This article is more than 6 years old

Universities in song: not a happy tune

Paul Greatrix examines the lyrics of songs that refer to higher education. There's not many that talk about the sector in positive terms.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

I’ve posted about a number of different higher ed related music topics here before including the forgotten bands of HE, universities named after bands and VC Desert Island Discs. I was therefore intrigued to hear about this highly relevant piece of research reported recently in THE which suggests that HE has an “image problem” in relation to pop music. The researchers:

examined the lyrics of 89 songs that referenced higher education or universities, and found that nearly half (42) gave a negative impression. As in Qualifications, higher education is often presented as being pointless, the pair say. Another example is the 2010 Nas and Damian Marley song Patience: “Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning/Tell them to find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running.” Another theme presents universities as sites of oppression, summed up by Bob Marley (Damian Marley’s father) in the 1979 song Babylon System: “Me say: da Babylon system is the vampire, falling empire/Suckin’ the blood of the sufferers, yee-ea-e-ah!/Building church and university, woo yeah!” Young Conservatives by the Kinks, the authors suggest, sees universities as “a societal instrument of oppression” because it describes institutions as “turning out a brand-new breed of young conservatives”.

This, of course, prompted a search of some of the lyrics investigated in the research and a few others too. I had forgotten about the classic from the Kinks referred to here, ‘Young Conservatives’:

The establishment is winning
Now the battle’s nearly won
The rebels are conforming
See the father, now the sons
All the urgency and energy
Have turned into complacency
Now the schools and universities are turning out a
Brand new breed of young conservatives

And then this highly critical tune from Billy Bragg, ‘Qualifications’, which definitely confirms one of the main strands of the research:

So what’s the point in University?
For three years, I read philosophy
Now I read bar codes all day long
Beep, beep, beep sings that check-out song

Some other perspectives, this one from ‘Mayor of Simpleton’ by XTC:

Never been near a university,
Never took a paper or a learned degree,
And some of your friends think that’s stupid of me,
But it’s nothing that I care about

And the highly specific ‘U-Mass’ by the Pixies

(preceded by lots of negative stuff)
Oh baby
It’ s educational [Repeat x8]
University Of Massachusetts, please
And here’s the last five
It’s educational [Repeat x4]
Eeeed eeeed uuuuh caaaah tioooon

The very famous ‘My Perfect Cousin’ by The Undertones

He’s gotta a grade in economics,
Maths, physics and bionics
He thinks that I’m a cabbage
’cause I hate university challenge

You would expect erudite higher ed lyrics from the Pet Shop Boys
including ‘Pop Kids’:

Remember those days, the early nineties?
We both applied for places
At the same university
Ended up in London
Where we needed to be

And ‘Love is a Bourgeois Construct’

When you walked out you did me a favour
It’s absolutely clear to me
That love is a bourgeois construct
Just like they said at university

Then in a slightly more niche vein there is the Super Furry Animals song ‘Hit and Run’

One day I’ll build my own
Parallel university
With a park and good facilities
For all who enrol

And who could forget the most interesting song ever about a university department by The Fall:

Let me tell you about scientific management
And the theft of its concealment
The Birmingham School of Business School
In Birmingham
It’s main theme

Finally, I have written before about this perennial favourite from the Mancunian miserablist and his commentary on a particular institutional architectural feature, a university staircase.

Having reviewed this small sample of songs quoting universities it is hard to escape the confusion reached by the researchers that many of the lyrical references to universities are indeed negative. What we clearly need therefore is some government sponsored musical patriotism as previously noted here. That’ll do the trick.

17 responses to “Universities in song: not a happy tune

  1. “She came from Greece she had a zest for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin’s College…”

  2. “I’m frustrated
    For 29 years, no educated”
    Conditioner by the Wu Tang Clan – a reminder that its not all about white middle-class angst

  3. Love him or loathe him, Kanye West’s album The College Dropout is a whole 70-odd minutes dedicated to dropping out. There’s even a mocked up College Yearbook in the liner notes with a goofy picture of him above the words ‘best dressed and most likely to be unsuccessful.’ I don’t suppose he’s bitter though, the album sold more than 7 million copies.

  4. Be-Bop Tango – side 4 of the seminal Frank Zappa live album Roxy and Elsewhere – includes a whole passage devoted to Carl Zappa (who he?) “smoking a college degree”. It’s mind-expanding in so many ways….

  5. And this one, which is positively negative – or maybe it’s negatively positive? – about university. We’re all graduates now.

    “I’m from the street university
    Where we learn to earn even in times of adversity.”

    From “Reverence” by Faithless

  6. Thought you’d also quote Bragg’s “To Have and Have Not” – “Up in the morning and out to school / Mother, teachers be no work next year / Qualifications once the golden rule / Are now just pieces of paper”

  7. “All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” (I was tempted to write “your” in place of “you’re”.)

  8. Super Furry animals – Hit and Run “One day I’ll build my own parallel university, with a park and good facilities for all those who enrol, so that it tops the Times and Sunday Times League Table” (I may have imagined the last bit…). I also recall a song on the Boy album by U2 mentioning university, but I can’t remember which song!

  9. How about this comment on “whitewashing” in education from Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 song “Take the Power Back”:

    The present curriculum
    I put my fist in ’em
    Eurocentric every last one of ’em
    See right through the red, white and blue disguise
    With lecture I puncture the structure of lies
    Installed in our minds and attempting
    To hold us back
    We’ve got to take it back
    Holes in our spirit causin’ tears and fears
    One-sided stories for years and years and years

  10. Or this from Good Charlotte’s “The Anthem”:

    Go to college, a university
    Get a real job, that’s what they said to me
    But I could never live the way they want

  11. Last one, I promise 🙂 Here’s Bad Religion’s comment on the relationship between universities and the US military-industrial complex in “The Biggest Killer in American History”:

    Business institutions, universities
    Both are quite the circus when the killer wants his way

  12. From the unparalleled George Formby in his song “Ain’t Nobody’s Business What I Do” and picking up his recurring window cleaning theme.

    My son, he wanted knowledge
    So I sent him to college
    Eton, Oxford, Cambridge too
    He learnt the concertina
    Now he’s a window cleaner
    It ain’t nobody’s business what I do

  13. Positive message from someone who actually seems to like studying:

    I study nuclear science
    I love my classes
    I got a crazy teacher, he wears dark glasses
    Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
    I’m doing all right, getting good grades
    The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades
    (Timbuk 3, 1986)

    Not so positive message from Malvina Reynolds, 1962 (my parents had a 45 vinyl of this!) Sadly probably more true now than it was then
    And the people in the houses
    All went to the university,
    Where they were put in boxes
    And they came out all the same,
    And there’s doctors and lawyers,
    And business executives,
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same.

  14. Rat Race by The Specials:

    I’ve seen your qualifications, you’ve got a Ph.D.
    I’ve got one art O level, it did nothing for me.

    You plan your conversation to impress the college bar
    Just talking about your mother and daddy’s Jaguar
    Wear your political t-shirt and sacred college scarf
    Discussing the world’s situation but just for a laugh

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