Beyoncé Studies

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The musicology department of Copenhagen University is to offer a course on the music of Bayoncé. It would be fun, it said.

I think it is probably true that most readers of the Review have limited knowledge of Beyoncé; but to judge by the number of entries on Google devoted to her, she is 25 per cent more important than Hitler ever was, and three times more important than Lenin. Whatever you might think of her music, then (assuming you think anything of it at all), she and her music are clearly important as a phenomenon.

Popular culture is clearly an important subject of academic study, especially in an age like ours in which it fills people’s minds, moulds their opinions, shapes their ambitions and daydreams, and affects their behaviour. No sociologist (or social historian of the future) could afford to disregard popular culture.

There is another way to study culture, however, and that is sub specie aeternitatis, from point of view of what is intrinsically meritorious or valuable. Not everything popular is bad, of course, but not everything popular is good. We do not study Shakespeare because he was popular in Elizabethan London, so that we may find out about the mentality of Londoners four and a half centuries ago. We study Shakespeare because his speaks both beautifully and profoundly to all subsequent ages, and perhaps to any conceivable age. We study Victorian melodrama not because it was good, but because it tells us something about Victorian society and its mentalities.

These two ways of, or reasons for, studying culture are different, though they may sometimes overlap a little. Such are the trends in modern universities, however, that the two ways and reasons are increasingly elided.


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The first trend that accounts for this elision is purely intellectual. Philosophical relativism, the denial that there is any objective basis for judgments of worth or value, has become almost an orthodoxy in humanities departments. And if there is no real difference between good and bad, why go to the trouble of studying the difficult when the easy is, by definition, just as good?

The second trend is the commercial imperative under which universities now operate. To put it crudely (and as academics now often put it themselves), they need bums on seats. What better way to get them there than to ‘study,’ as if academically, what the students already know and like, and to flatter them into believing that their taste is impeccable?

The University of Copenhagen needed twenty applicants to make its study of Bayoncé commercially viable. It immediately received eighty.


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9 Comments on Beyoncé Studies

  1. You are aware that there was at one time serious consideration in college courses of Marilyn Monroe and her various attributes, cultural and otherwise. Did any of you object to the “cult of Marilyn Monroe”, was she a more worthwhile subject?
    Americans aren’t into history. Hitler, Lenin, Mussolini are not currently popular. We’ll see if Beyonce Knowles is as popular in the future, say in 2117.

  2. “I think it is probably true that most readers of the Review have limited knowledge of Beyoncé…”

    Speaking as almost a living caricature of SR readers, I’m more aware of “Beyoncé” than you think. This is because I read the BBC news pages, where whatever it is that she does is constantly promoted.

    The response of the populace to whatever it is that she does is undoubtedly of sociological interest, and it’s not impossible that she does whatever it is that she does with skill, in which case she might be of musical interest too.

    I fondly remember an occasion when my harmony and counterpoint teacher, the great Christopher Cowan, accompanied some of his pupils to a pub. The Beatles’ “We can work it out” was playing on the jukebox, and Mr Cowan seemed to be enjoying it. Near the end, he leaned forward and asked, “What kind of cadence was that?” It was a plagal cadence, as it turned out – the cadence of the “Amen” that often follows a hymn.

    “Beyoncé Studies” may be a useful academic subject, but not unless the presence or absence of plagal cadences in whatever it is that she does is a part of it. There has to be something concrete and verifiable among all the chatter.

    • Oh, it’s no mere whiff… it’s the stink of institutional oxymoronism Geezer. Salisbury Review MAIN CONTRIBUTORS: […] Jane Kelly[…] She has written […] a biography of Colin Farrell…

  3. I used to joke that certain degrees these days could be found at the bottom of boxes of Rice Krispies. It would appear that my joke wasn’t so far fetched after all!

    Dumb, dumber and onwards down to the lowest common denominator.

  4. I find myself entirely unsurprised by the news that a university course in Beyoncé Studies is now being offered. During my time working in the U.K. university sector I witnessed grades being fudged and fabricated, course content ‘dumbed down’, and standards of English usage allowed to decline. From time to time I would even witness a senior professor re-writing a candidate’s Ph.D. thesis, to ensure that the student’s work met the minimum standard to warrant a pass ~ just to be sure that members of the student’s ethnic group were better represented in the academy, you understand, not for any underhand reasons. Questionable practices such as these were commonplace. Equally commonplace was the preference for promoting opinions rooted in political doctrine, as if they were the truth. The truth, of course, was regularly passed over; being too inconvenient to warrant discussion in a university seminar. All in all I think what is really surprising here, is not that Beyoncé Studies is being taken seriously, but that anyone still takes our universities seriously, when so much about them has become a joke; and a joke in bad taste at that.