By the time they receive their diplomas, freshmen at Washington & Jefferson College will have the chance to sample Sartre, navigate Nietzsche and plumb the depths of Dante.
Before then, though, some of them are cracking the books on Bono.
In the semester that just wrapped up, one of W&J’s first-year seminar courses focused on the rock band U2. Called “How Long Must We Sing This Song: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Culture and U2,” it looked at the work of the veteran rock band from a number of perspectives: historical, psychological, philosophical and theological, and also approached the songs as literature and poetry.
“All the people who are studying U2 academically started out as fans,” said Arlan Hess, an English lecturer who taught the course. A 45-year-old Mt. Lebanon native, she still remembers the date of the first U2 concert she attended: April 9, 1985, at Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, shortly after the release of the “Unforgettable Fire” album.
At first glance, a college course built around a bunch of guitar-slingers who fill stadiums would seem like unorthodox fare for the hallowed halls of academia. But since the 1960s, the study of popular culture has slowly, steadily gained acceptance among scholars. Bowling Green State University in Ohio has a department dedicated to the subject, and courses on popular music, film, folklore and television and have proliferated on campuses elsewhere.
And though they have not yet rolled over Beethoven or elbowed aside Shakespeare, U2 is among a handful of canonical rock acts that have caught the fancy of academics. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead have also inspired doctoral dissertations, conferences, heady musicological dissections and chin-scratching on their broader cultural significance.
Anyone interested in reading about U2 beyond the pages of Rolling Stone can, in fact, sample such papers as “A Century Apart: The Personality Performances of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s and U2’s Bono in the 1990s,” “U2, Mythology and Mass-Mediated Survival” and “Drawing Our Fish in the Sand: Secret Biblical Allusions in the Music of U2.”
“We’ve crossed the threshold,” according to Scott Calhoun, an English professor at Cedarville University near Dayton, Ohio and the editor of “Exploring U2,” which collects an assortment of scholarly essays on the group. “It’s now accepted. These are the texts of a generation, especially the undergraduate generation, more so than Charles Dickens or John Steinbeck.”
And though the thought of it makes middle-aged members of Generation X feel their muscle aches and creaking bones more acutely, there never has been a time when U2 was a “new” band for today’s undergraduates - most were born in the early 1990s, a decade after U2 debuted as one of the many exotic, big-haired groups that populated MTV and college radio. Their parents might have had U2’s “Achtung Baby” in the CD player when they were teething.
“I had absolutely no idea about U2,” remarked student Hanna Beightley after one classroom discussion wrapped up last month. Before taking the class, Beightley added, she wasn’t familiar with their catalog or their personae.
Earlier, Beightley and her classmates watched a couple of videos and talked about thematic unities that run through U2 albums and the way the foursome has toyed with its own sense of identity over its long stretch in the spotlight.
Hess and Calhoun are organizing an academic conference on U2 set to happen next spring at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, and they are also the editors of a journal in Calhoun describes as “the nascent field of U2 studies.”
“I hope (my students) understand how music is an integral part of life, and music can reflect politics and history and gender identity” Hess said. “When they listen to the music, they have the ability to examine the larger context they live in.”