There are some basic writing tips I could have definitely used. Really, I would have loved advice around setting a standard writing schedule. I’ve also learned some rather obvious related lessons, like: get dressed in the morning. Even if you get to have a writing day at home, it’s hard to write intelligently in your pajamas.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lily Hirsch.
Lily Hirsch is a musicologist (Ph.D., Duke University), writer, and book reviews editor for the Journal of Musicological Research. She is the author of the books A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany: Musical Politics and the Berlin Jewish Culture League (University of Michigan Press in 2010), Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment (University of Michigan Press in 2012), Anneliese Landau’s Life in Music: Nazi Germany to Émigré California (Eastman Studies in Music in 2019), and Weird Al: Seriously (Rowman & Littlefield in 2020; expanded edition 2022).
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Northern California and was very involved in classical music. I took piano lessons and sang in a children’s choir, and had some dream of being a headlining soprano on the operatic stage. When I ended up at a Catholic high school, I took full advantage of the academic offerings (I was, yes, a “nerd”), but I did not enjoy the division created by the handling of religion in that setting. Though I have Jewish roots, I was not raised in any religious tradition. During high school, I learned about difference and the potential effects of categorizing people more generally.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I vividly remember reading Grendel by John Gardner, which flips the Beowulf tale by spotlighting the villain. The book inspired all sorts of questions: who was the villain and who was the hero? Is anyone ever purely one or the other? And how can we look at other stories or conventional thinking from a different perspective? I think, in some ways, I’ve been flipping conventional thinking ever since.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
It’s not necessarily funny, but I recall my thinking after the publication of my second book, Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment. In it, I wrote about the prejudicial impact of using rap lyrics against their authors, as evidence of crime at court. A racial bias renders this sort of practice unjust. The practice also ignores the complexities of music, which is not the same as a literal text or confession. I really thought, by publishing that book, that I had helped solve the problem. And yet, the practice persists without end. I learned then in a new way about language as a gate-keeper. I decided then to try to shake some of my academic training to make my writing more accessible. And, since then, I have learned that I can write complex ideas in simple ways. That has been my goal since. Writing can’t have an impact if no one’s reading it.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
It might be surprising to some readers to find me here, linking a social impact with a book about funny music. But, in Weird Al: Seriously, I attempt to showcase the significance of funny music, which has often been dismissed or ignored in favor of so-called serious music. To do that, I highlight the particular musicianship and intelligence in the work of “Weird Al” Yankovic. But I also explore the potential wider effects of funny music — its subversive possibilities, an artist’s ability to make a point in terms of politics and social issues through humorous music, as well as the psychological benefits in comedic music: uplift, coping, and catharsis — all particularly relevant these last few years.
This focus aligns with my other books in some ways. In all of them, I take on misunderstood categories. In my first book, A Jewish Orchestra in Nazi Germany, I described the Jewish Culture League, which provided a space for Jews to participate in music during the Nazi era, with Nazi support. But I also show how the repertoire requirement — Jewish music — was negotiated. After all, Jewish music is not fixed. Like people, it’s dynamic and changing. And, to think otherwise, can be dangerous. The Nazis attempted to segregate Jewish music and that move in some ways helped mentally prepare Germans for the segregation of the Jewish people.
I also have challenged accepted thinking about music itself, the idea that music is solely positive. In Music in American Crime Prevention and Punishment, I show how music, like all things, can be used in negative ways too — as crime deterrence and punishment. To ignore this truth is to ignore certain threats to people, including musical torture.
