Karaoke as Education
by Tiger Todd
Did we know what the words were before they were on the screen?
"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." - Arthur Schopenhauer
As a native Nevadan, I’m also a product of its public school system. In reality, I’m more a product of Nevada’s public school system and my dad’s entrepreneurism, a six-month stint in a body cast after being run over by a drunk driver at age 4 (that explains a lot, huh?), multiple skull fractures from multiple collisions between my big, hard head and even bigger, harder objects (that explains even more), no cavities (thanks Colgate), an ex-wife or two (the fault of my hard head once again), and all of the movies I’ve watched more than twice. Still, my public education was very important in defining who I came to be. While most of my vocabulary did come from my life experiences, it was the school district that actually taught me how to read.
Mr. Morrow’s 6th grade English class at Robert Taylor Elementary School in Henderson, Nevada was where my reading speed really took off. The year was 1975 and Mr. Morrow used a kind of overhead projector that flipped sentences on the screen at a pretty good clip. We were challenged to read each line of text before the next line appeared. I hadn’t realized it until now, but this was like a prehistoric form of karaoke.
In the 1990s, my education from lyrics evolved with the advent of actual karaoke. I’ll not forget the first time I attended a large-screen karaoke party. Initially, I was fascinated by both the quantity and caliber of the "closet" singers in attendance, but I soon found myself mesmerized by the words to the songs that danced melodically across the screen. This was not Mr. Morrow’s machine, and neither were the intriguing sentences, particularly in this case from the Beatles’ song, Come Together:
He bag production he got walrus gumboot
He got Ono sideboard he one spinal cracker
He got feet down below his knee
Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease
Come together right now over me
Walrus gumboot? Spinal Cracker? Could these really be the words? We are certainly not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Wait...didn't the group Toto record "Hold the Line"? We aren't even in MTV's Real World anymore. Maybe the lyrics were some 1960s code for “We’re invading America and will replace Perry Como.” There is probably some music aficionado out there who understood exactly what these words meant - and the words to every other Beatle’s song - but not me.
Just think for a moment of what these words must have sounded like to a kid hearing or reading them for the very first time? Probably like the other words we made up as kids. Today as an adult, however, what weirds me out the most about Come Together is the thought that there may actually be someone out there whose “feet” are NOT below his knees...
The Value of Our Words
"You must unlearn what you have learned." - Yoda
The older I get, the more I find that the words to many of the songs I grew up with are not the words I thought they were. In a Junior High assembly in the 1970s, fellow eighth grader Michelle Small and I sang, “You Don’t Have To Be A Star,” by Marilynn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. While we were a big hit with the hundreds of students who filled the gymnasium that day, I recently learned that the words to the song were not the ones I sang. In fact, I was way off. The actual line from the song, “You're rejected and hurt…to me you're worth, girl, what you have within” was beautiful, moving, and unfortunately, not anything at all like what I sang. My rendition replaced this insightful passage with, “Your rejection of Merv, to leave the earth, where you haven’t been” was, in retrospect, just plain scary. Come on, gimme a break! I was only 13, and my 13-year-old self knew less about just about everything than most 13-year-olds know today. Boy, was I naïve. Maybe at the time I was simply too young to understand the complexities of relationships. Perhaps my mental vacuousness was a result of being stuck at Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage of development so I didn’t yet have the ability to think abstractly or draw conclusions from the lyrics. In any case, my substitution was flawless, so no one- including me- was the wiser. It probably didn't hurt that the sound system in the gym was standard government-issue so the hundreds of kids in attendance couldn't really discern the lyrics anyway. Or maybe they thought the words that I sang were the right words, too.
Where are you learning your Life Vocabulary?
My limited vocabulary as a teen illustrates just how influential our social networks and non-scholastic sources are to our competence and understanding of the real world. Incidentally, the real world I am referring to is not the contrived environment by the same name on MTV, but rather, the world of interpersonal communication, business relationships, and respect for colleagues. As teachers and parents will attest, today’s teens’ on-board dictionaries have few if any of these terms since they are not typically comprised of words learned in a classroom or from a Merriam-Webster dictionary. In many cases, their vocabulary and definitions come from their music, experiences, surroundings, and the people they hang with during their formative years.
"I looked up my family tree- and found three dogs using it." - Rodney Dangerfield
Talk about no respect, as a sheltered child in the 1970s, most of the people I was allowed to hang out with were adults. This left me handicapped when communicating with children my own age - but with a distinct advantage with adults. Instead of talking about sex, sports, video games, and sex, like most teen boys (and grown-up boys) do today, I was communicating with old people, listening to old-person songs, and learning old-person jokes. Of course, hanging out with adults - instead of kids - did help me become a pretty good student since I related more easily to my teachers - the ones grading me - than I did to my classmates. My old person communication skills were also embellished by my babysitter- a black-and-white Sony TV- and by my language teacher- an AM/FM clock radio. Dialogue from TV Shows like Lost in Space, Gilligan’s Island, and Star Trek, and the lyrics from songs by the Carpenters, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Bee Gees, also helped to shape my vocabulary, my sense of humor, and my character(s). Judging by the experiences I’ve had and the quotes I still use in conversations today, I have become what I’ve learned.
