" I Used to Get Mad at My School"

Representations of schooling in rock and pop music

An Essay by Dr. Kevin J. Brehony

The study of cultures should lie at the heart of the Sociology of Education. Increasingly this is less and less the case as many of that much maligned and depleted group, sociologists of education, have sought refuge in the study of education policy and education management. Meanwhile, cultural studies dominates a field in which cultures have become disassociated from structures and from which the social has been expelled. Rather than wring their hands, sociologists should engage with cultural studies and learn from the methods released by the linguistic turn and its emphasis on texts no matter how circumscribed that emphasis turns out to be. Moreover, cultural studies has opened up new fields of enquiry, particularly in the field of popular culture and sociologists, even sociologists of education, which, after all is intimately bound up with culture, need to engage with them. It is in this spirit that I offer this sortie into the terrain of pop and rock music.

The subject of this paper is the way in which schooling, teachers and teacher/pupil relations are, or more accurately have been, represented in pop and rock songs.


The sample drawn for analysis is best described as a theoretical sample. Such is the volume of pop and rock songs produced during the period beginning with the advent of rock and roll in the fifties that a representative sample would be difficult to draw even if the total population, as here, is restricted to Anglo-American pop between the 50s and early 90s. The fact that only a small fraction of pop music produced annually enters public consciousness by appearing in the charts and thereby gains crucial exposure on the radio and television also makes knowledge of the entire population hard to attain. The history of pop is littered with records whose release was barely, if at all, registered by anyone outside the circle of those who produced them. Thus any sample must inevitably confront the issue of its lack of representativeness. The sample drawn here is based on the compilation of British Hit Singles (Gambaccini, Rice et al . 1993). This records every single that entered the British pop charts from 1952 to 1992 which was searched for titles containing key words like school, teacher and education.

The such hits are not numerous. Out of 17,296 hits, only five titles contained the word "school." Even so, this sample remains far from representative in any statistical sense as the representations sought do not always align themselves neatly with the titles of the records. There have been in the corresponding period 47 hits associated with football. Numerically, schooling as a subject of pop hits is roughly equivalent in popularity to songs about boxing (Gambaccini, Rice et al. 1993, 421) Slightly more songs enter the sample if album tracks that did not become hits are included. This latter deficiency has been partly made up from my own extensive memories of pop songs and by searches on the World Wide Web of rock stars' home pages, databases of lyrics and the catalogues of record stores.

The text

If the issue of the sample is not problematic enough the question of what constitutes the text, the unit of analysis, also compounds the difficulties associated with this kind of research. As Frith points out (Frith 1983: 14), sociologists who have studied pop in the past have tended to analyse song lyrics whereas the impact of pop on its listeners and the meanings it produces flow from the overall sound and rhythm of a song. In this process the lyrics may play a relatively subordinate role.

As the representations discussed here come from a number of different pop genres it is only feasible to take the lyrics as the main element of the texts. This would be an undoubted weakness if the aim of this paper was to produce a definitive reading of the songs sampled. However this would be a vain pursuit because these songs have no single meaning fixed forever in time. In addition there are no specific musicological features that pop songs containing representations of schooling have in common which would permit a musicological analysis. This is not to say, of course, that all the meanings communicated by pop songs containing representations of schooling are totally dependent upon its lyrics. It is the case, however, that the lyrics are the only element of the songs that carry traces of representations of schooling and thus the only way that such songs may be identified.

Since the onset of videos and their reproduction on television stations, including MTV which is dedicated solely to that practice, this is no longer true. The pop video has become a text in its own right (Longhurst 1995: 174- 185) combining lyrics and sound with vision. However, records are still being produced and consumed by audiences without the presence of the video which means that it would be invalid to subsume the musical text solely under video. A further, and perhaps better, reason for ignoring videos is the desirability of comparing like with like over time so that a rock song from the 50s might be set alongside one from the video age of the 90s.

Despite the problems associated with the approach, lyrics form the majority of the data to be discussed. I was attracted to this topic partly through an interest in hermeneutics which requires that attention be paid to the context in which texts, in this instance the songs, were recorded and reproduced. Limitations of space prevent much attention being paid to context or to the way audiences read the songs. Instead my focus will mainly beon the formal structure of the language used. A lesser focus will be the intentionality, the illocutionary force of the songs' performers. Further attention could be paid to the intentionality of the texts' authors (where the authors do not coincide with the performers) but this seems an unnecessary level of analysis for the purposes of this paper. Pop music is a large business and the perlocutionary act, the act performed by saying/singing something is, if successful, the acquisition of money in the form of profit.

