14 universities that made it in the world of pop music

January 10, 2014

Academia and popular music might not seem the most obvious bedfellows, but as this list proves, some of the most prestigious higher education systems in the world have influenced some very well known (and some not so well known) singers and songwriters.

We’ve been searching through lyrics, trying to find songs that mention specific universities by name. Can you think of any that do not feature on our list? Please feel free to add them in the comments section below, or tweet Times Higher Education using the hashtag #HElyrics.

You can also follow Times Higher Education on YouTube and view all of the songs listed here on our #HElyrics playlist.

Paris Sorbonne University

Peter Sarstedt

The University of Paris Sorbonne was immortalised in pop history by Peter Sarstedt in his 1969 number one hit, Where Do You Go To (My Lovely).

The song is a rags to riches story of a girl from Italy who climbs the social ladder, becoming part of Paris jet-set - earning qualifications from the Sorbonne en route.

It topped the UK charts for six weeks, and has an incredibly catchy melody that is about to get inside your head, yes it is…

The lyric:

I’ve seen all your qualifications
You got from the Sorbonne
And the painting you stole from Picasso
Your loveliness goes on and on, yes it does

Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design

Jarvis Cocker

It was the song Common People that catapulted Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp to Brit-Pop stardom in 1995 (yes - this song is 19 years old, and technically old enough to be attending university itself).

The song tells the story of a girl from Greece who wants to “live like common people”, and its opening lyric relates to Cocker’s alma mater, Central St Martin’s College, the University of the Arts.

It reached number 2 in the UK charts.

The lyric:

She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge
She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College
That’s where I caught her eye

The University of Massachusetts


American alternative rockers Pixies released their fourth album, Trompe Le Monde, in 1991.

Its sixth track, U Mass, is an expletive-ridden 3-minute song thought to be about college apathy, and making reference to the University of Massachusetts.

Two of the band’s members, Joey Santiago and Black Francis, met while studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The lyric:

Oh kiss my ass oh let it rock, of the April birds and the May bee
Oh baby University of Massachusetts, please
And here’s the last five
It’s educational, it’s educational
It’s educational, it’s educational
It’s educational

Harvard University

Tom Lehrer

Satirical comedy singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer graduated from and lectured at Harvard University in the mid-20th century, and his alma mater makes it into two of his most well-known songs.

Everyone’s favourite chemistry study-aid The Elements, which details the 1959 periodic table to the tune of I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from the musical The Pirates of Penzance, mentions the prestigious US institution, as does Lehrer’s mock college song Fight Fiercely Harvard.

The lyrics:

The Elements
There’s sulphur, californium and fermium, berkelium
And also mendelevium, einsteinium and nobelium
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc and rhodium
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper
Tungsten, tin and sodium
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard
And there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered

Fight Fiercely Harvard
Fight fiercely, Harvard, Fight, fight, fight!
Demonstrate to them our skill
Albeit they possess the might
Nonetheless we have the will

Yale University (and Harvard, again)

Dropkick Murphys

American punk band Dropkick Murphys’ fourth album, Blackout, closes with the charmingly titled Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced. It is a sweet little number that details some of the fun that one can have as a guitarist in a successful band.

“I play one mean guitar and then score at the bar, there’s a line of chicks waiting for their chance,” the lyrics proclaim - before going on to list a number of unlikely accomplishments, including the acquisition of degrees from two of the most prestigious Ivy League institutions.

The lyric:

I can bench press a car, I’m an ex-football star
With degrees from both Harvard and Yale
Girls just can’t keep up, I’m a real love machine
I’ve had far better sex while in jail

Swarthmore College

Mama Cass

A highly selective liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College briefly caught the attention of Cass Elliot, also known as Mama Cass from vocal harmony group the Mamas and the Papas.

However, if you believe the band’s 1967 song, Creeque Alley, the bright lights of New York were just too tempting.

