Whose Groupies in the Profs’ Lounge?

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.

6 thoughts on “Whose Groupies in the Profs’ Lounge?

  1. marknowakowski

    Do we really want to render “such distinctions less meaningful”? I believe that what we as composers do is special, unique, and culturally necessary in a way which (praise God) separates us from pop musicians. The day we stop believing that what we do is necessary (and necessarily separate from other musical spheres), what’s the use of continuing it? If this is where you want to head, let’s just sell newmusicbox.org to Rolling Stone magazine and be done with it.

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  2. randy

    different way to look at the same thing
    I prefer to look at the issue from the opposite angle: What pop musicians create isn’t inherently lesser-than the stuff being produced inside today’s modern composition scene. Pop and non-pop alike, shouldn’t we both feel relevant and special? I instantly turn off when the better-than attitude classical music seems to foster gets bandied about, even subtly. So we don’t need to sell off NMBx yet…. And by the same token, no need to poo-poo pop, unless you’re looking for some twisted ego booster or something.

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  3. rtanaka

    I’d recommend looking at Steve Martland’s works if you interested in someone who (in my opinion, anyway) manages to bridge the divide between the two. His rhythmic counterpoint is pretty amazing! He has outputs both in pop and in classical music, and they’re both quite good.

    He is also seems to be committed to music education, which is also very respectable.

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  4. curioman

    Hey Colin,

    I’m all for your enthusiasm and don’t want to rain on your parade, but to say Johnny Marr is the most influential rock guitar player of the past twenty years is far reaching. As a guitarist myself and one who has interacted with a lot of other guitarists since ’87, I can’t remember even a single one who claimed him as a primary (or otherwise significant) influence. Not to say he hasn’t had an impact, but most influential… in Britain, maybe?

    Also, I don’t see a classical/pop bridge here. Wikipedia states: “The ex-Smiths guitarist and current band member of Modest Mouse will be delivering a series of workshops and masterclasses to students on the BA (Hons) Popular Music and Recording degree at Salford.”

    So, I don’t think your future prof job is in danger… unless you write pop music! ;)

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  5. marknowakowski

    Point Taken.
    Randy, point taken. The fact that I don’t want to compete for University jobs with Bono, however, says nothing of my rather positive feelings towards much pop-music. One can be protective of western high-culture without occupying the proverbial ivory tower.

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  6. jbunch

    More news that’s cool.
    Yeah, and Martin Schmidt, of the San Fran based electronica duo Matmos (also, he has a solo project that’s pretty astounding – “Soft Pink Truth”) finished his DPhil at Oxford in Philosophy, and just landed a job in the Philosophy department at Johns Hopkins. I have to admit, I’d love to have a rock star professor – but only if (s)he actually had something good to say, and it wasn’t just a publicity stunt for the university.

    Reply

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