Texts, representations and subjectivity

As was argued above, the lyrics of pop songs may be relatively unimportant in the way they create meaning. The text of a pop song is therefore a combination of its lyrics, rhythm and sound. As Frith points out, this causes problems for cultural theorists as concepts like "text" and "representation" are derived from literary theory and in order to apply them, music must be reduced "to songs and songs to words" (Frith 1983: 56). Accepting that limitation, I want to ask here initially, not what do pop songs about schooling mean but rather the wider question of whether pop songs can represent anything at all. The position that holds that texts, of any sort, can represent a reality external to them is of course that which is known in literary theory as realism (Frith 1988: 112).

Analysts attached to the methods of formalism in its structuralist manifestation deny that this mirroring function is possible arguing instead that realism is an effect of language and that what seems transparent is in fact opaque. Rather than reflect a pre-given reality texts produce the means by which their readers can interpret their own experiences and even do things in the world. In Lacanian theories they also produce and fix subjectivities. Thus Bradby talks of the way that texts offer positions for the speaking subject (Bradby 1990: 343). The main consequence of this position is that meaning is sought within texts themselves without reference to the means of their production, the context in which they appear or the meanings created in the act of reading by their readers.

Restricted by space and time I cannot in this paper engage in an analysis that treats with a song's production, text and audience (Longhurst 1995: 22-25). What I shall attempt instead is not narratology as such but an analysis of the songs as narrative fiction (Rimmon-Kenan 1983) and some consideration of the context in which they were produced. How these songs were read and what meanings were constructed from them, is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.

In the beginning.

In the beginning there was rock 'n' roll and in the 50s Chuck Berry was one of its most influential progenitors (Palmer 1996: 31) (Macdonald 1995: 70- 71). In addition, as Wicke has observed, "the most intelligent and most precisely observed lyrics in rock'n'roll have always come from him" (Wicke 1990: 46). Commentaries on Berry all tend to share a realist perception that he celebrated and represented the emerging teenage culture or that he evoked the teenage experience (Wicke 1990:46; Paraire 1992: 43). In rock and roll songs, as in songs in other pop genres, references to schooling are few. One well known exception was Jerry Lee Lewis' "High School Confidential," but the lyric is very under developed; there is no coherent narrative and the only representation of school life is "rockin," "boppin" and "shakin" at the high school hop. In this song Jerry Lee Lewis creates an exciting "atmosphere" (Paraire 1992: 11) by his vocal style and by pounding his piano. The lyric is almost redundant. In Chuck Berry's songs, by way of contrast, several references to schooling appear and compared to "High School Confidential." his songs "School Days" and "Sweet Little Sixteen" are veritable disquisitions on schooling.

"'School Days" takes the form of a day in the life or the diary of a pupil chronicling all the events that occur after getting up and going to school. The language used is typically that of the everyday (Middleton 1990: 229) rooted in the here and now of schooling. Berry, like most of the singers considered in this paper, is male but the gender of the pupil is unspecified. However, the frequent use of the pronoun "you" suggests that the pupil is the writer of the song and therefore male. On the other hand the use of "you" also invites the listener to adopt the subject position of the pupil and that could be taken by anyone regardless of their gender.

"Ring, ring goes the bell" is the song's subtitle. The bell punctuates the pupil's temporal experience of school in which one event remorselessly follows another. Time markers in school, writes Adam, "bind pupils and staff into a common schedule within which their respective activities are structured, paced, timed, sequenced and prioritized" (Adam 1995: 61). Added to this clock time in the song is personal time. Time experienced by the pupil. Lessons on American history and Practical Math are followed by lunch. More lessons follow until three o'clock when school is over. Time as a resource is a prominent theme in the song. At lunch there may not even be time to eat before lessons restart. Being distracted, pressured and harassed is characteristic of the school experience represented. "The guy behind you won't leave you alone" and in the lunch room you are lucky if you can get a seat. Back in class, more problems arise. This time from the teacher who does not realise how mean she looks. Finally, at three you can lay down your "burden" and escape.

