Big news for new wave/new music fans this week: Johnny Marr has taken a teaching position at the University of Salford. I say again: Johnny Marr, the most influential rock guitar player of the past twenty years, has taken a gig teaching composition and popular music at a major university in Great Britain.
Can you imagine what that search process must have been like? I envision a gaggle of tweed-clad professors and tie-wearing administrators seated around a table covered in a mountain of resumes: “Well, we have about a hundred vitae from university composers, dozens from trade school audio production grads, and one from the guy who wrote ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby.’ What do we think?” It’s conceivable, I guess, that if one of these freshly minted DPhils had also been in the Smiths, Electronic, the Healers, or Modest Mouse, he or she might have stood a chance, but that strikes me as highly unlikely.
I had a strange vision in my bed last night, half dream and half nightmare: First, I was a seventeen-year-old undergrad in Salford’s BA program. I woke up, put on my ill-fitting sweater, configured my mope-rock hair properly, and strolled into Johnny Marr’s Advanced Life-Changing Riffs class. It was awesome. Then, suddenly, the perspective shifted: I was a thirty-year-old brand new doctor of music, a graduate of York or Sussex, maybe, with solid references and a respectable portfolio. I had unsuspectingly applied for a visiting post at Salford, only to find that it had gone instead to Johnny Marr, which is kind of like applying for a job teaching composition and then being struck by lightning. I threw up my hands and joined the French Foreign Legion.
I’m the first to admit that the chance to take a class with Johnny Marr is tantalizing in the extreme. However, the long-term ramifications of pop musicians’ assuming faculty positions must be considered: Are they hitting us where we live? Is this the beginning of the end of our contemporary music game preserve, our last sanctum from the cruelties of the mass market? Maybe. But maybe it’s something we can work with.
If I’ll have to compete against icons like Marr for a job, it’s time to think a lot harder about what I do and why. Am I writing music that could be, somehow, as significant to people (although not necessarily as many people—big distinction!) as Marr’s music has been? If not, perhaps I don’t deserve to work alongside successful pop musicians like him. The presence of rockers in the ivory tower is threatening—and it’s only going to get scarier as the practice of hiring them becomes more widespread, as it surely will—but it might provide a golden opportunity to reexamine the high culture/pop culture dichotomy from within, working toward a critically responsible dialectic that renders such distinctions less meaningful.