Heavy metal, hard rock & ELT

Ask any decent musician what his/her influences are and you’ll get quite a wide variety of answers: different bands and performers past and present, different musical genres, mentors, managers etc., etc. In a similar way, this post has myriad influences starting with one of my recent favourites from Tyson Seburn’s blog about movies that have affected his approach to ELT and including the recent debate sparked by Gavin Dudeney’s questioning of the seemingly changing direction of Dogme ELT, which in turn evoked responses from Graham Stanley and Luke Meddings.

Anyway, onto the post. Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Istanbul with my wife, the main purpose of our visit being a concert given by two legendary names in heavy metal - Whitesnake and Judas Priest. While enjoying the music and taking in the show, I couldn’t help but start to see parallels with the world of ELT and particularly The Dogme Debate (signs of a further influence from one of Cecilia’s early works “Are you a teacher all the time?”)


Heavy Metal and ELT: the similarities are there if you look hard enough! Image by maistora

Watching Whitesnake in the late afternoon sunshine, I recalled what they were like in their 1980s peak: big hair, layered synths and tight trousers abound! However, this over-the-top look soon came to be seen as, well, over the top and by the time I started to develop a serious interest in music in the early 90s, there was a kickback. Bands like Nirvana, Screaming Trees, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam appeared and gone were the perms, leopard-skin spandex and extravagant live shows. Instead, the performers on stage looked no different from the fans in their faded jeans and old t-shirts and the concerts were less about the show and more about the music.

It’s also worth noting that one of the most popular music shows on TV at the time was MTV Unplugged, for which artists would go ‘back to basics’ and strip their songs back to the bare bones of acoustic instruments (no need to spell out the parallel there I think!)

However, as time went on, views started to change. As the bands who shunned the extravagance of the previous decade started to grow in popularity, they also got accused of ‘selling-out’ due to their regular appearances on MTV and stadium-filling world tours (granted, Pearl Jam stopped making videos and tried to boycott Ticketmaster but you get the idea…) Some of the bands also started to diversify, incorporating different elements into the music and having to deal with questions like ‘but is this grunge?’ or ‘is this still part of the Seattle Sound?’ as a result. Sounds to me a lot like the questions being asked of Dogme and its relation to technology, published materials and so forth these days!

I think such questions stem from two different aspects of human nature: first, is the perceived need to classify and label things and judge them in comparison to what has gone before. This inevitably leads to unanswerable questions like ‘is this really punk?’, ‘what is Dogme?’ and ‘weren’t we doing this back in the 70s?’. Second, there always seems to be a ‘kickback’ against something as it grows in popularity. It may be cool when it’s underground and known only to a few of discerning taste but once everyone is doing it or at least knows about it, we worry it has become too ‘mainstream’, lost touch with its roots or alienated its followers.

Having said all that, I did enjoy Whitesnake performing a very understated show with nothing but their logo as a backdrop and their classic songs to entertain. I also enjoyed Judas Priest and their lasers, fireballs and outlandish costumes. I should also point out that I do not view heavy metal as the equivalent of the ELT coursebook! It was more the general 80s fascination with hair, make-up and extravagance that I was thinking of. Smile

In fact, there are also parallels between heavy metal and unplugged ELT (I guess there are parallels to be drawn between just about anything depending on how you think about it)! Both are misunderstood by outsiders (here, I equate “that’s just loud noise” with “that’s just a conversation lesson”); both, despite initial misconceptions, require a lot of skill (comparing the guitar playing skills of the heavy metal greats with the ability of the dogme teacher to respond to emergent language) and, in the words of Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford: “the great thing about heavy metal/dogme ELT is that you can do what the fuck you want” (OK, I added the dogme ELT bit Smile with tongue out)

To conclude, there was one other event from the concert that reminded me of a major issue in ELT and education today. Earlier in the day, a Turkish heavy metal group Mezarkabul (known locally as Pentagram) took to the stage. Just as the lead singer had spoken of what a privilege it was to be on the same bill as two heavy metal giants, there was a noticeable drop in the volume of the music. The singer then informed us that an exam was taking place somewhere nearby and they had been asked to stop the gig until it was finished. By the time they got the all clear, their time slot had finished and they were unable to return to the stage, having performed just 4 songs. All of which goes to show, exams ruin everything!


  1. Hi Dave!

    What a great post - love how you link music with ELT. I am also happy you had a great time at the concert! I also love Whitesnake but have never seen them live. Hope to, some day!

    I really like what you say that Whitesnake, even with their simple background managed to captivate everyone. It reminds me of last year's TESOL France, where David Crystal was only holding a microphone, no hi-tech stuff, no PwerPoint or such, and he managed to keep us all enthralled for almost two hours - and if you had left us there for longer, we wouldn't have noticed!