Nevertheless, in spite of this catalogue of negative aspects of the school day the general stance of the pupil's subject position is one of conformity. This contrasts with that maufactured in the film Blackboard Jungle. This film, released in 1955, is a tale of inner-city schooling in which delinquency was equated with rock 'n' roll by featuring Bill Haley's 'Rock Around the Clock'. Several accounts suggest that the film did not reflect a real relation but instead constructed one (Palmer 1996) . There is no rebellion in "School Days." Lessons are studied hard, fingers are worked right down to the bone, the pupil hopes to pass. The tension between this aspiration and the "burden" is palpable but the song has not yet ended and its resolution awaits in the "juke joint" where, frustrated by the day's events, "you've gotta hear something that's really hot." Conformity then turns out to be less than total as, "all day long you've been wanting to dance'"and "with the one you love your making romance". This sets up a binary opposition between school where desires to dance and make romance are repressed and leisure sited in the "juke joint" where those desired can be realised.

The linear narrative ends at an instrumental break which is followed by a repetition of the chorus. This is highly significant as it signifies the separation of schoolwork and leisure and the lyric, in an extraordinarily clever reflexive move, refers to the way that the music is felt. Not content with repeating the line twice in the chorus, Berry hammers it home in the song's final lines:

the beat of the drums loud and cold
rock, rock, rock 'n' roll
the feeling is there body and soul

Against the school that participates in, "the modern world of purposively rational labour, consumption and domination," as Habermas (Habermas 1990: 101) puts it, is counterposed the figure of Dionysus, in whom feeling dominates reason. This binary is set in the context of the music itself which is all the time providing the means for that feeling to be communicated. Although, the overt message is conformist the sub-text is subversive and at the same moment as reflecting the school/leisure opposition Berry, through the music, provides the means for leisure's dominance.

Among other performers Chuck Berry was also creating a vocabulary of teenage leisure, a route map, by means of which teenagers could make sense of the social practices of the newly constructed category of teenager. This is evident in "Sweet Little Sixteen," which has been subjected to an extended critical analysis by Wicke who observes in it, the same separation between work or schoolwork and leisure as in "School Days." Teenage leisure, a phenomenon of the 50s, is explained by Wicke in the following:

Thus, for these teenagers leisure became an alternative world to that of school and the parental home; their daily lives swung between these poles. This contradictory existence also formed the background experience for rock'n'roll, formed a basic pattern which returned time and again in its lyrics.
Referring to the Berry song, Wicke wrote:
The contrast between school and leisure expressed in "School Days" defined a genuine experience quite commonly observable in the self-awareness of adolescents, but an experience which achieved an additional dimension in the American high schools of the fifties. It was this experience which began to reflect the gaping inner contradictions of a capitalist lifestyle. The central significance which rock'n'roll had for high school students was linked to the fact that in rock'n'roll they could establish and enjoy the meaning and values of their concept of leisure. Their relationship with music exerted a decisive influence on rock'n'roll. Their everyday problems determined its content.
(Wicke 1990: 34)

In his reading of "Sweet Little Sixteen," Wicke sees in it the same conformity to school as is present in "School Days".

In "Sweet Little Sixteen," the enthusiasm for rock'n'roll of a sixteen-year old girl begging her parents to be allowed to go out is contrasted with the role which she must and does play again the next morning — namely that of the "sweet-little-sixteen-year-old" at the school desk. This song rests completely and utterly on the basis of traditional behaviour. Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" is not protesting or even rebelling against the need to ask permission before she goes out. She abides by the norms of the family home and begs for her little piece of freedom; cleverly using the influence a daughter has on her father so that he may defend her from motherly strictness. But then the most important thing to her is to get dressed up in lipstick and high-heeled shoes, the outward signs of being grown-up, which through and through fits with a conventional understanding of her role. And the next morning she will be the "sweet-little-sixteen-year-old" again, doing her best in high school. This song grasps the inner connection of the contrast between leisure and school. Only the final acceptance of the norms of family, home and school make possible the leisure world which has arisen as an alternative to these, but which in its function is not nearly as alternative as it was thought. It simply provides a context in which the behaviour models which have been raised to the status of norms are made acceptable to young people so that ultimately these can also be adopted.
(Wicke 1990: 47)

According to the English jazz musician and artist, George Melly, "Rock, initially at any rate, was a contemporary incitement to mindless fucking and arbitrary vandalism" (Melly 1972). That may well have been the case, but it is a long way from Wicke's perception of this instance of rock.

