Few of us were trained to teach controversial subjects related to music in the classroom. Like many of us I was raised on Grout as the way to think about music history, and to this day controversial topics rarely find their way into the typical narrative about Western classical music. How often do you read in commercial-market textbooks that it took until c. 1800 for the first mixed choirs to be used in German Lutheran churches because of “mulier tacet in ecclesia” (St. Paul’s instruction that women are to be “silent” during church services) and that therefore Bach’s sound world for vocal music was mainly boys from 12 to 22? So in some ways teaching controversial material in our American music courses is not only impossible to avoid, it is also an opportunity because we confront music as living process. This also helps our students because most of them recognize the suppression of human complexities underneath the surface of controlled blandness.
On the other hand, “controlled blandness” has its virtues. Here I am thinking of the ways Cole Porter’s lyric “too hot not to cool down” (from “Just One of Those Things”) helps me handle lots of repugnant material associated with the teaching of blackface minstrelsy—to take one obvious example. Think taupe—a neutral color—as the interior mental decoration of the classroom-as-clinic, and I will have made my point. I tend to avoid any sort of experiential reenactment strategies like singing racist songs in the classroom, or having students stand on desks to recreate the auction block (which I have heard one faculty member actually did). I use primary sources from the period —which should never be altered in any way because they bear historical witness—in counterpoint with one another, and also talk about the ambivalences in reception history, such as those surrounding Stephen Foster’s plantation laments. As I write this I realize anew how relatively few African American students are enrolled in our music major program, so I deal with mostly white responses to the material. I try to abstract issues from the intertwining of prejudice and expressive culture—not only through questions that allow us to contemplate the persistent stereotyping around us, but also through the abstraction of a core issue in musical practice: the extent to which music subverts intellectual analysis. Beauty, pleasure, and laughter are ultimately indisputable. Blackface entertainment offered its audiences those experiences in ways that our students understand through their own (often spectacular) understanding of and immersion in popular culture. And that can lead to self-reflection on our own cultural moment.
Finally, a word about credibility. The equation of authority or authenticity with traits of race, gender, class, regional identity, and generation cannot be dismissed, and I guess the most important strategy here is to talk about this openly and of course as blandly as possible when necessary. Here discussion thrives in the soil of the ambiguities surrounding individualism (the liberationist ideal) and the collective imagination (the populist ideal). As in: there are some aspects of collective culture which lend themselves to insider/outsider reactions, and where the authority of background and intimacy with a culture count for a lot; on the other hand, we cannot assume access to a person’s thoughts and feelings through census-category assumptions, and the classroom ideally should be a place where people are treated as individuals first and as representatives second, if at all. This topic leads me to reflect on how age and gender, like race and perhaps even class, can erect unwanted barriers between us and our students. This may be somewhat outside of the topic at hand, but as an older white woman, I am not typically seen as an authority figure outside of a quasi-maternal role—there’s lots of data on this point—and if you think back a minute to your own years, nobody really wants a second mother in college. I teach in a program of about 400 majors, most of whom belong to the concentration in “music industry” and dream about being on the road with a band (I like to stay in my room). So given that I have had some experience in facing—and facing down—credibility issues in general, I don’t register their impact in a special way when teaching controversial material, and I feel increasingly liberated to cultivate the edge of irony that my daughter tells me twenty-somethings like.
You’re the Top: Cole Porter in the 1930s. Vol. 3. Koch International 7136-2, 1992.