Music for Class

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve heard Carly Rae Jepsen’s unbelievably catchy pop song Call me Maybe. The song has become an internet phenomenon with lip dub versions of the song being posted online by celebrities like Katy Perry, The Harvard Baseball Team, President Obama, and even the hosts of NPR did a cover of the song. Given the ubiquity of the song within pop culture, the song is worthy of sociological critique[1] and I can guarantee your students will have at least heard the infectious number.

The Song Lyrics & Messaging

I’ve talked before about using pop songs to teach gender norms and Call Me Maybe’s lyrics are ripe for a similar class activity. The song lyrics are vapid, standard pop song romance themes. The crux of the song centers on this girl’s desire to have the object of her affection call her. It’s the same standard “pick me, pick me!” passive feminine messaging. Instead of taking what she wants, the girl in the song is hoping she can lure the boy into pursuing her. The title isn’t “I’ll Call You, Maybe”. Analyzing this song, especially if you are teaching right at this cultural moment, would be a great lead in to a discussion of gender roles and sexuality norms between heterosexuals.

To highlight the gendered messaging of the song, play the video for Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend right after showing Call Me Maybe. Bieber, who is freshly 18 years old, is trying to redefine himself as a mature artist (I just threw up a little). Anyways, the first release off his new album Boyfriend is a song projecting his power, affluence, and sexual prowess.[2] Jepsen is asking you to call her maybe and Beiber threatens to burn you with fondue gravy.

Bieber and Jepsen are touring together right now (don’t ask why I know this), so their music must be targeted to a similar demographic. I brought up this apples to apples comparison with my class last spring and we had a great discussion when I asked them, “why are there such starkly different messages about sexuality and gender between these two songs?”

The Video: Heteronormative or Not?

The video for Call Me Maybe alternates back and forth between Jepsen playing with her band in a garage and a heteronormative fever dream that she has for the Abercrombie & Fitch male model that lives next door. The video is a straightforward crush flick (just made that up) until (SPOILER!) the boy she’s been eying gives his digits to the guitar playing dude in the garage.

So is the video enlightened and pro-sexual equality? Well another way to look at it is, the guitar player and Jepsen both seem shocked if not distraught. The video is sure to inspire a healthy discussion about heteronormativity, gender roles, and even the relationship between a piece of art and the audiences reaction. That’s not bad for a throwaway, soon-to-be-forgotten, summer confection.

In Conclusion:

Hey, I just wrote this,
And this is crazy,
But here’s my idea,
So teach it maybe

  1. I’m certainly not the first to analyze the song. This post was inspired by this Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast and this Entertainment Weekly cover story.  ↩

  2. The song also demonstrates his ability to knock off Justin Timberlake and bite the Ying Yang Twins/David Banner style. Amiright? Huh? Huh? (Warning: Both these songs are astonishingly misogynistic).  ↩

Framing is arguably one of the most crucial concepts our students can learn. Framing and social construction are inextricably connected processes. Only when you understand how frames are used to manipulate (and create) the public’s perception can you fully critically analyze social issues. If you don’t understand framing, it’s really easy to be taken by a well crafted message, regardless of how warranted and measured its claims are.

The problem is, students struggle with the concept. Framing is almost a meta-process. It’s something that often happens in between the lines. When done well it’s subtle and covert.

In class I will show my students a commercial, or some other curated message, and together we critically analyze each piece of the message. We work together to identify all of the symbols and frames used. Slowly, one by one, the class begins to nod along as we go through it until finally most of the class leans back in their chairs and smiles that, “A ha!” smile. However, the moment I ask them to do it on their own they struggle to see anything beyond the surface message.

The deep analysis of cultural messages is hard to teach and hard to learn precisely because cultural messages and frames hide in plain sight. So instead of starting the learning process by trying to give students the eyes to see their surround in new ways, I think it’s better to start with something much easier to see and then try to bring the skills gained back to the student’s everyday life.

I Need Your Help

The activity I am about to tell you about I’ve never been tried before. Unlike most posts on SociologySource, I won’t be talking about a project that worked smashingly for me. Rather, this is a call to our readers for help. I see a problem, I have an idea for a solution, and I need YOUR help to execute it.

Using Cover Songs to Teach Framing

Music provides a handy metaphor for framing. When a band or artist covers a previously popular song in a way that is all together different it demonstrates how the same base material can be framed in very different ways to create starkly contrasting affects. At the end of this post I have some examples of just the sort of covers I am talking about.

