Why are so many pop stars turning lecturer?
The days when pop stars just sang are over. Never mind Will Young on Question Time – musicians today are likely to be lecturing at a podium near you. Elisa Bray samples their wisdom
Friday 13 March 2009
There's a long history of rock and pop stars being awarded honorary degrees, but increasing numbers of them are now taking to the lectern. The American anti-folk singer-songwriter Jeffrey Lewis is the latest; he's been touring with his lecture on the comic book Watchmen (based on his university thesis) from London's ICA to Portland, Oregon.
One fan said: "Warner Bros should have given [Jeff] a hundred million dollars instead [of making the film]. Where the movie didn't add a single thing to my experience of Watchmen, the lecture blew my mind and captured my attention and imagination."
Lewis is just the latest in a string of musicians who have turned lecturer. Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos addressed students at Edinburgh University back in 2004, while Johnny Marr gave his debut lecture in November – on the misfits and mavericks of the music industry – in Salford's Maxwell Hall, where The Smiths played one of their final concerts in 1986.
Jarvis Cocker delivered his lecture on lyrics at Brighton Festival; its success saw him take it on to Manchester University's In The City conference, and you can catch it at the South by South West festival in Texas this month. And Peter Doherty was invited to Trinity College, Dublin last month to take students' questions.
Here, we present a few extracts from what they had to say.
JEFFREY LEWIS, ICA, London, 24 February 2009
"The Comedian's real name in Watchmen is Edward Blake. The biggest association that I could come up with for that name is obviously the English poet William Blake, whose poem 'The Tyger' is quoted in Chapter 5. 'The Tyger' is from William Blake's Songs of Experience, which was written as a second part to Songs of Innocence, and the contrast between innocence and experience is obviously applicable to the Comedian and Moloch.
The apocalyptic vision of William Blake's poetry in general fits into Watchmen's apocalyptic themes. In addition, there are other associations we can bring up with the Comedian's real name of Edward Blake. If we were to free-associate phonetically on Blake, it's not much of a stretch to come up with the adjectives 'black' and 'bleak'.
There are a lot of references to this in conjunction with the Comedian in Watchmen. Hollis Mason writes of the shift away from innocence in 'Under the Hood.' He says, 'There seemed to be a bleak, uneasy feeling in the air.' In Chapter 11, he refers to the Comedian explaining 'life's black comedy' and then he also talks about denying the Comedian's crimes their 'last black laugh at earth's expense'.
Moloch again represents the innocent contrast to this. We find out when Rorschach tackles him in Chapter 2 that he is also known as William Vaughan and also as William Edgar Bright. One of his former aliases is 'Bright', so this contrast between innocence and experience, dark and light, fear and William Blake, is inherent in that last name.
It was at this point in reading Watchmen that I started to wonder whether I'd gone insane or whether these things were just coincidences. In piecing them together, everyone kept asking me what the point of my thesis was. There were just so many different things. I guess my thesis statement is just that Watchmen is better than I thought it was, or that Alan Moore is more of a genius than I thought he was. Or I don't know what."
JARVIS COCKER, Brighton Festival, 23 May 2008
Subject: "Saying the Unsayable"
"Let's take a look at the rhyming structure of 'I Am the Walrus'. First, there's another Beatles song, 'Michelle', which has a more conventional rhyming structure – 'Michelle, my belle. These are words that go together well, my Michelle.' Rhymes generally come at the end of a line.
Now, here's 'I Am the Walrus'. You look at it – 'together, fly, come, long'. The rhymes here are more complicated. It's a more complex approach. 'See how they run like pigs from a gun.' So you have rhymes, but they are inside the lines. And it leaves the end of the line floating free.
And I think that that's important. Because if John Lennon sang 'waiting for the van to come, sitting on a cornflake, semolina pilchard devouring a corncrake', the whole thing would sound awkward and contrived. The listener would be in a permanent state of tension thinking, 'What the hell is he going to get to rhyme with walrus?'
The more complicated rhyme structure here gives the impression that it doesn't really rhyme at all, which lends more authenticity to its stream-of-consciousness approach. It feels like a genuine and unpremeditated outburst.
This question of [whether] to rhyme or not to rhyme is where many a songwriter comes a cropper. It's the one thing they know a song must do, so they pursue it at all costs and they become a rhyme whore.
A rhyme whore will do anything for a rhyme. They will defy all notions of good sense, of good English, intelligibility, logic, syntax, taste. You name it, anything goes, as long as they get the rhyme. And this can have unintentionally hilarious results."
JOHNNY MARR, University of Salford, 4 November 2008
Subject: 'Always from the Outside: Mavericks, Innovators and Building Your Own Ark'
"The British music industry has never created anything, ever, in its history. It has never innovated anything. It's done plenty of good things – it's brought plenty of great innovators to light and helped to make great records and events – but nothing of any value was ever created inside the British or American music business. It always came from the outside, from outsiders created in the real world.
These people, out of necessity, rejection, frustration and talent, and with vision, built their own ark and sailed it alongside and ahead of the music industry. They created their own market. They did their own research and development. They did it, and they still do it, in small clubs, playing in front of a few people, supporting other bands, going up and down the country in little vans, they do it in home-made studios, they do it on MySpace, on Facebook. They don't do it on The X Factor.
They were always people from the outside. Take Les Paul and his innovations for the electric guitar; he was rejected as a crank. The Beatles were rejected by Decca for their four-piece guitar line-up. No one invented Bob Marley, The Sex Pistols, Kurt Cobain or Jay-Z – they all invented themselves and were rejected. They were outsiders and they were necessary."
PETER DOHERTY, Trinity College Philosophical Society, 6 February 2009
On Paul McCartney: "They let me out of rehab to do that interview, so to be honest, I didn't even recognise him with the medication I was on. They cut out a lot of it, some of the questions were a bit personal and they left them out in the end. I was asking him about some of the things they used to get up to on tour with The Beatles. You hear about The Rolling Stones and the total decadent rock bands, but The Beatles were the baddest of all, but it was all kept quiet."
On Mick Jones of The Clash: "He's quite a knowledgeable man. He can see through things. He was like a father figure as well, he would take us aside and go, 'Why are you fighting, boys, you're brothers, you're on the same side. Stop it, you know? Don't let something beautiful die.' We split up the next month. It was the first album we ever made, the first time we'd been in a proper studio, and it was dead exciting for us just to be recording our songs and to have someone whose songs we'd grown up on. [Jones produced The Libertines' two albums and the first Babyshambles album] It was all like a dream."
On inspiration: "No one, really, I've done it all on my own. I'm quite a lonely character. Most of my friends are dead and have been for hundreds of years. I quite like cats. Do you know what, I don't actually like cats so much. It started off fine, but now they've just taken over, they've just expanded. I'm trying to keep the population under control; it's about 12 now. But I mean, they're so smelly, it's disgusting. I'm trying to get to grips with the philosophy of cats, as it were."
On the new album: "I've reverted to where I started out. Songs like 'Albion' and 'Music When the Lights Go Out' were quite ballady and slow and they were the first songs. Then The Strokes came along and our manager said, 'Look, you're going to have to speed everything up if you want to get signed.' So we did that.
When we first got into the limelight, we were so deranged and angry and a bit twisted that we'd just get on stage and turn it up as loud as we could, whack it out and get off as quickly as we could. There was a lot of frantic, nervous energy and it was all a bit more aggressive and chaotic, and then we just calmed down a little bit, sadly."
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