MUH 2019 American Popular Music Topical Essay

MUH 2019 American Popular Music

Topical Essay Handout


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 Students must write an 800-1000 word essay that will address knowledge of the reading assignments, successfully demonstrate a working knowledge of musical terminology and meet the definition of college –level writing. Handouts outlining the criteria for this essay will be available through CANVAS and/or through your instructor. Essays must meet the minimum word count or they will receive a zero. No resubmissions will be allowed to add additional words so please double check the word count. Students may choose from one of the following topics, or write on a topic of their choosing.  All topics must be approved by the instructor in advance.

 Format: Minimum of 800 words (maximum 1000 words) in .doc. or docx. format in 12 point Times New Roman or Arial font, double-spaced, typed, and a separate cover page (student’s name) with a title.

Even though these papers are meant to be analytical, the student’s viewpoints need to be substantiated, i.e. prove your points with intellectual evidence. Citation of three credible sources (some internet sources are not reliable such as Wikipedia) by using parenthetical citations or footnotes within the text is required. A bibliography/works cited page must also be included at the end of the document The use of lyric websites (i.e. are allowed in the paper but will not count toward your three required credible sources. If the student is not sure how, what to cite, or research in general, please ask or refer to the “Additional Resources for Topical Essay” handout in their class module. Ignorance is not an excuse and will result in a zero.


Submit your paper in the through CANVAS by June 20th, at 11:59pm.

No late papers will be accepted. It is the student’s responsibility to make sure that the document is submitted in a proper and timely manner.

 Writing Suggestions

  • Papers should have introductions and conclusions.
  • Break up long paragraphs for better flow.
  • Watch the use of semi-colons and commas.
  • Underline or italicize major works such as albums or operas. Smaller works such as songs or separate instrumental pieces are in quotation marks.
  • Be careful with capitalization.
  • Do not end sentences with prepositions.
  • Make sure sentences are coherent and concise.
  • Support opinions with substantiation.
  • Check the spacing in the paper.
  • Look for the use of repeated phrases or words.
  • Please number the pages.
  • Proofread your paper before submission.




COMPARE THESE ARTISTS: Understanding the intersection of politics, commerce, artistic expression, and the music industry

During the early 1950s, three members of the Weavers were falsely accused of being Communists during the McCarthy era. The ensuing pressure caused Decca records to drop the Weavers’ record contract, and they never again appeared on the pop charts.

In 2003 during the build-up to the Iraq war, Dixie Chicks member Natalie Maines criticized President Bush while the band was touring Europe. The fierce backlash against the band lead to a boycott of their music and the withdrawal of their tour sponsor, Lipton.

Research these events in greater detail. Make a list of the significant similarities and differences. Do you feel that the political views of musical artists are relevant in understanding or appreciating their music? Why or why not? You may use other examples in addition to the ones stated above.


 Understanding differing perspectives on the legacy of the Beatles

 Most books about rock ‘n’ roll history portray the Beatles’ oeuvre as a progressive advancement for popular music, yet at least one prominent historian takes a different view. Elijah Wald’s book “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music” is a different take on the impact of the Beatles. A significantly abridged version of Wald’s argument can be read in the following piece published in the New York Post:
After reading Wald’s article, summarize his position. Do you agree with Wald that if the Beatles are  “going to get credit for their triumphs, they should also bear at least some of the responsibility for what was lost?” Do you agree with Wald’s assessment of today’s pop audience (i.e., young people) when he says, “Virtually all present-day pop fans would rather dance to their favorite records than to versions of the same songs played by a ‘cover’ band. But before the later Beatles era, pretty much everyone considered records a second-rate substitute for live musicians?” Why or why not? Why do you think he argues that 40 years after the Beatles broke up, the American popular music scene has become “so segregated that 40 years of rock would include barely a half-dozen successful black players, or that 30 years of hip-hop could attract a huge interracial audience without producing more than two or three white stars?”


Bob Marley’s song “I Shot the Sheriff” describes a violent altercation between a citizen and law enforcement personnel. This song is hardly unique in this respect. Indeed, the rebellious, anti-authoritarian sentiment common to many strains of American popular music often expresses itself through physical conflict. Yet the mainstream cultural reaction to this material is highly varied.