My more recent work explores how thinking around music can be used to support gender bias. It’s another new topic for me, though issues of gender have certainly come up in relationship to previous topics. Still, in all of my writing, I hope to engage readers and help push conventional thought in new directions. With that, I hope there will be real change in how we view ourselves and those around us — in ways that make room for difference, social change, and much-needed humor.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In Weird Al: Seriously, there are a lot of interesting stories that readers might enjoy. Readers may now know about the serious work behind Weird Al’s music as well as Yankovic’s intelligence — he was valedictorian at age 16, then he got an architecture degree from Cal Poly. He was also bullied, eventually embracing his outsider status in his very name, Weird Al. But I was surprised to find quite a few songs that play on gender conventions. For example, with his song, “Trash Day” (2003), he parodies rapper Nelly’s “Hot in Herre,” an inescapable hit in the summer of 2002. In the original, the singer’s a man in charge: “It’s gettin hot in here, so take off all your clothes.” A woman’s voice, robotic, responds, breathless, doing as she’s told in a hypersexual male fantasy. In Yankovic’s version, the problem isn’t the heat, it’s the trash: “There’s something rotten here / You better hold your nose.” A female singer again responds, but this time the woman has power: “Hey you disgusting slob, you better take the trash out.” This sort of power flip, which I see in quite a few of Yankovic’s songs, creates interesting conversations between the original song and the parody as well as the gender expectations represented in both. Through the intertextual possibilities in parody, he creates conversations worth joining, conversations I didn’t necessarily expect, but have really enjoyed, especially in the wake of #MeToo and the current fight for gender rights in the court system.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I have quite a few interconnected messages. But my biggest “aha moment” around the value of humorous music actually happened after the publication of the hardback version of Weird Al: Seriously in 2020. I gave my first book talk upon the release of that book at my local university on March 12, 2020. Later that day, the university shut down due to the pandemic. And I, like so many, found myself helping my kids (then 6 and 8) with school over zoom and dealing with anxiety in a new way. I found Weird Al and his humor mattered to me more and in different ways at that time. I needed the uplift. And, since I was having problems focusing then on my regular writing, I tried writing humor myself. It seemed smart, since I was writing about humor, that I might see what it might take to create comedy. I had no delusions that I might be really funny. But I enjoyed the process. And I found myself writing about things that truly terrified me, giving them a humorous spin. It really helped. I think it was a way for me to channel my fears, process my thinking, and just laugh. I needed all of that.
When I developed debilitating pain during a trip to the ocean with my kids, during the summer of 2021, I looked to humor too. And even more so when I actually had to have spinal surgery, replacing a disc in my spine to fix the problem. I got two published pieces out of that one: “I’m a Beach Trip with the Kids and, No, that is Absolutely Not the Same Thing as a Vacation” and “Yes, People Learn From Hardship. But Those Lessons Are Mostly Disgusting.”
All of this showed me in a very personal way just how valuable humorous music and comedy more generally can be, especially in times of crisis and stress.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I received emails from fans right after the publication of Weird Al: Seriously in 2020. Weird Al has wildly supportive and creatively constructive fans, and I was so happy to receive these messages. Some were quite personal, about how Weird Al creates this safe space for outsiders and how much his music has meant to them, those who “dare to be stupid.” It was clear too that his music was especially meaningful for some fans during the pandemic, just as it was for me. I was so moved by these messages. When I got a chance to do an expanded paperback edition of the book, I was happy to have a chance to write a bit more about Weird Al’s fans and the very real impact his music has had on them — as comfort but also self-empowerment.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
I touch on lots of different issues in my writing but I think there are solutions to some of the basic problems created by intolerance and unreflective categorization in: 1. Education. There is a move currently in some states to simplify education. Some states are trying to erase the complexities of the past. Some people are trying to make facts relative. Kids need critical thinking skills to engage with the world around them. Categories and people are complicated, grey. And to be inclusive and kind, kids need to be able to understand the power and love in difference rather than dismissing it or fearing it.
Another improvement which would help: 2. Kindness in leadership. So much of the bias I target could be remedied with kindness. Niceness is sometimes ignored. It’s kind of a throwaway line: “Oh, that’s nice.” Or it’s seen as a weakness. Weird Al actually has a unique reputation related to this point — he is known as someone who is uncommonly nice. I found that striking. Perhaps that reputation goes along with the dismissal of his music as parody. But, in the last few years, it’s become very clear that we could all use a little kindness. And there’s a power in that.