I want to design a simple in-class (and/or homework) assignment that asks students to read a bit about issue framing and then analyze two starkly different versions of the same song.

Here’s What I Need

  1. Song Recommendations.
  2. Help me find songs that have dramatically different versions between the original and the cover version. The Holy Grail would be a song with two versions that are diametrically opposed. For instance a song that is very stereotypically masculine and aggressive paired with a version that is stereotypically feminine and passive. I’m looking for contradictory versions of songs that illustrate a sociological concept (gender, race, class, sexuality, etc.)

  3. A great, short, intro level article or piece about issue framing.
  4. I have never found a concise discussion of framing that I’ve liked for an intro level class. It’s a complex idea that is hard to succinctly describe in simple terms. If you have an article or short piece that you’ve had success with I’d love to read it.

Want to help?

Send me your recommendations to me via Email:, hit me up on twitter (@SociologySource), or post it on our Facebook page.

All contributors will be given credit by name. Thanks in advance!

Example Songs

Below are just a few examples. The original version followed by the cover.


Artist: Willow Smith

Artist: Jimmy Fallon (as Neil Young) feat Bruce Springsteen


Artist: Nine Inch Nails

Artist: Johnny Cash

“Suspicious Mind”

Artist: Elvis Presley

Artist: Dwight Yoakam[1]

  1. This song is a giant guilty pleasure of mine. The repeating guitar hook gets me every time. And I love how instead of saying, “I can’t walk out” Yoakam says, “iKaWaOu” in one syllable. My mother is an Elvis fanatic, she named our 3 cats Elvis, Pricilla, and Colonel Parker. TMI?  ↩ is the easiest way for you to find great sociological songs to play in your classes. Each song features lyrics that are relevant to the sociological topics you teach everyday. We sorted all of our songs by class topic making it a snap to find exactly the right song. Once you find a song you like, you can play that song for free right from Best of all, you can recommend songs and we’ll include them in our catalog. We’ll even give you a proper shout out for each submission as a way of saying thanks![1]

Why You Should Use Music in Your Classes.

Playing sociologically relevant music before class starts is a fantastic way to set the tone. The right song can energize your students, create a poignant moment, or at least be thought provoking. Think of the music as priming your students for what your about to discuss in class.

A really nifty trick is to time the song so that it ends at exactly the time class starts. Then like a game of musical chairs your students know that when the music stops they need to be ready for class to begin. The trick is, you don’t even have to tell them you’re doing this. After a few classes classical conditioning kicks in and they automatically stop talking. If you are teaching 100+ students YOU MUST try this.

The idea for playing music to launch my class came from, of all places, comedy clubs and concerts. Comedians and bands use music to hype the crowd getting them ready for the show. Think of the excitement that washes over the crowd when the music dies, the stage lights go out, and everyone crushes to the front of the stage eagerly anticipating the first song at a concert. A sociology class is not a rock concert and you are not a comedian, but if you could get 1/10 of that excitement before you start class think of how different your class experience could be. I like to think of it as my entrance music before I enter the ring to do pedagogical battle[2].

This is, of course, just one of the many ways to use music in your classes and we are by no means the first to have this idea. There is a wealth of SoTL research on using music in your courses and I’d highly encourage you to use them in conjunction with our site. Here are just a few of the pieces available: Elterman 1983, Martinez 1994, Walczak and Reuter 1994, Martinez 1995, Martinez 1998, Ahlkvist 1999, Albers and Bach 2003.

The 100 Song Challenge: Join Us!

We are launching with a bold challenge. We want to hit 100 songs in our catalog in our first week. Help us reach our goal by recommending a song and spreading the word about us. Send an email to your department, Tweet it to your tweeps, post it on Facebook, or spread the word how ever you can.

We’ll be posting songs as fast as we can and you can follow our progress by checking our song counter. Thank you in advance for all your help![3]

  1. You can also opt to submit the song anonymously if you are shy or if you are embarrassed that you know of a Backstreet Boys song with a sociological message. It can be our little secret.  ↩

  2. Not really. I don’t see teaching as a battle nor my students as an opponent. But I do like the metaphor in that the music gets me hyped up to teach like I’m on fire.  ↩

  3. In case this is the first we’ve met and you are wondering who’s behind this venture or how it makes money: and it’s parent site are public services put out by two sociologists from Georgia Southern University. Both sites make no money (in fact they cost money). We are just a couple of nerdy sociologists trying to give back to our community.  ↩

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.