Consider three popular songs: Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1941), Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff” (1973) , and Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (1992). Listen to all three songs and read the lyrics carefully. Research the critical reaction to these songs, and answer the following questions: What are the important similarities and differences in these songs? Consider the perspective of each song. Is it told from the first person perspective or third person perspective? Are the law enforcement figures “good guys” or “bad guys”? What action precipitates the violence in each of these songs? What was the popular reaction to these songs? How would you account for any differences in the way mainstream culture reacted to these songs? Are songs like this a reaction to violent cultural conditions, or do they create violent conditions (or both)? In what ways?


 Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.” is a dark critique of certain aspects of American society and deals explicitly with the Vietnam War. Despite this, the song has been used as a patriotic anthem, particularly during the presidential campaign of conservative politician Ronald Reagan. To what extent can, or should, an artist be able to control the way his/her material is used and interpreted? Do some research about other songs used in political campaigns. How have these songs been used, and what did the artists who wrote and recorded the music have to say?


Some social critics and music critics (from both within and outside of the hip hop community) have raised concerns about increasing levels of violence and misogyny in hip-hop music since the genre gained nationwide attention in the late 1970s. Review Lonnae O’Neal Parker’s article in the Washington Post at​ Do you share Parker’s concern about the music her daughter is being exposed to? Do you agree with her analysis about contemporary hip-hop music? Explain your answer. Like O’Neal Parker, cite specific examples from hip-hop to support your argument.


In Chapter 1, Starr and Waterman mention that “popular music in America has from the very beginning been closely tied up with stereotypes, convenient ways of organizing people into categories.” With this in mind, consider the following songs and video:

  1. “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio
  2. “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” originally recorded by Ed Bruce and famously covered by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings
  3. The complete video of “Bad” by Michael Jackson (directed by Martin Scorsese) (note: this version includes an extended section shot in black and white before the “song” begins)


How does this material both use stereotypes and respond/react to stereotyping? Consider the lyrics and visual presentation carefully.


 The late 1920s and 1930s were a time when many Americans endured the humiliation of rampant racism as well as crushing poverty. Yet most mainstream popular music (exemplified by the Tin Pan Alley style) avoided these issues and focused instead on escapist themes of privacy and romance. Why might this have been the case? Do you feel that contemporary popular music also focuses on escapist themes like the 1920s and 1930s or do you feel that it tackles the relevant issues of the day? Do you feel that popular music works best as an escape from the problems of the world or as a foum to explore and engage such issues? Please be as specific as possible in citing examples.


 The advent of digital sampling had a dramatic impact on popular music in the early 1980s. Some artists discussed in Chapter 12 like Afrika Bambaataa were accused of copyright violations. What does U.S. copyright law actually say about this material? Review the following information and consider the following cases. U.S. copyright law states that the owner of copyright has “exclusive rights to… reproduce the copyrighted work.” This applies to all media, including popular songs. However, copyright law also allows for the “fair use” of copyrighted work and states that using copyrighted material “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”

The legal criteria for “fair use” is further defined as follows:

  • In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include—
    1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  1. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  2. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  3. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.


In 1980, the Police recorded the song Don’t Stand So Close to Me. The song, written by Sting, earned the Police a Grammy Award in 1982 for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. In 1985, the band Dire Straits released the album Brothers in Arms, which contained the Grammy Award winning song Money for Nothing. Mark Knopfler is listed as the sole songwriter.

When recording Money for Nothing, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits invited Sting to sing the line “I want my MTV” as part of the song. That line uses the same melody as the line “Don’t stand so close to me” from the Police’s song Don’t Stand So Close to Me. Lawyers from Sting’s publishing company, A&M records (reportedly without Sting’s support), claimed that, because of the use of the musical quotation, Sting should be given cowriting credit for the song.


Listen carefully to both songs. Do you feel that the quotation was a violation of Sting’s copyright or do you feel that the quotation falls under any of the “fair use” exceptions? Explain your answer.


Subsequent pressings of Brothers in Arms listed Sting as the cowriter of Money for Nothing and Sting (and A&M records) was financially compensated as the cowriter of the song.


In 2008, Coldplay released the album Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends, which eventually won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album in 2009. The day after Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends was nominated for seven Grammy Awards, guitarist Joe Satriani filed suit claiming that the song Viva la Vida violated the copyright on Satriani’s song If I Could Fly from his 2004 album Is There Love in Space.


