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Working Class Heroes, Rock n Roll Niggers and the American Ruse

S. Yaeger's picture

After our viewing of Kai Davis' poem last week, and in light of a conversation I had had about it's possibility to offend people, I began thinking about powerful and eloquent uses of "vulgar" language and racial epithets throughout our pop cultural history.  As some of you may know, I have an overwhelming interest in pop culture and especially in rock history.  As such, Davis' poem caused me to think about other instances where poets or lyricists have used vulgar or offensive language and imagery to discuss their thoughts on their education and on their chances in life.  I initially planned to write a post about the uses of language in the classroom, but then I though about the uses of language as tool for expressing our frustrations with our class and education situations and prospects.  As part of this discussion, I am offering you three videos from youtube.

 The first is a John Lennon song called 'Working Class Hero" which has been stuck in my head since the first day of customs, when I turned to one of my cohorts and said "I don't want to be a working class hero man, it's no thing to be."  This song was recorded during his solo career, when he was living in NYC with Yoko Ono and was, esentially, being raked over the coals for his career decisions, including the breakup of the Beatles and his overtly political public persona.  The first time I heard the song, I was shocked to hear a Beatle say "fuck", and it drove me to think about the song's message.  Essentially, Lennon is saying that educators, parents, and other members of the old regime, expect youth to contort to fit into their conception of what a good citizen is, while his former fans were rallying against him and his wife for not fitting into the mold which they had grow to expect.  Sounds familiar doesn't it?  


The Lennon video is embedded above.  As I move along here, I want to be perfectly clear that the second song contains a racial slur which is used here as an umbrella term for anyone, regardless of race, who is forced out of society based on their gender, their creed, breaking with tradition, or just generally bucking the system.  I will not censor the video, nor will I sensor myself going forward in my discussion of the song because, no matter how I cansor the word, you'll all know what I'm thinking anyway.  The song is titled "Rock N Roll Nigger" and it is written and performed by Patti Smith, who was, at the time, a young poet, songwriter and activist who had been consistently told that she was too masculine, too artsy, too skinny, etc, to ammount to much of anything.  This, coupled with the release of Lennon's song "Woman is the Nigger of the World", led Smith to write the song and the preceding spoken word piece "babelogue" about how society, at the time, relegated anyone who was different into a box where nothing was expected of them.  Smith labeled these outliers "Niggers," and wrote about them being forced out of society and, in the process, changing the cultural face of the world.  Among her examples, she lists Jesus Christ, Jimi Hendrix, Jackson Pollock, and her grandmother.  Though the word "nigger" has been used to oppress and harm people throughout its history, its use in the Smith song seeks to do the oposite.  To liberate them from the constraints of polite society so that they may go on to alter that society.  Here it is for you to judge:

The final song I am posting is a song by Patti Smith's husband's band: The MC5.  The MC5 were formed in Detriot, Michigan in the late sixties by a group of poor white kids who had very little options afforded to them in terms of their future.  They were too poor for college and esentially got to choose between factory or the military. The young men who would become the MC5 were aware of the existence of the Black Panther Party and were inspired by a speach by Huey Newton, in which he  suggested that poor white Americans were being robbed of their freedom just as black Americans were and that they should form a White Panther Party in order to unite themselve against oppression and work hand in hand with the Black Panthers.  And so, the White Panther Party was formed and the MC5 became their official band.  The song which I am presenting is called "The American Ruse" and while it is not as shockingly profane as the other two presented here, it does present an interesting paradox.  The song talks about kids being taught in school about freedom, but then going off into a world where they are not free at all. Instead, they are banned (as the MC5 once were), beaten and dragged off to war.  

So what does this all have to do with our class?  Well, for one thing, I've asserted here before that Rock n Roll is the cultural expression of the poor, and these songs exemplify that, but they also examine some of the ways in which education does not level the playing field, and some of the ways in which we are all chained by our status.  One of the things that is so striking about them is that they are about being alienated by the school system, instead of being helped by it.  They exemplify the sort of duplistic pressures that I imagine many kids feel today.  You need education to elevate yourself, but the education system is set up in such a way that it excludes all bot those who fit it neatly.  

What do you all think of the songs and the history behind them?  Do they, as I think they do, exemplify the "rub" of our current educational landscape?  Do they offend you?