(Re)Interpretation via Gurren Lagann

“ROW, ROW FIGHT THE POWAH!!”

If you aren’t a Gurren Lagann fan or 4channer, you likely have no idea what that means, so let me enlighten you: it’s a rap lyric from the main “theme” of the show, “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii” etc.  The Engrish isn’t terrible, though the lyrics are somewhat hilarious (particularly the refrain, “row, row, fight the powah,” which has achieved meme status all by itself).

As my brain slowly pieced itself together following illness, I was rewatching the Gurren Lagann Parallel Works videos—sort of like official anime music videos (AMVs) created by the production company Gainax and set to different musical tracks from the show—and it occurred to me that much of the music is comprised of different versions of the main theme.  We are given the same lyrics set against different background tracks, ranging from electronica/hip-hop (“Rap wa Kan no Tamashii… Datta… yo…”) to orchestral/operatic arrangement (“‘Libera me’ from hell”) to “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii da! … Kamina-sama no Theme [etc.],” which has a funky, casual aura with its twangy guitar and its beat, whereas the piano-accompanied beat of “‘Libera me’” and the crash of opera vocals gives us a sense of build-up, of imminent danger, perhaps warns us that something tragic will happen, that there will be survivors who will overcome regardless.  This is, incidentally, how the track is used toward the end of the show.  Each background track evokes a particular response in us, whether we’ve seen the show or not, and when embedded in its visual context, the meaning of the lyrics accumulates significant meaning.

And yeah, I listened to the full soundtrack before watching the whole show.

All of this is well and good and interesting, but to get to the point, I was thinking about this in terms of using music as a thinking exercise in the classroom—sort of like a follow-up to the playlist exercise I mentioned in a previous post.  Namely, this would resolve one major problem I’ve faced in my literature courses: the fact that students will latch onto the most obvious message of a theme without considering formal elements at all.  This essentially means that if you give them 3 readings about love in various contexts, you end up with 30 essays telling you that the readings are about love. (Hello, Captain Obvious.)  But perhaps a good way to get students to think about how they approach the formal elements of literature would be to show them how we approach different versions of the same song differently—i.e., how formal elements of music, namely the small/large shifts in background track, are meant to shape our reaction differently even though the lyrics are exactly the same.  Simply put, “row, row, fight the powah” will always literally indicate a story about struggling to overcome, but the connotations of this message obviously change as we move through the different versions of the song.  Additionally, since students aren’t likely to know the song, they won’t be bringing any biases to the table, which (like my “Look of Love” exercise) should give them more freedom to interpret.

The specific versions I imagine I’d use are, in order below, “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii Da!,” “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii… Datta… yo…,” and “Libera Me from Hell.”

For shits and giggles, here are a couple of versions of the song used strategically in a fan-video based on a rage-comic about a particular incident on 4chan:

I imagine this exercise would take up quite a bit of class time, so perhaps the songs should be posted to be listened to as homework preceding the class discussion.  Then, in class, students could individually free-write their response to each track, and then work in small groups to discuss and refine these initial interpretations before reconvening as a class to relate all this back to the importance of analyzing formal elements in literature.  Since music is a form of pop culture students respect and are familiar with, this may help in getting them to acknowledge that it’s the portrayal of things, and not the given subject matter, that shapes our interpretation and response to literature.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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