Can Music Encourage Literacy?

Philadelphia six-piece The Wonder Years released their follow up to their second studio album, The Upsides, over the summer.  Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing has been said to be a “refreshingly honest and raw look into the lives of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania band,” yet inspiration for this album extends far beyond their roots.  Does the line “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” ring a bell? If you’re any kind of fan of beat poet Allen Ginsberg it certainly should!

Suburbia, I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing pays homage to Ginsberg’s poem “America” through much of it’s lyrical content.  The line “I don’t have roses in the closet, but I got pictures in a drawer,” from the song “Local Man Ruins Everything,” references the line “I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet” from Ginsberg’s immensely popular and heavily political poem.  The line “Two dollars, twenty-seven cents January 17th, 2006,” from the song “Coffee Eyes,” is also a reference to the second line in “America,” “Two dollars, twenty-seven cents January 17th, 1956.”  From song titles to lyrics, it is clear that The Wonder Years have intentionally created an album that serves as their own take on Ginsberg’s piece.  The very last line of the album (“But I’m putting my shoulder to the wheel” from the song “And Now I’m Nothing”) nearly mirrors that of the last line in America (“America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”).

The Wonder Years aren’t the first musical artists to use literature as inspiration for their work.  Several tracks off of Panic! At the Disco’s debut album, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, make references to various Chuck Palahniuk novels such as Invisible Monsters, Fight Club, and Diary.  Post hardcore six piece Chiodos has made countless nods to William Shakespeare in their music.  With all of this being said, we are led to wonder — what exactly is this doing for the literary community?

While the answer to that question is certainly open to interpretation, I can wager a guess that these artists who seemingly promote literature through their work can do nothing but good for the English and Creative Writing community.  In penning these innovative extensions of previously existing literary texts, artists are ensuring that the texts are accessible to a larger audience.  Additionally, they allow audiences to think more extensively, on both an intellectual and social level, about the text under discussion.  By reading the text and listening to the newer musical adaptation we are prompted to think about both and ask questions.  How is The Wonder Year’s Suburbia different from Allen Ginsberg’s America? How is it similar and why is that important?

As a whole, I believe that the practice of incorporating elements of pre-existing literature into songs is a way to get people excited about that literature.  All press is good press.

Mandi Vivacqua

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