connotation in songs

I have been listening to Sting’s last album 44/876 quite a lot recently and there are two songs that have particularly called my attention as an English teacher/teacher trainer/materials writer. The first one is Crooked Tree, for which I wrote a blog post last week dealing with co-hyponyms and how that song presents itself well for exploiting them and exploring the topic area of crime (click here to read it). The other one is Dreaming in the USA, a very catchy song that takes a look at American culture from an outsider’s point of view. Here’s a live version of it.

Words, and in a broader context discourse, carry cultural or emotional associations. For example, cheap and affordable may share the same meaning but the former conveys the idea of “low quality”. They have different connotations.

In this song Sting tells us how much his life has been influenced by American life and culture. From the clothes he has always worn to the music he has listened to and played. The song also deals with how life is like there for immigrants. Here are some excerpts:

  • “Don’t stop dreaming”
  • “The work nobody else wants to feed their family”
  • “They join the Army”
  • “Here in the land of the brave”
  • “Get up in the morning working two jobs to make it here in America”

The explicit meaning -or denotation- is very clear. But what is the connotation implied in each of these excerpts?

The song also mentions some iconic music and movie stars: Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye.

So here is my song exploitation for low language levels (we could use it for higher levels as well).

  1. Hands up if you know these American singers, actors and actresses that are mentioned in the song that we are about to listen to.
  • King of Rock and Roll
  • Actress and sex symbol of the 50s
  • Actor who died in a car crass when he was 24 years old
  • Musician from New Orleans who played the trumpet.
  • Singer who sang New York New York and My Way.
  • Motown singer: Marvin …

(check answers)

2. The song is called Dreaming in America by Sting.  Do you know him? What other songs do you know by him? etc. In pairs, what kinds of things come from America? Would you like to live there? How would your life be different if you lived there? (give them about ten minutes to discuss in groups and then go to plenary mode and have a discussion around this).

3. Get your phones and look for the lyrics of the song (alternatively display the lyrics on a screen). Listen to the song as you read the lyrics. In groups again, discuss: how does he feel about America? What does he mean when he says (the excerpts from the song quoted above)? What do they mean to you? (finally go to plenary mode for all the groups to share their ideas).

This is a very fruitful way of looking at a song at a discourse level to promote discussion and critical thinking. There are tons of songs that could be analysed and discussed from a connotation point of view, even at a low language level.

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