Messages in the
Lyrics, Music, and Film
of Neil Young's Musical Novel Greendale
By Christian Z. Goering
March 5, 2008
mother earth has many enemies
there's much work to be done
Neil Young's poignant lyrics and edgy high voice have been enfolded in popular culture for nearly five decades. Throughout his ground-breaking musical career, he has advocated for the environment, protested the Vietnam War, criticized the American government on multiple fronts, and most recently led protests against the war in Iraq.
Wearing his political and social beliefs on his red-banded sleeve for the world to see, Young created a masterpiece of musical artistry and social commentary in his 2003 film and album release, Greendale. Young, mature and seasoned, utilizes a megaphone in the final song, "Be the Rain," to convey a direct and universal message: Our environment desperately needs our attention.
By bringing these two pieces of popular culture
into the high school classroom in a series of English language arts lessons, I managed to introduce my Midwestern students to some of the larger forces at work in their world — and to do it in a way they could comprehend and appreciate. I might add that Young's Greendale is more than a topical artifact of pop culture. It is also a genuine work of art that speaks to the literate side of every young intellect.
Moving Beyond the Traditional
My Greendale unit fit nicely into an eleventh grade American Literature course we designed to focus sharply on the function and value of multimedia. One of the main goals of the course was to employ film, music, advertising, and the World Wide Web as a supplement to the traditional activities of an English course. Greendale, proclaimed by Young as a musical novel, provided the ideal opportunity to satisfy these goals in a grand manner, allowing us to examine lyrics, listen to and dissect music, and watch and analyze film. It was a multi-modal approach to English that motivated students to enroll in the class with the anticipation that something special might happen.
big wheel's still rolling
down on me
one thing i can tell you
is you got to be free
Our study of Greendale combined two separate activities into something new and different.
The first activity, in which my students analyzed a song and its lyrics and then wrote about it, proved successful time and again in my classroom. I valued it and put it to good use year after year.
Greendale followed that successful formula, but at a deeper level. This would be my first attempt to have my students analyze not just a tune or two, but an entire album.
Second, a lesson built upon a movie, in which my students studied the film and then wrote an essay based on its themes, was another consistent winner. My students almost always enjoyed the experience and related to it quickly.
The Greendale unit combined the study of tunes and the study of film in a challenging and innovative fusion, a combination rooted in the standards-based procedure of comparison and contrast. We had a fine album crafted by a master musician. We had an innovative film based on the album. The possibilities intrigued me.
we were runnin' through the night
never knowin' if we would see the light
paranoid schizophrenic visions
livin' in fear of the wrong decisions
Several researchers contend that music and movies are precisely what our students need. Bringing popular culture into the classroom, according to Gaughan (2004), allowed him to reach his goal, which was "to challenge some of their assumptions and consider how those assumptions were constructed in the first place" (113). Reading such texts as Greendale, rich in the fabric of the popular culture from which it was created, is one successful method of approaching English and other classes.
Keeping Pedagogy Current
May Rattle the Comfort Zone
Yes, our students are immersed in Facebook, Myspace, and the goings on of such pop icons as Brittney, Paris, Akon, Justin, and Amy. (A few years from now the names of the pop players will change, but the allure of the topical will remain the same.) To better relate to youngsters living vivaciously in such a world, educators need to include current pedagogical materials, even those that might push their comfort level a bit, or have the "potential to rattle us" (Reed 99).
By no means do I suggest we create a new curriculum based solely on popular culture, but we ignore it at our peril. We do need to consider pop as a resource, as a motivator of young minds, and as a utilitarian method of meeting the students on their turf.
we got a job to do
we got to
save mother earth
Music is an ideal form of expression for creating a sense of identity amongst its listeners. As Brock Deither asserts, "It provides the language and metaphors with which students make sense of their experience and leads to insights that inspire outstanding writing" (xi).
