It is with great pride and excitement that I share with you the wonderful and unique experience of how Janet Fauret, a teacher in France, created a lesson plan based on Barry Manilow’s original album, “15 Minutes”. The poignant, timely and insightful lyrics were written by lyricist Enoch Anderson, and set to Barry Manilow’s extraordinary music.
What follows is a summary of how I used Barry Manilow’s album, Fifteen Minutes, as a teaching aid, with a group of seventeen-year-old French students. As far as possible, I have reproduced what students said in the words they used, but I obviously had to help them out sometimes with vocabulary and grammar so that they could express their ideas clearly.
by Janet Fauret
“So is it his story? “
“Well he says that, at first, when he started writing it, he didn’t think it was, and then he realized that some of it was. But not all of it.”
“So it’s his first album? “
“No, I’ve already explained that he’s writing about an imaginary artist.”
“But he sounds so young!”
There I have to agree!
With an eager student, I’m discussing the song “Now It’s For Real” from Fifteen Minutes, the album released by Barry Manilow, with lyrics by Enoch Anderson, just over a year ago.
When the album came out, I listened to it constantly. I loved everything about it: the fact that it was a concept album, dealing with a really topical and fascinating theme, the beautifully constructed lyrics and of course, Barry’s incomparable melodies. I’m not quite sure when the idea came to me that this was a subject that could interest my final year students. But back in August of last year, I worked out a lesson plan. For various reasons, I’ve only recently been able to teach it. It was a great experience, since my students really enjoyed it and came up with some interesting ideas.
I called the lesson “ The Perils of Fame- the pros and cons of overnight celebrity”
I aimed at devoting seven or eight hours to it. Unfortunately, for reasons beyond my control, the last two hours were cancelled and we only worked on it for five. But I decided to write about it anyway, even though I didn’t manage to do all I set out to.
As an introduction, we started out discussing talent shows and watched a semi-final I’d recorded of Britain’s Got Talent. The contestants were of all ages and backgrounds and the acts were very varied: singers, a xylophone player, a contortionist (!) and dance groups. First I used the show to teach my students some new words, in particular, adjectives. They only had to listen to the judges’ comments to pick out ‘awesome’,’ amazing’, ‘brilliant’, ‘gorgeous, ‘astonishing’, or ‘ awful’, boring’, dreadful’, which I hoped would take over from the ‘good’, ‘nice’, ‘bad’ they usually used! Then I focused attention on an eleven-year-old girl singer and asked my students what they thought about children taking part in this sort of show.
The reactions came spontaneously:
“Sometimes parents push their children into this kind of show against their will”
“If they succeed, they earn a lot of money but they have a different childhood. They don’t learn the value of things.”
“It’s not good to become famous when you’re young, because there are too many temptations”.
“Overnight success and fame can be difficult to handle.”
“It changes your life.”
My next question was: ‘So let’s speak more generally. Tell me what the pros and cons of instant fame are. You know from the title of the lesson that we’re going to focus on the cons rather than the pros, but let’s start off with both.’
What was interesting here was that every time someone came up with a ‘positive’ aspect, someone else immediately countered with the downside!
“You earn a lot of money”
“Yes, but when you’re young, you’re not prepared for it. You’re tempted to do stupid things”
“Everybody recognizes you”
“Yes, you have no private life”
“People adore you”
“Yes, but you don’t know who your real friends are. You don’t know if someone is your friend because they really like you or just because you’re famous”
“Some people are jealous of your success and want to bring you down. Think of celebrity magazines, which tell lies”
I was really pleased when I heard that last comment, since it would have been an excellent introduction to Winner Goes Down. Unhappily, I didn’t have time to play that song to them!
We finished this sequence by saying that fame seemed to be the main objective and that very often, young people seeking fame didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into.
I then gave them Andy Warhol’s famous statement which Mr. Manilow often quotes:
‘One day soon, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes’.
I introduced the album, explaining the ideas behind it and the events which had inspired it. All my students knew who Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse were.
I started my work on the album itself by showing them the cover on an overhead projector.
