Learning from Beyoncé and Kanye: The rise of 'Trojan horse' celebrity courses

Over the past few years, a growing number of universities have warmed to teaching classes linked to today's celebrities.

Academic courses use pop culture superstars as a vehicle for exploring broader issues

Leonard Cohen, Beyoncé, Kanye West and Madonna have all been the subject matter for academic courses using pop culture as a lens into wider cultural issues. (Michael Loccisano/Getty; Daniela Vesco/AP; Jason Kempin/Getty; Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Sometimes it takes a superstar like Beyoncé to get university students talking about bigger issues.

It's one of the reasons University of Victoria lecturer Melissa Avdeeff launched a course on Queen Bey a few years ago. She felt a description highlighting the pop superstar would draw students who might otherwise dismiss her music class with a sociological spin.

"It's kind of a Trojan horse situation," Avdeeff says.

"(We) bring students in with Beyoncé, they get a better critical understanding of an artist they're engaged with — but through that (we introduce) wider issues."

Over the past few years, a growing number of universities have warmed to teaching classes linked to today's celebrities.

While academia once reserved class time for composers like Beethoven and legends like the Beatles, more recently, Top 40 mavens Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus found their names listed on a syllabus of higher learning. Washington University's "Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics," which began in January, filled up almost instantly when registration opened for students.

‘Beyoncé is a reflection of social and cultural trends,’ says Concordia associate sociology professor Marc Lafrance.

But celebrity courses aren't entirely a new phenomenon.

Madonna was an early pioneer of celebrity studies when the University of Amsterdam launched a class on her influence in 1997. Other pop culture-angled courses followed, including a buzzworthy class on HBO's The Sopranos at the University of Calgary while the show was still in production.

What's different today is that social media has injected an immediacy into the conversation unlike ever before. Examinations of popular artists now include debates about their tweets, Instagram posts and music videos.

Celebs as entry point for studying broader issues

Even as they grow in popularity, not everyone thinks celebrity courses deserve full credit.

Zainab Mahmood felt the backlash from her peers after enrolling in a Beyoncé course at the University of Waterloo two years ago.

"I had to explain myself to most people," says Mahmood, adding she's glad she ignored the naysayers and took the class. If anything, time has given her vindication for studying the power of modern celebrity.

Donald Trump's ascent to the White House blindsided many who wrote him off as a mere reality TV star.

All the while Beyoncé continues to ignite conversations about race relations, while actors like Emma Watson and Lena Dunham stoked feminist rhetoric on social media.

Donald Trump's ascent to the White House may serve as vindication for studying the power of the modern celebrity. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Mahmood says her professor warned students this wouldn't be a series of breezy lectures on Beyoncé's glamorous life. Instead, the pop singer would be a vehicle for exploring broader issues like race, feminism and performance theory, though her self-titled 2013 album.

"It was really intensive," Mahmood remembers. "(The class) left a huge impact on me — more so in my daily life than a lot of the other things I studied."

Not every academic is convinced that splashing a famous person across a course title is the right approach.

University of British Columbia Prof. Ernest Mathijs chose not to put Johnny Depp in the name of his media industries class, even though a few sessions focused solely on the actor as a case study.

"It's really not only about the star — you're using the star as an example," he says.

Mathijs believes a class named after a performer who's still making movies could work against the professor. For example, Depp fell out of favour with his students around the same time a soured relationship was grabbing headlines in gossip magazines.

"In hindsight, all the sudden my course wasn't that relevant anymore," he says.

"To use the type of cultural value usually accorded to 'legends' to people in the middle of their career seems a little awkward."

'Celebrities are crystallizations of us'

Concordia University lecturer Marc Lafrance suggests academics walk a careful path in making sure famous names don't overshadow the study of broader culture and how "celebrities are crystallizations of us."

"Beyoncé is a reflection of social and cultural trends," the associate sociology professor says.

"And let's face it, Beyoncé is a much more influential public figure than the vast majority of our political figures. All of my students know who Beyonce is. How many students know who our minister of foreign affairs is?"

University of Oklahoma Prof. Lisa Funnell feels the debate over the appropriateness of studying pop culture is getting old. If anything, she says, the popularity of these courses proves the need for better media literacy.

McGill University features a course about Leonard Cohen, but what other Canadian pop stars could be given the academic treatment? (AFP/Getty Images)

"We're moving into a heightened area of awareness with celebrities," she says.

"Our connection with media is expanding, but never (how) we're taught the media has an impact on our lives."

Funnell says she doesn't see a problem in putting a celebrity's name on the marquee to draw students into the conversation either.

"That's how we attract people to films."

Canadian pop-star syllabus

While many celebrities are the subject of courses of higher learning, there have been few Canadian examples.

So we asked a group of scholars to dream up courses headlined by famous Canadians from the entertainment world.

Here are the celebrities they picked and their imagined course outlines:

Samantha Bee — American politics through a Canadian lens

Samantha Bee signs the wall at AOL Studios during AOL's BUILD Speaker Series in New York in 2016. (Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Why: The Full Frontal host's feisty political commentaries frequently go viral, proving the Toronto-born comedian's mix of jokes and jabs resonate beyond borders.

The pitch: University of Oklahoma assistant professor Lisa Funnell, who was born in Hamilton, says Bee is an avenue to a lineage of Canadian comedians who found success partly by poking fun at America. Units could include an examination of Michael Moore's comedy Canadian Bacon, which starred the late John Candy, and the career of Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels.

k.d. lang — Gender, sexuality and the politics of country music

k.d. lang performs during the 2013 Juno Awards in Regina in 2013. (The Canadian Press)

Why: The Alberta chanteuse has pushed against "dominant gender norms and prevailing sexual stereotypes" throughout her career, says Marc Lafrance, associate sociology professor at Concordia University.

The pitch: Lafrance suggests a focus on how the singer bucked country music conventions by appropriating masculine iconography. Other sections could examine how lang was able to cultivate her persona through the changing social conditions of the times.

Drake — Race and identity politics through social media

Drake performs in concert as part of the Summer Sixteen Tour in New York on Aug. 5, 2016. (Charles Sykes/Associated Press)

Why: Toronto's rapper extraordinaire is a social media pro, to say the least. His Instagram posts are a portal into his life, but also a window into lifestyle creation.

The pitch: Western University student Amara Pope, who wrote about Drake for her master's thesis, suggests Drake as a vehicle for a study of race and social status. Drake plays the role of "high-class rapper and low-class citizen," she says, which makes him a timely example of how the Internet can help shape identity.

"It can go beyond him as a case study into examining different ways of communicating on social media," Pope says.

Celine Dion — Québécois diva on a global scale

Celine Dion arrives at the world premiere of Beauty and the Beast at the El Capitan Theatre on Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Los Angeles. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Why: No other French-Canadian celebrity can rival Dion's influence as an ambassador for both Quebec and Canada.

The pitch: A course rich in social context would focus on Dion's rise to fame as a musical export, suggests University of Calgary arts professor Dawn Johnston. Starting with a study of Montreal living, the course could expand to chart Dion's beginnings in international song contests.

"You could flash back to when she was on Eurovision," Johnston says, pointing to when she represented Switzerland in 1988. "(And then) explore her role as a French Canadian in a world culture."