It's a fact that students today don't spend their free time reading novels penned and published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It's a fact, as Christenson and Roberts found, that "On average, American adolescents spend somewhere between four and five hours a day listening to music and watching music videos — at least as much time as they spend watching standard television fare and more than they spend with their friends outside of school" (8).
Clearly, a great deal of time is not afforded to the likes of Twain and Melville. Read it and weep, my colleagues. Students need pedagogical materials which more closely resemble their lives.
Movie as Babysitter? Not!
Greendale provides more than a musical novel for students to comprehend, analyze, and discuss; it was also made into a film, which follows the album song by song. The question then arises: How do we as teachers employ the music and imagery to the benefit of our lessons? Popping the DVD into the player, turning up the volume, and turning down the classroom lights is not the answer. Teasley and Wilder's (1996) account of the use of movies in school is not glamorous. "On any given day we can walk down the halls of just about any secondary school and find a videocassette player in use in an English classroom. All too often, what's playing is last week's book and the students are 'taking a break' from the usual work of school...." (5).
While the videocassette player has largely been replaced with streaming video and the DVD, the likelihood of finding a 'taking-a-break' activity in the classroom is just as high today as it was in 1996. It's a pity. Our students can benefit from the movie maker's art, but not by watching a rehashed, often sub-par movie version of the last book they were assigned to read.
The right way of putting film to good use in the classroom is to transform it into a challenging and illuminating experience. Students are led to first find and interpret messages and concepts embedded in the film, and then to connect their discoveries to broader ideas in culture, art, and society. By doing so, they learn to develop their critical thinking skills and hone the kind of thinking they will need to interpret the world outside the classroom. In that spirit, Teasley and Wilder suggest, "film — viewed broadly — is a branch of literature" (6).
Though their book is dated, Teasley and Wilder have exposed a flaw and an opportunity that remain relevant today. Movies are still being shown to fill time and reinforce (supply) a disconnected understanding of the assigned reading. That's the persistent flaw. Based on a need to engage my students beyond the narrow boundaries of curriculum and to illuminate current social protest, Greendale became our text, the TV and stereo our words on the page. That's the profound opportunity.
a little love and affection
in everything you do
will make the world a better place
with or without you
I began the Greendale unit with several educational goals in mind. The goal of tracking the story in Young's album — the audio version of the tale — was the first focus for the students. Then they were asked view and analyze the companion film. Comparing and contrasting the movie with the album was a noble and difficult mission. Several vexing questions appeared. Do they support each other? Do they differ? Which is more effective?
Next, I wanted my juniors to be able to discern their own perceptions of a message or universal theme from the work. Armed with the idea that a message could be found in the imagery and lyrics, the students were encouraged to defend their opinions in a formal essay. These are not revolutionary goals by any stretch of the imagination. I would suspect the only difference between my class and other American literature courses was my use of popular media rather than time honored literature as tools in pursuit of enhanced literacy.
"that guy who just keeps singin'
can't somebody shut him up?
i don't know for the life of me
where he comes up with this stuff"
The Prudence of Precaution
I'll admit, my Greendale lesson raised a red flag or two. Young is a polarizing public figure, a longtime social warrior who is as controversial as any musician on the popular landscape. I wondered if the unit of study would be a good fit for students in a large district's only high school in a conservative stronghold in a deeply conservative state. The potential for negative reaction was real enough to make me stop and think about it.
I took three precautionary steps to counter any potential censors before they could raise the false alarm.
First, I posted the unit of study on the school's website with a day-by-day plan for the lessons and activities. The post was short, less than a page, but outlined the essentials so that no one could claim they weren't informed beforehand.
Second, I asked the librarian to buy a copy of the Greendale CD and DVD for use in my classroom. Should an issue arise, the offending materials would belong to the school, and not to the teacher, perhaps mitigating the damage.
