Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan
A lesson plan for comparing songs in the EFL/ESL classroom
As my last post showed, I’m a fan of working with songs which respond to each other in some way. I’ve not yet devised a much-needed Lynyrd Skynyrd vs. Neil Young face-off, but this should do in its place. I am going to lay my cards on the table and say I am not a fan of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. I have nothing against Lennon or his music; I adore Revolver and Abbey Road, not to mention “Jealous Guy”. “Imagine”, though, is rather vacuous ditty, with Lennon asking us to contemplate the disappearance of war and religion from what could easily be described as his ivory tower, the spacious white mansion where he and a curiously joyless Yoko Ono appear in the accompanying video (see below).
“Imagine” is, however, a song familiar to many across the world and is not unpleasant to listen to. Its lyrics are comprehensible and worthy of discussion. Some adults students I have worked with in France were surprised to discover it was something of a protest song; for them it was a slow-dance number at the end of the school disco, the words mostly going over their heads.
Any criticisms I might have of the song are helpfully distilled in Steely Dan’s early, latin-tinged Only A Fool Would Say That, released the following year (1972). Without naming Lennon’s “Imagine” directly, it is not hard to guess to whom Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were referring when they depict a man talking about a “world become one / Of salads and sun” and “Talkin’ ’bout a world / Where all is free”. Over a bozza nova groove, Steely Dan lampoons the hippy idealism of “Imagine”, all the while making your foot tap.
Superficially, you might come to the conclusion that the song is some kind of rightwing attack on late 60s / early 70s counter culture, but closer examination suggests a more nuanced critique, with Steely Dan’s ridicule channelled through the prism of class consciousness. The song asks listeners to put themselves in the “brown shoes” of a working man who has dragged himself “home half alive” after his “nine to five”, only to see “there on the screen / a man with a dream”.
It is easy to see the reference to the self-proclaimed “dreamer” of “Imagine” here, as well as the “boy with a plan / a natural man / Wearing a white stetson hat”. The “man with a dream” in the Steely Dan song comes across as a conman with a message to sell; the song’s eponymous refrain “Only a fool would say that” potentially the reaction of the working man who rejects the dreamer’s simplistic idealism. In any case, the songs together present opportunities for both listening comprehension and discussion in the ESL/EFL classroom, as I have outlined below.
Depending on the group, you could ask students to brainstorm one or more of the following questions:
- What is a protest song? Can you think of any examples?
- Do you know John Lennon’s “Imagine”? Do you know what it is about? Can you remember any of the words?
- What are the big problems facing the world today?
Have students watch the video to John Lennon’s “Imagine”, asking them to note down any lyrics they understand. Once they have done that, they can share their notes with a partner, and discuss the following questions in pairs or small groups:
- How would you describe the atmosphere of the song?
- Do you like the song? Why (not)?
- What do you think of the video? Describe the imagery.
Once the students have shared their ideas with the whole class, and you have noted down salient vocab for all to see, have the students listen again and complete a gap-fill. You can choose which words to remove. Personally I would focus on the vocabulary related to protest and society (countries, peace, brotherhood, religion, possessions, hunger etc.).
After listening, let the students compare and discuss their answers, as well as some supplementary questions:
- What do you think John Lennon wanted to say?
- Do you agree with this message? Why (not)?
Don’t forget to have a sing along if you have time!
Tell the students they are going to listen to a different song that responds to the first. Tell them the title is “Only a Fool Would Say That” and get them discuss in pairs/small groups what they think the song will be about and what it will be like. Once complete, solicit suggestions from the whole class and note down any pertinent vocab.
Next, play them the song and ask them to note down any vocabularly they understand. Once complete, have them share their ideas with a partner and discuss the following questions:
- How would you describe the mood/style of the song?
- What do you think the link is between the two songs?
- Do you like the song? Why (not)?
Once the students have shared their ideas with each other, then the whole class, have them listen again. As the lyrics are a bit more difficult, you could decide to do a gap-fill with the missing words provided separately, or sections of the song cut into strips for the students to reassemble as they listen. Give the students time to compare their answers afterwards.
After reviewing the missing words, have the students focus on meaning. You could get them to discuss the following questions:
- Does the song tell a story? If so, what? Who are the characters? Who is the narrator?
- To whom is the song addressed?
- What do you think the message of the song is? Do you agree with that message?
In order to reach a deeper understanding of the song, it may be worth focusing on some of the more ambiguous expressions like “unhand that gun” and “begone”, which seem to ridicule the idea of a world where war and violence somehow disappear.
Don’t forget to have a sing along too if you have time!
Productive/creative activities for students
- As the Steely Dan song has no video, ask students to imagine and present one. They could even produce a storyboard so as better to show what imagery they would choose to accompany which verse.
- Students can research and present a protest song of their own preference, explaining what they like about it and what the lyrics mean to them.
- Students can produce their own gap-fill exercises for similarly-themed songs, taking the role of the teacher (this idea belongs to a colleague and friend of mine: you know who you are!)
- Students can write a letter or even verse in response to one of the songs. Try to encourage them to use conditionals (i.e., Only a cold-hearted cynic would say that!)
- You could hold a debate around the motion: Was John Lennon a fool?
Possible areas of language focus
- Conditionals (see above)
- Syllable stress (this is not the approach I have taken but it might be interesting to have the students focus on prosody/intonation)
- Grammar (get the students to correct any grammar mistakes in the songs and discuss why they are there)
- Comparisons (e.g., slower than, more up-beat than etc.)