Who are the biggest brainiacs in pop?

lana del rey

You might think pop stars and higher learning are not a natural fit. After all, no one needs a bunch of letters after their name to write songs or sell out stadiums, right?


Perhaps Chris Martin (first-class honours, Greek and Latin, UCL) would demur. Brian May (PhD, astrophysics, Imperial College) might shake his head at your poorly configured data. It seems that the ability to succeed in music does not preclude a talent for more scholarly pursuits. And as the list below indicates, the bar set by these well-tutored troubadours can be pretty high.


Brian May

He’s got a bonce the size of Jupiter and a cluster of academic credentials to orbit it. Indeed, the cosmically inclined Brian May not only graduated with a BSc in physics (2:1) from Imperial College London (he also studied maths), he later went on to earn a PhD in Astrophysics from his old alma mater in 2008. The title of his thesis? A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. Of course.


Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend)

The lead singer of Vampire Weekend looks and sounds like he’s just stepped out of a Whit Stillman film and cultivates a preppy intellectual look at odds with his chosen career. Equally august is his taste in literature, which he studied at Columbia University in New York: Evelyn Waugh is a favourite, as are Beckett and Nabokov.


Unsurprisingly for one so steeped in prose he gets annoyed when listeners take his lyrics at face value: “Sometimes I felt a little bummed,” he once said. “To me it’s very obvious that we’re using satire and irony.”


Sterling Morrison (The Velvet Undergound)

Behind the jet-black shades and atop the turtlenecks of The Velvet Underground lurked some first-rate brains. Indeed rock’s ablest purveyors of existential chic could point to BAs, a PhD and a scholarship to back up their intellectual mien.


The most studious member was the unassuming guitarist Sterling Morrison. Having earned his degree in English in 1970 from City College New York, he taught at the University of Texas for much of the next 15 years and was awarded a PhD in Medieval Literature there in 1986. His dissertation was the characteristically undiva-ish Historiographical Perspectives in the Signed Poems of Cynewulf.

Gloria Estefan

Before the rhythm got her Gloria Estefan had the pick of some impressive career paths, thanks to her double major in psychology and communications with a minor in French. The latter, she has stated, led to the offer of a place at the Sorbonne and a possible job with the CIA.


A career in psychology would have been less likely, however. “I don’t think I would have been a psychologist because I would have had a hard time divorcing myself from the emotional part of the patient,” she said. Lab coats gave way to shoulder pads and the rest is history.


Lana Del Rey

As with many aspects of Lana Del Rey’s past, there was initially some mystery concerning her higher education, specifically whether she completed her degree in metaphysics. She stated in a 2014 interview that, “I majored in metaphysics in college, that’s what I got my degree in,” and her assertion is backed up by the Fordham Daily.


Her forays into the nature of being at Fordham University vied for her attention with forays into the more prosaic world of Brooklyn’s open mic circuit. Ultimately metaphysics lost, though arguably not without leaving its mark on Del Rey’s whimsical lyrics.


Chris Martin

Coldplay’s Chris Martin was so enamoured of his course, or at least its potential to yield a career, that he declined to tour or release albums with Coldplay until their finals were completed. The caution paid off: he was awarded first class honours in Greek and Latin.


Whether this grounding in the classics has influenced Martin’s songwriting is a moot point, though it’s interesting to note the preponderance of weeping and wailing in classical literature.


Tom Morello

ALPHARETTA, GA – OCTOBER 04: Tom Morello of Prophets of Rage performs on stage at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater on October 4, 2016 in Alpharetta, Georgia. (Photo by Paul R. Giunta/Getty Images)

The former guitarist of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave is still motivated by aspects of the social studies that he majored in at Harvard and still meting out crunching riffs on stage (with supergroup Prophets of Rage). This dichotomy should be no surprise: he once managed to juggle a full-time job as Senator Alan Cranston’s scheduling secretary with – by his own account – occasional stints as a male stripper.