The Sydney Morning Herald

By Belinda Parkes

It isn't often you can rock up to a university class to find your lecturer for the day is MTV cofounder Les Garland, Rolling Stone magazine editor Rod Yates, or Jezabels' frontwoman Hayley Mary.

But at the University of Sydney, these are some of the people providing a first-hand insight into the power of the music industry in the undergraduate Sex, Race and Rock in the USA subject offered through the faculty of arts and social sciences.

The course co-ordinator, Rebecca Sheehan, from the university's US Studies Centre, says although the wild image of rock'n'roll appears to be a far cry from the ivory tower caricature of a university, popular music has much to say about social, political and cultural history.

By engaging those in the industry to share their own experiences and observations, Sheehan seeks to bridge the gap between it and the university's academic perspective.

"The unit is a cultural approach to understanding social and political issues and seeing how important music can be," she says. "Everyone loves music, but often it is dismissed as not something to study unless you are a musician."

The subject examines gender, race and sexuality within American history using some of the industry's biggest influences. From Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin to Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, the course examines the image of these performers and how it reflected, or affected, their era.

It looks at the Cold War and conformity, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, civil rights and freedom, rebellion and empowerment. Sheehan says the impact of MTV was phenomenal, but most of her students don't recall life without a 24-hour music channel.

"Music is a realm where people can play and, because of the important role listeners and audiences have with their purchasing power, it is like a form of voting," she says.

The course looks at music from the start of the 19th century but its focus is from the 1950s and the rise of rock'n'roll.

The dichotomy of music, Sheehan says, is that it is personal as well as collective, because it unites people and gives them a sense of identity and of belonging. She says music in the 1970s was more powerful than film, so it drove multinational corporations and their power drove politicians.

"In addition to enjoying rock music, we need to take it seriously," she says.

This article was originally published at the Sydney Morning Herald