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Active Learning: Gender and Song



       What follows is an active learning exercise that I developed after noticing that many pop songs perpetuate gender stereotypes or talk about gender stereotypes and men/women that violate them.  I find that many students are unaware of the true lyrics to songs like “Milkshake” by Kelis until they see those songs written down in front of them.  I conducted this exercise in classes of ten to fifty people with great success.  The exercise itself is very versatile, and can take as little as fifteen minutes (one song, class discussion) or as much as one hour (several songs, group discussion).  I include the assignment instructions that I give to students in class, as well as one song (I have selection of over twenty) that is well-matched with the assignment.     

     The primary purpose of the exercise is the identification of gender stereotypes and the influence that pop songs have on cultural understandings of what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.”  This exercise is also very useful for introducing ideas about heterosexism, the power of the media, objectification of men and women, gender politics, gender roles, stigma, deviance, and masculinity, to name a very few.  I have successfully used variations of this exercise to illustrate race issues, deviance theory, and child abuse. 

     I begin the class by playing three to five songs for the students, and seeing what they notice in the lyrics.  The songs I use change, but I attempt to represent different races, sexual orientations, attitudes, and genders as much as possible.  For example, one semester I played Paula Cole’s “Where have all the Cowboys Gone,” Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” Kelis’ “Milkshake,” and Bush’s “Testosterone.” 

     Then I break the class up into small groups of four to six students, and provide each group with a different set of song lyrics.  Following group discussion, the groups read the songs aloud and present their findings to the rest of the class.



  Gender, Race and Popular Music Questions

“Elect” a person to read the song for the entire class following your group discussion. 

Now, read over both the title and the song and discuss your impressions. 


1.  What is the song about?  Is there a hidden meaning to the lyrics? 


2.  In what way could this song offend someone?  Is this song offensive to you?  Why or Why not? 


3.  Is there evidence of an ideology (pattern of beliefs that justifies a particular social arrangement) in this song?  Explain. 


4.  Think critically: do you think children and adolescents are socialized by the music in their environment?  What factors influence media socialization of children? 


5.  In what way might this song socialize children and adolescents?


6.  Is the song about a female or a male?  Does a man or a woman sing it?  Does the gender of the singer have any significance to the “meaning” of the song?  Would the song have a different meaning if sung by a woman/man?


7.  Identify and discuss one or two specific gender stereotypes in the song. 


8.  How does the song reinforce gender stereotypes? 


9.  How does the song overturn gender stereotypes? 


10.  Does this song promote any gender norms?  Does this song violate any gender norms?


11.  Is your song expressing a message about race?  Do the lyrics reveal the race of the singer?  Does the race of the singer have any significance to the “meaning” of the song? Explain.    


12.  Does the song contain a message related to the intersection of race and gender? 


  Sample Lyrics for Use with Assignment

Lyrics on demand



Sister Souljah, 1992

“360 Degrees of Power”


Being both feminine and strong represents no conflict
African women have always been powerful,
decisive and strong
And in a state of war, we must be even stronger

I'm coming up from the bottom
And I'm damn sure rising
You tried to stop me so I guess I'm surprising
I'll never keep quiet, so don't even try it
Sit in the back row, I won't buy it
Necessary but secondary, that's your insecurity
You fear my essence, my soul, my mind
And black man, you fear my purity

My brain is blazing strong and uprising
My mind is thinking faster than my eyes be blinking
Check out the science of me, and my chemistry
Aesthetic, altruistic, thoughts flow endlessly
Flowing and growing, showing and proving
Pulled by gravity , but I keep moving with

360 degrees (x4)

Ancestors blessed me with the power of spirits
Dominate my thoughts, I'm not trying to hear it
I'm stronger than that, too bold, deep and black
On a feminine curve with nerve
You thought I was a noun, but no way I'm a verb
An action word, a secret for centuries
But now the cat's out the bag
Strong black woman you should be glad
You have 360 degrees of power, girl, you bad
No adjective can describe my objective
Original cradle rocker, positive conquers the negative
You started me braggin, played with my esteem
Now you're mad cause I'm rising like steam
Reduce me to a curve, a swivel or twist
Cause my hips bring you pleasure and eternal bliss
Don't mean to intimidate, relax while I insulate
Your children and your entire nation
No buck whilin, no misbehaving
Powerful but won't misuse it
Take advantage or abuse it
Keep in mind before you go, it's what you need
If you're gonna grow