Monday, February 12, 2024

When is a song ‘inappropriate’ to sing?

Not all songs are appropriate to sing in all circumstances.

But how do we know when a song is ‘inappropriate’? Here are some guidelines.

A teacher emailed me recently to ask for my advice. They had received a complaint from a parent about one of the songs that was going to be taught in class. The parent felt that the choice of song was ‘political’ in some way. The song was a well-know song of peace in Hebrew. I guess (they didn’t clarify) that the parent somehow connected the choice of song with the current situation in Gaza and Israel.

The teacher concerned couldn’t understand how their choice of song was political in any way (that wasn’t their intention), and asked me for my advice.

This got me thinking more generally: when might a song be considered ‘inappropriate’?

There are three main areas to consider:

1. context

What is going on in the world/ your local area right now (e.g. war in Ukraine/ Gaza, recent local anti-racist demonstrations, anniversary of a major disaster)?

What kind of venue are the songs being performed in (e.g, church, school, community centre)?

Who is your audience and singers (e.g. white middle-aged women, local Jewish group, Tory supporters)?

What is the occasion/theme of any performance (e.g. Black history month, LGBTQ+ celebration, Remembrance Day)?

What local culture is the song being learnt and/ or performed in?

Does time and place impinge on your choice of song in any way?

Have you consulted your singers/ audience/ venue about your choice of song?

2. content

What is the song about?

Are the lyrics offensive in any way?

What story is the song telling?

These considerations are even more important if the song is in a foreign language: is the translation correct and have you considered the cultural context of the song’s words?

Are the lyrics age-appropriate for the singers and/ or audience?

If it’s an old or traditional song, might the lyrics be misconstrued in the present cultural and social climate?

3. cultural origins

Is it appropriate to sing this song outside the cultural context of its origins?

Are you honouring the source of the song?

Does the song make sense stripped of its cultural origins?

Are you sure the particular demographic of your singers should be singing this song?

somebody might still be upset

No matter how hard you try to be sensitive and choose appropriate songs, somebody might still be upset. It’s impossible to know the individual experience of every singer, parent or audience member. Somebody may have been recently bereaved. Somebody may have a son fighting abroad. Somebody may be married to a person from the culture your song is from.

All you can do is to be as sensitive as possible, do your research and choose songs with the best intentions.And remember, that circumstances will change over time.

Chris Rowbury


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