HL90 ED: Music and Resistance in the Modern United States

We’ve got more great HL90 seminars to check out! Lucy Caplan is teaching “Music and Resistance in the Modern United States” this fall, and talked to us about the Queen of Soul and explained critical karaoke to us!

What made you want to teach this class?

In one of my all-time favorite novels, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a character overhears a blues record while wandering through Harlem and wonders: “Was this the only true history of the times?” The idea at the heart of that question – that music can tell us something unique about the past and the present – is what inspired me to teach this class. More specifically, I’m inspired by the idea that music can help us understand something fundamental about histories of dissent and resistance in the United States, and especially about the history of Black freedom struggles throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In our current moment of peril and possibility, I’m especially excited to consider not only how music works as a form of protest against present challenges, but also how it helps us imagine a better, more just future.  

What is a one thing you’re excited to share with students this semester?  

It’s hard to choose just one! But if I had to, I think it would be Aretha Franklin’s iconic 2015 performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors. First of all, it’s just awesome: the fur coat, the dress, the piano, the voice! It’s also an amazing encapsulation of how deeply history and culture can resonate through a five-minute video clip. We might think about the song’s relationship to second-wave feminism and Black Power; about what it means that Barack and Michelle Obama are swaying along in the audience; about how the details of the lyrics speak to the complicated progress of the civil rights movement. I can’t wait to analyze this performance with students and see what insights we can come up with collectively.  

What is an assignment that you’re excited about? 

I’m really excited about the Critical Karaoke assignment. Critical Karaoke is a form of analysis in which the speaker analyzes a song while that song plays in the background – meaning that your academic analysis of the song is exactly as long as the song itself. (You can totally sing if you want to, but you don’t have to!) It’s a really fun and creative way to add your own voice – literally – to the conversation about a cultural text. I also think that this particular assignment might work even better in an online format than it does in-person, so I’m looking forward to seeing how students get creative with the technologies available to them.  

What music have you been listening to while working remotely?  

I don’t know if this even really qualifies as “music”…but I (and my cat Dona, who you will certainly meet this semester!) have watched this about a zillion times.  

Fore more information, see the syllabus on Canvas, or email Lucy to set up an appointment!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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