With failures around these two points and related ongoing bias, as well as the many big existential threats we all face today, we also need to change the conversation around mental health. So: 3. Valuing mental health. There needs to be a space for conversations around mental health, especially for boys, who are still encouraged to fit a debilitating macho mold. In the last few years, that space has taken on a certain urgency. Laughter is medicine. But medicine is too. And everyone needs to feel safe to ask for the help they need.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader should be nice. And a leader should make room for difference and weirdness. Actually, a leader should probably be weird. We need change and sticking to conventional thinking won’t work. It’s the weirdos who push the envelope and ultimately change the world.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- There are some basic writing tips I could have definitely used. Really, I would have loved advice around setting a standard writing schedule. I’ve also learned some rather obvious related lessons, like: get dressed in the morning. Even if you get to have a writing day at home, it’s hard to write intelligently in your pajamas.
- Learning about writing styles and audience reach would have helped too. I think anyone who wants to make an impact through their writing should spend some time figuring out how to succinctly state their points. I found op-ed writing particularly useful here. It was trial and error for me, before I really figured out how to make my arguments effective in this format. But the experience has really helped. And I try to think about that style as I write anything now
- Another lesson I could have learned earlier: Taking breaks is part of the writing process rather than “a waste of time.” Early on, I was very focused on constantly making progress. It took me a while to realize that, if I step away, I can come back stronger. It’s part of my process now.
- Related: When there is a true crisis, comedy is not somehow insulting. Early on, when I was writing about music during the Nazi era, I felt some guilt when I would unplug and read or do something silly. It felt insulting. But, first off (as I said above), I needed the break. I also found I couldn’t sink into a deep depression alongside the material and still effectively write something worth writing. Humor helped me cope with the material and then engage with it. I’ve remembered that and been re-reminded of that lesson often, as I wrote about Weird Al and worried that there were bigger issues in need of my attention. Comedy always has value, in ways often overlooked. Heck, even during the Holocaust, Jewish prisoners looked to comedy as a source of strength and needed distraction.
- Ok, this last one is a bit personal. But I could have used some real straight talk about balancing work and family. I believed, early on, that women could have it all — no problem. I am now a mother and, to be perfectly honest, I have faced related discrimination in academic circles. I was not prepared for this reality. I have had to make some tough, very personal decisions. I don’t think anyone could have really given me the answers here. But maybe a little background on the ongoing bias against women — in teaching evaluations as well as other contexts — would have helped or at least cushioned the blow. And I’ll tell you what I’ve learned: There is no single answer or path here for anyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my current favorites is from a song called “You Are Such a Loser,” by the funny female duo Garfunkel & Oates. The lyrics: “You are such a loser, good for you / It’s something that a lot of people can’t do.” I think writers deal with a lot of rejection. But anyone who puts themselves out there and tries to achieve something does too. Failure is part of success. And it takes courage. So, with rejection, I like to think, “Good for me.” I’m out there trying something and that takes bravery. We all need the courage to be losers!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ll choose Yoko Ono. Her reputation has been shaped by misogyny and racism, and it has somehow endured — in song, movies, books, television shows — even through Peter Jackson’s Let It Be docuseries. Immediately after the release of that documentary, I saw on Twitter someone criticizing Ono for not bringing the members of the Beatles their tea. It didn’t matter that there was a young man on film doing just that. And it didn’t seem to matter that the very idea that she should bring the tea has racist overtones, playing on stereotypes of a supposed exotic East. If I were to have a private meeting with Ono, I would show her the respect she deserves. And then I would bring her some gosh darn tea!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Anyone can follow my work through social media — Twitter, @lilyehirsch — as well as my website, lilyhirsch.com
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Lily Hirsch Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.