While Wicke is right to emphasize sweet little sixteen's conformity and the strict separation of schoolwork and leisure he misses another, somewhat subversive aspect to the song. "They're really rockin' in Boston and Pittsburgh Pa, deep in the heart of Texas etc." - suggests that Sweet Little Sixteen is a universal American teenage girl with whom all the "cats" want to dance. But who is giving her description and telling her story? Clues include the fact that she has "about half a million" autographs and her wall is covered in pictures which she gets "one by one." She is, in other words, that relatively new phenomenon — the teenage fan.

When asking to go out, she tells her mother, "it's such a sight to see somebody steal the show". Could that somebody from whom she gets autographs and pictures be no other than Berry himself, the authorial and narrator's voice, the star of the show? From his lascivious phrasing of the line "tight dresses and lipstick, she's sporting high heeled shoes," this explanation gains added plausibility. So while appearing conformist with regard to school, the black Berry who experienced repeated acts of white exclusion is subverting white, racist America through its teenage daughters' sexuality.

Chuck Berry's commitment to conformity to the school route was not, however, total, as the eponymous "Johnny B. Goode" demonstrates. His hero could not read or write so well "but he could play a guitar like ringing a bell" and was well on his way to stardom without the benefit of education.

In Sam Cooke's 1960 hit, "Wonderful World," the binary is not school knowledge versus rock but school knowledge versus love. The lyric to Cooke's song adopted a mark scheme, a device also used in the Cliff Richard song "'D' in Love," to show how the narrator was failing in school. "Don't know much about History," "don't know what a slide rule is for, " sings Cooke, whose narrator perceives that he is not going to be an "A" student. None of this matters as long as the girl he loves - to whom the song is addressed - loves him too, in which case the world will be wonderful.

In the Cliff Richard song, hints of social class may be detected in its opposition of the female "swot" who gets "A" in Biology but her lower achieving, hence probably working class, male boyfriend, awards her a "D" in the subject of love in which he, an expert, offers to give her more practice and who recommends "lots and lots and lots of homework with me." The song is full of humour and irony and a sense of mild critique as it debunks the grades and sets up the opposition between school subjects and really useful knowledge like how to achieve high marks for "kissin" and "huggin." Nevertheless, it captures the social process of evaluation that is present in all social encounters and relations. What seems absurd is the application of grades in this context. It is interesting to note that in "My Perfect Cousin," a hit in 1980 for the Irish new Wave Band, "The Undertones," the swot was still being despised, this time for his prowess in "maths, physics and bionics."

The Critics: Schooling Opposed

As Rock 'n' roll's golden age passed and the youth rebellion it accompanied faded. In the late 50s pop music became less raw and more acceptable to mainstream, white audiences. Acts like the Coasters, whose songs were written by Leiber and Stoller, sang songs with teen oriented lyrics with a slightly satirical edge. Among these was their 1959 hit "Charlie Brown" in which Charlie played the "clown" and performed pranks like filling the auditorium with smoke. When he walked in the classroom cool and slow and called the English teacher by the name of Daddyo, these acts were performed within a context of acts that the narrator's voice says would lead to retribution. Charlie Brown's voice exclaims that he is being picked upon. The narrator's voice in this song homodiegetic (Rimmon-Kenan 1983). That is, the narrator appears to be involved in the events described. The narratee, the one addressed by the narrator, Charlie Brown, is less plausible and less reliable due to his position in relation to the narrator and so he is not believed. Charlie Brown's trangressions were small beer compared to what was to follow.

In 1967 the Beatles' album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in a political and social context that differed from 1959 in almost every way imaginable. On that album the song, "Getting Better" contains some references to school attributed by Macdonald to John Lennon although the song itself is credited to Lennon and McCartney and the lead vocal was McCartney's. "I used to get mad at my school, the teachers that taught me weren't cool, they are holding me down, turning me round, filling me up with your rules" (Macdonald 1995:192). There was little of Berry's subtlety in this articulation of many youths' negative experience of schooling. This was also a paradigmatically realist text in that the line appears to be an authentic representation of the narrator's experience. Against the optimism of the chorus — "you've got to admit it's getting better" — there is counterposed the resignation and scepticism of "it can't get much worse." Lennon returned again to the theme of school in the bitter lyric of "Working Class Hero," sung folk style, hence giving the lyric more authenticity, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar.

