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Lesson Plans, Rhetorical Analysis

Teaching Rhetorical Analysis with Music Videos

The past three semesters I’ve been teaching a modified version of the Rhetorical Analysis Project in my 1020 class. Based on my interests in the genres of music video and Hip Hop (ones often shared by my students), I teach a hybrid of projects 1 and 2 that asks students to perform an analysis of a short visual medium: a music video, in the genre of their choosing. I’ve found that students are particularly amenable to this version of the project, given their familiarity with and interest in music videos. Students are also surprised to find I know quite a bit about both genres, which prompts useful conversations about ethos and performance early in the semester (meta!).

As a supplement to class discussion, we generally watch two longer videos, both featuring Kanye West—We Were Once a Fairytale (Spike Jonze) and Runaway (the thirty-three minute version)—and work our way through the Wu Tang Manual, the RZA’s relatively recent foray in autobiography. In both videos, West shows a distinct awareness of audience. He plays to themes of conflict, race, and celebrity, reflecting on his image in the media in a pleasantly self-deprecating sense. Students quickly relate to these videos, which quickly give way to discussions about the merit of his work, his “cocky” persona, and what this persona performs for him in the context of the genre of Hip Hop, and the entertainment industry more generally.

The RZA gives us a way of elaborating what analysis entails, especially when it comes to considerations of audience and context/place. This method may be a bit unconventional, but I think its merits outweigh the potential pitfalls. The RZA produces two types of readings: In the first part of the text he unpacks some of the central themes that inform the Clan’s work. He talks about alter egos and geography, and describes his writing process. The Manual also includes an annotated breakdown of the Clan’s lyrics. The task for students, as I see it, will be to navigate the friction between these readings: one focuses on content (what the lyrics mean), and the other focuses on method (how the Clan conveys its message).

Although students are clearly tempted to think that this work is easy—it can’t be work if we enjoy it—rooting class discussion in rhetorical features demands serious effort. And, I must note, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the degree of progress students make each semester in learning how to perform this type of writing.

In addition to the aforementioned videos and readings, I spend the first few weeks giving students shorter examples of what this type of analysis looks like. In particular, Obie Trice’s “Cry Now” and the Eminem’s Chrysler spot during the Super Bowl provide really helpful starting places. I provide some examples below of discussion prompts I use in class. We watch each video in class and then work through the example intros that I’ve developed:

EXAMPLE ONE (From my wiki):

Memorial serves an important rhetorical function in Hip Hop videos. From the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” which pays homage to Old Dirty Bastard (ODB), to more general references to Tu Pac and Biggie Smalls, it is clear that the genre of rap can largely be characterized by the relative frequency and intensity of references to mortality. This is particularly evident with regard for Obie Trice’s 2006 release “Cry Now,” which pays tribute to Detroit MC Deshaun “Proof” Holton. The video begins with the colloquialism “Rest in Peace,” scribbled in graffiti-style lettering, and features intermittent visual references that recall his legacy as an artist. In addition to the title and lyrics of the song, which give the viewer a sense of the theme of death, the video begins with an ominous black and white photograph of Holton and ends with a dramatic shot of his face, featured prominently on a homemade t-shirt. Though these images can largely be interpreted as Trice’s effort to pay homage to a close friend, the frequency with which rappers allude to “fallen soldiers” shows us that memorial serves a particularly crucial function in the culture of Hip Hop, informing the ethos of figures like Obie Trice.

Trice appeals to the grave reality of urban life by cataloguing images that viewers readily associate with the city. Shot in Eastern Market, Schoolcraft, and adjoining neighborhoods, we can read “Cry Now” as a visual testament to Trice’s life experience. Further, Trice makes frequent lyrical allusions to the violence of the “rap game,” noting that people want to kill him because he, “rap[s] actual facts on a song.” The combination of lyrical references to lived experience and images of actual city neighborhoods contribute to the viewer’s sense of the persona that Trice crafts: Namely, these lyrics and images show us that Trice is a rapper hardened by the “hard knock” experiences of life in the “Rock City.” If the success of songs like “Cry Now” and P. Diddy’s “I’ll be Missing You” are any indication, memorial is a popular and particularly lucrative sub-genre of Hip Hop.

EXAMPLE TWO (From my wiki):

Whether you are “from the D” or subscribe to a “New York State of Mind,” it is clear that, commercially, rap has long been marketed as a geographical venture. From the East/West Coast tensions that characterized rap battles of the 1990s to the more geographically diverse disputes that inform contemporary lyrics, we see that the idea of place serves an important role in Hip Hop. This seems particularly true with regard for fan culture. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, the Wu Tang Clan, and Nas come to represent the Burroughs, Kanye West “Chi-town,” Ludacris and Outkast the “Dirty South,” and Eminem, whether we like it or not, “Detroit Rock City.” In addition to lending the narratives that these rappers tell an air of credibility—effectively providing a cultural referent for the lyrics that they “spit”—these complex geographical configurations also inform our sense of what each individual is “all about.” To this end, geography serves an important commercial function, tying rappers to the products and people that they (supposedly) represent.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Chrysler’s much celebrated campaign “Imported From Detroit,” which initially debuted during the 2011 Super Bowl. The commercial couples the story of Eminem’s gritty urban up-bringing (cued by the sound-track from 8 Mile) with a narrative of Detroit’s rebirth. Drawing on this repertoire of associations, Chrysler promotes the image of its newest vehicle, showing us that the 200 evidences the grit and determination of the people of Detroit. To this end, the narrative of Eminem’s recovery, much publicized with the release of his most recent album, comes to stand in, metaphorically, for the recent successes of the company and the city more generally.

What I think these examples give a sense of is how you can model the type of work expected of students with regard for the Rhetorical Analysis, addressing how it is that “credibility” is something that we are both looking to talk about and perform. Although this setup plays to my specific interests, Whitney Hardin and Amy Metcalf have recently adapted versions of this assignment in their respective 1020 and 1010 classes, with marked success.

Derek Risse is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Composition at WSU with research interests in New Media and Animal Studies. He is currently teaching both 1020 and 3010 and serves as a member of the program’s Mentoring Committee.

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