What does Taylor Swift have to tell us about the nature of imperial crisis? How can DJ Khaled inform our understanding of revolutionary consolidation? We know Beyoncé can shed light on current events – that’s clear – but what can Queen Bey explain about the human rights consequences of nineteenth-century transatlantic religious reform movements?
More than you might expect. I teach the history of the early United States in the world, and over the last few years I’ve adopted a pop-flavored shtick to help my students and I as we investigate America’s transnational, global, and imperial history. I pair each class meeting with a piece of modern popular music, creating a playlist as the semester goes along, so that by the end students have a set of sonic references for the course’s topics. The result is a historical mix-tape that, given a friendly hearing, helps the big histories make more sense – or at least draws a cathartic chuckle at the end of an intense lecture.
I started doing this just for fun. It was my attempt at emulating my colleagues teaching 20th-century history, whose use of period-appropriate music I saw enrich their classrooms. Now, I’m all for including a hearty Whig Party campaign song or a sea chanty – but they have a tendency to kill momentum in an undergraduate crowd. So I chose an easier path, loosely tying themes of globalized American history to top 40 hits. To my surprise, what began as a self-indulgent experiment in dubious musical taste has steadily become a pedagogically useful crowd-pleaser (though still dubious and self-indulgent).
The main problem the tunes help solve is one of orientation. American students, in particular, often come to my classes expecting an encounter with a national history they know well (sometimes far too well) already. They find some familiar people and events in my classroom, but in startlingly unfamiliar, and much more complex, contexts. That defamiliarization is intentional – a primary benefit of taking transnational perspective is the critical thought it provokes – but widening the field to situate Americans’ stories within the entire world can also overwhelm at times. The pop songs provide a friendly opening for discussions on difficult topics, as well as a potential hook on which to hang unraveled course themes, keeping the threads slack and untangled as we fly through decades of revolution, slavery, revival, and frenetic capitalist development. Continue reading “What Can Taylor Swift Tell Us About the Global Early American Republic?”