Music of Your Life

Stephan Pennington mines pop tunes for cultural insights

Hate country music? Think Britney Spears should just stop doing it again? Don’t tell Stephan Pennington, at least not unless you have time on your hands. He may not let you go until you’ve examined every last facet of that music, and its cultural context and your personal relationship to both. “Music means a lot more than just that ditty on the radio; it’s about who we are, it’s about our identity,” he says.

Pennington, an assistant professor, came to Tufts last fall to teach popular music, subject matter that he’s found many schools don’t take seriously, if indeed they offer it at all. “I feel lucky,” he says, “to be in a place that actually values popular culture, not as something on the side but as a real core part of the curriculum.” In his classes he forges connections between music and the time in which it is produced. Although he has a reservoir of knowledge on which to draw, his teaching style is to ask questions, lobbing challenges at students to think about society, politics, art, current events and themselves.

Even as a youngster, he had a slightly off-key perspective. While his classmates were pondering the life of Marcus Aurelius in an ancient history class, he was wondering what life was like for working people in the time of the Roman emperor. It occurred to him that popular music is the record of people whose stories are not necessarily told in history books.

Raised in California in modest circumstances, Pennington didn’t expect to become a professor. In high school, he was bored and his grades suffered. During his senior year, he took a job as an office assistant and realized he didn’t want to sit in a cubicle for the rest of his life. So he decided to join the Army to get college tuition benefits. It was a fateful choice: he was selected for intelligence training and subsequently discovered that 70 percent of the people who take the test for admission to that program fail. He began to see that he had the smarts to do more than he had thought.

He served in the Army for four years, first in Korea and later in Germany, where he taught himself German, how to read music and even play the banjo. Equally important, he learned that history, geography and culture were more fascinating than his previous academic experience had ever suggested. He eventually landed in graduate school at UCLA, a center for what is known as the new musicology, which combines music with cultural studies.

Judging from the array of courses he teaches at Tufts—which focus on topics ranging from the history of rock and roll to black women performers to African-American music in general—higher education has only abetted his natural eclecticism. What’s more, his ideas are as original as ever.

Get Smart

Take his look at the music associated with the spy movies and TV shows of the mid-60s to early 70s. In the United States, such music incorporated a lot of jazz, as is evident in the song “Secret Agent Man” and the theme from the series I Spy. And jazz, Pennington notes, “gives a sense of the city, of American vitality; it represents our triumph culturally.”

By contrast, the spy genre in England often included sounds that would be associated with old world England, such as the harpsichord or strings: listen to themes and soundtracks from the British shows The Prisoner and The Avengers. While the United States was an emerging superpower, Britain was coming to grips with its loss of status as its empire dissolved. The music behind each country’s spy shows reflected as much, Pennington says.

With mounting criticism in the late 1960s of the war in Vietnam, the spy genre began to lose its appeal, he says. Earlier, spies who lied and broke the law were acceptable as heroes because they committed those acts in the name of the state, and people trusted the state.

But after The Pentagon Papers and the My Lai massacre, the public’s perspective changed. Pennington finds it intriguing that spy shows didn’t make a comeback until after terror attacks on September 11, with the arrival of Alias and The Agent.

In the interim, we witnessed such phenomena as New Wave music, which, Pennington says, came out of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when an economic crisis, nuclear threats and a growing gap between the very rich and the middle class generated enormous anxiety. While punk music responded to the trials of that time with anger, New Wave was “about distance,” he says.

“It’s 1984, and we are looking at a dystopian future when we all become controlled by computers and have no more humanity,” he says. “The music we are listening to is Oingo Boingo, Blondie and Talking Heads,” whose mechanical sound is indicative of a cool, ironic stance.

Pennington hopes his students not only pay careful attention to lyrics and melody but reflect as they listen. He considers teaching a powerful tool to foster critical thinking. “Education,” he says, “has become test-based; it’s all about exams and right and wrong answers, and I’m not so interested in that. I’m interested in arguments and in students having their own voices and their own authority.”

So does Pennington’s teaching style work? Do students in fact come away from his classes with ideas of their own and a greater ability to craft arguments to support them? Do they develop a more nuanced understanding of the pop ballads, theme songs and rock anthems that surround us all? Perhaps the commentary about him on the popular Rate My Professors website provides a clue: “I will never,” wrote one student, “look at music the same way again.”

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