Tag Archives: music

Song Analysis: Playlist

Our third major assignment in ENG 131 is a Song Analysis that asks you to assemble a playlist for a specific purpose and then analyze how each part (in this case, each song) contributes to the whole. Analysis is tough, but it’s a skill you’ll need in school and beyond, and it’s a skill you likely already possess. Here, we’re finessing that skill in an academic context, but as you can see from the chapter in your textbook, analysis is something you do every day.

We’ll continue working on analysis for the rest of the semester. This assignment asks you to create something to analyze. The next assignment, an ad analysis, invites you to analyze an advertisement and how it contributes to the gender binary (and why that might be problematic). You’ll actually be writing a persuasive essay there, but the analysis skills you practice here will be a necessary part of that assignment as well. The last assignment we do before the Final Portfolio is an Annotated Bibliography, which brings us back to this assignment in terms of the parts-to-whole relationship: you’ll be mapping and documenting sources across different types of media that speak to a topic of interest to you.

Analysis generally involves five common elements:

  • A question that prompts you to take a closer look
  • Some description of the subject you are analyzing
  • Evidence drawn from close examination of the subject
  • Insight gained from your analysis
  • Clear, precise language (206).

What do these elements look like when applied to a playlist?

A question…

Recently, a friend of mine made me a mix CD. I grew up with mixtapes (I remember getting my first boombox and it had a dual tape deck so I could burn cassettes and CD’s-to-cassettes all day long! I could even record myself singing along!) and as a teenager and in my twenties, mix CD’s were pretty common. Fast forward to 2017, however, and I was gifted a CD with no way to play it. My computer doesn’t have a disc drive, my car doesn’t have a CD or a cassette player, and I no longer have that boombox. Eventually, I figured out that my PS3 could play CD’s, and I was able to listen to the music that way. Listening to the music was an emotional event; I knew that my friend, who lives far away, had spent a lot of time choosing songs that he thought would speak to my interests and my experiences: in the previous year, I had lost my dad, left an unhealthy relationship, started a new job, spent my summer outdoors, and was (am) wrestling with the election and now the Trump administration’s agenda and how it may impact my future. The playlist my friend made for me was deeply personal, and I felt that from the design of the case to the songs he chose and the order in which I listened to them. Knowing that he made that playlist for me, with me in mind, prompted me to take a closer look, to understand the connections he saw between each song and my life, and even how the songs themselves spoke to each other. The CD is called “the thing with feathers: a mix for 2017.” I asked my friend why he picked that name (a Google search tells me it is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, and also the title of a book by Noah Stryker, and also the name of a novel by Max Porter!), he says it was “essentially an abstract connection to” the Emily Dickinson poem.



Photograph of a handmade CD jacket. The left side has the playlist title, "the thing with feathers: a mix for 2017." The right side lists the names of the songs.
A photo of the CD jacket my friend made for me.



You might decide to make a playlist that is also reflective of your own personal struggles or growth. Or, you might have a particular cause in mind: songs for undergoing chemotherapy, songs to combat Islamophobia, songs for the gym, songs for surviving a two-hour commute home from work, songs that explain what it’s like to be a person of color, songs that explain white America, songs for fishing with your dad. This could be a playlist for you, or a playlist for someone you love, or even a playlist for someone you’ll never meet. 8tracks.com is a site where users can create and share playlists; you might find inspiration there: a few of these include Hipster Yoga, Lumberjanes 1: Fox Fight Jams (this is the official playlist for the first issue of the comic), and Scholarly Rhymes.

The question prompting you to take a closer look isn’t a yes/no question, but rather a question without a correct response: what can I make a playlist for? What would it include? Notice the questions outlined in your book: What? Which? How?

Some description…

Not all playlists on 8tracks have descriptions, but when they do, I find it especially helpful to see a note from the creator explaining why they put it together. You’ll need to give some description in your essay: if you’re making a playlist to go with a book you love, you might give a brief summary of the book and share your rationale for the playlist you’ve created. If you’re making a playlist for a friend, think about what you might want to tell them: what inspired you to choose these songs? Why are you making them the playlist in the first place? If you’re making a playlist for a cause, give some background information about that issue.

Evidence drawn…

Because you are creating the subject (the playlist), you’ll probably already be thinking about the key elements (songs and/or parts of songs), patterns (common features, characteristics, or themes in these songs), and relationships (how these songs connect to form a whole). Each element of your playlist contributes to the whole; each song carries some part of the overall message you are trying to convey. In other words, this isn’t just a random assortment of songs you like, but a purposefully and thoughtfully designed playlist with a particular outcome in mind. In order to discuss these parts, you’ll need to be specific. You might discuss the lyrics, genre(s) of music and its history, artist information, the beat, tempo, style, and mood of the songs, the instruments or technology used to produce it.

Usually, when we analyze texts, we’re analyzing work that someone else produced (themes in a novel, language in a speech, subliminal messaging in an ad). In this case, you’re analyzing something you’ve created using someone else’s material, so while some of the evidence lies within the songs themselves, you might also discuss your own choices to work with the material in the way that you did: why did you arrange the songs in the order that you did? Why 5 songs instead of 10? Why these artists? Why this genre? Why this beat/tempo/style/mood/instrument/technology?

Your book outlines a few common types of analysis: rhetorical, process, causal, and data; we’re hanging out in the rhetorical section: how does this thing communicate?

