School Of Rock’s Critique Of Modern Society
Rent and Employment
Dewey owes rent money to his friend Ned. Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, explains the problem: ‘We have jobs. We contribute to society.’ Dewey is in a band, but the establishment figure of Patty, does not consider this to be valid work.
Dewey responds: ‘Dude, I service society by rocking. I’m out there liberating people with my music. Rocking ain’t no walk in the park, lady.’ He claims that he is putting energy and effort into meaningful labour. While his band does not generate much economic output, it is nevertheless adding to culture. In particular he suggests that it serves a democratic anti-authoritarian protest function.
Dewey makes his way to band practice only to find out that he has been voted out of his own band. The reason? The band don’t believe his presence will aid them in finding commercial success. ‘It’s the 20-minute solos. It’s the stage dives. We’re trying to land a record deal here man and you’re an embarrassment.’
Even in the world of music, Dewey is punished by capitalist constraints. His approach to “rocking out” is considered inaccessible and comic. His band mates plan to make money, become consumers and earn civil respectability. Dewey is a barrier to this.
When Dewey enters the private school classroom of Horace Green, he is immediately horrified to discover a progress chart on the wall. Children receive gold stars when they master the material covered in lessons, and they receive black dots if they misbehave. Dewey is determined to upend this value structure: ‘as long as I’m here, there will be no grades or gold stars or demerits.’
Having been confronted by society’s disapproval for the last week, Dewey is disturbed to discover that we are teaching children this value system from Day 1.
Dewey decides to tell the children of his class about the true nature of society: ‘Oh, you don’t know The Man? Well, he’s everywhere. In the White House, down the hall. Miss Mullins, she’s The Man. And The Man ruined the ozone, and he’s burning down the Amazon, and he kidnapped Shamu and put her in a chlorine tank.’
The man is the president, the head teacher and large corporations. The man is an all-seeing authority imposing society’s value structure. This structure prioritises greed over compassion and prioritises financial success over the protection of the planet. Rock n’ roll used to be a way to protest against these structures, but it was then subsumed by capitalism in the form of a commercialised record industry.
When he is kicked out of his band Dewey says to his old bandmates: ‘I’m gonna form my own band. We’re going to start a revolution.’ Revolution is necessary because of the way the base (capitalism, machines, land, raw materials) continually maintains and shapes the superstructure (art, family, culture, media, politics).
This truth makes Dewey intensely claustrophobic and inspires his need for complete societal transformation. He feels like he is trapped by an all-pervasiveness value structure. There is nowhere to escape it. Even his best friend Ned, who used to share common values and make music with Dewey is now ‘brainwashed’, having given up music and become a substitute teacher instead.
Band As Acceptance
When Dewey forms the band with the children of his class he explains that they will now be under a new, more compassionate value system. ‘You could be the ugliest sad sack on the planet, but if you’re in a rocking band, you’re the cat’s pyjamas. You’re the bee’s knees. You’ll be the most popular guy in school.’
Music can set you free. A band distorts the traditional lenses. You will attain value where you had none before. We might hate people for not being conventionally attractive or skinny or ‘normal’ — but when they perform on stage perhaps we can forget this for a moment. It’s important for Dewey that this is true — that for his moment in the light he is free from the continual judgement he otherwise faces.
When an overweight girl, Tomika, feels shy about going on stage later in the film, Dewey reminds her that Aretha Franklin, one of the world’s greatest singers, was not traditionally skinny. ‘You’re a rock star now. All you gotta do is rock your heart out. People are gonna dig you, I swear.’
The Children Are The Future
In conversation with the other teachers, Dewey begins to solidify his teaching philosophy. Rather than simple anti-authoritarianism/pro-anarchy he draws upon Whitney Houston lyrics:
‘The children are the future. Now, you can teach them well, but you have gotta let them lead the way. Let the children’s laughter just remind us how we used to be.’
The education system should not be a scary one which demands children to conform. It should respect children as people who have their own ideas, and possess the knowledge of how they will learn best. They can have fun during the process. Learning should be a curiosity-arousing and stimulating process.
While we’re at it, we could note the chorus of that song: ‘ Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.’
A message of self-compassion, all important in the face of a society which will criticise us for failing to conform to an ideal market standard.
Sticking It To The Man
In a memorable class, Dewey teaches the children to express anger. Rather than internalise the criticism from authority figures and feel self-hatred, Dewey suggests they can instead learn to question these figures. Bravely, Dewey recognises that his position of teacher will have led him to inevitably take on some of the structural flaws inherent to power. Therefore, he gives his class the licence to openly criticise him. A quality we should admire in any leader.
Summer: You’re a joke. You’re the worst teacher I’ve ever had
Dewey: Summer, that is great.
They write a song together on this subject called ‘Step off!’. A defiant anthem about boundaries. The song recognises the need to push back against the continual creep of societal demands which we face each day.
We need to find our own space again, a space in which we can safely feel self-love, free from criticism.
The headteacher of School of Rock represents an extreme manifestation of what modern society’s demands can do to us if unresisted. In a moment of vulnerability she admits to Dewey:
- I can’t be funny and be the principal of a prep school.
- I can’t make a mistake, I’ve got to be perfect.
- That pressure has turned me into something I never wanted to be.
Dewey, perhaps unknowingly, is trying to save the children of Horace Green from becoming like their parents, or like their headmistress. He believes in the possibility of a very different society, one where external pressures are lighter, one where we learn to resist these forces which threaten to otherwise contort us into something we do not want to be. One where we learn to love ourselves and each other.
In the final performance of the film, a song written by one of the children beautifully summarises all of themes above — in the spirit of good education I’ll leave you to do the interpretation: