Using the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" to teach allegory
Tyler Flory is a teacher at Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins. His Music Class column ties together his job and his music fandom in a neat little package.
Teaching allegory to high school students is difficult. It is much easier when the lessons of stories are found within the pages itself instead of digging into outside events. As readers, we are always connecting text with the outside world and our own lives, but when we approach allegories, we have to give the author's intent greater weight. Our minds don't always want to stretch like that, so when I start teaching 9th graders about allegory I start small and a bit weird. I start with "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by the Flaming Lips.
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I give my students the definition for allegory, hand out a lyric sheet, and then play "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" part one and part two for them. It's seven minutes of gloriously weird, electro fuzz rock. If you are unfamiliar with the Lips or are unprepared to listen to them, it can be a bit of a challenge, but it could also be the best seven minutes of your day.
It's important to play both parts of the song even though the second part doesn't have any lyrics. In concert or on the radio part one stands alone, but when examining this as a story it's important to know that we are given a musical ending that holds a distinct or hazy end to the story, depending on your point of view. It is also important to listen to the second part because it starts to make us think in the same way we have to when analyzing allegories. We are applying music to a previous story that we know, the same way that we apply a new allegory to something we are already familiar with.
So, let us begin:
When the two songs are finished some students look jazzed and intrigued, while others look taxed. Both looks are appropriate. I start the discussion by asking them simply what's going on in the song.
"Robots are trying to defeat or eat the people and Yoshimi is the town's only chance to live," said one student, with others agreeing.
"Good," I say. "That's pretty much all that's literally going on in the song, so let's go deeper. What's this song really all about?"
And then the room is silent for a few beats. This is the really hard part and I'm not giving them any clues yet.
"Maybe she's a superhero," says one student.
'That could be," I respond.
"It could be about war, about fighting your own battles," says another.
"What if the robots stand for technology and Yoshimi is fighting back against it?" asks a third.
"That's a great idea," I say. "That makes a lot of sense when we compare it to how the music sounds, right? There are all sorts of crazy sounds that are being made by electronic instruments."
This is one of the leading online arguments about these songs and is a constant theme in academia. There are plenty of think pieces about our dependency on technology posted on the very technology we're dependent on. This is a fine path to take, but this song doesn't allow us to go much further with this thought than we already have.
"What if it's about fighting her body?" one student ponders.
"Go on," I say. I become more excited and my excitement translates to the rest of the class.
"Umm...is it about fighting cancer?" she continues.
"Yes, but what kind of cancer?" I ask.
"Yes, breast cancer!" I say, with most enthusiasm that anyone has ever said that phrase.
A student's interpretation.
"And the robots are pink because of the pink ribbons." She states emphatically.
"Yes! Exactly!" I exclaim. There was a tension in the classroom that has been released. There was an absolute ton of thinking going on and once one student was able to crack the code we are all able to relax our brains just a bit.
"Were your minds just blown?" I ask.
And there was a collective "yes" from the class. Understanding the two songs from this perspective makes it better. It gives us something to hold on to, a springboard for discussion. I am also reminded how awesome a new discovery can be by seeing my students' minds being blown.
"Alright, let's listen to this again and figure out Yoshimi's fate," I said as I played the two songs again. Once we are in on the Lips' secret, part two becomes very important. That's where the grit is, where the real work is. Part one is straightforward; Yoshimi, who is highly skilled at karate, has some very big pink robots to fight. She's been training and taking vitamins to be prepared for the battle because the town's fate depends on it. The Flaming Lips believe that she will win the fight, but isn't hope always on the opposite side of evil robots?
The second time around I noticed my students paying great attention to part two. There are a number of different sounds that we are not used to and trying to interpret them is difficult. When we are done listening I ask my students who won the battle.
"They're clapping at the end, but it didn't sound like winning music," says one student.
"There's an ambulance sound in the background," another student says.
"Screaming too," says a third.
"The screaming sounded inhuman," replies a student.
"If we figure out who is cheering, then we'll figure out who won," says another voice.
"Maybe she lost, but everyone was cheering because she fought so hard," says an optimistic student.
"Maybe it's a parade at the end for her," says another equally optimistic student.
"These are all great thoughts and I wish I had a definitive answer for you," I said, but then I realized that it didn't matter. Whether they knew it at the beginning or not, my students wanted more than Yoshimi just fighting robots. They've be told that story before. They wanted something more challenging. and now that they have it, it doesn't really matter whether she wins or loses.
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