Teaching Intertextuality and Recontextualization through Music

By Maya Smith
Published Jan 15, 2012

Sensing the opportunity to provide a pedagogical model for the use of music in foreign language teaching, I have created activities that uncover and highlight themes of intertextuality, recontextualization, recognizability, and (re)appropriation through close readings of songs and other cultural texts to which they are linked. My activities are designed to show students how texts shed light on ideological, cultural, and symbolic systems. In order to give instructors access to these teaching materials and to other lesson plans dealing with music, I have created a website for the French department, which language instructors can contribute to and consult. In addition, I have designed an interactive online database modeled on the BLC Film Archive, which all language departments at Berkeley will be able to add to and use.

Literature Review
The notion of intertextuality was coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966 when writing her doctoral thesis on Mikhail Bakhtin’s work. One of Bakhtin’s concerns was how utterances, or units of speech, are historically embedded. Relating an utterance to “a link in the chain of speech communication” (1986, p. 106), Bakhtin delineated three aspects of any particular word: “a neutral word of a language, belonging to nobody; an other’s word, which belongs to another person and is filled with echoes of the other’s utterance; and, finally, my word, for, since I am dealing with it in a particular situation, with a particular speech plan, it is already imbued with my expression” (p. 105). In other words, when someone uses a word, it has already been uttered somewhere before, and therefore, the person revoices the word in a new context, tinged with new meanings. It is through intertextuality that one can explain how a word, utterance, or text is related to a larger social and historical framework.

A text, something that can be read in the most general sense of the word, functions in the same way as an utterance in that it is linked to what has come before and what will come after. A reader always brings other texts to an understanding of any given text. Meanwhile, texts are filled with allusions, quotations, and references that point to other texts, creating an intertextual network. This intertextual network is established through recontextualization, which is the process where something is extracted from the original context and inserted in a new context. When these textual artifacts enter a new context, new meanings are signified. One must therefore look at the prior text and the new environment in order to understand the new meanings that become salient and the old meanings that still exist below the surface.

In order to illustrate principles of intertextuality and recontextualization, I present the following example which include both linguistic and non-linguistic information:

The person in the top portion of the poster is François Mitterand, who was the French president during the 1980’s and a member of the Socialist Party. Below, there is a picture of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or DSK, the former director of the International Monetary Fund who had planned to run for president as the Socialist Party candidate before being embroiled in a sexual assault scandal. In focusing one the written text, one sees the phrase La Force Tranquille or The Quiet Strength above Mitterand, suggesting his calm but strong demeanor. A true leader. This was his campaign slogan for the presidential race in 1981. Above DSK’s head the previous phrase has been slightly modified with the word Porsche substituted for force. Porsche is a symbol of money and prestige. The reference to Porsche also signals another scandal in Paris earlier this year when the French press chided DSK and his wife for riding in one. When the story broke, many people suggested that this blatant expression of material wealth marked a negative change in the Socialist Party. It should be noted that not only the intertextuality of the written text provides socio-cultural information. The juxtaposition of images is also important to how one understands the underlining meanings. The rustic, idyllic French town representing La France Profonde stands in stark contrast with the metropolitan skyline and the numerous yachts in the foreground. Even the facial expressions beg for comparison. This example shows how meaning is transformed when reframed and modified slightly. By focusing attention to the various features, one can reflect on such issues as political discourse or societal opinions. One is also exposed to cultural background information that is central to this type of exploration.

While this is all well and good, why should the foreign language classroom be interested in the concepts of intertextuality and recontextualization and why is music a good medium to explore these concepts? First of all, most of learning is mediated through texts. In addition, intertextuality and recontextualization exist in all texts. It should be the student’s task to be aware of this existence. One can approach these concepts through close readings of the texts. Second, these concepts force students to focus on the relationship between these texts and history, cultural meaning, and other forms of expression. In looking at the contexts in which texts are created and reproduced, students begin to understand the cultures in which these texts exist.

