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This semester, Mathieu Deflem, a tenured sociologist at the University of South Carolina, will teach a course called “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.” The class, which is the first Gaga-focused college course ever, has attracted a storm of media attention and fanned the flames of long-burning debates about what is—and what isn’t—suitable subject matter for scholarly study.
Who hasn’t mused philosophically about Lady Gaga at one point or another? Maybe even brought her up as an example in CC? Without a doubt, Lady Gaga’s provocative persona asks for analysis. But does her spectacle really deserve our critical thinking? Does the study of popular culture, such as in the Gaga course, signal a decline in the rigor and seriousness of academia?
Victor Corona, a lecturer in the Sociology department at Columbia, wrote several texts on the syllabus for Deflem’s course, including a forthcoming essay, “Monsters, Memory, and Lady Gaga,” which will be published in the Journal of Popular Culture. Corona, who received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 2009, is teaching a sociology course on the culture industry this spring, as well as a seminar on social media, and focuses on contemporary cultural production in his research. “It’s hard to do that without thinking meaningfully about pop culture,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who sees a clear distinction between so-called lowbrow culture and highbrow culture.”
Corona’s essay argues that Lady Gaga deliberately reveals what it means to be a pop star in contemporary culture—much like Andy Warhol did in the 1960s with pop art. Gaga, Corona claims, speaks to contemporary anxieties—referring to her fans as “Little Monsters” and relying heavily on themes of exorcism and apocalypse—and has forged a new kind of relationship with her fans through social media. Within the hyperaccelerated capitalistic framework that structures contemporary American pop culture, he argues, Gaga has carved out a space of subversion and innovation—aligning herself with marginalized populations, most notably with the gay community, and raising questions about femininity and its representation.
“Social media itself has meant that figures like Gaga have reached so many more people,” Corona says. The new omnipresence of popular culture, according to Corona and those who share his passion, means that new scholarly approaches and vocabularies should be developed in order to critically understand contemporary cultural issues—and that this is a task that is worthy of their brainpower.
Of course, the intellectualization of pop culture is nothing new. What many have said about Gaga’s moves can also be said of her starring role in the South Carolina course: Madonna did it first. “I remember when it made news that there was a course on Madonna,” says Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the head of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia. “That was a big scandal, because for some people that suggested how academia is becoming a place where anything goes, where, you know, you’re not studying anything useful … the fact that a figure of popular culture would be studied in academia just signaled the decadence and the uselessness of academia.”
There have been, and still are, many who dismiss pop culture studies such as Corona’s, or question their seriousness. “There are certainly colleagues here of mine who I respect, but who see it [the study of contemporary popular culture] as kind of silly, or frivolous,” Corona says. “In times of recession and war, [many believe] we should devote our energies to that.” Corona sees this divide as largely a generational one, and predicts that as professors well-versed in social media and contemporary culture gain tenure, opposition to the study of contemporary culture will die down.
Negrón-Muntaner has built her academic career studying popular culture—her first book, “Borikua Pop,” is a scholarly examination of Puerto Rican identity, as represented in popular culture, from West Side Story to Jennifer Lopez. For politically underrepresented populations, Negrón-Muntaner explains, culture becomes a crucial arena for representation and identity negotiation. “Different kinds of pop stars, of different forms of spectacle or media, become very important in terms of a way of presenting yourself [when underrepresented] on the global stage,” she says.
Additionally, the study of pop culture sheds light on the structures that produce it. For example, an analysis of the changing role of the pop idol speaks to questions about information and identity production. “Pop culture stars today are often filling in the space and remaking the space of intellectuals or experts,” Negrón-Muntaner says, citing Lady Gaga’s activism for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell as an example. “That raises questions about the role of pop cultural figures in politics.”
For Negrón-Muntaner, an artifact of pop culture is as worthy of scholarly attention as any other text, as long as it is approached with the right questions in mind and appropriately contextualized. “The question is not: ‘do you have to treat pop culture different than you treat Shakespeare?’,” she says. “The issue is: why are you doing this? What kind of questions are you asking of this [pop cultural text]?”
In today’s media-saturated society, Negrón-Muntaner says, “most of the ways that we understand the world come through the ways that we interact with media.” Thus, a current conceptualization of the media and its content is imperative. “The way that media frames things has a huge impact on how everything goes, politically, [and] culturally,” Negrón-Muntaner says.
Students in Deflem’s class may be proven history’s fools if Gaga’s career fizzles out. Popular culture in the ivory tower, on the other hand, seems to be here to stay.
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