February 8, 2016- A Simple Way to Use Technology (YouTube) in Class

 

As a proponent of using technology in the classroom, I find myself always looking for new ways to explore the many mediums available to us as teachers. Using tech can feel overbearing at times, especially for those not experienced with it. Today, I found a fun way to use YouTube in my class to help illustrate a point.

 

The Task: Help students understand 'formula' fiction.

 

In my ICLT 319 Detective Fiction class, we were reading "The Simple Art of Murder" by Raymond Chandler, and in it, he essentially lambastes the genre, stating that bad detective novels are identical to good ones in the sense that they follow the same formula. I explained that Chandler referred to a relatively new genre, created, in part, by the explosion of paperback printing. So, basically, cheap books followed a specific formula by new writers hoping to grab readers. Chandler laments how 'literary' novels from previous years gathered dust on the shelves while mystery fans clawed at each other to buy books with a corpse on the cover or with titles like 'The Petunia Flower Killer'. Students followed this to a point, but they are really too far removed from the time period (1950) to truly grasp it. So, I tell them that the writers followed a cookie cutter approach. This elicited some minor sparks in their eyes, but little fired up.

 

The Approach: Deciding to use a more modern approach, I logged onto the computer in the room and projected Kia's recent commercial featuring Christopher Walken. Ah, they said, almost in unison. I then describe how the midsize sedan is much like the detective novel Chandler refers to. There are no fantastic midsize sedans; by their very nature they must cater to a wide audience, as they represent the bulk of sales for the manufacturer. The Mercedes C300 is not a fantastic car, but rather, a great midsize sedan, which, essentially deems it as unspectacular by nature. There is a formula for midsize cars: agile, roomy, safe, fuel efficient, with four doors. This is not a formula for excitement. Detective novels had a formula: edgy detective with a trenchcoat and fedora, damsel in distress, a murder, and an investigation. Early novels followed this. 

 

The students started discussing their thoughts on this. I explain that 'liaterature' by Chandler's sarcastic definition requires the addressing of social issues, and according to him, such a novel must also been extremely timely. Beginning writers who choose mysteries as their genre become slaves to the formula, for no one wants to read a mystery that doesn't fit the mold. Students ask if perhaps some seasoned mystery writers could break tradition, and I said yes, but it must be done carefully. Where literature follows the social concerns of the time and attempts to either identify problems or cure them, mysteries play to certain expectations. Only a major shift in popular culture can allow for changes. I wanted to illustrate, so I attempted to think on my feet, something I don't suggest for myself often. This time, however, it worked.

 

I made a connection between mystery novels and popular music in terms of formula. I explained, quickly, how the late 80's and early 90's were dominated by hair metal, and the formula for this type of music included the classic ballad. One band had peaked during this time, and were ready to sign a deal for their next album, sometime around 1992. That band, Warrant, walked into the offices of CBS records, a place that, a year ago, was lined with their pictures and gold records. Well, popular culture had changed, and thus, so had the formula. Hair metal had fallen to grunge, ushered in by Nirvana and the band who replaced Warrant on CBS's walls, Alice in Chains.

 

To illustrate this, I showed the classic hair metal ballad by Warrant, 'Heaven'. 
I point out the requisite long hair filled with hairspray, the trashy leather outfits, the necessary guitar solo. A band just could not exist during this time without having such a song on their album. Well, sometime around 1991 a little song called
Smells Like Teen Spirit came out, and every record label dropped the cute love song for a group of guys in torn flannel who looked like they needed a shower, giving off any sort of anti-establishment vibe. Who cares that Nirvana started off as a hair metal cover band; they needed to only project the right image.

 

Nirvana did not really address grand social issues; they merely tapped into teen angst in a fresh way. Warrant had plenty of songs that rocked and they released a song in defiance of new parental advisory labels on albums, called 'Ode to Tipper Gore'. I show students Alice in Chains' 'Man in the Box', highlighting the darker edge, the grungy look, and the overall change in attitude. It fits with Nirvana, who took the music world by storm. Again, it does not matter that Alice in Chains also started as a hair metal band and changed their look as the formula dictated.

 

To close the discussion on formulas in popular culture, I finish Warrant's story. What did they do after their shock at CBS's office, when they walked in after a huge tour and platinum album but walked out feeling like second-class citizens in a place they once ruled? Better to show it, I say. And I let them see Warrant's 'Machine Gun' released right after that. In this video, I point out the dark tone, the less pretty singer, the focus on tattoos and other effects that more befit the early 90s. It's a sad attempt to follow the new formula.

 

The best part about this is how students do see the attempt to change attitude, but they also fail to see the difference between 'Machine Gun' and other songs I show them by Warrant, like 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' or 'Down Boys' in terms of sound. The band only changed their look, and this pays sad tribute to the pitfalls of following formua, and it illustrates the concept Chandler conveys way better than my explanation. 

 

And I shudder as I hold back that I thought Warrant was a good band when I was a young kid.