How can a song be analyzed and compared to Modernism?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In many respects, it is not entirely difficult to analyze a song through the lens of Modernism.  Consider how Virginia Woolf defined the movement, itself:  "All human relations shifted...and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.”   Woolf suggests that Modernism can be equated with a "shift" in human relations.  There is an examination of the individual, the world, their place within it.  Modernism is about examining these relationships and such exploration can be seen in music and, in particular, songs.

If a song is seeking to make a statement about social practices, it can be seen in a Modernist context. Modernism was about the exploration of the veneer of society, and what existed underneath.  As a result of an acculturation or conformity regarding what society told the individual to do, Modernism wanted to probe  this and examine the layers as to why such a condition existed.  Many songs do this very same element.  When examining the lyrics of a song, if there is a clear social connection or examination of social premises, one can see the song through the prism of Modernism.  Songs that explore the relationship between the individual and the world around them can be seen to possess Modernist tendencies and can be analyzed through a Modernist understanding because of the "shift" in human relations that lies at the heart of Modernism.

Part of exploring this "shift" is an alienated condition of the human being.  Alienation was at the heart of Modernism. The individual who examines the world and their place in it is an "alien" to the rest of the social setting.  This is a separation of the individual from the world in which they live.  Exploring this dynamic of how the individual is on the "outside looking in" can be seen in many songs.  A song that engages in this is, by definition, exploring alienation because the song expresses what it means to be an outsider.  Most likely, the song is being sung by someone who is an outsider.  This alienated condition of being in the world is a Modernist construct.  Analyzing its presence in a song is a way to view the song in a Modernist frame of reference.

Finally, if a song is exploring something that once was and no longer present, it can be seen in a Modernist context.  Ezra Pound's words speak to this:  "a botched civilization . . . two gross of broken statues . . . [and] a few thousand battered books.”  The images Pound brings out is something that once was and is no longer, something that was whole, but now is fragmented and in shards and tatters.  Songs are sung to tell a story of something that once was there.  Its absence is the purpose of the song.  For example, a song about love is going to talk about a love and a set of emotional experiences that were there.  The song acts as a reverie for what was past, reflecting a condition of what is.  In exploring that which is absent and something that has gone, a song can operate as a Modernist work as it echoes something once whole, but now fragmented.  This is a Modernist tendency that can be seen in many songs.

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