A Year in the Life: Who Gets a Masters in The Beatles?


LIVERPOOL, England – On Wednesday morning, as a new semester began, students eagerly marched to the lecture halls of the University of Liverpool to begin classes in archeology, languages ​​and international relations.

But in Lecture Hall 5 of the university’s concrete Rendall Building, a less traditional program was set in motion: a master’s entirely devoted to the Beatles.

“How do you start an MA Beatles?” asked Holly Tessler, the American academic who founded the course, looking at 11 enthusiastic students. One was wearing a Yoko Ono T-shirt; another had a yellow submarine tattooed on his arm.

“I thought the only way to do it, really, was with music,” she said.

Tessler then played the music video for “Penny Lane”, the Beatles’ tribute to a real Liverpool street, a short drive from the classroom.

The one-year course – “The Beatles: Music Industry and Heritage” – would focus on changing perceptions of The Beatles over the past 50 years, and how the group’s changing histories have affected business sectors like the recording industry and tourism, Tessler said in an interview. Before the classes.

For Liverpool, the group’s hometown, the association with the Beatles was worth more than $ 110 million a year, according to a 2014 study by Mike Jones, another lecturer on the course. Tourists make pilgrimages to city sites named in the band’s songs, visit places the band performed – like the Cavern Club – and pose for photos with statues of The Beatles. The group’s impact has always been economic and social, as much as a musical, Tessler said.

Throughout the course, students should stop being mere Beatles fans and start thinking about the band from new angles, she added. “No one wants or needs a degree where people sit and listen to the lyrics to ‘Rubber Soul’,” she said. “That’s what you do in the pub. “

At Wednesday’s lecture, which focused almost entirely on “Penny Lane,” Tessler encouraged students to view The Beatles as a “cultural mark,” using the terms “narrative theory” and “transmediality.”

Then she applied those ideas to a recent Beatles event. Last year, Tessler said, the road signs along the real Penny Lane were disfigured as the Black Lives Matter protests spread across Britain. There was a long-held belief in Liverpool, she explained, that the street was named after an 18th-century slave trader called James Penny. (The city’s International Slavery Museum listed Penny Lane in an interactive display of slavery-related street names in 2007, but now says there is no evidence the road bears the name from the merchant.)

“What if they changed the name to – I don’t know – Smith Lane?” Tessler asked. It would deprive Liverpool of a key tourist attraction, she said: “You cannot pose next to a sign that was once Penny Lane.” The fury around the street name has shown how stories about The Beatles can intersect with contemporary debates and have an economic impact, she said.

The 11 students on the course – three women and eight men, ages 21 to 67 – all said they were long-term Beatles obsessive. (Two had named their sons Jude, after one of the band’s most famous songs; another had a son named George, after George Harrison.)

Dale Roberts, 31, and Damion Ewing, 51, both said they were professional tour guides and hoped the qualification would help them attract customers. “The tourism industry in Liverpool is fierce,” said Roberts.

Alexandra Mason, 21, said she recently graduated with a law degree but decided to change her path when she heard about The Beatles’ class. “I never really wanted to be a lawyer,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do something more colorful and creative.”

She added: “In my head I went from the ridiculous to the sublime” but said some might think she did the opposite.

A postgraduate degree in The Beatles is a rarity, but the band has been studied in other settings for decades. Stephen Bayley, an architecture critic who is now an honorary professor at the University of Liverpool, said that when he was a student in the 1960s at Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool – John Lennon’s alma mater – his teacher of English taught Beatles lyrics alongside poetry. by John Keats.

In 1967, Bayley wrote to Lennon asking for help analyzing songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bayley stated that Lennon” responded by saying, “You can’t analyze them.” “

But these days, a growing number of academics are doing just that: Tessler said scholars from several disciplines write about The Beatles, many exploring perspectives on the group influenced by race or feminism. Next year, she plans to launch a Beatles Studies Journal, she said.

Some people in Liverpool, however, weren’t convinced of the group’s academic value. In interviews around Penny Lane, two locals said they thought the course was a strange idea.

“What are you going to do with this?” You’re not going to cure cancer, are you? said Adele Allan, owner of the Penny Lane Barber Shop.

“This is a totally silly course,” said Chris Anderson, 38, walking his dog, adding that he thought almost all college degrees were “entirely dumb”.

Others were more positive. “You can study anything,” said 19-year-old Aoife Corry. “You don’t have to prove yourself by doing a serious subject,” she added.

Tessler concluded Wednesday’s class by outlining the topics for the remaining classes for the semester. It was a program any Beatles fan would appreciate, including trips to St. Peter’s Church, where Lennon and McCartney first met in 1957 in the Church Hall, and Strawberry Field, the former home. for children that the group immortalized in song. Classes would cover key moments in the band’s history, including a famous live television appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Lennon’s murder in 1980, Tessler said.

She then gave the students a reading list, topped with a textbook titled “The Beatles in Context”. Were there any questions, she asked?

“What’s your favorite Beatles album?” Called Dom Abba, 27, the student with the yellow submarine tattoo.

Tessler responded happily (“The American version of ‘Rubber Soul’), then clarified what she meant:” Does anyone have any questions about the mod? Students clearly still had a long way to go before they became Beatles academics as well as fans. But there were still 11 months of classes.

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