Third, I made the proverbial mental note of my own beliefs regarding all of the issues presented in Greendale with the resolve to leave my opinions at home. My thoughts and feelings would only hamper my students' ability to form their own opinions and ideas.
save the planet for another day
"attention shoppers, buy with a conscience and save"
save the planet for another day
"save alaska! let the caribou stay"
don't care what the governments say
"they're all bought and paid for anyway"
save the planet for another day
"hey big oil, what do you say?"
by Examining the Artist.
Neil Young is not the artist that most of my students shuffle on their iPods. Sure, a few admitted they listened to one or two of his classic songs but most, even the fans,
were oblivious to the serious messages in tunes like "Ohio" and "Rockin in the Free World." I realized that a biographical study of Young would be essential. In designing this instructional unit, I would have been guilty of taking Greendale out of context if I had neglected an examination of the artist and his longtime social consciousness. So we began our three-week unit by searching the internet for historical knowledge about Young's career.
Toward this end, students were divided into eight groups, each with the responsibility of researching a half-decade of Young's career. Group One took 1965 to 1969, Group Two 1970 to 1974, and so on until the present day. This activity established a tone of inquiry and scholarship from the very beginning. Each group presented their findings, as well as their understanding of Young's art and social consciousness, to conclude the first day of class.
The next day we read and discussed song lyrics, listened to the musical performance of Greendale, and watched scenes from the movie. Our back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and back again approach to the tunes and images worked for the students — but only for a while.
As the story became more complicated, as the number of characters grew, as the plot lines merged and digressed, my students began to complain, "We're confused!" I understood completely. There are significant differences between the musical and movie versions. And Greendale isn't your run-of-the-mill music video. The richness and depth of the Greendale narrative presents more than the average challenge.
Just as English teachers do when teaching difficult works of literature from the canon, I had to back up and guide my students through the step-by-step process of engaging and understanding a challenging narrative. We looked long and hard at key scenes from the movie, noting similarities and differences in relation to the tunes. We created Venn diagrams of plot lines and maintained a family tree as a character list. These techniques proved helpful as we moved from a basic understanding of what was happening in the story to the challenging task of identifying, tracking, and analyzing the environmental messages Young embedded in his lyrics, plot lines, and characters.
Beyond the Basics
Into Critical Thinking
Though many of my students struggled to fully comprehend Young's musical novel, it was imperative that we move beyond a basic understanding of plot, character, and theme into deeper levels of critical thinking. My students needed to identify and analyze the experience of multiple literacies — that is, reading about, talking about, listening to, and watching Greendale.
In a time-honored fashion, we moved from experiencing the musical novel towards writing a formal analytical essay encompassing themes from the work. I allotted and allowed significant time for my students to discuss, argue, and ultimately understand the driving forces, political and social, behind Young's work.
be the rain you remember fallin'
be the rain, be the rain
save the planet for another day
be the rain, be the rain
be the river as it rolls along
be the rain, be the rain
First, my students read the lyrics to "Be The Rain," the capstone song of Greendale, and then discussed the song in a Socratic Circle (Copeland, 2005). Student-centered discussions were already a well-established practice in the class, so I wasn't surprised as I listened to my students eagerly delve into the issues at hand. Ultimately they identified five central messages: corporate greed, disregard for the environment, government corruption, destruction of family, and overzealousness of the media.
Now it was time to write.
To supplement the essay prompt, I provided model examples of an introduction and the first body paragraph. Here's the prompt:
Write a multi-paragraph essay in which you explain and analyze the way the themes of social protest are developed through the lyrics of the musical novel Greendale. While it was ultimately written, according to Young, to "make the world a better place" (1.22), the artist identifies several contemporary American issues within his lyrics. Choose two institutions of social protest and trace their beginning and development as portrayed in Greendale.
Here are three examples from student work that demonstrate an acute awareness of the environment following their experience with Greendale.
