Students craft tunes inspired by emotions; Paul Simon stops by to critique class

Performing “Death by Mall” during a concert by student songwriters are, from left, Sydney King ’17, Charlie Baker ’17, and Arjun Dube ’15 on drums.
Performing “Death by Mall” during a concert by student songwriters are, from left, Sydney King ’17, Charlie Baker ’17, and Arjun Dube ’15 on drums.
Courtesy Lewis Center for the Arts

On Tuesday night of the last week of classes, students packed the theater in Frist Campus Center for a concert that — unlike some other recent performances on campus — caused no outcry or social-media stir.

Instead, the audience clapped and sang along to a series of cheeky pop tunes, minimalistic hip-hop songs, and irreverent punk anthems composed by the 26 students enrolled in “How to Write a Song,” a course taught by creative writing professor (and rock musician) Paul Muldoon.

The showstopper? “Death by Mall,” written by Arjun Dube ’15, Sydney King ’17, and Charlie Baker ’17. “This song is about suburban shopping centers. You guys ready?” Dube called from behind the drums as the crowd yelled and Baker viciously strummed an acoustic guitar. As the title suggests, the song was a tongue-in-cheek tirade against consumer culture. “Where did I park? Where did I park?” the trio yelled in the chorus.

Each week, students in the course wrote music inspired by a different emotion — despair, revenge, gratitude — on topics ranging from teenage romance to social media to Middle East politics.

The emotion of the week for “Death by Mall” was disgust; the lyrics, Dube said, were a list of “all the things we found perplexing about suburban malls.” Disgust also inspired the group to adopt the style of punk rock “to remove the inherent beauty of our composition,” he said.

“Death by Mall,” along with “Get Naked,” “Cloud 9,” and “Make Music Not Money,” were among the more than 100 songs that Muldoon said were produced and performed in class.

During one session, students had the audience of another famous Paul: singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who stopped by during a March visit to campus.

Not only did Simon meet students one-on-one, but he listened to their work and offered direct criticism that sometimes stung. “We came in there with all this hubris and just got taken down,” Sherry Romanzi ’18 said. After she performed, he told her, “It sounds like an art song,” meaning poetry put to music. “And I don’t particularly like art songs,” he added.

Muldoon said Simon’s willingness to be harsh was actually a favor to the students. “He took them seriously,” he said. “That included his not pulling any punches.”

WATCH: Students perform “Death By Mall,” a song from this year’s class