As a graduate assistant in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University, I had spent many hours looking through theses and dissertations on Via Sapientiae, the digital database for graduate projects. I image others, like me, searching through previous projects, looking for inspiration or guidance as we embark on our thesis or capstone project. And, as I considered embarking on my culminating project, I realized I wanted my text to have life beyond the annals of the library website. I wanted to create a text that bridges academic and public discourse about language, culture, and policy. As a musician, educator, activist, and researcher, I imagined an arts-based project that could emerge from the intersection of my professional and creative practice. “Mother Market” attempts to bridge these perspectives by employing narrative form and songwriting.
In their review of arts based educational research dissertations among Education doctoral students at University of British Columbia , Sinner et. al (2006) identify “three pillars of arts-based practice – literary, visual, and performative” (p. 1223). However, in the collection, only one project references music and it is a storytelling project with music educators. The A/r/tographry database at UBC has expanded in the decade since Sinner et. al. published their paper, and it includes more musical projects that incorporate narrative form in their research. More recently, A.D. Carson, a PhD candidate in Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson University, produced a 34-track hip-hop album for his dissertation. The album has garnered thousands of views on YouTube and positive media coverage, as it is the first musical dissertation to be presented at Clemson.
While my theoretical frame has been shaped by my readings of Foucault, Marx, and Lordon, I am equally influenced by the writings, music, and artistry of Buffy St. Marie, Scott-Heron, Woody Guthrie, and Ray Davies. Consider the song “Black History/The World” by Scott-Heron (1982), in which he offers a nuanced and biting critique of American history curriculum as it relates to the imperial and colonial roots of our nation's economic dominance. He examines ideas about racist notions of “civilization” and hierarchies of knowledge, all within a song under three minutes. Or perhaps we may take Guthrie’s (1945) quintessential “This Land is Your Land”, a song that most of the children I have taught have learned in school. Very few ever learn that Guthrie’s anthem was a response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” and directly addressed issues of private property in verses that were released only after the fall of Joe McCarthy. St. Marie, who is of Canadian First Nations decent, has used her music to call out the excesses of militarism (“And the War Drags On”) and the blind nationalism that lends itself to military conflict (“Universal Soldier”).
There are innumerable examples of mainstream musicians using their platform to address social issues, including more contemporary artists like System of A Down (Armenian genocide), Kendrick Lamar (police violence), and Le Tigre (third wave punk feminists), and plenty of artists who skirt the mainstream with more radical visions of a just society (Billy Bragg, Utah Phillips, Immortal Technique). I look towards these as models of how I may construct an artistically cohesive and conceptually coherent album as I engage with the everyday discourse instilled upon us by neoliberal economic policy and language, and the accompanying “figured worlds” (Gee, 2011; p. 63) they signify.
While I draw upon the work of many of the aforementioned artists, I can point to Ray Davies of The Kinks as a dominant influence in my approach to writing politically and socially relevant music. Growing up, I, like many American listeners, was only familiar with the catchy hooks and proto-punk riffs of early hits like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and all of the Night.” As I got older and started performing music, songs like “Lola” and “Waterloo Sunset” entered my purview. However, it was only as I dug deeper into the Kinks catalog in my early 20’s, that I began to discover a biting social critique of British gentry, consumer culture, the Monarchy, and a deluded empire in decline.
“The observations of Davies were based on a negotiation between class and politics that was not rigidly attached to a particular socialist ideology, but were nonetheless conscious of social division and difference…In their own particularly idiosyncratic way, Ray Davies and the Kinks articulated a critique of aspects of the ‘post-war consensus’ that seemed to be transforming the working-class world from which they had emerged” (Gildart, 2012; p. 275).
In particular, songs like “A Well Respected Man” (1965), “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (1966), and the album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969) offered models of narrative form and satire that deeply influenced my approach to writing lyrics.