The lyric:

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day
Standin’ on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike
“Take me to New York right away”

University of Birmingham

Mark E. Smith

While the opening track of The Fall’s 1992 album Code: Selfish does not mention the university by name, it is called Birmingham School Of Business School, which is pretty close.

The Birmingham Business School is part of the University of Birmingham, and it is not unreasonable to speculate that this is the institution that Mark E Smith et al had in mind when they penned the track.

The lyric:

Weave a web so magnificent, disguise in the art of conceit
Give a very firm handshake, and take the bastards for everything that they rate
The Birmingham Business School of business school

The College of William and Mary (Virginia) / Bard College (New York)

Steely Dan

Steely Dan’s 1973 album, Countdown to Ecstasy, made the Billboard top 40, and featured the single My Old School.

The lyrics refer to “William and Mary”, a university in Virginia, but it is actually thought to be about Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York - sometimes referred to as “the William and Mary of the North”.

The song was inspired by a police raid at the university in 1969, in which lead singer Donald Fagen and his then girlfriend were arrested.

The lyric:

I remember the thirty-five sweet goodbyes
When you put me on the Wolverine
Up to Annandale
It was still September when your daddy was quite surprised
To find you with the working girls
In the county jail
I was smoking with the boys upstairs
When I heard about the whole affair
I said oh no - William and Mary won’t do

University of California Berkeley / Columbia University

Vampire Weekend

The back catalogue of New York rockers Vampire Weekend is littered with references to university life.

Step, a song on the band’s 2013 album Modern Vampires of the City, mentions a girl “in Berkeley”, while the song California English, from the 2010 Contra album, mentions the “Hapa Club”.

According to WikiCU, a user-created online encyclopaedia of all things Colombia, the Hapa Club is “a cultural club for students of partial Asian ethnicity” at the university.

The lyrics:

Your girl was in Berkeley with her Communist reader
Mine was entombed within boombox and walkman
I was a hoarder but girl that was back then

California English
Funny how that little college girl called language corrupt
Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club

The University of Texas at Austin

Kinky Friedman

On the afternoon of 1 August 1966, 15 people were shot and killed by former US Marine Charles Whitman on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The previous night, Whitman had also murdered his wife and mother.

The story was captured in country singer Kinky Friedman’s song The Ballad of Charles Whitman, which makes reference to the “tower” of the main university building, from where most of the victims were shot.

The lyric:

He was sitting up there for more than an hour,
Way up there on the Texas tower
Shooting from the twenty-seventh floor

The London School of Economics

Acid House Kings

Although not household names, Swedish indie-pop outfit Acid House Kings are known to many at one London university thanks to their 2005 album Sing Along With The Acid House Kings, which featured the song London School of Economics.

The track is a two minute twee pop nostalgia trip, seemingly about a relationship that faded after a girl went off to study at the LSE. If you were expecting acid house, this one is not for you.

In addition, David Bowie mentions an institution with a similar name in his 1967 ditty The Laughing Gnome - the London School of Ecognomeics. Its exact location, however, is unknown.

The lyrics:

London School of Economics
Don’t forget that summer dress
You know, the one you wore
When you returned from
London School of Economics

The Laughing Gnome
Didn’t they teach you to get your hair cut at school?
You look like a rolling gnome
No, not at the London School of Ecognomeics

University of Florida

Terius 'The-Dream' Nash

You might not think you know much about American R&B producer Terius “The-Dream” Nash, but you may well have heard some of the hit songs that he has co-written, which include Umbrella by Rihanna, Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) by Beyoncé and the remarkable Baby by Justin Bieber.

It is his 2009 solo album Love King that takes centre stage here, and in particular its closing track Florida University.

The North Carolina-born singer appears to have spotted that if you say the initials of the university out loud, it sounds a bit rude.

The lyric:

I was the realest thing you’ve ever known
I couldn’t wait to say I told you so
So forget you ever heard of me
this is short for Florida University
F.U. (x7)
Florida University
F.U. (x7)

Watch videos for all the tracks now on our YouTube channel. They are all listed on our #HElyrics playlist.

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