Using Radiohead Lyrics to Discuss Consumerism in Class
I've always thought it was important to try and make kids aware of the forces acting on them from advertising and consumer culture. Ever since I read Oliver James's books Britain on the Couch and Affluenza, I've been deeply interested in how our society has been persuaded of what success looks like.
When you're young and easily influenced, it's hard to see yourself as good enough
We walk a fine line as adults when we try to say to kids that material circumstances aren't everything. Ultimately, we want them to pass exams and be motivated to do so, because exam passes are our accepted measure of excellence (and I've never been able to think of a more satisfactory solution that would actually work in practice). Passing exams gives them the option to apply for a wide range of jobs and earn decent money, which most would agree is a good thing.
But equally, a whole lot of people get caught up in highly pressurised careers that, deep down, they don't even really want. I think it's because we still aren't expansive enough in our definition of 'success'. Advertising and consumerism push a whole range of primordial buttons, and when you're young and easily influenced, it's hard to see yourself as good enough.
I used a couple of texts to try and make this point to the kids: Radiohead's song 'Fitter Happier' and a short story called 'Jumper' by Garrett Adams, which you can find at the back of On Writing by Stephen King.
'Fitter Happier' is a strange piece of music. A computer-generated voice speaks over the top of a nightmarish soundscape. The voice rhymes off a list of ideals which encompass the perfect modern human:
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym, three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
Eating well, no more microwave dinners and saturated fats...
Pupils can design news reports or articles about modern life's effect on mental health and how we can readjust our perceptions of success
And so on, until the closing line subverts it all by describing the perfect human as 'a pig in a cage on antibiotics'. Heavy.
You can easily kick off discussions with the fact that the lyrics are a list of positive things, things that anyone would want, so why the horrible musical accompaniment? What could possibly be negative about being fitter and happier? It's not always easy for pupils to answer this, but it's fascinating to see their minds working on it. To elucidate things, you can talk about the structure: why is the song done in the form of a list? How do your pupils feel at being presented with a checklist for happiness?
There are a good few potential activities from here on in. Pupils can design news reports or articles about modern life's effect on mental health and how we can readjust our perceptions of success. They can write poems responding to some of the concepts listed in the song, presenting them in a more realistic way. But it can also be a good idea to look at 'Jumper' afterwards and compare the two texts' points of view.
'Jumper' by Garrett Adams is a story about a bitter and angry man who works in a shopping centre and hates everyone and everything in it. It's an acerbic little tale and pretty nasty all round. I quite like it - I don't love it, but I think it's important to introduce stuff you have mixed feelings about into the classroom. It provides a better model of reading behaviour to pupils and invites them to have an opinion instead of being told that all literature is fantastic.
Anyway, the story's ending generally surprises and shocks most people, and it's a good complement to 'Fitter Happier' because I think that the Radiohead song is implicitly quite sympathetic to modern consumers and the narrator in 'Jumper' really isn't. He hates shoppers and views them as simpletons. He comes across as a nasty piece of work, but it gives you a great chance to talk about mental health and psychology, exploring the following questions:
Why has the narrator ended up like this?
How much can be blamed on the narrator, and how much can be blamed on his environment?
Follow-up activities can include a psychological profile of the narrator or a discursive essay about the effects of advertising on our aspirations
How accurate a picture is he painting of the shoppers he encounters?
To what extent, if any, do you sympathise with him?
Follow-up activities can include a psychological profile of the narrator or a discursive essay about the effects of advertising on our aspirations. Controversially, a pupil could also write a defence of consumerism and shopping centres - we saw an article like this in the Higher paper a few years back, after all!
The story is, as far as I know, only available in Stephen King's On Writing. But I could be wrong - Garrett Adams is actually the pen name of Adam Howe, so hit him up on Twitter and see if it's available anywhere else. His stuff on Goodreads looks intriguing and I'd love to check out more of his work.
What else can you do?
Consumerism and 'affluenza' are fascinating and complex topics to explore. I'm sure you're getting the impression that this is a lesson for pupils who are confident readers and will engage with texts on a complex level, and fair enough, in my experience this is true. But I think that's fine: these are often the pupils who feel under the most pressure to pass exams and end up in a well-regarded career. I think the message has to be that exam passes are important in giving us options, but what we do after that has to be based on our own personal definitions of success.
Mental health lies at the core of the discussions outlined above. Why not check out our top resources for exploring mental health, which include an excellent list of YA books and a teaching resource from Phil Beadle?