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Five for Friday: Back-to-School Songs

The end of summer can be sad as, for many, it marks the time to head back to school. Yet rock n' roll, long obsessed with teen life and all its associated mixed-up romance and emotional complexities, has often found school a ripe subject for exploration – from Chuck Berry's "School Days" to the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School" to Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher." The best school-inspired songs use the education system as something of a metaphor, understanding that while one may have graduated, the lessons never really go away. As summer winds down and educators prepare for the onset of students, we look at five of our favorite school-inspired songs.

The Ramones, "Rock 'n' Roll High School"
As the centerpiece song of a silly 1979 B-movie, one in which high-school principals are driven mad by the student body's love of rock n' roll, the tune (and film) exaggerates the confusion that lies in generational divides. Punk rock, specifically in the case of the film, becomes a secret language among students, and one whose very existence infuriates the institution's ruling class. Such feelings easily translate to the adult world, where there's often a gap between the staff members and superiors. The Ramones celebrate the camaraderie of the underlings. "I don't care about history," sings Joey Ramone, adding later, "that's not where I want to be." The lyric cuts to the core of working life, where things are usually done a certain way simply because that's how they've always been done. But the song's subway-fast riff and relentless rhythm, which threatens to obliterate anything in its way, capture the excitement of plotting a new path.

Belle & Sebastian, "We Rule the School"
Depending on your point of view, this is either a song of heartbreak or one about making the best of a moment. While Scotland's Belle & Sebastian regularly traffic in the glum, this lovely ballad, on which sorrowful violins clash with a childlike xylophone and a nostalgic piano, aims to find the sunlight in a world where it's easy to be defeated. The title appears twice in the song as a message of graffiti at a bus stop. Vocalist Stuart Murdoch remains at his most wistful throughout the 1996 cut. His narrator urges listeners to "do something pretty while you can." Maybe it's a road trip across the country, or perhaps an afternoon spent ice skating. "We Rule the School" is about finding those little pleasures, the joys that often elude us while lost in the daily grind. After a mellow orchestral swell with toy-like synths and a trumpet, the song ends on a downer – a reminder to stop and make time for ourselves.

Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
This song may seem out of place on this list. After all, it's about the end of the school year. But what is the first day of class without something to look forward to? What's more, Alice Cooper and his band on the 1972 cut understand the elation of the bell ringing and summer break beginning. It's a moment of pure joy, and one rarely matched throughout adulthood. Perhaps the last few minutes of work before a vacation? Or Friday afternoon before a long weekend? The guitar riff, courtesy of Glen Buxton, adds a sense of menace. It comes on as a thick, bluesy wake-up call that hints at the misdeeds to come when the teachers aren't looking. Yet Cooper also grasp the importance of a hook, and things smooth out in the chorus for a sing-along. Above all, the song's enduring beauty relates to an underlying awareness: It's never too early to anticipate the moment when you're off the clock.

Nirvana, "School"
Despite the direct title, "School" may not be the most obvious Nirvana song to include here. After all, the trio's breakout, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came equipped with a striking video of a school gymnasium in disrepair, and "teenage angst" quickly became a go-to way to describe the band's sound. But the latter always sold Nirvana short. Angst is ageless, and the sensations of high school – the cliques, the drama, the friendships, the stress – never really go away. That's the mood Kurt Cobain chases here, a song off the group's 1989 debut Bleach. "Won't you believe it? It's just my luck," Cobain sings over churning guitars and furious, cymbal enhanced rhythms. Cobain, of course, if not obvious by his forceful and raspy howl, deals here in sarcasm, a characteristic further revealed in the final verse: "You're in high school again." So, while we think of the end of summer as a time when many go back to school, Cobain knew we never really leave it.

The Jackson 5, "ABC"
Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power. This signature Jackson 5 cut, a 1970 slice of Motown at its most bubblegum, delivers pure elation. And while a young Michael and his brothers are ultimately singing about being schooled in the ways of love, the tune teems with goofy albeit charming classroom staples – a nod to the "do-re-mi" scale, as well as simple lessons like "I before E, except after C." More important, in tone, it's all upbeat charm--the sound of soul music at it most poppy and dance-centric. Decades later, its buzzing synths, jangly guitars, and cheery vocals can make even advanced calculus go down easy.

August 31, 2018

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