here, described by Peter Kivisto as based on “habit, tradition, shared beliefs, and affective bonds” (91). Though some tend to dismiss Gemeinschaft as the increasingly passé social arrangement in favor of Gesellschaft, or society, “both types coexist at any particular point in time” (Kivisto 91). This may resonate with students of a conservative ilk, who may find a sociological ally in Toennies, a theorist whom, like Emile Durkheim, clearly favored tradition and the collective over instrumental rationality. Some students may be able to offer examples of modern country songs that extend this trope; these types of lyrics will serve to strengthen the case while also making the classroom more inclusive.

Peter Kivisto brings forth a more nuanced interpretation of Toennies that recognizes both Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft as the outcomes of a social world that is “willed” (91).  “Natural will” or wesenwille leads to actions that are “less consciously chosen, predicated instead on tradition, habit, or emotion” (Kivisto 91). Deconstructing the lyrical text below can uncover the mood or tap into the unsaid and reveal the implicit agreements made between Merle Haggard and his likeminded audience. Students might be asked to explain if residents of Muskogee in fact see their predilections as natural?  Discussion could also be encouraged by asking students to identify the role of emotion in this natural will for Toennies to give birth to the Gemeinschaft social formulation.  The following passage fits this argument: “We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street; We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee, A place where even squares can have a ball. We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse….We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, Like the hippies out in San Francisco do” (Haggard).

The lyric loses explanatory power if applied to Gesellschaft. The hippies of San Francisco, though derided here, may also consider themselves both then and today a community of people with “shared beliefs” and “affective bonds” (Kivisto 91). Here again is an opportunity to further parse the theoretical terrain through probing questions. Perhaps ask students where they would not expect to see Gemeinschaft? The Gemienschaft discussion can also be used to illustrate Durkheim’s organic solidarity, though the concepts are not interchangeable. Is it the anomic city? On a rural campus such consensus may surface, but it is understood that cities are home to numerous tight-knit collectives. The instructor might end with the realization that Gemeinschaft, in one form or another, is almost universally desired, and Gesellschaft feared. The implications of this in a globalizing world is one of the many issues worth exploring.

The use of music lyrics as a class exercise allows for the students to think about the material in greater depth and connect through shared experience. Beyond the discussion based method proposed here, instructors may consider these alternative applications. One suggestion is small writing assignments where students answer a list of questions in light of the lyric and theory presented in class. For example, this could take the form of a brief memo, reflection paper, or as a unique way to begin a journal entry (Coker and Scarboro 219). For those instructors that wish to incorporate technology, adapting Paul Dean’s visual analysis assignment could serve as another outlet for students(1). Students could be given a writing assignment where they would blog about a song of their choosing and make their own connections to a theory presented in the course. Such an assignment would fit Pelton’s argument for using “low stakes” or practice writing assignments (111); these assignments have value for reducing anxiety and building confidence.  Instructors could also incorporate findings from this exercise in exams as a short answer or essay question. Finally, and ideally for smaller classes, students may be asked to prepare individual or group presentations where, again, a sociological theory is illustrated through an analyzed lyric. This last alternative approach is more advanced, as it puts the student firmly in the instructor’s role. This should only be attempted if the instructor has time to offer ample support for the student as s/he develops the presentation.

This paper presents a method for instructors to deal with student anxiety in theory courses. The method included is an interactive exercise that provides instructors with direction as to using popular music in the classroom. The paper accomplishes this by supplying four cases for including music in order to spark class discussion as well as suggestions for helping students interpret the material. The classroom exercise can be reinforced through student reflection by writing short papers, keeping a journal, or alternatively for smaller classes, students may create group presentations where song lyrics are part of the final demonstration. Apart from courses that assign theory, the exercise may be employed in courses such as Sociology 101, Sociology of Gender, Visual Sociology, and Social Movements. For example, one of the co-authors used music on a regular basis in his Sociology 101 course.  He teaches at a small private Catholic university that offers BAs in Sociology, which is usually populated by 10-20 students who are predominately white.

