2021-10-01 16:45:04 A Year in the Life: Who Gets a Master’s Degree in the Beatles?
A Year in the Life: Who Gets a Master’s Degree in the Beatles?
LIVERPOOL, England (Reuters) – As a new semester began on Wednesday, students flocked to the University of Liverpool’s lecture theaters to begin classes in archaeology, languages, and international relations.
A less traditional program, however, was getting underway in lecture room No. 5 of the university’s concrete Rendall Building: a master’s degree devoted entirely to the Beatles.
“How does one begin a Beatles M.A.?” asked Holly Tessler, the American academic who founded the course, as she looked out at the 11 eager students. One was decked out in a Yoko Ono T-shirt, while another had a yellow submarine tattooed on his arm.
“I really thought the only way to do it was with some music,” she explained.
Tessler then showed the class the music video for “Penny Lane,” the Beatles’ tribute to a real street in Liverpool, just a short drive away.
Tessler said in an interview before class that the yearlong course, titled “The Beatles: Music Industry and Heritage,” would focus on shifting perceptions of the Beatles over the past 50 years, as well as how the band’s changing stories affected commercial sectors like the record business and tourism.
According to a 2014 study by Mike Jones, another lecturer on the course, the band’s association with Liverpool was worth more than $110 million per year. Tourists travel to cities named after the band’s songs, visit venues where the band performed, such as the Cavern Club, and pose for photos with Beatles statues. According to Tessler, the band’s impact was always economic and social as well as musical.
Students would have to stop being Beatles fans and start thinking about the group from new perspectives throughout the course, she added. “Nobody wants or needs a degree where people sit around debating lyrics to ‘Rubber Soul,’” she said. “That’s what you do in a bar.”
Tessler encouraged students to think of the Beatles as a “cultural brand” in Wednesday’s lecture, which focused almost entirely on “Penny Lane,” using the terms “narrative theory” and “transmediality.”
She then applied those concepts to a recent Beatles-themed event. According to Tessler, street signs along the real Penny Lane were defaced last year as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the UK. She explained that there was a long-held belief in Liverpool that the street was named after an 18th-century slave trader named James Penny. (In 2007, the city’s International Slavery Museum included Penny Lane in an interactive display of street names associated with slavery, but it now says there is no evidence that the road was named after the merchant.)
“What if they did change the name to — I’m not sure — Smith Lane?” Tessler inquired. She claimed that doing so would deprive Liverpool of a key tourist attraction: “You can’t pose next to a sign that used to be Penny Lane.” According to her, the uproar over the street name demonstrated how stories about the Beatles can intersect with current debates and have an economic impact.
The course’s 11 students — three women and eight men ranging in age from 21 to 67 — all claimed to be long-term Beatles fans. (Two of their sons were named Jude, after one of the band’s most famous songs, and another was named George, after George Harrison.)
Dale Roberts, 31, and Damion Ewing, 51, both claimed to be professional tour guides who hoped the certification would help them attract customers. “The tour industry is fierce in Liverpool,” Roberts said.
Alexandra Mason, 21, said she had recently completed a law degree but changed her mind when she learned about the Beatles course. “I never wanted to be a lawyer,” she admitted. “I’ve always wanted to do something brighter and more creative.”
She went on to say, “In my mind, I’ve gone from the ridiculous to the sublime,” but she admitted that some might think she’d done the opposite.
Although a postgraduate degree in the Beatles is uncommon, the band has been studied in other contexts for decades. Stephen Bayley, an architecture critic and honorary professor at the University of Liverpool, recalled that when he was a student at Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool — John Lennon’s alma mater — in the 1960s, his English teacher taught Beatles lyrics alongside John Keats poetry.
In 1967, Bayley wrote to John Lennon, requesting assistance in analyzing songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” According to Bayley, Lennon “wrote back basically saying, ‘You can’t analyze them.'”
But a growing number of academics are doing just that these days: Tessler stated that researchers from various disciplines were writing about the Beatles, with many of them examining perspectives on the band informed by race or feminism. She plans to start a Beatles journal next year, she says.
Some Liverpool residents, however, were skeptical of the band’s academic worth. Two locals interviewed near Penny Lane thought the course was an odd idea.
“How are you going to use that?” You’re not going to be able to cure cancer, are you?” Adele Allan, owner of Penny Lane Barber Shop, stated
“It’s an entirely silly course,” Chris Anderson, 38, said while out walking his dog, before adding that almost all college degrees were “entirely silly.”
Others were more upbeat. “You can study anything,” Aoife Corry, 19, said. “You don’t have to prove yourself by doing something serious,” she added.
Tessler wrapped up Wednesday’s class by outlining the topics for the rest of the semester’s lectures. It was a program that any Beatles fan would enjoy, with field trips to St. Peter’s Church, where Lennon and McCartney first met in the church hall in 1957, and Strawberry Field, the former children’s home immortalized in song. Tessler said classes would cover key moments in the band’s history, such as a famous live television appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and John Lennon’s murder in 1980.
She then handed out a reading list to the students, which included a textbook titled “The Beatles in Context.” She inquired if there were any questions.
Dom Abba, 27, the student with the yellow submarine tattoo, asked, “What’s your favorite Beatles’ album?”
Tessler cheerfully responded, “The American version of ‘Rubber Soul,'” then clarified her meaning: “Does anyone have any questions about the module?” The students clearly had a long way to go before they could be considered Beatles academics as well as fans. However, there were still 11 months of lectures to go.