Making Curriculum Pop

Thanks to Paul for his thoughtful response to yesterday’s post/the Gladwell article – the story of his school district’s cost cutting plan is disturbing, but not surprising.

This week Nicole and I are in the process of ramping up the “Teach, Think, Play” conference we do at Columbia. For that reason, I’m going to be making a lot of shorter posts like this one in the coming weeks around a grab bag of things that make curriculum pop.

Those of you who pay attention to popular music have probably noticed more than a few hit singles with robotone vocalists. This synthesized voice effect is created by software called AutoTune that modulates the human voice into correct (or distorted) pitches. Earlier iterations of the software were used in pop songs like Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” but you probably first noticed the effect on Cher’s 1998 hit single “Believe.” Now, artists like T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kayne West have embraced the same technology to modulate their melodies.

If you aren’t familiar with Lil Wayne’s monster hit from last year, “Lollipop” take a second to give it a listen. This track gives you a feel for the sound of AutoTune as it plays out in hip-hop:

On the folk end of the spectrum, check out the alien angel choir created by Wisconsin-based musician Bon Iver:

Last summer, New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote an insightful article on this post-human sound effect placing it in the grand continuum of pop history. As a teacher, I suppose you’re probably more interested in how this invention relates to the history you teach in Social Studies class.

As we all know, there is a long history of military technology being co-opted for popular use. Jet engines, computers, and the Internet all began as military research projects. This month Wired took the time to connect the dots between Lil Wayne and Sir Winston Churchill through military technology:

From Lil Wayne's cyborg-slick singing on "Lollipop" to the Twiki-tweaked vocals of T-Pain, use of the voice-enhancing software Auto-Tune has reached a fever pitch. But it turns out that the irresistible robot sound was also a big hit with the allies way back in World War II, when a not-so-young MC named Winston Churchill dropped some knowledge over a voice-masking gizmo called the vocoder—and pretty much ended the war.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Now, if you’re teaching World War II you can ask your students if they know the connection between Lil Wayne, Winston Churchill and D-Day.

Does anyone have an interesting pop culture to history link they’d like to share?

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Ahh, the vocoder. I'm still reeling from you posting the video for lollipop here. What's horrible is sometimes the voice underneath the production, stripped, as evidenced by Kanye's appearance on SNL when 808 came out. What's even worse was his hair. I love this history connection and you know I'll be finding a way to use this!
On a related note, it's incredibly interesting to me the influence that historical figures can have on pop culture: for example, from Teddy Roosevelt we got the "Teddy Bear" and didn't he come up with the slogan Maxwell House Coffee still uses: "Good to the last drop"? And First Ladies have often been tremendous influences on womens' fashion (I'm thinking especially of Jackie O, but I predict a lot of sleeveless dresses now that Michelle Obama is around!).

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