The other instructor teaches at a medium sized state university and Hispanic Serving Institution that offers a BA in Sociology. The Sociological Theory course size at this university ranges from 45 to 55 students and are racially and ethnically diverse. The exercise occurred in the final weeks of the introductory Sociology course, where the students were asked to find a song of their choosing and discuss the song’s lyrics in light of some topic discussed in Sociology 101. It was found that each year several genres of music are applied in these small papers. Rap/hip hop, hard rock/heavy metal, pop, and country are always represented in classes of 30 to 40 students each. Finally, we want to address the fact the limited scope of some of the examples used in this paper. For example, it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide examples for every aspect of postmodernism and modernity. To be clear, the Lady Gaga example does not address every aspect of postmodernism. 


¹The song samples chosen are not all new. Older songs can be integrated into the course, although it is recommended that at least some newer popular music be used. There is also value in using a variety of music that may appeal to diverse student interest. Students who are unfamiliar with a particular song will only expand their cultural awareness through this process. The use of one musical genre such as the progressive rock use by Ahlkvist is not recommended.

² Ideally students will have been introduced to the theory through prior reading. Introducing theory in this way may coax students to read more and more carefully.

³ The instructor should be careful not to reinforce stereotypes that may unfairly denigrate a particular group, community, or state. The existence and persistence of these stereotypes however, can and should be discussed.



Theory/Theorist Song Artist
Functionalism “Don’t worry about the government” Talking Heads
Conflict Theory “Take the Power Back” Rage Against the Machine
Symbolic Interaction “Meat is Murder” The Smiths
Postmodernism “Born this Way”“No Future” Lady GagaThe Sex Pistols
Baudrillard “Fake Plastic Trees” Radiohead
Globalization/Neo-Liberalism “Globalization (scene of the crime)” Dead Prez featuring Mumia
Foucault (Panopticon) “I’m Being Watched by the CIA” Anti Flag
Modernity “Fitter Happier” Radiohead
Toennies (Gemeinschaft) “Okie from Muskogee” Merle Haggard
Veblen (Conspicuous Consumption) “Royals” Lorde
Marcuse (One-Dimensional Man) “She Watch Channel Zero”“Bullet in the Head” Public EnemyRage Against the Machine
Ethnomethodology “No” Vivian Girls
Feminist Theory “FYR” Le Tigre



Works Cited

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Ahlkvist, Jerl A.“Sound and Vision: Using Progressive Rock to Teach Social Theory.” Teaching Sociology 29.4 (2001): 471-482. Print.

Albers, Benjamin D., and Rebecca Bach.“Rockin’ Soc: Using Popular Music to Introduce Sociological Concepts.” Teaching Sociology 31.2 (2003): 237-245. Print.

Assante, Molefi, K. It’s Bigger than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2008. Print.

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Coker, Frances, and Allen H. Scarboro. “Writing to Learn in Upper-Division Sociology Courses: Two Case Studies.” Teaching Sociology 18.2 (1990): 218-222. Print.

Dean, Paul.. “Online Video Analysis.” Sociology Cinema Assignments.

http://www.thesociologicalcinema.com/assignments. 2012.  21 Jun. 2014. Web. Date of Access.

Donaghy, Mary. “Simulating Television Programs as a Tool to Teach Social Theory.” Teaching Sociology 28.1 (2000): 67-70. Print.

Flanagan, Nancy A., and Linda McClausland.”Teaching around the Cycle:Strategies for Teaching Theory to Undergraduate Nursing Students.” Nursing Education Perspectives 28.6 (2007): 310-314. Print.

Gaines, Donna. Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.

Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Malden: Blackwell, 1991. Print.

Groce, Stephen B. “Teaching the Sociology of Popular Music with the Help of Feature Films: A Selected and Annotated Videography.” Teaching Sociology 20 (1992): 80-84. Print.

