Lady Gaga Makes It to Harvard

Charlotte Allen

This article is cross-posted from Minding the Campus

What is it about academics and Lady Gaga? Last year it was a freshman writing course at the University of Virginia titled "GaGafor Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity." This fall there's an upper-division sociology course at the University of South Carolina titled "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame." Meghan Vicks, a graduate student in comparative literature at the University of Colorado, co-edits a postmodernist online journal, “Gaga Stigmata: Critical Writings and Art About Lady Gaga,” in which the names "Judith Butler" and "Jean Baudrillard" drip as thickly as summer rain and the tongue-tripping sentences read like this: "And her project? – To deconstruct the very pop culture that creates and worships her, and to explore and make problematic the hackneyed image of the pop icon while flourishing in the clichédrole itself."

And now Gaga has reached the very pinnacle of academic recognition: a Harvard affiliation. On Nov. 2 she announced that she and Harvard's BerkmanCenter for Internet Society will launch a nonprofit foundation, to be called Born This Way (after one of Gaga's songs), which will focus on mentoring teenagers and combating bullying.

What is fascinating is how, well, gaga the tenured scholars and highly placed academic administrators are for the 25-year-old singer whose main claim to fame is her rise from unknown to superstar and multiple Grammy winner in just three years. She managed this feat mostly on the basis of outrécostumes and transgressive dancing--plus her world-class flair for self-promotion--rather than her ho-hum musical ability. Mathieu Deflem, the sociology professor who is teaching the Gaga course at South Carolina, for example, owns more than 300 of her records, maintains a fan website called gagafrontrow.net, and (according to a 2010 New York Times article) has attended more than 28 of her live concerts, following her from city to city around the world. Similarly, Harvard's BerkmanCenter is a well-funded interdisciplinary think tank whose faculty consists of prestigious professors of law, engineering, and business at Harvard (two of the biggest names are Lawrence Lessigand Charles Ogletree). But when the forthcoming Gaga-Berkmanpartnership went public last week, the center's mental heavyweights sounded as besotted as the teen-age girls and starstruckgays who hang onto every Gaga Twlttertweet. In an interview with the Harvard Crimson John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor who is the BerkmanCenter's co-director, praised as "impressive" the "research" that Gaga had done and hailed the forthcoming partnership as "a good chance for Harvard to be one University."

Gaga's faculty fans like to clothe their obsessive interest in her with a dense coat of academic-speak. Christa Romanosky, the graduate student at U.Va. who made Gaga the centerpiece of her freshman writing course last year, told the student newspaper, the Daily Cavalier, "We're exploring how identity is challenged by gender and sexuality and how Lady Gaga confronts this challenge." The reading list for Deflem'scourse at South Carolina includes several articles about Gaga by Victor Corona, a postdoctoral fellow in sociology at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Corona's writing is a kudzu-like tangle of po-mojargon: "Gaga's hypermoderngospel of liberation hints at the irrelevance of truth or, rather, the creation of one's own truth, a performance that is relentlessly enacted until some version of it becomes true."

Yet Corona has nothing on Judith "Jack" Halberstam, English professor and director of the Center for Feminist Research at the University of Southern California. In an essay analyzing Gaga's Grammy-nominated 2010 music video "Telephone" for Gaga Stigmata, Halberstamdrops trendy poststructuralistsurnames like coins into a wishing well: "[I]t is a [Michel] Foucaultiantake on prison and 'technological entrapment'; here… it has been read as the channeling of [Judith] Butler’s 'Lesbian Phallus'; it is obscene, murderous, cruel to animals, misogynist, man-hating, homophobic and heterophobic; and I think you could safely place it as a [Gilles] Deleuzianexploration of flow and affect not to mention an episode in Object Oriented Philosophy. So whether the philosophy in question is drawn from [Slavoj] Zizekon speed, [Avital] Ronellon crack or [Quentin] Meillassouxon ecstasy, this video obviously chains a few good ideas to a few very good bodies and puts thought into motion.”Neither Halberstamnor Corona permit any negative assessments of their idol. Corona characterized a recent critical biography, "Poker Face: The Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga," as "embittered."

Since Gaga's academic fan base indulges heavily in "theory," as the po-motypes like to call it, allow me to indulge in my own "theory" about why college professors and other self-proclaimed avant-gardeintellectuals have taken her to their bosoms. Take note of the academic fields represented by the scholars I have quoted above: sociology (Deflemand Corona), English (Halberstam), comparative literature (Vicks), and creative writing (Romanosky). Once those were real fields, with genuine bodies of knowledge to be studied and then enlarged by their scholarly practitioners. English professors taught and wrote about the literature of English-speaking nations. Sociologists studied the writings of Emil Durkheim and C. Wright Mills and built upon their paradigms for understanding how human beings function in social groups. Instructors of freshman writing focused on teaching their students how to write, often using models of particularly effective rhetoric and style.

 Now, it seems, professors and their graduate students want to do anything but teach or do research in the fields with which they are supposedly affiliated. Sociologists want to devote class time to their record collections. English professors want to gush on about music videos. Writing instructors want to immerse their students in "gender and sexuality," not the mechanics of constructing a coherent term paper. In short, professors want to teach pop culture and nothing but pop culture. Christa Romanosky, for example, was hardly unusual in turning her freshman writing class into a class about something else besides writing. The freshman writing course list for this fall at U.Va. includes sections titled "Gender in Film," "Graffiti and Remix Culture," "Cinematic Shakespeare," "Queer Studies," "Race Matters," "Pirates," and "Female Robots." Fortunately for themselves, those professors who have turned the humanities and social sciences into vehicles for indulging their hobbies have the vast and unintelligible apparatus of postmodern theory to give their fanboypreoccupations intellectual respectability. Or at least to make it look that way to outsiders—such as parents—who might wonder why they are spending up to $6,000 per course so that little Johnny or Jenna can write an essay about "Telephone."

I admit that I'm not much of a fan of Lady Gaga. I find her music monotonous, although she cleverly camouflages that defect with histrionic visuals and shocking costumes. I give her an A+, however, for brains, a sure market sense, and an entrepreneurial spirit worthy of Henry A. Ford. She has also snookered an entire generation of academics into deeming her profound. The Harvard Business School has just added Lady Gaga to its curriculum, with a case study of the decisions she and her manager made that catapulted her to fame. Now that's where Lady Gaga belongs as an object of scholarly study.

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