Music videos- a commodity that has become one of the mediums being used for the classroom today. Ever since the TV channel MTV made its debut in 1981 with the song “Video Killed the Radio Star,” music videos are being used more frequently as either a substitute or a supplement to printed media, such as novels, short stories and the like. Advantages of using such music videos include helping students better understand the language, enhance their listening comprehension and learn about the culture of the country where the music video comes from. The drawbacks to the music video include graphic images that are not suitable for certain (age) groups, profanity, and some scenes may be offensive to certain groups, regardless of religious, ethnic and social background.
This Genre of the Week takes a look at American culture from a rapper’s point of view. Downtown was released at the end of August 2015 by Macklemore. Known as Ben Haggerty, the musician made his debut in 2000 and together with Ryan Lewis, has become successful, garnering awards for his songs “Thrift Shop” and “Can’t Hold Us,” as well as the album “The Heist”, released in 2012. Each of the music videos feature a background resembling American society today with Macklemore leading a parade of dancers, perfecting their choreography and bringing in the people to play along.
Downtown is no different as the scene depicts a typical American business district, run-down but somewhat multicultural in terms of various shops and the people who live there. For more on that, have a look at the video below:
One can do a whole lot with this video in terms of activities, especially when teaching English as a foreign language in a school outside the US. My idea of such an exercise would be a Sandwich Approach, where at the beginning, the class would be divided into two groups and a mindmap exercise would be introduced. There, each group would be given a word- downtown (USA) and city center (Europe)- and they would make a list of words associated with the two terminologies, with the goal of finding similarities and differences between the two. After the activity is finished, the next task is to play the first minute of the music video and guess the following: where and when it took place, what the rapper is doing, and what the environment looks like in terms of scenery and the people. After the discussion, the whole video is played (preferably twice because of the tempo of the rapper’s communication), which is followed by some comprehension questions. Vocabulary words taken out of the text should also be introduced for better understanding.
In the end one should have a better understanding of what life is like for a business district in America and compare it to what it is like in a European city center, looking at the social, cultural and economic background. Although songs with choreography are typical for America, as one can find it in music videos and even TV shows (like the Simpsons), one cannot expect this to be the norm for American culture for there are many other aspects that need to be considered- this includes the types of music that originate from the country and are still being played today, but it also includes multicultural aspects, such as the popularity of Native American music in comparison with Indie or even Asian music, for example. Downtown represents a rather positive setting of an American business district, where everyone of different cultures and from different groups come together and play along on the streets of a large city. It’s a good song to get into the dancing groove, even if it is for a swing choir competition. 🙂 Yet the song is not the full remedy for the social ills that is still haunting the US, Germany and other countries, but more of the song of incentive, to get us to take part in helping people live in harmony. That in itself can take even longer than what Macklemore took when he produced the piece.
With that, here are a few questions for you readers to consider:
1. Compare the scene in the music video by Macklemore to that of Main Street USA in general and/or the city center in your town? What is different and what is the same?
2. In which time period is the setting for this song? What factors influenced your argument?
3. What is your impression of the song? Does it relate to the real life situations you face today?
4. (For teachers): Would you play this song in the classroom? If so, how would you teach the students? Would you try the aforementioned approach or would you try something different and why?
While it’s not necessary to comment on it, you can if you wish to start a conversation. Otherwise, experiment with this and see what your students think of this song and society in general.