'Like all art, pop music deserves discussion'

October 5, 2007

PROFILE : JOE WILSON COURSE LEADER, POPULAR MUSIC, GLOUCESTERSHIRE UNIVERSITY

Leaving a party for pop star Janet Jackson in the US, Joe Wilson recalls sharing a lift with members of the hip-hop act Wu-Tang Clan and property mogul Donald Trump.

"These two worlds would appear separate, yet they all talked about how terrible the canapes were," recalls Mr Wilson, a music lecturer at Gloucestershire University and one-time pop star himself. For him, the incident summed up the music industry. "It is shallow, vain and celebrity driven, yet somehow still magical."

Mr Wilson has been invited to fewer celebrity parties since 2001, when he stopped touring as bassist for "disco meets punk" indie band, Sneaker Pimps. "I wasn't enjoying touring as much... I wanted more stability."

Although he immediately formed another band, Trash Monkey, part of that stability came from a "portfolio career" that included running two London nightclubs, producing another band's album, and a stint as a part-time sound designer and lecturer at Leeds College of Music. "I'd always thought about how music could be treated academically," he says. "But I had no formal training. The college took a leap of faith."

Mr Wilson lectured in music composition for film and television, which fitted with another part of his career - producing soundtracks for adverts and TV shows. When a position came up as course leader on a new BA in popular music at Gloucestershire, the decision to apply was a no-brainer. "It was a field much closer to my heart. We are trying to take apart what the word 'popular' means when it comes to music. Is it cheerful? Is it youth-orientated? Is it about how many songs are sold? Is it only for Americans and Europeans?"

The key, he says, is that every popular song has at its root "something unique, dark and mysterious". "Even the most boring, bland pop music - like Steps - has that within it."

The degree programme aims to boost students' practical composition and recording skills, give them a sound knowledge of the music business and offer an academic viewpoint on both aspects.

"The academic angle is crucial, even for students with a vocational point of view," Mr Wilson says. "We don't want to turn out people who can just twiddle nobs - we want to teach them to think, articulate their ideas and justify them in terms of the history and culture of this type of music."

But are the worlds of academia and rock-star rebellion compatible? This year, Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher reportedly derided indie rock band Bloc Party as "a band off University Challenge " - a reference to singer Kele Okereke's time as an English literature student at King's College London.

"Is rock anti-intellectual? I'd say it's anti people becoming quantity surveyors. It's not anti-creative," Mr Wilson says. "Rock music has always had a connection with academia - many of the biggest bands of the past 50 years have come out of art schools." The Sneaker Pimps formed at Reading Art School. "Oasis is the exception."

While creative writing courses have seen off sceptics by churning out Booker prizewinners, pop degree alumni have so far failed to make a similar impact. "Only a tiny proportion of fashion students go on to be designers, but nobody questions the validity of those courses," Mr Wilson retorts. "Like all great art, popular music deserves to be discussed and analysed." And with the rise of digital media, the industry is changing fast. "Academia is ideally placed to look at that change."

Besides, he adds, "We're not running a rock school." The degree has a strong business focus: it has the backing of Tony Wadsworth, chairman of EMI Music UK, who is a visiting fellow on the course.

There are more opportunities in music than there once were, Mr Wilson says, but musicians also need more industry knowledge. Record labels used to nurture and promote aspiring musicians. "Now musicians have to do everything on their own," he says. Who better to teach them than an artist-singer-songwriter producer with promotional leanings?

I graduated from Reading University with a fine art degree

My first job was to find out how many boxes of Peperami Texaco service stations wanted

My main challenge was learning too late the concept of "units". I left the company under a cloud after bulk-ordering a quarter of a million Peperami

What I hate most is boring corporate youth music about high schools

In ten years I want to enable students to destroy the record industry and rebuild it in their own image

My favourite joke: There are two eggs in a frying pan. First egg says: "Phew, hot in here, isn't it?" Second egg says: "Bloody hell, a talking egg."

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