Academia Gaga for Gaga

, Deborah Lambert, Leave a comment

One of the trends that’s recently taken hold in academia is the focus on deconstructing/or and elevating pop culture icons into objects worthy of serious academic study.

The latest chapter in this story concerns Lady Gaga, whose fame and persona have inspired classes like “The Sociology of Fame” at the University of South Carolina, and a writing course at the University of Virginia called: “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity.”

However, when Lady Gaga recently “announced that she and Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet Society plan to launch a nonprofit foundation called “Born this Way” (after one of Gaga’s songs), the “pop star reached the very pinnacle of academic recognition.” The foundation will focus on mentoring teenagers and combating bullying.
One of the most startling aspects of this situation is how seriously the 25-year-old singer is regarded by the roster of tenured scholars and academic administrators at the schools that promote her brand.

The sociology prof who teaches her course at Carolina, for example, “owns more than 300 of her records,” maintains a fan website, has been to nearly 30 concerts and follows her concert tours like a real groupie.

And of course Harvard’s Berkman Center is described as a serious multi-disciplinary think tank that boasts a prestigious roster of engineering, law and business profs like Lawrence Lessig and Carles Ogletree. However, when news of the new working arrangement with Gaga went public, “the center’s mental heavyweights sounded as besotted as the teen-age girls and starstruck gays who hang onto to every Gaga twitter and tweet,” according to Charlotte Allen, contributing editor of Minding the Campus.

The way academics pull this off is apparently to cloak “their obsessive interest in her with a dense coat of academic-speak.” For example, Christa Romanosky, the U.Va. grad student who “made Gaga the centerpiece of her freshman writing course last year, told the Daily Cavalier newspaper, “We’re exploring how identity is challenged by gender and sexuality and how Lady Gaga confronts this challenge.”
“And English professor Judith ‘Jack’ Halberstam, director of the Center for Feminist Research at the U. of Southern California, analyzed Gaga’s Grammy-nominated 2010 music video ‘Telephone’ saying that ‘[I]t is a [Michel] Foucaultian take on prison and technological entrapment.’”

As far as Charlotte Allen is concerned, Gaga’s link to academia is part of the current trend for professors and graduate students who like to do research in fields other than their major, and “gush on about music videos,” instead of “teaching the mechanics of constructing a coherent term paper.”

A casual glance at U. Va.’s fall 2011 freshman writing courses indicates an across-the-board trend that includes: “Gender in Film;” “Graffiti and Remix Culture;” “Cinematic Shakespeare;” “Queer Studies;” “Race Matters;” and “Female Robots.”

Although Gaga has skyrocketed to pop culture icon status despite her mediocre talent, culture commentators like Charlotte Allen give her “an A+ 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,” and accomplished all of this without a college degree.

Deborah Lambert writes the Squeaky Chalk column for Accuracy in Academia.

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