David Bowie in the Classroom (A Lesson in Memoir vs. Personal Essay)
Posted on March 31, 2014
I returned from my maternity leave today and got right back into teaching. Today in my nonfiction course, we were introducing the differences between memoir (which they have already studied) and personal essay (which is the unit we are beginning now). I introduced one of the major differences as this: memoir is a story about your life, while personal essay is a story about a topic, which includes information about your life.
As an experiment, I asked my students to think of a favorite song. I played one of mine: Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.” Then, I demonstrated how my writing process varies when I approach memoir vs. when I write a personal essay. I used “Under Pressure” as a starting off point.
This is what I wrote during class, with some minor revisions. For the memoir section, I wrote about a specific life experience connected to the song. For the personal essay, I used the song as a jumping off point to talk about the topic of fundamentalism.
Memoir Based on “Under Pressure”
It’s becoming obvious to me: love for David Bowie is genetic. My daughter Ruthie, who is four, is discovering him at about the same age that I did.
Labyrinth. Jareth, with his hair and his goblins and yes, his tight pants. Me as a pre-schooler with hair so frizzy my dad used to call me a dandelion in the mornings. The first time I saw the movie, I understood that Jareth was the bad guy, but then why did I LIKE him that much? Why did I get a distinct feeling of I WANT TO BE AROUND THAT PERSON? This is the pre-pre-pubescent crush. This is attraction before any sort of sexual awakening. This is a new kind of love to a five-year-old.
Now my daughter sits in the back seat of the car and says when we get to “Under Pressure,” track 13, “TURN IT UP! TURN IT, MOM! This is the best part! That’s not loud enough! I said louder! Please! Freddie Mercury’s part is coming up now! It’s the loud part! Please, come on, I don’t care if the baby is sleeping!” And then she wails along, putting her fist in the air and closing her eyes. We do this daily. The song ends, and she says, “Again. We gotta do that again.”
Ruthie has a four-foot tall giraffe named David Bowie.
I get to say things like, “Yes, you’re doing a good job combing David Bowie’s hair, sweetheart,” and, “Yes, you can bring David Bowie to the living room while you watch Rescue Bots,” and, “I know you don’t want to go to sleep, but just remember. David Bowie is right there.”
I think for a while, though, we’ll keep skipping “Ziggy Stardust” on the best of CD. I don’t really need her talking about anyone’s “God-given ass” or asking me what it means for someone to be “making love with his ego.”
David Bowie is a great crush for a pre-schooler, but let’s not get carried away.
Personal Essay Based on “Under Pressure”
I watched a documentary the other night on Freddie Mercury. Not knowing much about him aside from Queen, AIDS, and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I was intrigued. The most attention-grabbing part was when Mercury talked about how he writes music about love. That’s what he wanted. Love, to be in love, to be loved. His lyrics always reflect it, he said.
Since watching the documentary, I’ve been listening to more Queen, and I can hear it. All the songs are about love.
My daughter listens to “Under Pressure” in the car, daily. It started as an obsession with David Bowie’s Best Of CD, but it has turned into an “Under Pressure” party every car trip to town or to the babysitter’s or to church. She begs me to turn it up louder, and I almost always give in. “IF I HAVE TO YELL OVER THE MUSIC, IT’S LOUD ENOUGH, RUTHIE!” I have to say quite often.
Throughout my adolescence and teenage years, my church taught that all secular music was “of the devil.” OTD, we called it. I couldn’t have touched a Queen/David Bowie CD without feeling extreme guilt. There were even authority figures in my immediate social circle who believed that to the righteous, demons could be seen clinging to CDs like that. I was told by a child in our youth program: “I liked that Labyrinth movie, but my mom saw demons crawling in and out of the videotape, so she made us destroy it.”
Now my daughter belts out the lyrics of “Under Pressure” in the car, and I don’t feel any guilt. I do not believe there are demons that thrive on this music. I do not believe this is dangerous.
The song is known for its catchiness, but I look at the lyrics, co-written by Bowie and Mercury, and I am moved by its message.
That burns a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on the streets
. . .
It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about
It’s watching some good friends scream, “Let me out!”
. . .
Pressure on people
People on streets
. . .
I keep coming back to love
But it’s so slashed and torn
. . .
Why can’t we give love one more chance?
. . .
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
When she sings these words, she is singing about love.
This I can handle.