13 - The Future of Beatle Scholarship
13 - The Future of Beatle Scholarship
Approximately 20 universities in the US and the UK offer academic courses on The Beatles. For many years, there was no such thing as “Beatle scholarship.”
Says Beatle scholar Steve Turner: “Until the early 1990s – information about this subject tends to favor the collector rather than the person who wants to understand their significance.”
Veteran British music journalist Paul Du Noyer adds that while there are some very good books on The Beatles by authors of a journalistic bent, commercial publishing is often not receptive to
analysis and context. The broad readership, he points out, is usually deemed uninterested in musical theory and historical overview.
Professor Marcus Collins of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Loughborough University, writes in his research study, The Beatles and Freedom:
“Of the one thousand or so books published on The Beatles, only a small fraction are by academics and, of these, a mere handful are by historians. Non-academics have accordingly set the pace in writing the history of The Beatles. They tell much the same story of The Beatles’ rise and fall with greater or lesser degrees of detail and partisanship.”
Beatle scholarship only became a legitimate field of study in the past decade. Collins says the small community of Beatle scholars in the world now needs to pursue a more scholarly historical approach to The Beatles: more thematic than narrative, more contextual than
biographical, more analytical than descriptive. To theorize The Beatles is to contextualize them.
Recent developments in Beatle Scholarship
One of the world’s centers for Beatle scholarship is in Finland. In the year 2000 The University of Jyväskylä sponsored the first academic conference on the subject. The Chairperson of the conference was Dr. Yrjö Heinonen – the first academic to be awarded a doctorate for his
work in the area of Beatle studies. The volume of proceedings from the conference consisted of 25 presentations by an international array of musicians, musicologists and scholars.
Peter Kaminsky, of the Music Department at the University of Connecticut, remarked:
“The Beatles are a cultural icon of which image is everywhere and of which meaning is multidimensional, unfathomable, and continuing. Whether understood as an actual pop group operating in the 1960s or a part of the continuing history – it was and still is constantly constructed and reconstructed, both by the members of the group and people commenting on them, as a cultural phenomenon.”
Dr. John Richardson of the Department of Music at City University in London, points out that only in the past few decades has the study of popular music been accepted and taken seriously in an academic context. He believes that “The Beatles 2000 conference” tapped into the current zeitgeist, catching the attention of a wide range of scholars working in many disparate fields:
“So often academic conferences seem either to draw an insular set working in the same area, or else a group so disparate and disinterested in the viewpoints of colleagues with different
backgrounds that they seem constantly on the verge of coming to blows. In Jyväskylä, neither was the case; scholars representing approaches as diverse as cultural studies, English literature, music education, popular music studies and traditional musicology mingled on the whole cordially and with genuine mutual respect and even interest.”
Professor Walter Everett, author of The Beatles as Musicians, called for a pulling together of courses in Beatle studies and the creation of an archive of Beatles-related material, either in the United States or the UK. He said there is a need for the establishment of a separate research paradigm resembling those found in the study of classical music such as Schubert and Beethoven studies.
Professor Ian Inglis from Northumbria University in Newcastle, believes the future is bright for Beatle scholarship. In addition to the success of the MA program at Liverpool Hope University, the number of journal editions and/or scholarly books devoted to The Beatles has increased significantly; academic conferences exploring the music and career of the band have been held across Europe and the US.
“All this is relatively recent… when I first started to write about The Beatles from a sociological perspective some 20 years ago, it was seen by some colleagues as a bizarre and inappropriate area; now it’s accepted as a serious and important topic.’
Professor Glenn Gass of Indiana University believes there will be an increase in the number of courses available to students as The Beatles pass further into history but remain essential for music appreciation.
What still needs to be done
In March 2009, Dr. Mike Brocken, of the Popular Music Studies Department at Liverpool’s Hope University established the world’s first MA program in Beatle studies. In January 2011 the first class graduated.
He says that histories should always be prepared to re-work, remodel and re-fashion such ideologies portrayed as truth [rather than re-cycle].
“Some Beatles writers blithely imply that certain histories are not ideological at all, do not position people, and do not deliver views of the past that come from outside the domain of the subject. But we can clearly see that meanings given to such histories are actually ideological.”
Dr. Brocken claims discourses have all but ceased to exist, adding:
“The literature is being gradually compounded into a collectively agreed craft after the fashion of a sacral art. As such, the religiosity of this literary pantheon immediately begins to show through. The modes of reception are institutionalized as would be collective responses to
He believes that such Beatles texts are not “meaningless” (far from it), but their meaning does not appear any longer to exist via linguistics or historical narratives, but in other forms of devout symbolism such as counter-cultural beatification. If the mythologized past becomes the primary, appropriate act, then the writing of essences and fully-formed identities comes to the fore.
The English academic says:
“Any such foregrounding inevitably fails to consider the opacity and pragmatism of The Beatles’ very existence; a plurality of contexts is repudiated, ideological possibilities are denied, and cultural immanence is discarded. When writing about popular culture reaches
such a stage of self-absorption, it ceases to reflect praxis, the very condition that characterizes the way that popular music functions in society, in the first place.”
New Educational Aids needed to “teach” the Beatles
In North America, Gordon Thompson, of the Department of Music at Skidmore College in upstate New York has been teaching a Beatles seminar for the past sixteen years. He points to the lack of educational books and other aids to teach Beatle courses:
“One of the great challenges of working on The Beatles as a scholar has been the limited access we have had to the material they recorded. We have better access to drafts of Beethoven’s piano
sonatas than we do to Beatles outtakes. It is in the outtakes where you can hear how the creative process unfolded.”
If these tapes were released by EMI they would be ideal educational tools to show the process of how the songs came to be what is on the record.
Thompson says books like Walter Everett’s The Beatles as Musicians provide wonderful analyses of The Beatles repertoire; but only those students who have completed courses on tonal harmony are able to decipher his meaning.
Every faculty member teaching a course on The Beatles has a particular disciplinary perspective they want to emphasize and the literature reflects that diversity. He points out that there is a need for more teaching tools in all these areas so that The Beatles can be taught as is any other academic subject.
Says Professor Robert Toft of the University of Western Ontario in Canada:
“Scholarship on The Beatles is in its infancy. We have a great deal of biographical information available, but detailed studies of the music itself and the recording processes that brought us that music have only just begun to appear. We need many more articles and books that examine the primary texts of The Beatles’ oeuvre, songs and recordings, from within the musical culture that produced them.
Courses on The Beatles have begun to appear at universities and colleges, but without more research to provide a solid foundation for those courses, instructors simply won’t be able to help students gain a thorough understanding of the songs and their legacy.”
Clearly, one move which would help establish “Beatle studies” as a legitimate field of academic study is an “Association of Beatle Scholarship” which would be comprised of academics and instructors who teach courses on The Beatles. It would hold annual meetings to discuss the issues and challenges facing Beatle scholars – and be a resource center for students interested in pursuing further study in the field.