As soon as your borne they make you feel small
by giving you no time instead of it all
til the pain is so big you feel nothing at all
a working class hero is something to be
a working class hero is something to be
they hurt you at home and they hit you at school
they hate you if your clever and they despise a fool
til your so fucking crazy you can't follow their rules
a working class hero is something to be
a working class hero is something to be

Lennon's attitude to authority has often been explained by reference to his unhappy childhood and to his problems in school (Norman 1981). Something similar has also been said of Bruce Springsteen (Marsh 1987: 90) whose own schooling ended prematurely. In "No Surrender," his lyric appears to be autobiographical. This chronicler of post-industrial America with a sound out of Phil Spector sang, "well we busted out of class, had to get away from those fools. We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school." The reliability of this statement is not at issue. What is more interesting about it is the possibility that pupils may learn something from three minute records.

In 1972, eschewing the realism of Lennon and Springsteen, Alice Cooper achieved a number one hit with the song "School's Out." Thereafter, according to the sleeve notes on the album "The Beast of Alice Cooper," it established itself as "the ultimate anti-authority song for teenagers."

Cooper's genre was Detroit hard rock and his stage act made a transition from Glam and androgyny to Horror complete with live snakes and a working guillotine (Palmer 1996: 186). His ghoulish antics made it difficult to take Alice Cooper's anti-school stance seriously but like other performers in the metal genre who employed similar props, the consumers expressed their approval at the cash till. "School's Out'" was probably the most successful, in sales terms, of all the songs considered in this sample. Popular culture has to be taken seriously in its entirety; just because it is popular, and to favour Lennon or Springsteen as more serious and more authentic than Alice Cooper is to miss the point that what makes popular culture popular is simply its popularity.

Unlike the lyrics of Lennon and Springsteen that have been discussed here, the lyric of Alice Cooper's "School's Out" is not by McCabe's criteria a realist text (McCabe 1992). This is because the narrative tells us at one point that,

School's out for summer
School's out forever
School's been blown to pieces
Read literally, there could be no return to a school that had been "blown to pieces." - a reading supported by the final line of the song, "School's out completely." Nevertheless, in the song's final verse it is suggested that this might not be the case.

In the lines,

Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all
The "might" suggests a degree of choice that the previous lines have established does not exist. It also undermines a realist reading that constucts the narrator as a school leaver, relieved to be leaving school characterised by pencils, books and "teacher's dirty looks."

Contradiction is not entirely unexpected in a song whose processes of production are exposed in the lines,

Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can't even think of a word that rhymes

After the exploitation of the polysemic properties of the words "class" and "principles," this admission comes as something of a let down, but it is consistent with the lyric's lack of realism.

Perhaps it was this perception of the song as relatively meaningless fun that caused it to pass unnoticed by the media. Not so the other best known anti-school rock song, "Another Brick in The Wall (Part 2)," a hit for Pink Floyd in 1979. By this time, the context had changed considerably from when "School's Out" was recorded and schooling had just been placed at the centre of a national political debate where it still remains seventeen years on. A Conservative government with a New Right agenda for education had just been elected and the teacher unions were engaged in industrial action (Johnson 1991). One of the record's novelties was its use of children from St Winifred's School choir to sing in a Cockney accent the memorable hook, '"We don't need no education," the final word sounding like "edukashun." If that were not enough to confirm the worst suspicions of those who thought educational standards had never been lower, the hook used a double negative and teachers were exhorted to "leave them kids alone." This, its ungrammatical construction aside, was little more than child centred educators like A. S. Neill had been saying for years. Similarly, the sentiment, "We don't need no thought control" was not all that far away from what contemporary theorists like Althusser were saying about schooling under capitalism. The appeal for "No dark sarcasm in the classroom" was mild compared to Lennon's representation of teacher behaviour and resonates more with Chuck Berry's "mean" looking teacher. In the song's chorus,

All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

The brick metaphor can be read as a reference to a bureaucratically organized schooling that produces uniform citizens to take their place in the labour market/system of social relations. As a description of English education with its much vaunted variety it is rather inaccurate but it is, after all, how for many pupils the way the school system is experienced. Paradoxically, the growth of central regulation has made that experience more likely now than when the song was first released.

Seen as a realist critique of schooling in South Africa, the song was banned. Frith says of Pink Floyd, "they were not saying anything significant about the school system; they were providing school children with a funny, powerful playground chant."(Frith 1983:38). In my experience, not a few teachers were also happy to chant the song. Nevertheless, the question arises of how Frith knows that this is the correct reading of the song or that this was the illocutionary force of their speech act? Scepticism about representation can lead, as in this case to some fairly untenable conclusions. As Ricoeur proclaims, "discourse cannot fail to be about something" (Ricoeur 1991: 148).