Many scholars have made suggestions on how to approach language in order to bring the surrounding context to the surface. For example, noting the relationship between context and culture, Kramsch (1993) looked at the role of culture in the foreign language classroom and decried the way language pedagogy often enforces a dichotomy between language and culture, in which “culture is…seen as mere information given by language, not as a feature of language itself” (p. 8). She argued that if “language is seen as social practice, culture becomes the very core of language teaching” (Kramsch, 1993, p. 8). However, in order to understand culture, students must be able to make and interpret meanings. Kramsch demonstrated that teachers can help students interpret meanings by using texts in various ways. For instance, in aesthetic reading, students pay attention to associations, feelings, attitudes, and ideas, drawing upon prior experience and knowledge to understand others’ experiences. In addition, exposing students to different voices in any given speech community allows students to gain a more nuanced view of the cultures they are studying. In effect, students are learning to read culture through discourse.

In providing students with the resources and tools to interpret meaning in an informed way, it is important to bring authentic texts to the classroom because they engender new perspectives about how foreign language cultures produce and transmit meaning. Kramsch was mainly concerned with literary texts, but any type of text can be an invaluable resource to the language classroom. The Mitterand/DSK poster from earlier is an example of a text filled with cultural meaning that offers insight into the target culture. In addition, New London Group (1996) argued that literacy pedagogy must “account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (p. 61).

I contend that songs, often with the accompanying music videos, represent a perfect way to introduce texts that use multimedia technologies. Music is also ideal for exploring intertextuality and recontextualization. For one, music is part of popular culture and is shared widely. In addition, particular genres are especially useful. Hip-hop, for example, is a global genre with local cultural inflections. It also relies on making allusions to other texts. However, while hip-hop is often a great source of intertextuality, songs from many genres can be just as rich in intertextual data.

Exploring music and intertextuality in the foreign language classroom
In taking into account the concerns and suggestions of Kramsch (1993) and the New London Group (1996), I have designed a course curriculum that uses music to explore meaning-making processes. By looking at the network of texts (e.g., the lyrics, the music videos and live versions that accompany these songs, the different online media where discussions about these songs occur, and the prior texts that these songs appropriate), students gain a larger understanding of the contexts in which these texts are produced and how these texts fit in a larger societal framework. In addition, the lesson plans are meant to get students to think about the ‘recognizability’ of prior texts. Who was the intended audience of the prior text? Who is the intended audience of the song? How do members of this audience recognize these prior texts? I argue that this form of discourse analysis gives students tools for identifying how societies create and reuse texts. It also increases the students’ understanding of how people use symbolic systems in both conventional and innovative ways to produce meanings.

Therefore, I have created lesson plans using several different types of intertextuality in various genres of music to serve as a template for language instructors and to show how varied these activities can be.  Sampling, for example, is “the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a different sound recording of a song or piece” (Wikipedia). MC Solaar’s Nouveau Western samples Serge Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde. Since both songs examine the American West, students have the opportunity to compare these different perspectives of a common theme within French culture. Another type of musical intertextuality is when the same melody has different lyrics. An example of this is Claude Nougaro’s song entitled Armstrong, which is in fact an homage to Louis Armstrong. It uses the melody of the black-American spiritual Go Down, Moses, of which Louis Armstrong sang a well-known version.

Intertextuality can also be highlighted when a song is performed in different genres. Charles Trenet’s Douce France, which is a French chanson classic from the Occupation, was remade as a rai version by the group Carte de Séjour in 1986 to call into question the Nationality Code by Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. The contrast of the musical genres, chanson française, which is seen as quintessentially French, and rai, a musical genre originating in Algeria, highlights the changing nature of what it means to be French. Another example of intertextuality would be the borrowing of a song title such as when Camille Naudin, a black Creole from Louisiana, wrote La Marseillaise Noire. By borrowing from the title of the French National Anthem, Naudin conveys a sense of irony. The Black Marseillaise calls for members of the African diaspora to band together and demand equality. This song focuses on the ideals of the Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity) while the original, written at the time of the formation of the Republic, focuses on war and blood.

