Four Questions That Can Help You Talk to Students About Pop Culture

Today, we hear from Andrew McPeak. Andrew is a next gen researcher, speaker, and author for Growing Leaders.

Every year, thousands of songs are released which create a great opportunity to “take the temperature” of our culture. Popular songs are a particularly interesting medium for cultural analysis because they are the best representation of where we are in our current culture. Whereas most other artistic mediums are “regressive,” (meaning they are primarily focused on the past), or “progressive,” (meaning they are primarily focused on the future), popular music is almost always current in its focus. It’s always revealing what life is like right now.

By listening to some current songs, there are a lot of things that we can learn about our present-day youth culture. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  1. Popular songs use intentional language to define common experiences of today’s youth.
  2. The best analysis of popular songs comes when you research the artist and attempt to understand their intent in writing the song.
  3. Popular songs are the sum of two equal parts: medium and message. By this I mean that the music is as important as the lyrics in trying to understand the intent of the artist.
  4. The majority of popular songs are specifically focused on the experience of youth between the ages of 16 and 25, even if the artist is outside of this age range.
  5. Popular songs cannot tell us exactly what youth today are thinking, but they can reveal common norms and assumptions of today’s youth.
  6. Popular songs are most beneficial when they help us ask the right questions of today’s youth.

It’s important to note that not every Miley Cyrus song can tell you what your daughter is thinking right now—that’s not how it works. What it can do is reveal for you the temperature of the popular culture in which your daughter is immersed every day. My hope is that you can use what you learn to engage in conversation with the students you lead. Listen to a song, or watch a music video together. Then ask these four questions to guide your conversation.

Four Questions to Spark Conversation 

1. How would you describe the music? What are some of the artists’ influences?

2. What was the artist saying? What was their purpose in writing the song?

3. What can we learn about the language and norms of today’s culture from this song?

4. How should this song inform the way we interact with other people? How can we better empathize with them?

If you aren’t sure where to start, here are three songs from 2017 that reveal a lot about our culture. I hope they spark great conversations between you and the students you lead.

Young, Dumb, and Broke” by Khalid
*Warning: Language at the very end of the video. Consider stopping the video at the end of the song before the final skit.
Khalid writes a song about the high school experience that he had in America.

Creature Comforts” by Arcade Fire
Arcade Fire is trying to address the problem of our cultural obsession with fame, and the growing issue of depression, anxiety, and suicide in our world.

Netflix Trip” by AJR
These brothers write a song about how the shows they watched as kids helped to form their identities.

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Four Questions That Can Help You Talk to Students About Pop Culture