The song's meaning became further complicated by a video showing hammers marching across a landscape and by the subsequent use of the song in the film The Wall, which was directed by Alan Parker and appeared in 1982. But staying with the lyric, whether or not it was "significant," it seems indisputable that the song says something about schooling and something critical at that. As the song ends with some fine guitar work a voice with a Scots accent speaks the following lines,

Wrong, Do it again!
If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding.
How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?
You! Yes, you behind the bikesheds, stand still laddy!

The voice is unmistakeably that of a teacher but the comic irony tends to undermine the force of the song's lyric as critique. It is a joke after all —or is it?

The ironising stance of the Pet Shop boys is but one marker of their occupation of a different genre to Pink Floyd. Like the Lennon songs, their "It's a Sin" gives the appearance of authenticity of the narrator/star giving voice to personal experience. An effect heightened by the knowledge that the star is gay and the schooling he experienced was controlled by the Catholic Church which has something of a reputation for the inculcation of guilt in the young that experience its socialising practices.

At school they taught me how to be
so pure in thought and word and deed
They didn't quite succeed

Sexuality and Schooling

In as much as rock texts are about leisure, they are about leisure pursuits, mainly dancing and sex (Shepherd 1991:182) and its exponents have rarely sought to hide this either in their lyrics and performances or in their personal lives as rock stars. Both Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis had a sexual interest in schoolgirls. Berry went to gaol for transporting a minor across a state line and Lewis married his thirteen year old cousin to the accompaniement of the howls of press protest when he toured Britain. Such contextual material is always mobilised in the process of interpretation and it is hard to read their songs without that knowledge influencing the reading. Sex and romance, viewed overwhelmingly from a male heterosexual perspective, constitute the principal themes of pop and they also, not surprisingly, enter into representations of schooling. This occurs in two ways. Firstly, pop songs deal with boy and girl relationships; and secondly, with teacher-pupil relationships.

Two hit songs by the highly successful 60s beat group the Hollies, exemplify the first category. The steel drums on "Carrie Anne," a hit in 1967, gave it a Carribbean flavour but the lyric was recognisably Anglo-American. The narrative is organized around a games metaphor. It starts, "When we were at school our games were simple, I played a janitor you played a monitor." "Monitor" was a slightly archaic term even in the 60s and geographical location of "janitor" was more New York than the Manchester the group originated from. The final line of the school based part of the relationship is, "Then you played with older boys and prefects what's the attraction in what their doing?" "Prefects," "janitors" and "monitors" are all highly evocative of school but bewilderment of the narrator at Carrie Anne's preference for "older boys and prefects" encapsulates so well male teenage angst unable to grasp the meaning of status hierarchies and differential maturation rates.

The mood of "Jennifer Eccles" is much lighter and it is modelled on a children's playground game. The song begins:

White chalk written on red brick
our love told in a heart
it's there drawn in the playground
love, kiss, hate or adore.

Again the evocation of a red brick and thus working class school complete with playground is highly accomplished. In American songs, the playground gets transposed into the schoolyard, such as Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and sometimes in English songs, too, as in Cat Stevens' "(Remember the Days of the) old School Yard." Playground or schoolyard, the reference as in the Stevens' song is a point of departure for nostalgic reminiscence of childhood and youth.

In "Jennifer Eccles" there is no nostalgia as the narrator is a child. Hence the realism of the chorus which is composed of a chant like rendering of, "I love Jennifer Eccles, I know that she loves me" accompanied by the sound of a wolf whistle. Not even that can dispel the air of innocence and infantilism that pervades the song. The chalk message in the playground is the only suggestion that the school is the site of romance. The often used, heavily gendered, figure, "I used to carry her satchels, she used to walk by side," signifies the space where the romance is conducted. A similar figure is used by Buddy Holly when he sang, "the walks to school still make me sad" in his 1961 hit, "What to do."

The Hollies song ends with the narrator learning "one Monday morning" he has made the grade, a reference to the eleven plus examination, and his hope that she has done the same and "will follow me there" to the grammar school. The transition from primary to secondary school is for many pupils a cause of apprehension and the fear of losing friends by them going to other schools is a common one and to have expressed this so succinctly is a tribute to the writing skills of Clarke and Nash.

