Hi. I’m Rachel, and I’d like to take a minute to tell you about this new thing, No Destination.
A few years ago, I found myself leaving an internship at a national music magazine and setting out for South Korea to teach English, a decision that tipped off a long period of travel in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Along the way, with students, with shopkeepers, with my couch surfing hosts and everyone in between, music emerged as a way to fill the gaps in our cultures and life experiences. What I hope to do in this column is to share stories and explore ideas about travel, music, and the ways we use the art we love to talk about and define who we are.
When I hit the six-month mark without a single request for Justin Bieber, I thought I was in the clear.
I was living in Busan, South Korea, teaching English to kindergarten and early elementary students at a private academy, or hagwon. Both mine and my students’ favorite part of the day was the 15 or so minutes at the beginning of class we dedicated to song and dance. I loved it because it gave me an excuse to revisit favorite songs from my own days as a tiny person. The five-year-olds loved it because it was the only time during the 80-minute class periods when their natural wiggling, fidgety tendencies were encouraged.
For the first half of my year as their teacher, we flapped our arms to Raffi’s “Robin in the Rain”, feigned panic to “Going on a Bear Hunt”, and waved along with Sharon, Lois, and Bram’s “Skinnamarink”, all in perfect harmony. I lined my charges up in front of my laptop and made videos to send home to my mom and old family friends, showing off the adorable cultural imperialism I was executing. The smart ones quickly figured out that requesting the songs Rachel Teacher so clearly loved was a sure-fire way to curry favor. The pages of their sticker books began to fill up markedly faster than the other childrens’. Savvy creatures that they were, they looked up the songs on YouTube at home to better learn the lyrics. I was the tyrannical queen of their musical universes, and I ruled over them with darling pictures of baby Belugas and strategically placed high-fives. And then little Betty broke my heart.
Betty had historically been a very reliable suck-up, so when I called on her to choose a song early one cold, sunny day in Adventure Class, I was expecting one of her favorite Disney princess tracks or, if she was feeling cheeky, maybe “Brush Your Teeth”, which she knew the other students hated. But she looked me dead in the eye and said the words I had been hoping never to hear: “Teacher, I want to hear Justin Bieber.”
I never found out who the culprit was who introduced my precious children to Justin Bieber, but I always suspected Cheryl Teacher. No matter, really. All I knew was that Song Time, which had once been my oasis from hammering home the alphabet, was about to become something very different.
Bieber brought out the old fogey in me. Rationally, I knew what the class liked about the song: the dancing in the video, the fact that it was easy for them to sing, the undeniable catchiness of the track. But I didn’t like Ludacris’ slightly suggestive lyric in the bridge, the fact that Biebs almost kisses his love interest in the video, and mostly, the utterly unapologetic commercial-ness of this kid’s entire career. Bieber was the vessel into which I poured all my fears about my students — that they’d grow up not thinking critically about art and ideas, that the girls’ greatest ambition would become being hot like the chick in the video, that they would go out and replicate Bieber’s haircut.
I decided that action had to be taken. I implemented a strict thrice-weekly “Baby” policy. I began to aggressively promote what I deemed quality radio hits. If these kids wanted to listen to grown-up music, it was at least going to be good.
The Beatles’ “Birthday”, which I thought would be a big hit, was a total flop. George Harrison’s “Got My Mind Set On You” was moderately popular, mostly because the kids liked the cheesy video with the dancing furniture and the fact that Harrison’s body double does a front flip. They loved “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States of America, but I quickly began to feel icky about the double entendre. Nothing came close to their zeal for “Baby”.
Like all teachers do, I tried hard not to have favorites, but I couldn’t help loving Sally better than the rest. She looked like a doll who came to life, all baby fat cheeks, impish grins, and prissy, strawberry-printed dresses. Every day at lunch, I watched her fumble with her bulgogi using a pair of hinged training chopsticks, which she kept in a pink Hello Kitty case. She was quick to giggle, great at sharing, and a terrible speller, probably because she spent most of class urgently whispering to her friends about her favorite new pencil case or the plastic jewelry dangling on her arm. Sally liked to grab my wrist as I walked around class, explaining the difference between land and sea animals, and gently stroke the back of my hand like it was a kitten. She was the quintessential cute little girl, and I couldn’t get enough of her. She was also the one who finally changed my mind about Bieber.