‘You can hardly see the singer/artist.”
“The audience is crazy/hysterical.”
“It’s as if the artist was a god. They worship him.”
Reactions to the colours used were varied. Some said their first thought was of blood and violence. Others thought the colours were warm and struck a positive note.
Several were intrigued by the album’s title and sub-title. One wondered if it was necessary to add ‘Fame…Can You Take it?’ This student thought that we should discover the story while listening and that Fifteen Minutes was enough as a title. But the majority felt the title should stay as it was.
We decided that they would listen to the opening song, Fifteen Minutes, without having the lyrics in front of them, the way a native English speaker would listen. I reminded them again:
“The album is a mini-musical (wishful thinking? I hope not!!) It tells the story of someone who yearns to be famous, becomes famous and blows it, makes all the wrong decisions. He has to start again.”
Well they listened to the song but apart from the two or three whose English is really excellent, they couldn’t understand it! This has nothing to do with Barry’s voice or the way he sings. Of all the singers I listen to, he has to be the one who articulates the most clearly. It’s just that the imagery and the richness of the vocabulary were too hard for them to understand. It’s often much easier for a non-native speaker to comprehend a written text than the spoken voice. But I could see they were enjoying the melody. In fact, I think they were relieved that teacher wasn’t playing them something boring! So I handed out photocopies of the lyrics, gave them the French for a few key words and we were off!
“The guy is frustrated, desperate to be given his chance.”
“He sees himself in the spotlight. He uses the image of a firework to describe his future.”
“Yes and a rocket.”
We look for other images.
“A shooting star “ says someone.
“Yes “, counters another.” But don’t forget, a shooting star is very bright but it doesn’t last for long.”
“Neither does a rocket or a firework.”
They played around with this idea and then concluded: “All these things are bright and full of colour but they don’t last. So in a way, we get a glimpse of the end of the story”.
The second song we listened to was “Now It’s For Real”. This time I handed out the lyrics right away!
The students picked up immediately on the change of tone.
“He feels confident. Sure of himself”.
“I think he sounds relieved.”
I give them “vindicated ‘ and explain what it means.
Someone asks for the expression “at last”.
“He’s saying that at last he’s got what he deserves.”
And then came that question.” Is he talking about himself? is it his first album?”
Barry’s voice IS that of a young man. It’s so pure, so pitch perfect that it gives no indication at all of his age. But I think what was also influencing the students was the passion he puts into the song and the way he ACTS the part of a young star on his way up. He is so convincing that many of them genuinely got the impression that the album was autobiographical!
I didn’t realize it at the time but the next hour of class was to be the last!
I knew that I wouldn’t have time to play the whole album so I’d chosen five songs. In fact the students only got to hear three. During the final hour, we discussed “Written in Stone”. And unfortunately, that was it. I never got to play them Winner Goes Down and Trainwreck, which were my last two choices.
But I was really happy when a student stayed behind after hour 3 and said: Couldn’t we find time to hear the whole album?!!!
So…… Written in Stone”. This time, no lyrics! I wanted them to FEEL the emotion in the song, to understand that even if you don’t understand all the lyrics, words are only part of the process of comprehension. Music can convey a message just by itself!
And they got it! One girl drew a picture of a knife dripping blood as she listened! When I asked her if she really got that message from the song, she said no, not really, and asked me for the word “melancholy”
In fact, they all heard different emotions. Some went with melancholy, others thought anger dominated, others sadness, and yet others, regret. When they read the lyrics, they opted mainly for regret. Regret that his partner doesn’t want what he wants, regret for “a past which is disappearing”. And a desire “to reassure and be reassured”. Most of them felt that there was still hope.” He hasn’t completely given up”.
And there we had to leave it. I was as frustrated as the hero of Fifteen Minutes!! There was no way I could get the group together again. Exams were starting, and next year they will be in college or out at work. But I think I gave them an original and unique experience by using Barry’s album. I also introduced them to a singer and musician of whom none of them had ever heard and for whom the great majority showed real and genuine appreciation.