As natural deposits of crude oil decrease and the demand for it increases, the government's ideas clash with those of pro-environmentalists on how and where to extract it from the earth. As of now, there stands an argument of whether or not the United States should drill for oil in the wildlife reserves of Alaska. In "Be the Rain," Young's environmental grand finale, there is a resounding cry of "Save Alaska! Let the caribou stay" (10.4). Young speaks out against the drilling factors that would push wildlife out of its natural habitat. Animals whose life cycle depends upon the lush landscape of Alaska would be driven away by pipelines, machinery, and contaminated earth. In the same context, Young claims "Don't care what the governments say / They're all bought and paid for anyway" (10.5-10.6). Politicians are disregarding the threat posed on the land by this massive drilling project. Furthermore, the government has become more concerned with satisfying the economy than preserving one of its few remaining wildlife reserves. Lastly, in "Be the Rain," the fisherman in his boat is "Comin' home empty, he's barely afloat" (9.42). Young illustrates people losing their own resources because of the shift in the life cycle. Since there are few conveniences, the people of Alaska are forced to live off the land, and if their resources are driven away by industrial development, they, in turn, are driven away too. "Be the Rain" is Young's informative protest displaying the life-shattering effects of what could become of the Alaskan wildlife reserves.
The effect of corporate greed on the environment is protested directly in "Sun Green" and "Be the Rain" to show the audience how careless and thoughtless corporations can act. In "Sun Green," Young describes the fictional character Sun Green as she sets out on her own in hopes to make the world a better place through protest. Part of her protest efforts lead her to chain herself to a statue in the lobby of PowerCo. She projects several phrases through her megaphone, dangling from the statue several stories high: "They're all dirty" (9.8); "You can't trust anybody" (9.10-11); "Truth is all I seek" (9.15); "There's corruption on the highest floor" (9.8). These phrases lead the audience to believe that this business has been dishonest with the public. Through her proclamation that there exists corruption on the highest floor, she states that the heads of businesses and corporations are dishonest and saturate the world with their capitalist plague.
In addition to displaying objection to the media, Young also encourages us to "save mother earth" (10.20), namely Alaska, as said in the final song, "Be the Rain." Sun Green shouts in this song, "Save Alaska! Let the caribou stay / Don't care what the government say" (10.5-6). Green is holding the government responsible for the environmental predicaments. It is also quoted in "Be the Rain" to "Dream the hunter on the western plain / the birds are all gone, where did they go?" (10.40-41). This statement brings to mind the issue of hunting and how it is killing off the wildlife. Young indicates he wants the land to be preserved for the animals, rather than the animals preserved for hobby or sport.
These writing samples exemplify the wide range of expression and the impassioned response that our study of the Greendale musical novel inspired in my students. I chose them for this report because they represent three different levels of writing skills. David might be the best writer to ever pass through my classroom. Jackson represents the lesser skilled members of the group, while Amy fits squarely in the middle of the class.
Open Your Eyes, My Students,
To See the Great World Beyond
All three shared equally in one facet of the project: Never before had any of these rural Midwestern students devoted so much attention to the environment and its impact of the quality of life in the USA. The very context of the rural Midwest serves as a barrier to understanding many of the environmental challenges facing other parts of the country.
The rivers in their region are generally clean and clear; industry might pollute, but with sparse populations, the effects aren't often felt; and in their rural, agricultural communities, most people care for the land and work to preserve it.
In addition to the educational goals we pursued and achieved with this unit, our study of Greendale and the career of Neil Young wrought both personal and corporate change. It was a wonder to observe.
Some changes took the shape of new rules that my students imposed on the classroom. No longer could we leave the lights on if we left the room. No longer could we simply throw away paper, plastic, or aluminum. No longer could we use paper when an alternative source was available. The students created a green classroom as a result of Greendale, a reinvented space with recycle bins, posters advertising the new rules, and a sense of greater social purpose extending well beyond the daily demands of learning English.
the moral of this story
is try not to get too old
the more time you spend on earth
the more you see unfold
Shall It Last?