Another type of intertextuality employed in music is the use of the mash-up. A mash-up is “a song or composition created by blending two or more pre-recorded songs, usually by overlaying the vocal track of one song seamlessly over the instrumental track of another” (Wikipedia). A great example of a mash-up is from the film La Haine where a youth from the French projects mixes at his DJ table the song Nique la Police by the French rap group Nique Ta Mère with Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regrette rien. Meanwhile, another form of intertextuality is when a song borrows from other types of texts in the lyrics. The hip-hop group Assassin’s critique of the French educational system in A qui l’histoire?: Le système scolaire quotes the first article of the constitution in order to undermine national identity. It makes a social commentary about how an institution like the educational system is not in line with the ideals of the constitution. As one can see from the diversity of genres and types of intertextual relationships, intertextuality and recontextualization is a common occurrence that allows for multiple cultural readings.

A closer look at an intertextuality lesson plan

To show how music and intertextuality can be explored in the classroom, I would like to discuss in detail a lesson plan I created using the song Le bruit et l’odeur by Zebda, a multicultural hip-hop group from Toulouse. The lesson plan spans multiple days. However, if the instructor is constrained by time, s/he may choose to do only some of the activities or modify how much work is completed at home. In the first activity, the focus is on Zebda’s music video. A first viewing without lyrics is meant for students to form general impressions of the music. What is the tone of the song? How do the group members present themselves? How is the clip shot? What are your reactions to the video and how does it compare to other music videos you’ve seen? This part of the activity allows students to respond to the video aesthetically and to reflect on their own experiences with hip-hop music. Having students discuss their aesthetic reactions also helps them look at music as a work of art. Then students watch the video again while paying close attention to the lyrics. By concentrating on the lyrics, students can notice how language is being used and how Zebda’s use of language compares to other texts they have read or heard in their French class. Students are thus made aware of the different voices in a single speech community. The last exercise for the at-home activities is to search for the highlighted words that are specific references to people, places, events, and other texts. A simple Google search of le bruit et l’odeur will most likely send students to a speech that Chirac made, in which he complains about the “noise and the smell” that immigrants produce. The purpose of having students look up these references is to sensitize them to the fact that lyrics are often full of allusions and are very important to the meaning-making process. Students will hopefully begin to look for and question references in the texts they read and then ask themselves why they are important.

The next day in class, students discuss in groups their impressions and what they have found at home before participating in-group discussion. By comparing their reflections with those of their peers, they will have not only witnessed different voices that exist in the French-language speech community, they will also gain a sense of the multiple voices in the classroom since each student will have different reactions to and ideas about the music video. Meanwhile, the teacher can offer insight as well as explain difficult parts of the lyrics, which include non-standard French linguistic features.

In the next classroom activity, students are exposed to the text by Chirac, on which Zebda’s song is based. The purpose of reading the transcribed text in the classroom is to give students a chance to perform a close reading of the text. For instance, students can focus on specific textual features such as the original utterance of the highlighted phrase le bruit et l’odeur (“the noise and the smell”), that Zebda has challenged through the titling of their song. Another interesting textual feature is the use of the negative when Chirac says,“Ce n’est pas être raciste que de dire cela” (“It is not racist to say this”). In addition to allowing for close analysis, reading the transcript of the text before showing the actual footage lets students focus on the text alone, so that their first interpretations of the text are not influenced by the surrounding context.

The following activity, which is probably best saved for a second day of class discussion, comprises the news footage of Chirac’s actual speech. In the news clip, the report is introduced by a newscaster before being narrated by a reporter named Bradan who sets up the footage of Chirac’s speech, which takes place at Center-Right political party dinner. In his speech, Chirac argues that it is unfair how a French worker who works very hard to earn a little sum of money goes crazy when he sees his immigrant neighbor with four wives and twenty children living off outrageously generous welfare benefits. To add insult to injury, the poor French worker has to suffer through the noise and the smells that his neighbor produces. Chirac’s speech receives cheers and applause by a very sympathetic audience. After Chirac’s speech, Bradan then shows the reaction of other political leaders by interviewing Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s Extreme Right party and Edith Cresson, the Socialist prime minister at the time.

