10 Back-to-school songs

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Back to School Songs

School is back in session. Whether it’s youngsters boarding the bus to get a lesson in the three Rs, or hungover college students ringing in the new semester with a rager, it’s officially time to ring in a new school year. For most, this can be both an anxious and an exciting time, and an opportunity to start fresh. We want to help every student and teacher out there get their school year started right, so here’s our list of 10 songs to crank up as the school year begins.

The Police - Zenyatta MondattaThe Police – “Don’t Stand So Close to Me
from Zenyatta Mondatta (A&M)

Sting had a brief career as an elementary school teacher, so maybe it’s a bit of hubris on his own part to write a song about an underage girl tempting her teacher, although he’s denied any autobiographical element to the song. Still, it’s a recurring tale in pop culture — and even occasionally in real life, as it turns out — for a teacher to have an inappropriate relationship with a student. There’s a sinister groove to the song, which heightens the tension behind the forbidden romance in the song. There’s even a reference to Lolita, phrased as “that book by Nabokov,” intentionally done to rhyme with “cough.” A Greek chorus of students at Neptune High even sang it tauntingly to Leighton Meester after covering for her friend, played by Christine Lakin, was impregnated by Mr. Rooks, portrayed by Parks and Recreation‘s Adam Scott, on an episode of Veronica Mars. Anyhow, the moral of the story? Watch out for those hormones. – JT

Smiths - Meat Is MurderThe Smiths – “Headmaster Ritual
from Meat Is Murder (Rough Trade)

If you’re starting a new semester this fall, just thank your lucky stars you didn’t attend classes where Morrissey did. Talking out of turn? That’s a paddlin’. Paddlin’ the school canoe? You better believe that’s a paddlin’. No doubt, a lot of the material on The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder is fairly heavy handed, but the album opens with a hard rocking tune about corporal punishment in Manchester schools: “Sir thwacks you on the knees/ Knees you in the groin/ Elbow in the face/ Bruises bigger than dinner plates.” “Belligerent ghouls” is an understatement. Certainly things have changed a lot since Moz attended school in the ’60s and ’70s, or so we should hope. – JT

Beastie Boys - Licensed to IllBeastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right
from Licensed to Ill (Def Jam)

Since I go to a state university, I can pretty much say with confidence that a lot of kids go to school to study how much alcohol their bodies can withstand. Some go to school to study American government, constitutional law, women’s studies, African-American studies, et al., but there is one human right they don’t teach in a classroom. Waking up early and hoping to make it to class on time, the dreaded act of studying and doing homework can really suck, but luckily we have the Beastie Boys to remind us of an important right everyone must fight to protect. This right is a celebration of humanity and it brings people of all races and backgrounds together going hand-in-hand with the start of a new academic year. Meeting up with old friends, making new ones, turning up the stereo, and getting them all at the same place at the same time never fails to be an interesting way to break in the new school year. – DP

Nirvana - BleachNirvana – “School
from Bleach (Sub Pop)

Nirvana’s debut album sounded a lot more grungy than the two that followed, even if it arrived a bit too early for the word “grunge” to catch on globally. But Kurt Cobain offered an almost zen-like clarity about the certainty of suffering in life on “School,” a murky highlight from their 1989 debut, Bleach. Over jerky, chugging riffs, he repeats the phrase, “Wouldn’t you believe it, it’s just my luck!” But it’s not until he gets to the vicious yelp of “NO RECESS!” during the chorus that you get the full scope of his ache. In life, there isn’t always a recess. Sigh. – JT

Pixies - Trompe Le MondeThe Pixies – “U-Mass
from Trompe Le Monde (4AD-Elektra)

Liberal arts colleges in the Northeast have provided ample fodder for not just songs, but a fair amount of novels and movies as well — just ask Bret Easton-Ellis. But The Pixies, who hailed from Boston, gave their own lovably mocking tribute to the undergrads at the University of Massachusetts with this ode to the student body. “We’re not just kids/ to say the least,” sings Frank Black, “We got ideas/ To us that’s dear.” Anyone on the other side of a college degree knows that the free exchange of ideas in college eventually leads to the revelation that a lot of those ideas are… well, bad. But it’s all part of the learning experience! In a sense, this is an ode to naïveté, and I just hope that some fresh-faced young 18-year-old on his first week in a dorm room will be shouting along, “It’s educational!” – JT

