Until recently, Verona Area High School junior Olivia Otremba would have had a tough time connecting 1950s doo wop music with ‘90s rap.
Now, she’s got a map to show what the two genres have in common – along with how they relate to dozens of other musical styles over the years.
Last week, she used that map in her Rock and Roll Society and American Culture to help explain how punk rock influenced progressive rock.
“They sort of became big because they didn’t like what the punks were doing, it was sort of anti-punk,” she said. “And punk was anti-everything else.”
“I can’t believe what you did,” teacher Andrew Larson interjected as Otremba continued to expand on the musical connections. “This is really cool.”
The music map (inspired by Jack Black’s character in the movie “School of Rock”) is Otremba’s final project for her class, which began in the 2016-17 school year. The class is taught by Larson, who is a DJ, plays bass for the German Art Students and has always loved music.
“I think a lot of people around the school think it’s that class where you can goof off, because it’s rock and roll, but we actually learn a lot,” Otremba said. “Mr. Larson tells a lot of really good stories.”
The class allows him to show students how music evolved over decades, while at the same time connecting how historical events like the Vietnam War, various presidencies and movies were reflected in the music of the time. Each class period starts out with a few songs of different styles from whichever decade they’re working on.
“Then they get to analyze and say, ‘That song’s really about the Cold War,’ or, ‘That song’s really about equal rights,’” he said.
Larson said the class has filled two 30-student sections each year since it began, demonstrating an appreciation for what he said is one of 10 or so classes like it around the country. He said he’s grateful to work in a community that supports trying a class like this.
“The community so values education in such a way that we’re allowed to experiment and do things, it’s really working out great for children,” Larson said. “Our children are really going to come out of here super connected with the world, super connected with what’s going on, and I think this class is a part of that.”
Senior Oliver Powell called the mix of history and music a “match made in heaven” made more effective by the teacher giving them the lessons and broadening their musical horizons.
“His whole personality makes the whole class work perfectly,” Powell said.
Powell was working toward narrowing down a list of “100s of songs” for his final project: creating a playlist of songs for a mock radio show, something he wants to pursue in college next year. That career and post-high school benefit is something Larson pointed to, as well, with the class taking field trips to various music-related venues like Madison’s The Sylvee and area radio stations.
“The kids, you should see them just light up when they’re in there, like, ‘I could do this, I could sell advertisements and still be around music,’” Larson said. “They could be a DJ, they could work in technology at a radio station; there’s so many cool jobs at a radio station.”
Larson said the class emphasizes skills like vocabulary, reading, writing, personalized projects and critical thinking, which was rated as the most important skill to student success in the 2018 VASD parent perceptions survey.
“It’s such a great way to teach them how to think for themselves and how to analyze what someone’s telling them,” Larson said. “Someone’s telling you something, do you buy it?”
Learning about the messages in the music has been one of the best parts of the class for Otremba, whose timeline of music styles also had a second section: the major historical events in each decade that influenced them. That was clear, she recalled, when she listened to and reflected on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
“I heard it as, ‘There’s always been this problem in the world, but there’s always been people to come and stand against it and try to make things right,’” Otremba said. “Throughout the history and throughout the music that we’ve seen, every decade has their obstacle.
“History just does sort of repeat itself, and you can see it every decade.”