Recently, Ryan Adams hit the spotlight for releasing a full album cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Listening to his covers of her songs reminded me of a past lesson that I could adapt to to beginning work on standard 7 in the ELA reading standards. While the standard relies heavily on drama pieces since those are most likely reinterpreted and changed in performance, there are plenty of pieces out there that reinterpret a source material, theme, character, or even a particular story. While some grade levels are specific about what is being asked, such as grade 8 that wants to evaluate the faithfulness of a “filmed or live production of a story or drama”, there’s no reason that you can’t start with a popular culture experience with students to talk about interpretation and author choice.
The Cover Song
By now, I assume that you have heard Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”, which rings of pop music-ness and a jubilant attitude about not letting others’ opinions get in your way. Even, a girlish laugh being interjected into her song. For those who happen to have not heard the song a million times, check it out:
Now, when the pop-ness is stripped away and replaced with Ryan Adams’ slower beat, the interpretation changes. It’s almost a lament to the critics without the confidence that Swift exudes in her pop version. The elongated words strewn throughout the song allow the words and lyrics to be more centralized.
Interpret the original: Given that students have listened to Taylor Swift, it’s best to allow them their initial interpretation with the Taylor Swift song in combination with the lyrics. They’re going to hear Swift and the music if they read the lyrics anyways. Depending on your grade level, the main idea is to focus on: mood, tone, word choice, and music. What does the author want us to think about these 4 things, and what does the text want us to think about these 4 things?
Interpret the Lyrics: Now, if you have a class that can look solely at the lyrics without the music genre jarring their interpretation, a great bridge between cover songs is to have students interpret the lyrics for mood, tone, and meaning. What does the text mean when paying attention to word choice?
Interpret the Cover: Looking at standard 7, a main detail across grade levels, beginning at 6th grade, is the idea of interpretation by the reader, author, or director. Given that students have the original author’s interpretation and the text interpretation, they are prepared to consider a new author’s interpretation.
6th grade: Have students pay attention to how words are emphasized in the cover song versus the original. Compare/Contrast the emphasis in one artist to another artist.
7th grade: The goal in 7th grade, if you’re preparing students for future grade levels and work is to get them ready to interpret visual text interpretations. Consider using the music video if available, or think about the effects that using different instruments and arrangements play on the song’s interpretation.
8th grade: All about faithfulness. Consider having the two singers have a conversation. Would the original singer believe that the cover artist has stayed faithful to their original intent? Remember the students have what they believe the original intent is.
9th/10th grade: This will be dependent upon the song that you are choosing, which in the Swift/Adams case will be a subject representation rather than a scene.
11th/12th grade: It’s key at this grade level that students are able to distinguish the text as its own entity. So, without Swift’s accompaniment, what does the song mean or emphasized? Now, how have Swift and Adams interpreted the song and by what means did they convey their interpretation?
Practice on your Own or Another Cover Pairing
If you want to practice what it looks like to consider a song lyrics, an original song, and a cover song, one of my favorite pairings is: Lady Gaga’s Just Dance and Gary Go’s cover Just Dance. If you have older students, this might also work as a song example to use with students. When I listen to these two songs next to each other, I find the contrast between the happy/it’s okay feeling of Lady Gaga versus the desperation/it’s not okay feeling of Gary Go’s interpretation to be a ripe area for discussion.
1) Read the lyrics to “Just Dance” paying attention to word phrases that strike you as interesting or meaningful. What mood and tone do the lyrics suggest? If you had to narrow the meaning down to one sentence, what is the meaning?
2) Listen to the original. What mood and tone does the musical interpretation suggest?
3) Now listen to the cover song. What mood and tone does the musical interpret suggest?
4) Synthesize the three interpretations using your grade level standard or a strict compare/contrast.
What can you do after this?
• Use the steps and skills to help interpret your specific grade level standard, especially if it’s specific to plays/dramas or film.
• Launch into archetypes, which are the ultimate base characters and stories to be reinterpreted by artists.
• Have students consider other songs that are sorrowful or upbeat in meaning and interpret whether those feelings match the lyrics.
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