What is higher education coming to? The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is offering a course based on the television show American Idol. At first, the idea that an institution promoting higher education would allow such a course made me doubt the legitimacy of UNC.
But on second thought, the course “Examining American Idol Through Musical Critique” is an ingenious way of persuading college students to sign up for a course on music critique. I mean, how many yearly enrollments are there in “Examining Chamber Orchestra Through Musical Critique?” Chamber orchestra equals a three-credit nap time, whereas American Idol seems more interesting. You get to see people make morons of themselves in front of the entire nation while a surly Brit tells contestants that they suck in one of his many witty ways. Best of all, you get to laugh at it with your class.
The validity of this course comes in that Jay Grymes, assistant professor of musicology, is using the pop culture catastrophe to teach his students about musical critique.
“I started listening more carefully to what the judges [on American Idol] were saying, less like a musician and more like a regular person,” Grymes said.
He added that many people would not pick up on the music industry’s jargon, such as when contestants are told they are being “too pitchy.” He aims to incorporate the vocabulary of the music industry, certain performance aspects – as in what makes a good performance as opposed to a bad one – and a critique of the judge’s comments in order to allow students to fully grasp the varied aspects of the performance of music in general, whether it be a contestant’s rendition of “It’s Raining Men,” or Gounod’s “Faust.”
“Performing is performing. Breath support and diction is universal,” Grymes said.
Grymes also plans on examining the various genres of music that Idol contestants are required to sing, like Motown. He will then investigate the impact these types of music had on specific communities, as well as the music that grew out of them. He hopes that this course will allow students to take what they learned and apply it to other forms of musical critique as well.
But since the existence of this course was made public through the Associated Press, various critics and news outlets have been questioning the legitimacy of the course.
“What’s to critique? Whether sugary, power-ballad syllable-stretching is musically expressive or just cheesy?” Newsday.com asks.
Others have been criticizing it as a weak attempt on the part of UNC to make more money and offer an easy course to boost UNC’s academic ratings. Grymes responded to these claims by saying that people are looking at UNC’s ratings as a graduate school, and the American Idol course is not a graduate level course.
As far as the accusations of making easy money for the school, Grymes said, “There is no money in academia. [My goal] is to offer something unique to what the students already have.” Besides, students pay the same amount of tuition for 12 to 15 credits regardless of what courses they take.
The genius of this course is that it sort of tricks students into taking a class that they would otherwise avoid, like music theory or musical critique courses that offer extensive amounts of learning about an art form. This course offers the same instruction, but under the guise of frivolity and pop culture, things to which most students may feel more of a connection.
“American Idol is a Trojan horse. It lures kids in with something they’re interested in, but gives them the tools to view [all forms of music] in a different way when the semester is done,” Grymes said.
Maybe this is what America needs to do in order to get students to demonstrate an interest in learning about the arts: trick them. It’s a great idea. Music theory is beneficial to a well-rounded liberal arts education. If colleges have to reinforce this trend by employing the use of American Idol as a lure, then I am all for it.
Meredith Lindemon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.