France since 1900 in 13 songs

It’s over. I made it through the 2021-22 academic year, but just barely. For all sorts of reasons, this latest pandemic teaching term was the hardest for me. We were in-person, though not from the very beginning of the term. That was good, but also exhausting with an (important!) mask mandate keeping us all from seeing each other’s faces for most of yet another term, and then the sudden revocation of that mandate literally overnight, making things uncomfortable in different ways (at least for many of my students and for me). I think we were all also just running on empty by the time January rolled around? I had just gotten over my own rough adventure with COVID and many of my students spend the last few months getting sick, recovering, trying to catch up. It was hard, yo.

This said, I loved the seminar I got to teach this term. Planning for it months ago, I had decided I wanted to teach something new. A fresh prep isn’t always easy, especially in times like these, but I wanted to get excited about new material and assignments, to try something fun that I’d always wanted to do. So I submitted my special topic and decided to make a playlist the focus of an entire class. Here’s the trailer I made to promote the course before all the details came together:

In the end, our term was a bit shorter than I expected so the seminar only focused as a group on 12 songs in-depth:
*”La Marseillaise”
*”La Chanson de Craonne”
* Josephine Baker, “J’ai deux amours”
*”Le Chant des partisans”
*Edith Piaf, “La Vie en rose”
*Boris Vian, “Le Déserteur”
*Jacques Dutronc, “(Il est cinq heures) Paris s’éveille”
*Serge Gainsbourg, “Aux armes, etcaetera”
*Carte de séjour, “Douce France”
*NTM, “Qu’est-ce qu’on attend”
*Daft Punk, “Digital Love”
*Angèle, “Balance ton quoi”

And then each student chose a 13th French song of their own, completing a final research podcast assignment, an episode of Chanson Exploder focused on that song. The final results of this assignment were AMAZING!

I meant to write about it all along the way, but things were just too hectic, and I can’t imagine doing it all justice with a summary here now. I did tweet about it a little and you can find that thread here:

Challenging as the term was for other reasons, exploring music and/as history with my students in this course was a true joy. During many weeks, I nerded out and brought my portable turntable and vinyl in for close listening sessions. We spent real time thinking about how songs sound and feel, the content of lyrics, the contexts in which artists write, perform, and live, and to which their music responds. I learned so much and I think my students did as well. Listening together also just did us good in ways I can’t quite explain. The way music just does sometimes.

I didn’t enlist as many friends and colleagues to help me out with this one as I originally thought I might, at least not during class time, or in the form of the kinds of recordings that have become a staple for me in this pandemic era. I didn’t have the time or energy and I was loathe to ask others for theirs when I know we are all just burnt out at this point. But I did pester one, fantastic music listener and writer, the poet and critic Joshua Clover, a Professor of English at UC Davis. Joshua agreed to do a recording with me for the beginning of the term, a conversation intended to introduce students to the idea of thinking and writing about music. We talked about his previous work as a music critic, his most recent (pretty genius) book Roadrunner (Duke University Press, 2021), and all sorts of other things. It ended up being a really wonderful way to kick off the course that my students and I referred back to again and again. I’m so grateful! And since Joshua said it would be okay, I’m sharing the recording here for anyone else who might want to give it a listen. It was such a good, helpful conversation for our seminar. If you do tune in, I hope you dig it too!

interview with joshua clover – hist 417 (spring 2022): france since 1900 in 13 songs