Brain like Berkeley: university courses on your favourite pop stars

Study groups about Beyonce and David Bowie might seem a little far-fetched but many universities are now offering courses studying the work of some of the musical greats. Here are just a few of them

June 28 2018
Beyonce

These days you can study pretty much anything at university. Harry Potter fan? There’s a course for that. Want to learn more about Jedis? There's a course for that. Want to get your academic Game of Thrones fix? There’s a course for that. 

This holds true if you fancy learning more about your favourite musicians and their work. Some of the most influential artists have inspired university courses, whether they are a straight-up analysis of their music or a look into their influence on society and culture. 

It is important to note that some of these courses are no longer available but if you like the look of any of them – as Berkeley students discovered – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. You might be able to convince your faculty to include these in the curriculum.

1. Frank Ocean, University of California, Berkeley

From this autumn, Frank Ocean fans at the University of California, Berkeley will be able to take a course delving into the musical production and social impact of his music. Taught by students Deborah Chang and Preya Gill, the course promises to “encourage deeper literary exploration of Frank Ocean’s artistry, both in lyrics and through visuals and performances”.

The course will combine lectures, group discussions, listening sessions and creative projects focused around Ocean’s best-selling albums Channel Orange and Blonde. The course is sponsored by English professor Lyn Hejinian. 

Even the name of the course, “Brain like Berkeley”, is taken from the lyrics of one of Ocean’s earliest tracks, Novacane.

2. Beyoncé, University of Copenhagen

While this isn’t the first course dedicated to Beyoncé, the University of Copenhagen’s programme takes a slightly different approach to those that have come before. 

Taught by Professor Erik Steinskog, it follows two separate strands: Beyoncé as an artist and Beyoncé as a black feminist. 

Professor Steinskog says that pop culture has a strong influence on society and that Beyoncé, as one of the most recognisable female artists of today, has had a crucial impact on the music industry and the way that black feminism is viewed. 

Classes will dissect Beyoncé's often controversial status as a feminist and how that feeds into the wider conversation about black feminism in contemporary society. 

As mentioned, this is not the first university course to focus on Queen B. The University of Texas at San Antonio offered a class on her politically-charged visual album Lemonade, while Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey listed a course titled “Politicising Beyonce” in 2014, and the University of Victoria music department runs a course on Bey and her Destiny’s Child bandmates. 

3. Kendrick Lamar, Augusta University

Back in 2014, before Kendrick Lamar became a Pulitzer-winning hip hop artist, he was making waves with his debut album. And inspiring university courses. 

The “Good Kids, Mad Cities” course at Augusta University used Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city album as a gateway to literary discussions on James Joyce, James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks. In fact, when the album was first released, many reviewers compared it to Joyce’s Ulysses for its insights into how cities impact the lives of young people

The course explored the themes of “urban living on the development of young people”, and analysed various books and films encompassing this.


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4. Bruce Springsteen, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Another course that unfortunately doesn’t appear to be running any more is Rutgers’ semester-long course on the biblical references in the work of Bruce Springsteen. 

This course analysed how Springsteen incorporated religious symbols into his body of work, focusing on the “interweaving of secular and sacred elements”. 

The Boss’ work has inspired a number of other university courses such as “Sociology from E Street” at Princeton University and a historical course on offer at the University of Rochester

5. David Bowie, University of Leeds

There are many things to be studied about the career of David Bowie; his music, his style, his visual artistry, his influence on pop culture and, of course, his love of literature. 

While the last aspect may not be the most obvious choice, it is the subject of a course at the University of Leeds, with his list of 100 favourite books as the springboard. 

Seminars explore the interplay between Bowie’s lyrics and more traditional literary works, from the 19th century to 2015, across four key periods in his career. The ultimate aim is to distinguish how popular music is influenced by great works of literature. 

6. The Beatles, Liverpool Hope University

“The Beatles, Popular Music and Society” is an MA course that looks at the significance of The Beatles’ music.

Students on the course will learn about music as a social practice and how it constructs regional identities and the meaning, value and performance of popular music. 

A history of Liverpool as a city is also included in the course covering musical production in the post Second World War era and how The Beatles’ music was a part of this.

7. Kanye West, Washington University in St Louis

Love him or hate him, Kanye West is a pop culture figure who can spark debate. His music has shaped contemporary hip hop and his stance on politics and fashion has called into question the meaning of celebrity. 

The course covers West’s back catalogue and how some of his most famous works “interrogate the interplay between fame, gender, sexuality, and race”.

It would be interesting to see whether the course curriculum has been updated to analyse his recent tweets.

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