Tom Smith is a Lecturer in German Studies at the University of St Andrews. Here, he reflects on his experiences teaching popular music in the undergraduate German classroom. Be sure to listen along to his course playlist (just below) as you read!

As I look back on 2020, one of its highlights was the chance to run my Honours module on German popular music and identity. So with thanks to my students for their inspiration, and in the spirit of the already not-so-new year, I wanted to share some reflections.

Throughout the course, I’ve taken inspiration from initiatives to decolonise the classroom and worked to change my teaching methods first of all, allowing content and material to adapt to suit collaborative learning and independent research. On the level of methods, the module is structured around undergraduate research projects. Both assessment and the structure of individual classes encourage students to take the lead and identify what subjects and ideas are of greatest interest to them, while developing skills as researchers. As a second step, these methods influence the material we use to orientate ourselves. We begin with scholarship and theory on how classical and popular music have been bound up with ideas of Germanness, nationalism and whiteness. This is essential for understanding popular genres in the German context, from folk to techno, and creates a structure for the rest of the course to foreground gender, race and transnational approaches to Germanness.

Weekly topics:
– Protest Songs of Wolf Biermann
– Rock in the GDR
– Neue deutsche Welle and West German Pop
– Punk and Performance: Nina Hagen
– Hip Hop and Gender
– Techno and Whiteness

Research Skills:
– Building a Reading List
– Intro to Working with Music
– Film Analysis
– Using Secondary Literature
– Making a Poster
– Structuring a Larger Project
– Textual Analysis

Assessment:
– Poster, Essay and Annotated Playlist

We start with structured weekly reading, viewing and listening for the first half of the semester: from Wolf Biermann songs to Jackie Thomae’s depiction of 1990s club culture in Brüder (2019). The course playlist ranges from the Puhdys and Nena to Nina Hagen and Ace Tee. This year, with library access limited, we also used extracts, shorter texts and more unconventional sources, like Hengameh Yaghoobifarah’s 2016 magazine feature on cultural appropriation at Fusion Festival. This is to support students who are often new to studying music and cultural studies methods.

Each week students bring their own examples and ideas for discussion, which decentres my own knowledge and perspective as a teacher. The fact that different students always prepare for class in different ways is an enormous creative opportunity, and so we work with the different things they have read, watched or listened to.

We take at least one track in each class, listen to short extracts and break it down into its component parts: how can we describe the beat, what instruments or voices do we hear as part of the texture, how is the track structured, how can we describe the rhythm and melody, and how do lyrics and video feed in?

This often leads in surprising directions. Our Wolf Biermann class one year, for example, focused on how his rural imagery adapts conventional Heimat tropes. This year, we worked especially on understanding (and problematising) Biermann’s response to the Civil Rights struggle in the United States and the antifascist struggle in Franco’s Spain. By steering discussion themselves, students gain skills to seek out connections and articulate what they find important about a source.

Students’ prior knowledge varies, but usually they’ve had little experience of German popular music. Some will know German pop music first-hand; others bring skills from classical training; others bring a love of certain kinds of pop, rock, hip-hop or electronic music. Our collaborative approach means we can also challenge our assumptions about music, including ideas of universality, judgements on quality and arguments over taste. This way, we build general skills while each reflecting on the limitations of our own perspectives.

In the second half of the semester, students put these skills into practice with individual research projects, and the variety of ideas and approaches has been extremely impressive. These have shown how productive it is to validate and build on – as well as challenge – students’ knowledge and perspectives. One student looked at Korean and British DJs reshaping Berlin’s techno scene with their music as a form of antiracist feminist activism. Two students worked on the reception of and response to American music: one analysing how Turkish-German rappers engage with ideas of Blackness in US hip-hop, and one analysing how East German bands were influenced by American rock. Several projects analysed different parts of the music industry from intersectional feminist perspectives, and a number replaced a focus on Germanness with an analysis of musicians’ creative role in global politics and innovation.

This year’s projects included:

– Rock and Punk in GDR Film
– Non-German DJs of Colour and Feminist Activism in the Techno Scene
– Pop Feminism and Musical Performance
– Images of Blackness in Turkish-German Hip-Hop
– Intersectional Feminism in Hip-Hop Solo Tracks
– Science and Technology in 1970s and 1980s Pop

I have learned a lot from students’ ideas and projects. Back in 2018, for example, one student introduced me to SXTN in her work on feminist hip-hop. This year, someone on a joint honours degree with a science subject wrote their essay on technology and space travel in West German pop. Even in assessment students have learned from each other. For example, in the course’s first year, the poster workshop was led by a member of the class who had just made a poster for another University scheme.

There are a few things I plan to do differently next time. It’s clear that transcultural questions deserve more space. While some of the artists we’ve looked at explicitly negotiate ideas of Germanness, many reject this discussion altogether and position themselves in a global industry. Students’ keen interest in theory this year suggests we should discuss more theory and scholarship, including decolonial theories of music that so far have been optional rather than set reading. This would mean reducing the other cultural texts we discuss. And most importantly writing this post makes me want to start the semester with a discussion of teaching methods! I think making these decisions explicit and part of a dialogue in the classroom will be an important next step, both for the course and for my own development as a teacher.


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