[Image: "Music Tag Game" by mandyxclear is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0].
by Danielle Saad, Assistant Professor of Communications & English
“So, what are we listening to today?” I ask as I wait on students still entering the zoom meeting. This is COM 101, your standard first year writing course, and right now, we’re working through a music analysis essay. We’ve made a class playlist. We’ve dissected some Juice WRLD.
“I’m up for whatever you want to play,” says one student, a young man propped up against the cinder block wall behind the bed in his residence hall room.
I admit a few more students, mark them present on the open excel spreadsheet that’s up on my second monitor. “No,” I say, without looking directly into the camera or at the boxes full of faces on my main screen. “I mean what are you guys listening to? What’s in your AirPods this morning?”
A few of them answer, a paltry few from the class of twenty.
This is how we start three mornings a week: small chat about what’s going on in their lives while I admit students from the zoom waiting room. Sometimes they share some irritating thing from their lives. Sometimes they give me the scoop on campus parties. Sometimes they shrug.
Twenty years ago when I started this gig, I still had to officially start class and get them to stop chattering amongst themselves. The silence in the room before the scheduled start time isn’t new though, and it hasn’t been new in at least five or six years. Maybe more. They don’t talk to each other.
One student tells me he’s been listening to Drake, and I’m not living under a rock so I know who Drake is. “I’m not a huge fan of Drake,” I tell him. A few of the other heads in boxes nod that they’re with me. “I don’t not like Drake,” I clarify, “he’s just not my favorite.” I never listen to Drake. I couldn’t tell you one single Drake track.
This prompts a short-lived discussion about the merits of Drake and his similarly-styled colleagues. When we talk about music, I’ve noticed, we talk a little longer than other subjects. Star Wars and Marvel can have this effect on class discussion as well, depending on the mix of students. Music is universal, however.
In this mini-discussion, one student – upper right corner box – says, “Oh, he’s in his bag. He’s in his bag.” – and I’m not sure if he’s talking about Drake or if he’s talking about the Drake fan in the bottom center box.
We’re about seven minutes into class time of a 40 minute session, and I have a four item to-do list that is going to involve screen sharing a whole process that three students are going to ask me to repeat twice. But this is a class about choosing words wisely, being specific, and knowing your audience, and I am unfamiliar with the phrase “in his bag,” so I’m going to sacrifice the to-do list if I have to.
“Okay, friends. Did he just say ‘in his bag’?”
A bright-eyed blond with long loose hair giggles silently in her box. One of the boys, who is half-hidden under a hoodie, covers his face in embarrassment for me. The Drake fan says, “In his bag, yeah. You never heard your kids say that?”
This class knows about my kids. I’m teaching remotely, and the only room in my house that’s usable for a home office is the room you have to walk through to get to my high school senior’s attic bedroom. More than once she’s stumbled out of that door on her way to breakfast right in the middle of my class. They’ve met her. They know she’s the one who compiled our class playlists for me because I might be quasi-cool, but I’m slower at slapping playlists together than a 17-yr-old.
“No, never. They stopped trying to teach me words because they’re annoyed with me. I don’t know. So what is it?” I make a mental note to ask 17 later on.
A different student, a COM major actually, stationed in the middle far-left box, tries to explain the phrase to me. I like this guy. He talks a lot. Reminds me of Harry Styles pre 1D breakup. When I tried to paraphrase him, saying something like that “in your bag” means you’re doing good, feeling all right, there is a chorus of “nah, nah, nah” and a visual collage of frustrated head shakes.
Someone else tries, “It’s like you’re in a mood, like in yourself, like, I don’t know, it’s hard to explain…”
“So, not a good thing. Is it sad? Are you in a depression bag?” Right away I go there, because I know about depression. I think, I’ve definitely been in a depression bag.
“Not exactly,” one of them says.
“Maybe. Kind of,” another one offers.
I try again. “Is it like you’re kind of in your cave? You don’t want to be out talking to people?”
Now they shrug at me. I’m exhausting them too, and I can tell they are getting ready to stop trying to educate me. I wonder for a second if my frustration at trying to understand this new language is how they feel when I’m fumbling over trying to explain MLA style rules to them. No, I decide. MLA is much more boring, much worse.
Somehow, the conversation shifts into the actual content for the day. We’re talking about quoting song lyrics and finding some weak research on the issues they are uncovering in the songs they have chosen to analyze. It’s a decent class. They unmute and participate.
We talk about how the lyrics their artists are writing exist in the world of ideas. Nothing is just a song. The music is real life. It’s who we are. It’s what we’re worried about. I tell them they have to walk a few steps outside the song to find research that connects those lyrics to the bigger societal issues – suicide, drug use, immigration, Black Lives Matter, eating disorders, the anxiety they are all drowning in. They nod, and several of them are writing things down!
In the evening when I come upon 17 listening to music in the kitchen, I ask her, “Hey, what does ‘in your pocket’ mean?”
She scrunches her eyebrows and tilts her head like our dog used to do. Then she laughs at me, “Do you mean ‘out of pocket’?”
I panic that I’ve already forgotten my new phrase. “No! Of course I know what ‘out of pocket’ means. I’m a Posty fan.” I hold on to this truth like it’s the umbilical cord to
youth, which has been leaking from the discs in my back. A nearby bag of kettle corn offers me the opportunity to crunch and think, trying hard to recall.
We volley possible phrases until she lands on it. “In your bag?” With horror, she asks, “Did you try to say this to someone?”
“Just tell me how to use it. Is it like ‘in your cave’? You want to be left alone?” She says no, and I try to force the link – in a bag, in a cave, both are dark, both are places you might hide.
“Whoever started that wasn’t thinking of the visuals of a cave. No one is hiding.” She steals the bag of kettle corn from my hands and sighs, “Let me look at Urban Dictionary. You should get this app.”
I tell her I’ve been knowing about Urban Dictionary since before she was born. I feel vindicated when the only results she gets are for “in the bag,” which I am confident I understand. She gives me a little lecture about how useful Urban Dictionary is when talking to boys, because if I think it’s hard to understand what she and her friends are saying, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to talk to boys who say things that make no sense at all. I think, I been knowing that too. For the record, been knowing is something I picked up a couple semesters ago from a student and it stuck. It’s mine now, too.
Finally, she gives me the Rosetta stone. “It has to do with when you are listening to a certain type of songs. It’s used when you’re talking about music or someone hooks up their playlist and you can tell they’re in a kind’a mood.” Then she mimes looking over someone’s shoulder at their phone and says, “Aww, aww he’s in his bag” in a teasing, sympathetic way. The same way Upper Right Corner Box said it about Drake Fan, not Drake himself, which I finally get.
“In your bag” is 2020 for marinating in your feelings, which is in fact not the same as retreating to a cave. This is that thing you do when you listen to mellow tracks that keep you teetering on the edge of sad-not-depressed, mellow quasi-romantic, feeling your indulgent feelsy angstiness. It’s appropriate. I like it. I was in my bag just this weekend, flowing through a Ben Howard/Bon Iver playlist while on a morning walk through the ocean surf. I’m not going to tell this section of COM 101 that though, because I’ll lose the little cred I’ve managed to cultivate. We’re talking about 2Pac next week, after all.
Music teaches us things. It’s a tool and a salve and a connector. It’s part of the larger conversation about life, and that’s the conversation we have in COM 101. We need to marinate in our feels to know what we think about things sometimes. What’s in their AirPods matters, and that’s why I ask.
**By the way, for the nerds in the back, you can also say, “in your duffle,” which is a derivative of “in your bag.”