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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Music and Lyrics

Earlier this week, the University of Florida's band was told by their University Athletics Association to stop playing certain tunes, specifically those that incited negative chants of "You Can't Do That" and "Move Back, You Suck".

Never mind the fact that neither phrase would even be censored by network television (the former being extremely mild).  This isn't the first time a band has been curtailed due to the chants that joined their offerings. Ole Miss' Pride of the South stopped playing From Dixie With Love due to its new "traditional" ending. They Hey Song at Maryland-College Park and Neck at LSU have been called into question as well. Even Alabama's Rammer Jammer is typically saved for after the game goes final these days.

It's interesting to note that none of the controversial lyrics are actually related to the tunes in question. Rather, each is a university specific tradition that is attached to the song. While it's true preventing the song may curtail the chants, why not address the behavior itself?

The thing about instrumental music is that there aren't, by definition, lyrics. It's why college pep bands have taken to playing Cee Lo's [Forget] You with reckless abandon, or more recently, Big Sean's I Don't [Associate] With You. The fact that these pieces are played instrumentally allows for their popularity and music to shine through without the vulgarity of the lyrics coming into play.

Herein lies the rub: It would seem that when instrumental, the lyrics don't matter - unless they do. At the beginning of this school year, the Brandon (MS) High School Band was ordered to stop playing How Great Thou Art, a Christian hymn, in accordance with a federal court ruling that specifically banned religious activities a school sponsored activities. While I take little issue with the court's ruling, I'm at odds with its implications, particularly in the arts and particularly in this case. Again, with no lyrics, that which we may know as How Great Thou Art is simply a piece of music. Without lyrics, what's to distinguish Greensleeves from What Child Is This? For that matter, as a former choir member, I can make a case for the use of even religious music in an educational realm when its primary function is as art. My college choir experience, for example, wouldn't be the same without Bach's Magnificat or Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.

Ultimately, the schools (and at times, outside forces) will make the decisions that serve their spaces best. But when doing so, intent vs. impacy and injury vs. innocuousness ought to be considered.
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