Belle and Sebastian - TigermilkBelle & Sebastian – “We Rule the School
from Tigermilk (Jeepster)

In their earlier days, Belle & Sebastian were compared to The Smiths pretty frequently, largely because Stuart Murdoch captured youthful awkwardness and insecurity in a way that was as least as poetic as Morrissey’s own lyrical approach. “We Rule the School” is a prime example of Murdoch’s ability to tap into a particular feeling of vulnerability that should be familiar to any sensitive, artsy young person. Between exhortations of “Do something pretty while you can,” Murdoch paints a familiar scene of popular-kid hierarchy: “On a bus stop in the town/ ‘We rule the school’/ Written for anyone to see and read.” The person writing that wouldn’t be the one doing something pretty, and vice-versa. And so the cycle continues. – JT

Ben Folds Five - Whatever and Ever AmenBen Folds Five – “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces
from Whatever and Ever Amen (550-Epic)

The first day of school is stressful. Disorienting. Nerve-wracking. There are new classes to get accustomed to, new teachers, and the inevitable changing circle of friends that comes with youth. But it’s even more stressful if you get picked on. Well, if you’re heading into that first period class a little nervous, still stinging from that wet willie from last year, or the lingering threat of a swirlie, turn up this Ben Folds Five revenge fantasy. I mean, every outcast has always dreamed of showing up those jerks who teased back in school, right? In this upbeat pop tune, Folds talks tough about getting the final word (“You will be sorry when I’m big/ Yes you will, yes you will“), but at the end of the day, he proves that living well is the best revenge: “If you really wanna see me/ Check the papers and the TV/ Look who’s tellin’ who what to do.” It’s a motivational song, when you get down to it. – JT

White Stripes - White Blood CellsThe White Stripes – “We’re Going to Be Friends
from White Blood Cells (Sympathy For the Record Industry)

Few songs describe the first day of school as simply and as elementary as “We’re Going to Be Friends.” Both the lyrics and music carry the message of curiosity, hope, and uncertainty that go along with the embarking on a new ten-month journey. Unline other school-related songs, that may encourage rebellion or express anxiety, Jack and Meg White highlight the best parts of childhood and grade school: “brand new shoes”; “show and tell”; “dirt on our uniforms from chasing all the ants and worms.” Most importantly, it celebrates not just friendships, but new friendships. Considering Jack White made his name with his loud, gritty guitar sound, the sparse acoustic finger-picking provides a refreshing “yesteryear” feel, and the highly singable two-chord verses complete the picture. “Friends” sounds like it was written by a six-year-old on his way home from his first day of first grade, but that’s exactly why it’s one of our favorites. – CG

Kanye West - College DropoutKanye West – “School Spirit
from The College Dropout (Roc-a-fella)

Mama doesn’t always know best. Even though Kanye’s mom was the head of the English department at Chicago State University, this song makes it pretty clear school isn’t for everyone, especially Yeezus himself. Since everyone can’t be a famous rapper, it might be best to stay in school, but one thing worth paying attention to coming from Kanye West is that a college degree might look nice on the wall, but it won’t chase a dream. College Dropout might be an album built around the theme around anti-intellectualism but “School Spirit” is more than just a middle finger to college itself. It is more of a cynical disapproval of the idea of partying at a frat or spending weekend evenings hunched over a textbook. Heading back to school is the perfect time to remember that a degree won’t do all the hard work after graduation. – DP

Vampire Weekend - s/tVampire Weekend – “Campus
from Vampire Weekend (XL)

There’s hardly a more cheerful sounding back-to-school song than “Campus.” The album that put Vampire Weekend on a lighting-speed rise to indie fame is a warm and delightful listen from start to finish. “Campus” is a small piece to their successful debut as it paints a lovely picture of a kid battling his apathy while trying to muster up some strength to express his feelings. The essence of this song is the beauty of heading back and being thrust into a sea of strangers leaving the opportunity for a coincidental reunion with a friend. – DP

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