Teacher and pupil sex

These songs were neutral about the processes of schooling. They also maintained the separation of schooling from leisure and hence sex except in the infantalised world of "Jennifer Eccles." "Teacher's Pet" was somewhat different in that the boundaries between work and leisure became blurred. "I wanna be homad diplomad long after school is through" runs the chorus. The phrase, "teacher's pet" recurs in the song "Don't Stand So Close To Me," a hit for the reggae-rock band, The Police in 1980. This song contains the most explicit treatment of teacher pupil sexual relations to date in any pop song. Two voices are present in the lyric, that of the narrator and that of the young male teacher whose voice is heard in the chorus:

Don't stand, don't stand so
Don't stand so close to me.

The object of a schoolgirl's desire, the teacher experiences,

Temptation, frustration
So bad it makes him cry'

The ambiguity of the next line leaves open the question of whether the relationship progresses,

Wet bus stop, she's waiting
His car is warm and dry

Does she enter the car or is the second line simply an observation that contrasts the the respective situations of the schoolgirl and the teacher? The ambiguity is maintained in the final verse which contains the lines,

Strong words in the staffroom
The accusations fly
It's no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabakov.

Musically, intertextuality, the reference to other texts, is very common in pop songs (Frith 1983: 162). Intertextuality in the lyrics is much less so but the reference here to Lolita does nothing to dispell the narrative's ambiguity. Instead, its illocutionary force is to demonstrate that The Police were intellectually a cut above their rivals in the music business.

Once again, no critique of schooling is mounted but in this song the boundaries between schoolwork and sex, that in all the other songs are carefully noted, are transgressed as are the boundaries between pupils and teachers and those of age — "This girl is half his age."


Rock and pop music are essentially the music of youth. Since the 1950s each subsequent generation of youth in the UK has made the transition from childhood to adulthood accompanied by a soundtrack. Once it was more or less unique to that generation. Now, like all texts in the era of mechanical reproduction, the re-release of a song means that it becomes available to another generation of youth who produce their own reading of it regardless of its author's intentions or the context in which it was located.

As so much of the time of modern western youth is spent in compulsory schooling it is perhaps at first surprising to realise that schooling is represented so rarely in rock and pop. Initially, the youth market in which records were sold in the 50s was constituted by newly afluent youth who were in employment. Songs about schooling were hardly likely to appeal to them. More significant as an explanation for the relative absence of such songs, as I have argued in this paper, is the binary opposition between school and leisure - an opposition that not only was represented in the songs but in part constructed by them. This opposition also partly accounts for the conformist nature of the subject positions created in the songs. After school, whether it was at three o'clock, or in the vacation or on leaving school altogether, there was always the alternative of leisure. An imaginary world of dancing and heterosexual sex. Even when the lyric constructed oppositional subjectivities, rebels who would bust out of class. The only alternative on offer was to join a rock band and seek salvation in that same imaginary world of leisure.

That is not to play down the significance of the historical tendency noted here for pop lyrics to become more critical of schooling or to raise uncomfortable issues like sexual relations between teachers and pupils. This is a shift related in turn to a decline in respect for former authority figures and institutions and a corresponding move towards individualism.

Songs referred to

High School Confidential, Jerry Lee Lewis
School Days, Chuck Berry
Sweet Little Sixteen, Chuck Berry
Endless Summer Beach Boys
Surfin' USA, Beach Boys
Be True to Your School, Beach Boys
Cypress Avenue, Van Morrison
Its Getting Better, Beatles
No Surrender, Springsteen
Going Back, Byrds
The Wall Pink, Pink Floyd
Eton Rifles? Jam
I don't like Mondays, Boomtown Rats
Teacher's Pet, [artist?]
Don't stand too close to me, Sting
Schools Out, Alice Cooper
Remember the Days in the old school yard, Cat Stevens
D in Love, Cliff Richard
Wonderful World, Sam Cooke
Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, The Yardbirds.


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This essay was first presented as a paper at the British Education Research Association's Annual Conference, Lancaster 1996. A revised version was published in 1998: Kevin J. Behony, " 'I used to get mad at my school': Representations of schooling in rock and pop music, " British Journal Sociology of Education, 19, 1 (1998), 113-34. This essay is posted on The Homeroom with permission of the author.

Dr Kevin J. Brehony
Professor of Early Childhood Studies
University of Surrey, Roehampton
Erasmus House, Roehampton Lane
London, England
SW15 5PU