I’m vexed when it comes to the subject of Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy’s world-first “graduate degree in the Beatles”, which has made the Canadian singer and future Sheridan College instructor an ephemeral worldwide celebrity. The sneerers are out in force on the net, which was predictable, if weirdly anachronistic in the year 2011. Apparently the souls of those who got huffy about “more popular than Jesus” and the Boer War pensioners who couldn’t tell if the Beatles were male or female have somehow transmigrated into the bodies of present-day philistines.
Put simply, the Beatles are one of the pivotal cultural phenomena of the 20th century, and if they are beneath the notice of the liberal arts, then anything is. Any argument against graduate-level study of the Beatles—whose compositions Deryck Cooke, one of the greatest of musicologists, thought worthy of his attention—would extend readily to cover any popular idiom, throwing its penumbra naturally over operetta and ballet and zarzuela and the blues. Before you could say “Bach’s your uncle,” there would be nothing left of musicology at all beyond the deconstruction of fugues.
Moreover, the actual stuff of Zahalan-Kennedy’s thesis, unmentioned in most reports, sounds fascinating. Who knew that the Beatles hit big here in Canada as early as 1962? That’s a story worth re-telling after half a century. Maybe even in Maclean’s magazine!
But on the other hand…there is a heavy thumbprint of marketing on this piece of news, and it’s tough to watch Ms. Zahalan-Kennedy defending the seriousness of an enterprise that has the silliness baked right in. It’s tough, in part, because one senses that she will have to do it for the rest of her life. But there’s also the issue that her degree from Liverpool Hope University is hardly groundbreaking in any real respect; surely it’s just a bog-standard cultural-studies/history credential from an otherwise undistinguished (albeit conveniently situated) institution? The academy doesn’t really give out degrees “in” the Beatles, any more than it gives them out “in” Christopher Marlowe or Greek koiné or leptons, or for that matter the Dave Clark Five. It’s the process and the standards, not the particular subject matter, that are supposed to be the point.
As an assignment editor could probably figure out if he sat down and thought about it for a moment, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of people who have already received advanced degrees on the basis of Beatle-related thesis content. As Hunter Davies noted in his authorized biography-cum-handbook The Beatles:
In the early 1980s, I was asked to be an outside examiner for a student at London University who was doing a Ph.D. on the Beatles. I thought it was a leg-pull at first. I’d heard that some minor American universities had introduced such studies, but not any British ones, certainly not one as distinguished and rigorous as London University. I can still remember her name, Melody Ziff. She was, in fact, American, but London University had accepted her to study for a Ph.D. Her thesis, as I remember, was called “The Beatles’ lyrics as poetry”.
Today, there are universities, colleges, and schools all over the globe, eminent and otherwise, offering courses that include a study of the Beatles…
The philistines will question the “cash value” of close study of the Beatles, and while that is beside the point, it still seems remarkable given the unquestionably enormous number of people, from the time of the Monkees to that of Oasis, who have made millionaires of themselves by raiding the Beatles’ bag of tricks. There have to be at least as many of those as there are rich economists or physicists.