How I helped a student find her truth
I was working with a student on creating music for her lyrics, when a section came up that I said reminded me of a Tracy Chapman song.
Quickly and with disdain she stated “I can’t stand her.”
This is the second person I had encountered over the past two years that seemed to really dislike her, so I was curious.
“Why is that?” I asked.“
I don’t know, There’s just something about her I don’t like.”
“Not your style of music?” (I continued)
“I don’t know, she’s talented and all but it’s something about her.”
Now… I’m a curious guy. I always wonder how things work and what makes people act as they do, be it positive or not. It’s just my way.
So… It got me thinking not just about why someone would be so opposed to Tracy Chapman, but what I personally felt the first time I heard her.
I remember being moved somehow when “Fast Car” came out. Sure, there was the feeling of desperation and fear of ending up in a desperate situation, But there was something more and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first.
You see, she was the same age I was and here she was, recognizing that her life seemed without direction or purpose, but she was not indicating hopelessness or no way out.
She was saying “look, it doesn’t have to be this way.” “We can decide to stay in this shitty situation, or we can do something about it.” “We can leave tonight or we can die this way.” Those lyrics can apply to any situation in someone’s life.
For me…It made me realize at 24 years old, working in a mall music store, that I was feeling lost in a cycle of limiting my potential and not seeming to know what to do about it.
But this song was pointing right at me as it made it clear that the decision and in fact, the responsibility was mine to take. There is no accepting the victim role here.
“We can leave tonight or we can die this way.” I literally saw the very same lyrics inspire a girl I knew in the mall to stop talking about it and actually open her own business. How cool is that?
So let’s talk about Tracy Chapman for a minute.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was four and despite having little money her mother bought her a ukulele, which inspired her interest in learning the guitar.
She started writing songs at age eight. In Cleveland, school desegregation efforts led to racial unrest and riots; Chapman experienced frequent bullying and racially motivated assaults as a child.
Tracy took action and work hard to get accepted into a program that would allow her to pursue schooling in a better place, which ultimately lead to her attending Tufts University.
During her youth and before being discovered, Tracy Chapman was singing songs that spoke about the lives of the disenfranchised, particularly in the political process.
From the start, she knew how to strike some strong emotional chords through challenging topics that some may find uncomfortable.
How My Background Gives Me Insight – I digress here, but stay with me.
In fact, it was just a few days after my 15th birthday, I told him how I loved “The Motorcycle Song” and while everyone was talking, he took me onto the stage.
I sat on the stage floor in front of him as he sang it just for me along with a few verses of Alice’s Restaurant. This was a moment I will never forget.
I was used to seeing these folkies onstage, seemingly vulnerable, even fragile, almost apologetically asking people to become aware of very real problems that were needing attention.
This made sense, because they were really young and emerging from the “this is my house, my rules, America is all good” authority mindset.
The thing was… they also seemed quietly angry, feeling lied to and yeah.. who wouldn’t feel vulnerable upon discovering that there were indeed the men behind the curtain, pulling strings and maybe, just maybe, all wasn’t as it seemed in OZ after all.
So sure. They knew they had something to say but also had to keep it appearing “safe” and “consumable” if they were to get a record deal and national airtime.
So where does Tracy Chapman come in?
When Tracy Chapman hit the radio, it was different. This wasn’t the height of the Folkie era. This was 1988 and The vulnerability was there, along with this deeply authentic honesty. But, there was something else.
She may have been singing about vulnerability, but she was letting you know that she was not fragile and not going to sugar coat the message for mainstream “Wonder bread” America to easily digest without having to think outside their protective bubble. She did this with an underlying insistence that a change had better come.
She delivered the unpleasant realities of many lives with songs like “For My Lover” or “Fast Car;” that sings about people caught in dead end lives, or “Behind the Wall,” which is a devastating song about domestic violence.
She also did something else. She made it difficult to dismiss her because she did it without making a lot of noise, creating hype, or calling attention to herself. She did it with a quiet strength, poise and dignity.
She didn’t give anyone the easy out of saying I don’t like that she…(insert reason here) Sure, you could say “I just don’t like the sound,” or “I don’t like songs about those topics,”
It became apparent in dealing with this particular songwriting student, there was something else at play here and as my student get to know me, they expect that I will help them find the way to express what they are feeling through the songs they choose to write
I pointed to her own lyrics.
“You have a song that talks about feeling trapped in a dead end job, struggling to raise kids on your own, because your husband took off.” “You feel unappreciated, unrecognized and scared.”
“You indicate to me that you distrust men and feel that as a woman, you are getting passed over for promotions at work and are angry at what feels like a system stacked against you.”
I told her that everything she indicated in her own lyrics seemed perfect for a Tracy Chapman song. I told her that from my perspective, Tracy Chapman is a strong, independent person who brings uncomfortable topics and feelings to the table.
She commands respect, yet she does so from a place no higher than you and me. She is the reminder that we can be either at the cause or the effect of our own lives. Her lyrics remind us that we can use a cop out or you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take command of your life.
It occurred to me that perhaps the “There’s just something about her I don’t like,” Had more to do with her having to face uncomfortable realizations and coming to terms with how she choose to respond to them. Or… was it something else?
Is it that a strong, independent woman is somehow threatening?
Is it that she doesn’t play the victim?
Is it that a woman of color is shining light on racial inequality?
Is it that she is in fact a person of color?
Is it that perhaps you are uncomfortable around strong emotions?
Is it that she can elicit such strong emotional response, while maintaining dignity and poise and actually point to the fact that you can do something about your situation?
It has to be something no?
If it’s not her lyrics, style, accompaniment, voice, what is it?
I asked my student to think on this and to try an exercise.
“I want you to pretend that Tracy Chapman is writing your song. Tell it, express it and deliver it as she would.
She didn’t work on her song that week. She did mull over the idea I proposed however. The next week, I received an emotionally charged text.
She indicated that she felt resentment that some people can just take a shitty situation and rise above it, while she felt stuck in wanting her deadbeat ex husband to make things right.
She resented being in her predicament and hated that she now had to set anger and self pity aside and take charge of her situation.
She told me that she wanted to break down and cry, but emotional outbursts were not tolerated as a kid and besides, her mother had enough of those since her own husband left that she didn’t want to add to it and felt like she had to be the adult sometimes, when all she wanted was a normal childhood.
She went on to say that certain aspects of where she grew up lead her to recognize that she did in fact have thoughts about our conversation that she was ashamed of and did not care to share.
I’ve done this long enough to know that sometimes, people feel that writing a song will help them release whatever feels unheard. But I’ve also learned that when I ask a songwriting student to explore the depths of what they wish to truly convey, the song sometimes becomes more of a cathartic outpouring in the form of a letter or a free-form release. I sensed this may never emerge as the intended song, but it certainly seemed to serve a much deeper purpose.
The next week, she said she started writing a song about wanting to go back and tell her mom that she understands and forgives her for any issues they had and that she is strong enough to overcome and change her situation.
She gave me a look I will never forget. It was one part “I can’t believe I’m asking this” and one part “Thank You.”
“Sure thing” I replied. “What is it?”
“Would you mind if we work on my new song when I’m done with the lyrics? I want to learn “Revolution” by Tracy Chapman.”
I love what I do and by choosing to overcome my own self limiting situation, I too decided to make a change and made Warren Lessons http://www.warrenlessons.com a reality.
If you want to learn the guitar, bass, ukulele or songwriting, I am happy to help.
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