Hold my BoomBox High

Music is a teacher’s best friend. Used well music can pull your students into a discussion, get them to consider controversial issues from new perspectives, and set a tone for a great class.

I play a song in the last minutes before class starts almost every time we meet. It is a really cool effect to have the music end and then say, “Ok, I’ve got 9:30 so let’s get started.” 1 It’s very theatrical, almost like how comedians use music to hype up an audience before their set. Especially when the song is up tempo, it starts the class with students leaning forward and interested as opposed to half asleep. I’ll put the song lyrics on the overhead when they reinforce the class discussion topic for the day.

It’s ideal to find a song that discusses the topic for the day, but when I can’t think of one I simply try to find a song that is at least enjoyable, minimally offensive to everyone’s tastes, and up tempo. Below is a short list of songs that I use in my classes and the topics I have them go with.

  1. First day of class – Show Goes On by Lupe Fiasco
  2. Race – All black everything by Lupe Fiasco
  3. Social Inequality – Working Class Hero by John Lennon
  4. Gender – When I Was a Boy by Dar Williams
  5. Sexuality – Born This Way by Lady Gaga
  6. Crime & Deviance – Prison Song by System of a Down
  7. Authority & Obedience – Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters
  8. Environmental Sociology – Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell or cover by Counting Crows

I’ve linked to YouTube videos of all the songs so you can hear them, but I typically don’t show these in my classes. Also, I usually invest in the censored versions of the songs when they use really harsh language (Prison Song by System of a Down I’m looking at you here).

Share: What songs would you use?

What songs are you using in your classes or what songs would you use? Suggest a song by filling out the form below. You can download everyone’s suggestions here.

I create a form similar to this in my classes that allows my students to submit their song suggestions. The results have been hit and miss. Some songs have been amazing and others have been astonishingly offensive and totally unusable in class. However, I think this is a great way to get your students to take an active role in the class. If you play a student submission I highly recommend giving that student a shout out after the song is submitted. My students love it when I do that.

How To Deal With Controversial Lyrics:

Waring Artistic Expression Label

On the first day of class when we are going over the syllabus I put up the slide you see above and tell my students to be prepared for artistic expressions that may surprise, shock, or potentially offend them. I make it clear that the messages we hear/see in these artistic expressions are not meant to be taken as a class lesson. These artistic expressions are one artists reaction to the issues that we talk about in class. I tell them that if they don’t like the art, that is fine. They are not expected to agree with anything in the art, but they are expected to consider it and why the artist felt compelled to make such a statement. I also include a message like this in my syllabus, which you can download here.

After this groundwork is laid, reinforce it’s message when you talk about the music in class. For instance, when I play All Black Everything by Lupe Fiasco (which is about an alternative reality where African Americans are the dominant social group in the U.S. and the world) I ask the class, “Why do you think Lupe wrote this?” Then I go through the various aspects of the song to get student feedback and analysis of Lupe Fiasco’s ideas. Notice that when I talk about this song I get out of the way and ask why did Lupe say or do this? This allows students to express critiques of his art without feeling like they are confronting or challenging me. Students are a lot more comfortable being art critiques then they are challenging the person who grades their work. It’s a small nuance here, but I think it’s crucial.

Ultimately, you have to weigh the costs of controversial lyrics against the benefits of the educational gains. You’re a professional, so this should be a snap. I listen to my gut. If a song feels too risky I don’t play it.

More Resources:
Albers, Ben and Rebecca Bach. 2003. “Rockin´ Soc: Using Popular Music to Introduce Sociological Concepts.” Teaching Sociology 31: 237-245.


1. To get this effect I create a playlist in iTunes with only the 1 song I want to play before class starts. Then I look at how long the song is and push play when that amount of time is left before class starts. So if the song is 3:46 long I start the tune at 9:26. I promise you it is super easy.