Insight gained…

This has to do with the “why bother?” part of analysis. Why analyze a playlist? To what end is this useful? Why should anybody care about the songs on a playlist? There are two points I want to touch on here:

  1. Music can teach us about people and society. Song lyrics are texts, and we can study their emotional impact and social commentary. Music is also more widely “used” or consumed than articles and novels: many of you don’t read novels on a regular basis, but I know you listen to music.
  2. Learning to recognize and to write about the parts of something that contribute to a whole in order to communicate a particular message is a transferrable skill that you’ll use in a variety of disciplines, from identifying the multiple factors contributing to a health condition in order to provide a diagnosis or develop a treatment plan, to recognizing grammatical patterns in learning another language so that you can apply them to new structures, or even understanding the complex layers of our political systems so that you can contribute to a democratic society by voting and by speaking up when justice is not served.

When you think about the insight gained from analyzing a playlist that you created, it might seem silly: how can you gain insight from analyzing something you made? What you might look at here is the bigger picture: why might a playlist be valuable? What might it contribute to the listener’s understanding of an issue? How might it benefit them to know how all of the parts fit together? Likewise, you can also evaluate the success of your playlist: what is missing? What is left out? How could it be made better? These questions will come up in your self-assessment, so you may choose to answer them in class rather than in the essay itself.

Clear, precise language…

I’m going to quote from your book here because their words are spot on: “Since the point of an analysis is to help an audience understand something, you need to pay extra attention to the words you use and the way you explain your findings.” Use language that your audience will understand (you don’t need to sound scholarly, but remember that you are writing to a college-educated audience), and use words that point to specifics. Words like “things” and “stuff” and “good” and “really” don’t present a clear picture of what you mean. You also want to be sure that the language you use is culturally sensitive: avoid stereotypes about gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability; some of these we have internalized and it can be difficult to unlearn ways of expressing ideas that might be considered offensive. Review the “How to Write Good Sentences” chapter in your textbook (p. 668) for some advice on sentence composing, and we’ll look at “What’s Your Style” in class (p. 641) together.

EXTRA CREDIT: Very rarely do I offer extra credit opportunities, but this invitation can act as a bridge from textual/rhetorical analysis to visual analysis, which we’ll do with advertisements later on. Most playlists, whether digital or burned onto a physical CD, come with some sort of case, booklet, or cover art. If you are feeling especially creative, and want to play with visuals in order to further support the message or purpose you are aiming for with your playlist, make some cover art to accompany your album. Up to 5 extra credit points are available; this needs to be submitted with your final draft either digitally or as a hard copy, with a brief note explaining your rhetorical choices.

What is Stamina? Transmediation Example

Muriel Rukeyser, at the young age of 22, wrote the documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. This event, which took place in the 1930’s, has been called America’s worst industrial disaster, but it is not well-known to most American citizens. Rukeyser’s poem features transcripts from court hearings and meetings of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, as well as testimony from men who worked in the tunnels and their families. While it is unclear to me at this time whether or not she actually spoke with these individuals in their homes or worked from documents that were provided to her, Rukeyser’s take on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sheds a necessary light on the desperate persistence of the tunnel workers despite fatal conditions. Sia, an Australian music artist, released the song “The Greatest” in 2016. The song, according to the website Genius which provides annotated song lyrics, was written as an anthem for LGBT individuals after the shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub. Both Rukeyser’s poem and Sia’s song speak to the experiences of marginalized people.

In Rukeyser’s poem, she tells of the workers who contracted silicosis after digging out a tunnel rich in silica to divert water for hydroelectric power for the Union Carbide Company. This tunnel was located in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the dam and tunnel entrance can be seen from the hiking trails along the New River Gorge. Silicosis is a lung disease; the dust fills the lungs of the individual affected, and that person eventually suffocates as they can no longer breathe. “I can’t breathe” is a well-known cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of unarmed black men in the hands of police, specifically Eric Garner who uttered these words prior to his death. Some have argued that these deaths should be considered murder. I believe some would argue the same about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. Most of the men working in the tunnel at that time were men of color, migrant workers from southern states. Sia’s song opens with similar words, “Uh-oh, runnin’ out of breath, but I/Oh, I, I got stamina/Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes/Well, oh, I got stamina/And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb/But I, I, I got stamina” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). While Sia’s lyrics speak specifically to the challenges that LGBT individuals face in this country, and her treatment of not being able to breathe is figurative (the mountain is a metaphor), it parallels the literal experiences of both the Hawk’s Nest victims as well as the black men who have lost their lives more recently.

Rukeyser includes the bill passed by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor in “The Book of the Dead,” under a section called The Bill. Toward the end of that section, there is a direct quote presented before the signed names of the representatives. It reads, “If by their suffering and death they will have made a future life safer for work beneath the earth, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain.” While this is an admirable statement to make, the struggle for human rights for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people in this country is ongoing, and we cannot make martyrs out of those whose lives were taken. History cannot be erased, nor can these lives be brought back. Perhaps statements like this bring some comfort to the families of those whose loved ones have died, but it’s an embarrassment that as a country, America has not yet figured out how to ensure basic protections to all of its people. Sia’s song declares “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight,” and one annotation claims that “Redemption, self-preservation, perseverance, and finding inner-strength are all common themes in Sia’s music” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). I would argue that these qualities are common themes in American culture, but that these values unfairly place the burden on marginalized individuals to fight for what they should already have, rather than calling out the systemic issues that allow this cycle to continue.

For a version of this essay in MLA format with citations, please click here.