Hell's Angels meet the Powerpuff Girls
Sometimes it is difficult to get every attendee of our Hero School® programs to understand the gravity of the phrase, “We become what we learn.” I encountered one tough customer about 5 years ago during my Saturday morning class for homeless men at Catholic Charities. He was already hard to forget, this gaunt, graying, 6’4” Hell’s Angel-type sitting in the front row. But it was the series of tattoos on his forehead that made the task of forgetting him utterly impossible. My mind was vacillating between trying to decipher the 3 indistinct blotches on his forehead, and the wonderment over what would possess anyone to be tattooed "there." A tattoo on my butt? Maybe. On my forehead- are you crazy? So I began tactlessly, “Nice tattoos...are they the three Powerpuff Girls, you know, Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup?” A sneer and a grunt followed. Of course I thought I was being very clever. Then came the most disturbing response; one that I certainly did not expect. “6-6-6,” he began. “Got ‘em when I was 16.” I was stunned, to say the least, but in this class, my showing any reaction could give these men the upper hand. “Cool!” I responded. “So, your parents were Christians, huh?” He didn’t want to talk about it so my mind wandered back to thinking about the tattoos. Apparently, forehead tattoos don’t hold their shape very well once you get into your mid-50s, but what part of our anatomy does?
“We become what we learn.” –Tiger Todd
The next 45-minutes of the class period elapsed without incident while I continued to rattle-off numerous examples of how people "become what they learn," whether becoming engineers by learning engineering, or becoming plumbers by learning plumbing. I then explained how I had been cursed in relationships by the songs I learned, particularly the songs of Barry Manilow. DON’T JUDGE ME! Of course, the men in the class laughed - as you probably did just now. So I asked the audience what the songs were that they had learned, and suddenly there was a loud “clunk” behind me on the front row. I spun around to find the man with his tattooed forehead pressed against the table. I asked him if he was O.K. and after a bit, he looked up at me with tears in his weary eyes and almost sobbed, “My songs…mysongs…” “What about your songs?” I inquired. “I became my songs- the songs I learned." "What were your songs," I ventured. "Highway To Hell and Born To Be Wild!” It has been 30-years since AC/DC released Highway To Hell, but it had been more than 40 years since a young man of just 15 had been free to live his own life. For 40 years, the lyrics to songs like these played in his head, reinforcing what might have been only a short season of rebellion, until they had eventually taken root and he was made into their image and likeness.
“We can try to understand the New York Times effect on man.” – The Bee Gees
The lyrics to Highway To Hell and Born To Be Wild are not the words that change men anymore. Still, today’s prominent gangs, while very different in appearance from the Hell’s Angels of the 1960s and 70s, have indeed become what they have learned through the same curriculum. “Hell” has been replaced with “crib,” and “babes” have been replaced with “bitches” since the “brotherhood” became a pack of “dogs.” And while it is tempting to get sidetracked here and start thinking exclusively about gangs, the most important and significant component of both groups is the educational delivery system that created them. Furthermore, being judgmental of Angels and Gangstas will probably only incriminate us, since we too have become what we have learned. If our life today is in turmoil, perhaps it is because we have been learning turmoil. It is highly likely that our curriculum for daily living - the newspaper, the Evening News, and the Times - have generated this kind of life - one that corresponds to their agenda and curricula. It may actually take the words to a song like Stayin’ Alive on a Karaoke screen for most of us to truly understand the New York Times affect on man.
What are some of the effects that the songs we learn have on our lives? I wrote a little about this in (the soon to be published book) Uncommon Sense, on how my “hero complex” was formed by a combination of the songs I learned as a child. Remember, engineers become engineers because they learn engineering. Just because what people have "become" is not a college course title like, “Gangsta 101,” or “Advanced Family Dysfunction,” doesn’t mean there isn’t a curriculum that we’re learning. We become what we learn, whether we like it or not.
The great news for every human is that we can still become the kind of people we wish to become, regardless of what we have learned to this point. Yes it's true, but this miracle only works for humans so if you are an animal, there is no use in reading any further.
Since we become what we learn, we must exercise our free will and choose what we will learn. Perhaps more importantly - based on the former examples - we must also keep ourselves from learning the “lyrics” that we do not want to become. This is true if you are a dishwasher and you want to be a chef, or if you are in dire financial straits and wish to become stable and wealthy. The dishwasher cannot become a chef if his hours away from work are spent listening to, doing, and learning everything else but that which creates a “chef” life. Similarly, the person in dire financial conditions cannot possibly become secure and wealthy if all she is listening to and learning from are the news outlets that insidiously and repeatedly teach her that she is on shaky ground, that she could lose her house, and that the wealthy are wealthy because they were born that way. We must try and understand the Evening News effect on man. The effect is not the same on the wealthy largely because they make the news. Instead, the debilitating effect is on the regular person who doesn’t have a fleet of financial experts disseminating the news for him or her.
"The greatest ignorance is rejecting that which you know absolutely nothing about." - Jessica Branch
If you don’t want to become something, then just don’t learn it. It’s a simple as that! Many people cannot escape guilt, fear, and the curse of repeating history, since, like that tragic biker in my homeless class, they are already on a “Highway to Hell” and don’t know how to turn those damaging songs off. I’m convinced that the songs that we let play inside us - whether the condemning words from an unfit parent or the inspiring words from great teachers or poets - are in large part responsible for our future successes and failures. The songs themselves are not causal, but hugely influential. It would do some of us a lot of good to change the station.
What is your song? What words are carried around through your head by a familiar or haunting melody and performed by The Artist Formally Known as Stepdad? Take a look at the things in life that have been difficult for you to overcome or attain, and then take a look at the lyrics that are being played the most in your life. If they are not the lyrics you want to live, then maybe it’s time to learn some new songs.