Hickson III, Mark, and Don W. Stacks. “Teaching the Introductory Communication Theory Course to Undergraduates.” Communication Quarterly 41.3 (1993): 261-268. Print.

Hinds-Aldrich, Matt. “Teaching Theory Analogically: Using Music to Explain Criminological Theory.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education 23.4 (2012): 481-499.Print.

Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Harper Perennial, 2000. Print.

Hoefel, Roseanne.”Theory Matters: Cultivating a Critical Space.” College English Association Critic 62 .1 (1999): 61-72. Print.

Kivisto, Peter. Key Ideas in Sociology: Second Edition. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge, 2004. Print.

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Macheski, Ginger. E., Jan Buhrmann, Kathleen S. Lowney, and Melanie E.L. Bush. “Overcoming Student Disengagement and Anxiety in Theory, Methods, and Statistics Courses by Building a Community of Learners.” Teaching Sociology 36.1 (2008): 42-48. Print.

Martinez, Theresa A.“Popular Music in the Classroom: Teaching Race, Class, and Gender with Popular Culture.” Teaching Sociology 22.3 (1994): 260-265. Print.

Martinez, Theresa A. “Where Popular Culture Meets Deviant Behavior: Classroom Experiences with Music.” Teaching Sociology 23.4 (1995): 413-418. Print.

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Pelton, Julie A. “Seeing the Theory Is Believing: Writing about Film to Reduce Theory Anxiety.” Teaching Sociology 41.1 (2012): 106-120. Print.

Rothe, Dawn L., and Victoria E. Collins. “Teaching Criminological Theory: The Power of Film and Music.” Critical Criminology 21.2 (2013): 227-241. Print.

Said, Edward. W. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Print.

Schacht, Steven P., and Brad J. Stewart. “Interactive/user-friendly gimmicks for teaching statistics.” Teaching Sociology 20.4 (1992): 329-332. Print.

Van Horn, Robert, and Monica Van Horn. “What would Adam Smith have on his iPod? Uses of Music in Teaching the History of Economic Thought.” The Journal of Economic Education 44.1 (2013): 64-73. Print.

Wood, Robert T. Straightedge Youth: Complexity and Contradictions of a Subculture. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2006. Print.



Burris, Roy and Merle Haggard. “Okie from Muskogee.” Okie from Muskogee (Live). Capital Records, 1969, 2001. CD.

Laursen, Jeppe, and Lady Gaga. “Born This Way.” Born This Way. Interscope, 2011. CD.

Morrissey, Steven. “Meat is Murder.” Meat is Murder. Rough Trade, 1985. CD.

Vivian Girls. “No.” Vivian Girls. In the Red Records, 2008. LP.


Author Bios:

Kenneth R. Culton is Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Niagara University. His interests include deviance, social movements, music, and youth culture. He teaches a course called Youth/Music/Subculture where students are encouraged to explore various music and non-music subcultures and consider the relationship between marginalized people and the perceived mainstream. He continues to look for ways to incorporate popular culture when teaching sociology.

José A. Muñoz is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, San Bernardino. He received his PhD in Sociology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. José’s research and teaching areas include social movements, immigration, globalization, qualitative research, and sociological theory. He has authored papers in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, Social Movement Studies, the International Review of Modern Sociology, Sociology Compass, Migration and Development, and the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. As part of José’s current interests in expanding into the area of evaluation research, he was selected for the first cohort of The Annie E. Casey Foundation Leaders in Equitable Evaluation and Diversity (LEEAD) program. http://joseamunoz.weebly.com


Reference Citation:


Culton, Kenneth and Muñoz, José. “Lady Gaga Meets George Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 3.1 (2016). Web and Print.


Culton, K. and Muñoz, J. (2016) “Lady Gaga Meets George Ritzer: Using Music to Teach Sociological Theory.” Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogyhttp://journaldialogue.org/issues/lady-gaga-meets-ritzer-using-music-to-teach-sociological-theory/