Kindergarten politics are rough, and Sally, once the most popular girl in class, had recently fallen out of favor with her peers. No one wanted to sit with her or call on her to line up for water break, and I could tell by the forced, fake laugh she had developed that she was having a hard time at school. On a particularly tough day, when Betty had been picking on her from across the room, Sally asked to hear “Baby” for our morning song. No one wanted to dance that day, so I let the kids sit at their desks and simply sing along, and they kicked off the song with their regular shout-singing “oh whoa”s. I was off to the side checking their homework as I usually did during the morning song, but as their little voices faded to silence, I looked up from my work.
Everyone was staring at Sally, who was sitting at her desk, legs swinging, eyes closed, pumping her fist and shaking her head along with the music. She looked like she belonged onstage at one of those of VH1 Divas concerts, or alone in her room with a hairbrush clenched in her fist, anywhere but a classroom full of children looking for any opportunity to tease. But instead of pointing and laughing, Sally’s classmates joined in with her, making microphones out of their pencils, slapping hands onto each other’s shoulders and singing to each other. They were having more fun than I’d ever seen in that class, and they seemed to know all the words. That day at water break, I spotted Sally holding hands with her friends again, examining the sucker fish in the school’s aquarium.
The next morning, I abolished Bieber-free days in Adventure Class. I quit trying to make my five-year-olds understand the genius of David Byrne or writing “superstition” into my lesson plans as an excuse to play them Stevie Wonder. I let them listen to whatever they wanted to hear, every day.
So often, as a music writer or a teacher or simply a fan discussing favorite tracks with friends, sharing music is about imposing our tastes on the people we’re sharing with, on being better understood through the music that we love. We put on a tune for a friend during a road trip and watch their reaction to it with disturbing intensity, hoping they’ll just get it, man, and understand that part of us that is so moved by that killer guitar solo or perfect harmony, thereby really seeing us through it, somehow.
That’s not a new idea — art of all kinds speaks volumes where words fall short. What I was trying to accomplish when I played the video of “Girlfriend Is Better” from the Talking Heads’ movie Stop Making Sense wasn’t to get my class to appreciate a great song. I was trying to show them something about the joy in being absurd, something I wouldn’t have been able to explain effectively even if we shared a mother tongue. There’s no way to make our ideas about and experiences of the world jump from our brains to someone else’s, and it can be damn hard to verbalize those ideas well enough to even try. But if we can find a song that contains those ideas, that captures them in some kind of primordial, unspeakable way — well, maybe someone else can hear in the music the things we don’t know how to say. So we cue up a tune and stare like a cat about to pounce, watching for some flicker of recognition that says, “I hear it, too.”
It’s a rare occasion when we can bring ourselves to apply the same intensity to understanding what it is someone else loves about the music that moves them, or the role it plays in others’ lives. I should have known better than to think a bunch of Korean kindergartners were going to feel moved by, say, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes’ “Home”, because they had no concept of what life was when you feel like you don’t have one. They didn’t care that I thought Bieber was the soulless creation of cynical music business execs. How could they? Soulless and cynical weren’t part of their reality yet.
I don’t know what it was about this slick Western radio hit about teenage relationships that so captured the imaginations of a dozen kindergartners on the opposite side of the globe. But those kids helped me remember what music writing encouraged me to forget: Great music doesn’t have to be about innovative song-writing or unforgettable live shows or weird haircuts or great production. Sometimes it’s just about making you excited to be where you are for three and a half minutes, excited enough to forget all the people who might be judging you and just whip your hair and make that pleasure/pain face of real, heartfelt belting. And if Justin Bieber is the guy who gets you there, well, that’s not so bad. At least my contract ended before Betty got around to requesting Miley Cyrus.