Concept album analysis merits place in English curriculum

High school English classes are commonly structured around a conventional view of what an English class should be. Traditional English classes have long been solely focused on words on a paper, and though we’ve expanded to art on paper, there is still an absence of auditory analysis in English classes. Most of the time, one after another, we study Steinbeck, we study Fitzgerald, we study Orwell, which, though valuable to learn,  all air on the classical side of English. When considering English curriculums there is a severe lack of representation of modern material. Music is an integral aspect of the modern artistic experience and its analysis offers the same benefits as traditional literary analysis.

Though an entire course devoted toward analyzing music would perhaps need more resources from the school than is feasible, simply adding a unit focused on analyzing music, and most specifically, lyrics, would contribute to the well-roundedness of the current English curriculum.

One way to do this is through concept album. The concept album consists of a series of songs structured around a common theme, or concept (much like how novels usually convey a central theme). And just like literature, concept albums tell a story, have characters, themes, motifs, allusion, conflict, climax.

Colleges across the United States have already implemented entire courses dedicated to analyzing the concept album. For example, Professor Adam Diehl of George Regents University teaches an actual course on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The University of Southern California offers a course called “The Beatles: Their Music and Their Times” and Indiana University has a similar course called “Music of The Beatles,” both courses consist of an in-depth analysis, song-by-song, of The Beatles greatest hits.

The concept album was first introduced in the pop industry with albums Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles and The Who’s Tommy, which both skyrocketed the respective bands to icon status.

Similar to the two albums, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are widely acclaimed as classic novels in the literary world. A classic novel stands the test of time, with messages that resonate with past and current generations—they have timeless, universal appeal. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath details life during the Great Depression and the corrupting power of corporate greed, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captures the issue of America’s greed and the American dream during the 1920s: the two novels accurately depict a historical issue and a human one.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly does the same. At first glance, the title itself is an allusion to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, which also deals with institutionalized racism, class oppression, and social justice. The album is a tale of Lamar’s own life struggle with the same issues. The album follows Lamar’s metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly (his stardom). As a whole, To Pimp a Butterfly was nominated for 11 Grammy nominations, which further cemented its status as a cultural icon.

Another example of a concept album is Hospice by The Antlers. On the surface, the album appears to be centered around the hopelessness of a relationship between a hospice worker and his sick patients. However, their relationship is actually a metaphor for an emotionally toxic relationship that parallels a patient dying of cancer. The album explores themes of mental health, emotional abuse,  alcohol, and drug abuse which are issues that are relevant to teenagers today.

Westview, in particular, has made strides to accommodate and embrace other types of English courses, and it is commendable that they are doing so. Specialized classes in humanities are offered students, such as Writing Seminar, a creative writing class, as well as the newly introduced Film Studies class available next year. Both are courses entirely dedicated to teaching branches of English that are less commonly seen in high schools.

Even a unit on the concept album adding to this trend would benefit students. The layered complexity of the concept album rivals that of Steinbeck or Fitzgerald, with a message that is perhaps more relevant to the youth of today. In a time where information is widely available, but often with layers of subtext and context, teaching students the skills to critically analyze mediums beyond simply printed material is necessary to foster independent thinking. And by integrating the concept album, though unorthodox, into school curriculum we are providing students with the opportunity to make profound connections in the music they are already listening to, and equip them with the skills necessary to analyze in a critical lens in their everyday lives, and not just in an academic context.