Three years have passed since that special lesson unfolded in Kansas, but I still hear about the time my class studied Neil Young's Greendale. The litmus test for classroom activities is whether or not they are remembered three, five, maybe ten years later. I wouldn't say everyone recalls this adventure in learning, but several do and have related their memories to me in messages and conversations. "I still listen to Greendale," one says. "I used Greendale as an example in a college essay," another writes. Another former student asks, "Have you heard the latest Neil Young album? I like it."
I like Neil Young's music and his messages, but my original mission with this unit was not to create a rural, Midwestern fan-base for the old troubadour. I'll admit, however, that most of my students did develop a tolerance for his music. As for the handful who learned to appreciate Neil Young — now that's music to my ears!
sun green started makin' waves
on the day her grandpa died
speakin' out against anything
unjust or packed with lies
Angela and Her Dad
Some changes took the shape of awareness. The closest I came to the specter of censorship during the unit was when Angela, the daughter of a prominent conservative attorney, warned me in class one day that "my Dad will be coming to the parent-teacher conference tonight to discuss this Greendale stuff." Admittedly, my heart sank a little at those words. I knew her Dad's reputation as an attorney, businessman, and political figure in the community; his standing and involvement had been well documented in the staff lounge.
Later that evening Angela's dad walked purposefully into my classroom with his wife in tow, almost seeming like she didn't want to be there. I could relate. We discussed Angela's progress in writing and her overtly social nature, which at times limited her focus in class. Sensing that the conference was nearly over, I thought I might have successfully dodged the issue (bullets), but about that time the attorney-businessman-political figure changed the subject to Greendale.
"Hey, I want to thank you for bringing in this Greendale thing by Neil Young," dad said. I was more than a little surprised. "For the first time in my daughter's life," he continued, "we were able to have an intelligent conversation about politics and why she believed what she believed." I told him that Angela had warned me that dad was coming to discuss the Neil Young stuff, and that I was glad to hear that she was coming to an understanding of her own beliefs. Angela's dad remained one of my biggest advocates in the time following our conversation.
slammin' down a late night shot
the hero and the artist compared
goals and visions and afterthoughts
for the 21st century
but mostly came up with nothin'
so the truth was never learned
and the human race just kept rollin' on
Students weren't enthralled when I told them about this unit. A few groaned. To them, Neil Young was no Brittney Spears in terms of popular culture. I felt the need, though, to expose my students to diverse viewpoints on issues important to our planet and the quality of life on it. Out of 104 juniors in four classes, 104 completed the essay assignment. These were not pre-AP or honors students; in fact, one class contained 13 special education students. These were real kids. 23 essays were turned in late and 16 students had to rewrite part or all of their original submissions.
Real kids taking required English classes need pedagogical content that relates directly and relevantly to their lives. They need it not only in English language arts, not only in rural Kansas, but in every subject area and in every school in America. Real kids need teachers who motivate them to learn, rather than teaching them something with little value, something they'll forget the moment they walk out the classroom door.
If this country is to realize the change promised and promoted by No Child Left Behind legislation, then schools have to become relevant and rigorous. Greendale was a challenging unit. It challenged students to think about their beliefs and practices. It challenged them to think critically about music lyrics, movies, and the message-oriented music of Neil Young.
Christenson, P. G., Roberts, D. F. (1998). It's not only rock & roll. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles: Fostering critical and creative thinking in middle and high school. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Dethier, B. (2003). From Dylan to Donne: Bridging English and music. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gaughan, J. (1997). Cultural reflections. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Reed, C. (1997). "Technology, popular culture, and the writing classroom." The Writing Instructor: 99-102.
Teasley, A. B., Wilder, A. (1997). Reel conversations: Reading films with young adults. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Young, N. (2003). Greendale. Reprise/Wea.
Several helpful resources are available at the official Greendale website listed here for teachers and students interested in learning more about Neil Young's musical novel Greendale. Listen to the CD in its entirety, look at a map of the fictional town, read the lyrics, follow the Green family tree, or listen to Neil Young tell the story surrounding his lyrics.
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