Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Soundtrack the new school year with these classroom classics

Forget New Year’s Day. To hell with the Gregorian calendar! It’s the school year that has the biggest impact on our lives.

Throughout our entire upbringing, we construct our lives according to the September to August academic cycle. It defines what we do and when who our friends are likely to be, whether we are perceived as old or young.


All of which makes the start of the school year a very big deal – the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. So whether you’re returning to high school, starting out at sixth form, or venturing away to university for the first time, here are a few school-themed song selections to welcome in the new and ease you back into the classroom.


Taylor Swift – ‘Fifteen’

As its title suggests, ‘Fifteen’ deals with the full gamut of teenage experiences – romance, friendship, dreams of the future and, of course, the unavoidable insincerity of the promises we make before we really know who we are.


One of the things that makes the song so effective is Taylor Swift’s masterful depiction of the high school experience. She reminds us of precisely what it feels like at the start of the new school year:


You take a deep breath / And you walk through the doors / It’s the morning of your very first day.”


The picture Swift paints is so vivid that it’s impossible not to be swept up in the storylines that follow. It could be the most universally accessible song she’s ever written.


Morrissey – ‘The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils’


In 1985, Steven Patrick Morrissey opened The Smiths’ second album ‘Meat is Murder’ with the immortal lines, “Belligerent ghouls / Run Manchester schools / Spineless swines / Cemented minds.


‘The Headmaster Ritual’ offered a grim portrayal of corporal punishment and the ritual harassment of pupils by teachers within the British school system. So it was quite a surprise when, a decade later, Morrissey chose to turn the tables in ‘The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils’, from 1995’s forgotten solo album ‘Southpaw Grammar’.


The song addresses the plight of brow-beaten teachers, bereft of their authority and subjected to mockery, intimidation and even death threats at the hands of the pupils and their parents. The threats may be melodramatic, but combined with some of the most jarring and foreboding music of Morrissey’s career, they nevertheless feel disturbingly tangible. It’s a hidden gem of a song that reminds us to treat our educators with a bit of respect.


Nirvana – ‘School’


Arguably the highlight of Nirvana’s pre-teen spirit career, ‘School’ is two and a half minutes of dirt, grime and full-bodied discontent, Kurt Cobain repeatedly bellowing out, “No recess!” until the song jolts to a sudden halt.


As one Nirvana fansite explains, it’s “…the cry of someone who takes an almost masochistic satisfaction in the fact that the one little bearable piece of a nearly unbearable situation has been, predictably, snatched away.” While the song addresses a broader range of frustrations than high school alone, it’s a track that certainly offers an emotional release for anyone struggling with the return to the classroom.


With Cobain’s school reports labelling him a “restless, bored and uncooperative” student, the Nirvana frontman probably wasn’t the best influence on his peers during high school. Speaking of which…


The Ramones – ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’


Unsurprisingly, this 1979 pop-punk gem from The Ramones does not describe the band’s foundational experiences at a progressive music institute. Rather, it captures Joey Ramone’s disdain for a high school at which, “I hate the teachers and the principal / Don’t wanna be taught to be no fool.”


While such healthy scepticism towards western education systems ought to be encouraged, the same cannot be said for The Ramones’ behaviour in the music video for ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. It sees the band making a mockery of school detention, drawing cartoons of the principal, playing electric guitar on the teacher’s desk and running an unauthorised chemistry experiment which culminates in the total annihilation of the school (and, judging from the size of the blast, the whole of North America).


Bruce Springsteen – ‘Glory Days’


Bruce Springsteen is one of rock music’s finest storytellers, and ‘Glory Days’ features a classic set of Springsteen characters – the booze-worn protagonist at the bar; a former high school baseball whizz; a now grown-up beauty queen with an ex-husband called Bobby. However, it’s a song fixated on the lives they’ve already left behind, with each character now left sitting around “talking about the old times” back in high school.


What makes ‘Glory Days’ so brilliant is Springsteen’s recognition that our teenage memories can be simultaneously all-consuming and yet utterly prosaic. They’re “boring stories” that we cannot help but cling to, a fate wryly accepted by the song’s protagonist:


“And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it / but I probably will.”


Perhaps the most valuable lesson to take from ‘Glory Days’ is that it doesn’t really matter whether you’re having a blast at school or you can’t wait to get your educative experience over and done with – sooner or later, we all end up eulogising about our school days.


Tom Kirkham

www.tomkirkham.co.uk / @finestworktom

Image: The Ramones, Kansas City, by Ammon Beckstrom

1 comment:

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