There are key features that these lesson plans allow students to do. First of all, the activities hopefully get students to look at the different layers of the news report. How does Chirac’s audience react to the speech? The students have already had a chance to discuss Chirac’s speech in written form. As students see how the speech was received in the video, they gain a sense of what the speech means for Chirac’s followers. With this added layer, students can reflect on the text and its relation to the original intended audience. However, there is another contextual layer: the placement of the speech in the newscast. How do the newscasters approach Chirac’s speech? How does the reporter frame the speech? What is the effect of including interviews of politicians on both the left and the extreme right? These types of questions highlight recontextualization and bring home the point that discourse once produced can then be recontextualized. In addition, students get a chance to see how wedge issues such as immigration and multi-culturalism were debated in the French political arena in the 1990’s and possibly compare these debates to what they have been learning in their classes about the issues in present-day France. This could also open up discussions about how the same topics are discussed in the United States.

With this cultural knowledge, students can then revisit the song by Zebda to have a better understanding of why the group felt the need to write the song as well as what the song means for those who listen to Zebda and for those who felt slighted by Chirac’s words. How does the song play in a larger social narrative in which the voices of the marginalized communities in France speak up against rhetoric that they find derogatory and exclusionary? What dialogue is created? How are these different voices received? Students thus gain a nuanced understanding of how French society approaches these issues and voices dissenting opinions. They also use their own understandings of the world to make interpretations about how others view the world.

Access to instructional materials dealing with music and intertextuality
In order to give instructors access to these teaching materials and to other lesson plans dealing with music, I created a song website for the French department.  While I am aware of language instructors in the department who are using music informally in their instruction, there is no existing space for instructors to share and borrow ideas related to the use of songs in the classroom. Although my contribution to the website has been the creation of activities that explore intertextuality, I envision instructors contributing to and using the database for various purposes: language reinforcement, including vocabulary building, grammar practice, and pronunciation improvement; listening comprehension; exposure to authentic texts; access to cultural, social, and historical knowledge; and musical appreciation. I have added the song activities found in the French Activity Bank (Kern, Frisch, DeDomenico). Meanwhile, new materials could be created in the French Department Pedagogy Seminars. A list of all the songs that have accompanying lesson plans can be found on the website.

However, I did not want to limit this sort of tool to just the French Department. Therefore, I have also created the blueprints for a Song Database that would be maintained by the BLC and that would be available for all language departments at Berkeley. I am currently working on the design with members of the BLC. It is my intention that the database will be operable by fall 2012. We are also working on a way to integrate this database with the BLC Film Clip Archive.

Expected results and further research
In my own personal teaching experience, I have always received good results when using music in class. Students relate well to music and tend to remain interested and engaged, making them more willing to participate. A website and a database is not only beneficial for the students; the teachers have at their disposal new ways of approaching a text. By including lesson plans and supporting materials, teachers who might not ordinarily use music are more willing to try activities that are foreign to them.

The next step will be to devise a research project that examines the impact of this pedagogical model in the classroom. By collecting classroom data in the spring semester, I can test how my pedagogical theories work in practice. I will analyze the outcomes, evaluate the effectiveness of the materials, and submit an article for publication.

sites.google.com/site/frenchmusicdatabase/ (detailed lesson plans for French Department)
Kern, R., Frisch, A., DeDomenico, P. (2000). French Activity Bank: An instructional resource for instructors of French at the University of California, Berkeley, 3rd edition.

Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. Oxford University Press.
Kristeva, J. ([1966] 1974). La Révolution du langage poétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Education Publishing Group, 66(1), 60-93.


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