Associative applications of music

What we are calling associative applications of music took on quite a few forms, but generally this use of music means that students understood the meaning of a song or songs—they understood lyrics, messages, and even moods—but students worked with their own text and image choices to create a video product with their own clearly expressed meaning. Drawing on Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, we suggest the final new media composition elements are "inter-dependent, where words [lyrics] and pictures [images and text supplied by students] go hand in hand to convey an idea that neither could convey alone" (155).  We classified 21 of the 70 videos as predominantly associative in their application of music. They are clearly distinct from the literal illustrations in which a song's lyrics drive the video's image and text selections, and associative applications are distinct from the use of background music in videos in which the video maker's own story or experience shapes the video's content. As a category, associative applications consistently embrace the kind of thinking and compositional skills writing teachers tend to value—a good understanding of source material combined with one's personal message or argument, avoidance of reliance on source text, and avoidance of superficial treatment of sources as mere background information. This analogy to the research paper, however, does not confine associative applications to serious topics, although three of our four featured videos do strike a serious tone.

Note, all PowerPoint video shows must be downloaded rather than clicking on the following links.

Brooke Jameson started her video, "Fire," by literally illustrating the first verse and chorus of Jo Dee Messena's song of the same title, but then she moved away from that approach based on her evaluation of the song's lyrics and her desire to put her own meaning into the video.  She said, "I could've kept going along with the song, but I didn't like the lyrics of the second verse as much as the first."  After more or less literally illustrating the first verse and chorus she started to use inspirational quotations from Ghandi, Garth Brooks, Jonathan Winters, and this one from Eleanor Roosevelt: "You must do the thing you cannot do."  Jameson explained that she wanted the video to be motivational and the song was easy to work with because "it had . . . the concept I wanted to work with."  She also mentioned that she was a percussionist in high school band and rarely pays attention to lyrics, but this assignment got her to listen carefully, work with the lyrics, and co-ordinate the music, images, and concepts she wanted to work with. Jameson's transition from the literal to associative approach highlights one of the ways in which an associative application can work closely with the overall theme of song but give the student-composer room to shape her own message.

Wyatt Brossard's video "Hope and Adversity: Finding Hope in Adversity" splices five songs, three that lyrically and musically emphasize adversity, two that emphasize hope. 

I started out with adversity, like the song by The David Crouter Band ["End of October"] is kind of about adversity, and I showed some poverty situations and then I went to a different section about 9/11 and showed some pictures of the chaos that occurred on that day [set to Green Day's "When September Ends,"] and then Hurricane Katrina [set to "I Can Only Imagine" by Mercy Me].  And so that was three of them, adversity. 

Brossart explained in the interview that he initially had intended to illustrate Alabama's "Angels Among Us" with pictures from the Iraq War, but because he did not get copyright permission from them, and because he did not actually own that Alabama song, he took the approach of splicing together five songs.  He said "I still kind of used the same thing [concept] except I added the adversity in there too." What Brossart seemed to be listening for in music was not specific lyrics he could illustrate, but concepts from the songs as a whole that he could apply to his own composition.

Some students heard both lyrical and musical relevance in songs that they then adapted to tell their own story.  Stephanie Midgarden used two songs by Christina Aguilera that are about finding inner beauty and resisting external pressures to be perfect, or to be somebody other than who you are.  Her video entitled "Eating Disorders" is more specific in its message than Aguilera's songs; she incorporated images of unnaturally thin models and women standing on scales and looking in mirrors saying, "I'm too fat," "My nose is too big," My arms are too flabby."  Midgarden said, "I tried to set the tone for some let downs because my PowerPoint was not necessarily a happy one. Secondly, I set the mood as dramatic. The story was to get the message across which was that eating disorders are out there, and it's not all about the skinny disorders either." Rather than use a simply instrumental background, Midgarden's choice of Aguilera's songs adds a second layer, a more general but familiar message to find your inner beauty, to the final video.

One of the model videos we shared with our students was a music video documenting a trip to France that used a French pop song as background music—the song set the mood and tone, but did not add to the video conceptually, at least for our non-French speaking students. But Beky Morgan's video, "Prerogative to Have a Little Fun," showed us ways in which songs that are not associated with the time or place of the trip could be applied.  In making choices about her musical selection, Morgan drew on the lyrics of specific songs to illustrate particular events on her trip to France—moving the songs from a potential background role into an inter-dependent relationship with the images.  The video opens with individual pictures of her and her traveling companions posing and voguing, set to Bette Midler's "I'm Beautiful," followed by pictures of them dancing with attractive young men at a nightclub set to The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men," and another section of photos from a day at the beach, including some teasing toplessness, set to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."  This video is a fascinating compilation of popular culture—from the voguing poses to the National Lampoon Vacation motifs to the appropriation of the songs themselves—all illustrating what was also presumably an educational and enriching vacation.

This kind of MTV-like product, which also happens to have a number of spelling errors and a misattribution of Madonna as the artist behind "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," perhaps worries some instructors about where students will take their new media compositions.  But Morgan also said in the interview that she spent 40 hours on the video, that she was going to give a copy to her trip-mates, and that she hoped to do more videos like this one for her family.  In the context of Sirc's "Box Logic" and the notion that "college is short, life is long," Morgan seems to have learned a genre that she can imagine a use for beyond the classroom. And perhaps also in the spirit of Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, this "bad" video seems to have been "good" for the student in that it engaged her intellectually and technically and it resulted in a product she is proud of.

Associative applications of songs and lyrics may have the most potential to encourage the kinds of compositional skills we are often trying to teach in first-year composition: understand a source or a song, but apply it in a way that supports or extends your argument or point.  Associative applications that rely on splicing together songs add another dimension: understanding sources, ordering and synthesizing sources, and creating a coherent whole out of disparate parts.  We might see a certain kind of disconnection in the applications of certain songs, and we might wish our students would take on more substantial subjects, but part of being a generous reader, viewer, and listener to new media compositions, "no matter how awkward-looking or-sounding" as  Anne Wysocki suggests (23), might involve seeing and hearing the effort and joy that goes into such compositions.