For the first time this spring, Penn students can find Beyoncé’s name listed on Penn InTouch.
“Beyoncé, Protest and Popular Music,” taught by Ph.D. candidate Julia Cox, is part of the English Department’s Junior Research Seminar program. Enrollment is capped at just twelve students in order to promote discussion and research training.
“The class is half-content and half-teaching the students how to develop their own research methods,” Cox said. “It is a culmination of my own research interests in media studies, gender and sexuality, as well as popular culture.”
The course begins with a musical context unit, focusing on artists such as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan — musicians who have used their music to comment on social issues.
Students will also analyze Beyoncé’s albums one by one, before developing their own research projects in the last section of the class, each selecting a different artist.
“Sadly I will not be reading twelve final papers on Beyoncé, as amazing as that would be,” Cox joked.
In the past year, Cox said she observed a deliberate shift in Beyoncé’s political stance and musical aesthetic, from being fairly apolitical to actively engaging with racial politics and feminism.
While the course title includes Beyoncé, in actuality Cox aims for a broader history, with contemporary examples supplemented by prominent cases from the past.
“Beyoncé is somewhat of a marketing tool to get people interested in looking at longer histories of race, gender, protest and American studies,” Cox said.
Cox defines the course as a combination of musicology, cultural studies and media studies. She approaches the course as an interdisciplinary exploration of American protest music, with assignments that include a mixture of academic and journalistic pieces.
“I let the questions stem from whatever music we’re listening to that day,” Cox said. “Anything can be a text; you can analyze a piece of music as closely and as critically you would a piece of literature.”
Cox has a background in both music and journalism. She previously worked as a journalist in Atlanta, serving as a music beat reporter.
“These conversations about pop music are really going from academia to the mass media in a way that they didn’t always,” Cox explained.
While she maintains an interest in popular culture, Cox found that she wanted to “take the questions a little deeper” than surface-level speculation about how many times Beyoncé wore a fur coat or whether the singer and Jay Z were seeking a divorce.
However, Cox acknowledged the inherent allure associated with keeping tabs on America’s pop culture.
“It was definitely fun having a Google alert on Beyoncé and Rihanna for a year.”
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