Listen carefully to both songs. Do you feel that Coldplay’s song violated Satriani’s copyright or do you feel that the quotation falls under any of the “fair use” exceptions? Explain your answer.


The case was settled out of court for an unspecified amount of money.


 Many artists like Madonna and Prince responded to the socially conservative decade of the 1980s by presenting strong sexual images that deliberately courted controversy. Other artists who drew fire from conservative critics at this time included the Dead Kennedys, who released the album Frankenchrist in 1985. The band and their lead singer, Jello Biafra, had a history of being deliberately provocative. With this album, they included an extremely explicit poster of H. R. Giger’s Landscape #XX (also entitled Penis Landscape) as an insert. The band was sued, alleging that they deliberately caused harm to minors. Biafra and the Dead Kennedys were ultimately not convicted, but the expenses involved nearly bankrupted the Dead Kennedys’ record company, Alternative Tentacles.


Should there be any limits on material that is marketed to appeal in some significant way to minors? If so, who should set those limits, how should they be set, and who should enforce them? Does the threat of an expensive, bankruptcy-inducing suit amount to de facto censorship in the music industry? How does one balance the need to protect minors from potentially disturbing images with freedom of speech and personal expression?


Topical Essay Rubric

  Capstone Milestones Benchmark
(A) (B) (C) (D)
Context of and Purpose for Writing


Demonstrates a thorough understanding of musical context, audience, and purpose that is responsive to the assigned essay criteria and focuses all elements of the work. Demonstrates adequate consideration of musical context, audience, and purpose and a clear focus on the assigned essay criteria (e.g., the task aligns with audience, purpose, and context). Demonstrates awareness of musical context, audience, purpose, and to the assigned essay criteria (e.g., begins to show awareness of audience’s perceptions and assumptions). Demonstrates minimal attention to musical context, audience, purpose, and to the assigned criteria(s) (e.g., expectation of instructor or self as audience).
Content Development



Able to identify music terminology and concepts at a superior level. Provides good support of the topic and covers the topic in-depth. Able to identify music terminology and concepts at an above average level. Provides sufficient support of the topic and mostly covers the topic. Able to identify music terminology and concepts at an average level. Provides barely sufficient support of the topic and lacks coverage on the topic in parts of the essay. Able to identify music terminology and concepts at a below average level. Provides insufficient support of the topic and lacks coverage on the topic in the whole essay.
Genre and Disciplinary Conventions


Demonstrates detailed attention to and successful execution of a wide range of conventions particular to the music discipline and/or writing task (s) including organization, content, presentation, formatting, and stylistic choices. Demonstrates consistent use of important conventions particular to the music discipline and/or writing task(s), including organization, content, presentation, and stylistic choices. Follows expectations appropriate to the music discipline and/or writing task(s) for basic organization, content, and presentation. Attempts to use a consistent system for basic organization and presentation within the assigned writing task.
Sources and Evidence


Demonstrates skillful use of high-quality, credible, relevant sources to develop ideas that are appropriate for the music discipline. The sources are cited properly within the text and the essay contains a works cited/bibliography page (using APA, MLA, or Turabian format.) Demonstrates consistent use of credible, relevant sources to support ideas that are situated within the music discipline. The sources are cited properly within the text and the essay contains a works cited/bibliography page (using APA, MLA, or Turabian format.) Demonstrates an attempt to use credible and/or relevant sources to support ideas that are appropriate for the music discipline. The sources are cited partially within the text and the essay contains a works cited/bibliography page (using APA, MLA, or Turabian format.) Demonstrates an attempt to use questionable sources to answer questions within the assigned essay. The sources are not cited properly within the text and the essay contains a works cited/bibliography page (using APA, MLA, or Turabian format.)
Control of Syntax and Mechanics


Uses graceful language that skillfully communicates meaning to listeners with clarity and fluency. Comprehension and conveyance of musical terminology and concepts is virtually error-free. Uses straightforward language that generally conveys meaning to listeners. Comprehension and conveyance of musical terminology and concepts has few errors. Uses language that generally conveys meaning to listeners with clarity, although comprehension and conveyance of musical terminology and concepts may include some errors. Uses language that sometimes impedes meaning because of errors in usage of musical terminology and concepts.




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