    Exams do spoil the day, but how considerate of the band to lower the volume : ) (I don't know that band, but my favourite rock band in Turkey are Mor ve Ötesi. Loved them in the Eurovision contest and have been following their music ever since : )

    But I keep on straying off so I better stop now ; )

    Thanks Dave!

  2. Hi Vicky,

    Jan Blake was the same at ISTEK this year - no Powerpoint or any other aids. Just her, a microphone and some wonderful examples of storytelling!

    You should definitely see Whitesnake next time they play near you - but hurry! David Coverdale is nearing 60!

  3. Cool, man. I hadn't expected a heavy metal to ELT relationship, though everything you've said makes perfect sense. I have often thought this over-the-top with regards to Lady Gaga as well. Her costumes and antics, however thought and discussion provoking, will eventually make way for a stripped down (pun intended) version of herself. Not that I'm promoting Dogme or any other style of teaching...

  4. I'd quite like to hear Gaga unplugged, just to get a sense of what is really going on.

    Where do the Counting Crows (acoustic, stripped back)fit into tall this? Did Whitesnake ever go unplugged?

    And what about behaviorist methods, is this the pop music studio system? Songs with choruses so catchy the singe the memory of the listener with something impossibly catchy.

    Also, how about the dominance (or perceived dominance) of English in music, lots of foreign bands I have seen have sung in English.

    Be interested to know your thoughts as the music industry is looking troubled currently, interdisciplinary action may help. ELT continues to grow as an industry through reinvention, like Trent Reznor, re-branding of old things, new-wave of new-wave, finding new audiences like Judas Priest and 16 year olds....

  5. Nice post, Dave. Your comment, that "there always seems to be a ‘kickback’ against something as it grows in popularity", seems to account for some of the more vitriolic criticism of dogme, which appears to be motivated more by bile than good sense. Witness this recent post on a (nameless) blog:

    'I think, first of all, is the fact that I can't honestly see any difference between Dogme and 'Strong' CLT, in terms of the actual practice of each within the classroom. Krashen and Terrell say pretty much what Thornbury and Meddings say in many respects. This leads me to suspect that Dogme is just a 'sexed up' version of CLT, and I am naturally suspicious of any and all advertising - after all, as Thornbury somewhat ruefully admits, he spends a significant amount of time flogging the Unplugged Approach, and Luke Meddings I suspect will only have Dogme wrenched from his cold, dead hands.'

    The blogosphere seems to nourish this kind of mean-spiritedness, although I'm sure that musicians cop worse!

  6. Thank goodness you decided to start a blog - each post of yours is a treat!
    The analogy of music really gets the message across!
    There have been so many approaches over theyears to teaching English, it is good to view the changes in light of the manner in which things evolve in other fields. I also heartily agree with your statement:
    Second, there always seems to be a ‘kickback’ against something as it grows in popularity.

    p.s - thanks for the link to Cecilia's post that I had missed!

  7. Thanks for all the comments. I've always found drawing parallels between the classroom/education and other things a useful way to evaluate beliefs and ideas about teaching and I guess music is a good one!

    Tyson - I think there are clear comparisons to be made between the manufactured pop stars and the nature of (some if not all) publisher materials. Both rely heavily on marketing and making it seem like there's nothing else out there worth your time...

    Ed - Plenty of Whitesnake unplugged stuff. A quick YouTube search will reveal all. Interesting point about singing in English. Perhaps it's time we put a stop to this NESS (native english speaking singer) and NNESS (non-native english speaking singer) distinction. As for re-invention, I wonder if we'll still be showing up at conferences in our sixties. ;)

    Scott - in another shameless bit of 'flogging', I refer back to my '5 Stages of Dogme' post. I think some of the vitriolic rhetoric that appears around the blogosphere and other online spaces comes from those 'dogme cynics'. I'm all for reasoned debate and challenging of views but as you say, some criticism seems to be more deconstructive than anything else.

    Naomi - glad you enjoyed the post! And good that you found Cecilia's as well. :)

  8. @dave Just saw this and thought of you http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/144125-revisionist-history-hair-metals-proto-punk-roots

    @scott which band or musical genre do you think Dogme is? I don't think Dogme gets anything like the same amount of 'slagging' as behaviourist methods would/does if 'they' dare(d) venture onto the web...
    And, if Dogme is sexed up CLT, I guess then Mariah Carey is CLT and Britney is Dogme,no? Or have i misunderstood ;O)

  9. martin warters27 July 2011 at 14:02

    @the egg What a great Idea! Comparing music genres to methods and approaches - hours of fun.

    Suggestopedia could be a Parisian beatnik sort of vibe for example.

    TPR could be German transcendental kraftwerk pop?
    Thinking on that could be quite an interesting activity for teacher training!

    Lovely post Dave. Keep on rocking


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