Popular Music Pedagogy Series: Women Who Rock: Trendsetters, One-Hit Wonders, and the Ever-Evolving Cultural Narrative, by Donna S. Parsons

by Victor Szabo on August 26, 2015

In the newest installment of our Popular Music Pedagogy Series, Donna S. Parsons explains her pedagogical approach to the seminar, Issues in Popular Music: Women Who Rock, which she teaches at the University of Iowa. She has also shared her syllabus, which is included below, as well as on our Pedagogy page.

Popular music appeals to individuals across diverse demographics and generations. As our knowledge of solo musicians and bands grows, we develop an affinity for a certain style or genre of music or specific musicians. My undergraduates feel a strong connection to Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Jay-Z, and Kanye West. Most are familiar with those musicians who worked in what we now call classic rock. But what about Rihanna’s, Lady Gaga’s or Shania Twain’s predecessors? How did these women open doors for their peers and successors? What contributions did they make to the development of popular music? How did they bring awareness to a particular social or political cause? In “Issues in Popular Music: Women Who Rock,” we investigate women musicians’ contributions to popular music and society. We analyze the innovative guitar picking of Maybelle Carter, the introspective songwriting of Joni Mitchell, and the social activism heard in the lyrics of Nina Simone. We explore the ways in which women developed musical networks, cultivated a loyal fan base, and acquired critical acclaim from their peers, critics and fans. On a more personal level we consider how popular music shapes our identity and informs our life.

Equally important is the honing of students’ ability to analyze the musical recordings and live performances that they hear and attend. After listening to Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution,” I will ask them to give me adjectives to describe her voice. Where do the vocal lines fall in her tessitura? How does she shape words and phrases to show the despair and circular nature of poverty? How does her dynamic level get our attention? Throughout the semester we focus on the ways in which female artists convey emotions that are real and believable. With Billie Holiday we discuss how she takes us into her world with performances of “Solitude,” “God Bless The Child,” and “Strange Fruit.” We question how her experiences with segregation and her heroin addiction informed her recordings. Our examination of women artists who were active in the 1960s is a game changer. Students are mesmerized by the power of Aretha Franklin’s voice and her ability to change timbre, pitch, and dynamics on a dime. They are intrigued by her ability to turn a meek, submissive narrator in “Chain of Fools” or “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” into an empowered woman who is in control of the situation and her life. The rawness and vulnerability that my students hear in Janis Joplin’s voice, not to mention the uninhibited physical gestures in her performances, is often unnerving. They have never seen or heard anyone like Janis. We assess how her performance at the Monterey Pop Festival represented a pivotal moment in Big Brother and the Holding Company’s career. Watching Jefferson Airplane perform “White Rabbit” represents another important moment as students are entranced by Grace Slick’s eyes. One claimed that she looks into your soul and sees who you are as a human being. Oftentimes, these key moments will cause students to reflect upon their favorite musicians and the reactions they have in hearing specific songs or seeing their artists perform at various festivals. It causes students to re-evaluate their expectations.

I spend considerable time during the semester focusing on the contributions of girl groups who were active during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s. In class we will discuss the more successful groups: the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Marvelettes, the Shangri-Las, the Ronettes, and of course the Supremes. When we look at clips of their live performances, I ask them to think of these groups as contestants on American Idol or The Voice. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, how do you rate a particular act? What were the strong elements of their performance? What was lacking? What were the intra-group dynamics? What made these particular groups stand out? How did they become more than a one-hit wonder? This leads to more discussions on the attributes needed to succeed and survive in the music industry. We focus on the importance of working with a label that promoted your work, a producer who understood your abilities, and a songwriting team that provided material appropriate to your sound and image. The essay assignment, “The Legacy of the Girl Groups,” is basically a search and recover quest. Students choose one of the groups that we discuss in class and then pick two lesser known groups from a provided list. They search critical scholarship, encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and web sites for any information they can find about their particular groups. Oftentimes, they are confronted with conflicting details, which forces them to assess their sources and who they find the most trustworthy. The assignment also makes them aware that girl groups came from every region of the United States and from large and small towns.

How women gained control of their careers is a further theme of inquiry. We look at artists such as Eartha Kitt, Suzi Quatro, Chrissie Hynde, and Donna Summer who went to Europe to build their career. Why were particular British or European music scenes more open to them than ones in America? How did they use their success abroad to launch a tour or promote an album at home? With artists such as Madonna, Joan Jett, and Ani DeFranco we investigate their creation of their own record labels and what artistic freedom that gave them in the studio and in the various media outlets and venues where their music was heard. In our conversations on country music we talk about Loretta Lynn’s songwriting and how her frank discussions on women’s lives and opportunities caused country radio to ban airplay of several songs. We look at how her music spoke to and for women who attended her concerts. We have similar conversations about Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Carole King’s Tapestry. Through the listening of these two albums, women realized that they were experiencing similar emotions and situations. They were not alone in the world. We then connect these albums to examples from current artists. Students realize that contemporary artists have not invented a particular theme or emotion, but are contributing to an ever-evolving discussion on culture and society.

View Dr. Parsons’s syllabus for Women Who Rock here; you may also find a link on our Pedagogy Syllabi page

Donna S. Parsons is a lecturer in Honors and Music at the University of Iowa where she teaches courses on popular music and British literature.  She has appeared as a featured guest on Iowa Public Radio and was an invited speaker at the “Tomorrow Never Knows: The Beatles in Text and Image: Materiality and Meaning Symposium” held at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014. Her book project, The Beatles: Fandom, Fervor & the Cultivation of a Legend, analyzes the manifestation of fandom from the rise of Beatlemania through the death of John Lennon.  She is the 2013 recipient of the Outstanding Honors Teaching Award. 

We are always accepting submissions to our Popular Music Pedagogy Series. Please refer to our submission guidelines for more details. If you have any questions about the Pedagogy Series, please email Victor Szabo at iaspmus@gmail.com.

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