Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nostalgia for Literary Analysis Via MTV

I was not what one would have called an intellectually curious child.  I read all the time, of course, but my taste in literature was not exactly scholarly.  I read books that entertained me, that resonated with me, and the fact that there are ties that bind many and varied works of literature together was a concept that was well beyond me.

As an adult, I remembered how much I loved Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, so I reread them ... and then explored Welsh mythology touched upon in Alexander's series through works such as The Mabinogion.  I found myself fascinated with the nature of evil after reading Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, and consequently read not just other books about Charles Manson but exploring the dark side of human nature in many, many literary works.

I was thinking a lot about this when I was driving home from another day at summer school today, though.  Why is the message that books can do a lot more than entertain, inform, educate, or persuade you so elusive?  It's a struggle to get a lot of kids to read anything period, and opening their minds to the connections that exist, the places your mind can go if you follow the individualized road maps each person is provided with any time they read something ...

And then I remembered that I'd been no different myself.

Except it hit me like a ton of bricks that I had been.  I'd found a passion for learning, for coming up with my own questions and doing my own research and discussions and such that, somewhat ironically considering what a voracious reader I was from a very young age, came from a most unusual place--MTV.

I haven't watched MTV in a very long time.  Once it got all reality show-heavy and music-light, I didn't see any point.  However, a large portion of my childhood was spent chilling with my siblings in the TV room watching music videos, contemplating them, discussing them, arguing over their meaning, and asking questions.  Big questions.

There are three music videos that jumped to mind when I realized the tremendous thought and springboard for further reading, research, and reflection that MTV provided me with.

1.  Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" 


I still say today that this video is an artistic masterpiece, with the interspersion of words, newspaper clippings, and other images into the story of a troubled young boy who eventually commits suicide in front of his class at school.  

Aesthetic value aside, though, I can vividly remember writing down the Bible passages referenced in the song, looking them up, and discussing their meaning with my sister.  In fact, I'm pretty sure the first time I read the Bible cover to cover was a direct result of how interesting it was to see how relevant it was in terms of Pearl Jam's song ... so what else, my lazy brain admitted, might be contained within its pages?

There were also a lot of rumors circling about lead singer Eddie Vedder going to school with a student who killed himself and the controversy over such a violent video (who ever thought a gun would be in a school?).  So much to think about ...

2.  Guns N' Roses' "November Rain" 


If my school was any indication, there were scores of lunchtable conversation based around what happened to the girl in the "November Rain" video.  I mean, I can remember debating the fate of the fictional bride portrayed by Stephanie Seymour for months ... and with many different circles of friends.

One day, when I was watching the music video for what was probably the 300th time, it occurred to me that I could actually read the short story mentioned at the end of the video, "Without You" by Del James.  I did ... it helped a lot.

I should also note that, while I was always in Honors and Advanced Placement English classes, I learned more about symbolism from this music video than I ever did in a high school classroom.

3.  Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire"


My sister and I spent hours writing down the lyrics to this song, trying to figure out what the dude was saying. We're talking hours, and I'm not exaggerating.  My poor parents, who we brought our list to and asked to help us out (we'd literally jotted down on notebook paper "Nasser ran for coffee" instead of "Nasser and Prokofiev" and, even more egregious, "something about 'blue balls'" instead of "Dien Bien Phu falls"), did the best they could.

I don't know about my sister (we're two and a half years apart in age, so we were either best friends or completely hated each other ... and it could change on a dime; while I remember writing down our phonetic list and trying to get corrections and explanations from my history buff stepdad, I seem to recall going through the Encyclopedia Britannica set on my own), but I know what every single event, person, and place mentioned in that song is about.

I even understand the point Billy Joel was making and how each of the historical and/or pop culture words were part of a bigger story that fit into the bigger idea of the not-always-positive nature of human beings.

I just turned on MTV, and there wasn't music playing.  I'm not surprised, but I am nostalgic for the days when MTV didn't just play music but made me think ... and far more than I realized.