Tara Brabazon: Going Gaga

Popular culture is dismissed as trash by some academics, but as Lady Gaga – ‘Baudrillard in a bra’ – shows, there’s plenty of intellectual value in the dustbin. Tara Brabazon digs in

May 6, 2010

Recently I had lunch with a sixtysomething professor who was committed to “getting down” with the young people. You know the type. They throw words such as “prosumer”, “participatory culture” and “interactivity” into sentences as if they were punctuation. For him, Twitter is “so 2009”. His self-proclaimed role as Pied Piper 2.0 was leading youth to a digital nirvana, but he may have misread the ending to that particular fairy tale. Upon reviewing his professional achievements, the major success of his career was in regional broadcasting during the early 1980s – that is, before his young people were born.

Such men irritate me. First, they adore change, chaos and confusion rather than commit themselves to the more difficult work of determining a considered alignment between form and content, media and information. His job is to prickle, pose, point and pant. These men never accepted that women could be equal members of the academy. They talk to our breasts rather than our faces and discuss crockery and cookery as if we are proto-Nigellas pouting our way through a screening of The End of the Line while secretly slobbering over a slab of bluefin tuna.

They are like those really objectionable blokes on Channel 4’s Come Dine with Me, abusing female companions for carrying around an extra 20lb, all of which reside on their hips and thighs. The only problem is that the finger-pointing patriarch looks like he has jumped off the ugly tree and hit his face on every branch on the way down. My dream is that a truly lethal iron chef will accidentally slip with the cleaver and give these men a cooking lesson they will never forget.

Sexism and permanent (techno) revolution are not the only ways to inhibit the potential of universities. These men also maintain an insular and condescending attitude to “industry” and “art”. They are certain that their university degree is “training” students for “industry”. Which industry they are discussing remains uncertain.

A common response when academics are challenged to explain how a degree provides training for industry is to shift the justification for their teaching to the creation of art. When needing evidence for vocationalism, they enact a knight’s move, jumping from the gritty world of work into the uplifting sweetness and light of Matthew Arnold’s thought.

Industry and art: these two words are punched out of so many strategic plans that they resemble beaten and bruised boxers who no longer know where they are or why they fight. Fascinatingly, these terms are now used as tag-team wrestlers to justify the value of degree programmes. In other words, if academics are training students for industry and industry does not require graduates, then the resultant films, soundscapes, writing and web designs can be termed “art” as a form of compensation.

Art is much more than the residue or offcuts of what industry does not require. My concern is that undercooked statements about art and industry block an honest discussion of educational value.

It is important that students work in and with art. Remarkable scholarship is produced when textile, ceramic, sonic and visual media are shaped and ordered to unsettle assumptions about bodies, technology, the environment and consumerism. Similarly, I am in favour of engaging with the business community. Our responsibility is to ensure students are prepared for employment. My caveat is that these two justifications are not sufficient reasons to commence a degree programme.

The disappointing academic effect of this dual (and duelling) justification of art and industry is that popular culture becomes a discarded and marginalised presence in our universities. It is demeaned as commercial, neglected as trash, abused as celebrity-satiated and ridiculed as the runt of Simon Cowell’s litter. Scholars forget that some of the greatest scholars in the world – Iain Chambers, Henry Giroux, Andrew Blake and bell hooks – produce incisive, powerful, productive and political research on pop. Yet too often, the great scholars of popular culture have moved on to the more financially viable areas of new media, creative industries and gaming, pushing their shoulder-padded ’80s excesses and enthusiasms to the back of the academic closet and deleting the articles on Madonna and Blade Runner from their CVs.

Unlike these phantom claims for art and industry, popular culture has an honesty to it. It wears its history on its sleeve. It is nostalgic, melancholic, naughty, excessive, danceable, dynamic, dull but productive. We need universities to return to popular culture. Unfortunately, understanding how and why particular ideas, performers and media are relevant at particular times has been left to Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson.

I was reminded of how brilliant, controversial, intense and edgy popular cultural studies can be when reading Graeme Turner’s new book, Ordinary People and the Media. He explores why so many citizens consent (enthusiastically) to transforming their photographs, films, words, ideas, tragedies and joys into media content. To read a book that analyses and critiques cultural trajectories and events rather than describing them shows how much we have lost from research culture.

Turner is not an anti-pop scholar. He acknowledges the gifts of the best popular culture and the damage it causes when it is exploitative, unethical and under-researched. There is still much inspiration and learning to be gained from pop. While it may be dismissed as trash, the environmental and vintage-fashion movements have shown that there are imaginative opportunities to be found in the bin of culture.

The most glamorous of contemporary bag ladies is Gaga. She has compressed Madonna’s two decades of fame into two years. She layers the pop history of Elton John, David Bowie, Donna Summer and Debbie Harry over her mirror-ball bra. In a revealing haiku sound bite, Lady Gaga described popular culture as “the new underground”. This use of inversion transforms her into a Disco Diva Derrida, repackaging radicalism and commercialism, old and new, ageing and youth. She is managing the speed of cultural change as if propelled from Paul Virilio’s bunker. Most obviously, Gaga is Baudrillard in a bra. Baudrillard committed deeply to shallow ideas. So does Gaga.

Particular ideas, performers and genres move between high and pop culture. They pick and mix, poach and steal, rip and resew. Lady Gaga is a walking creative industries laboratory. She integrates music, video and fashion. She writes music, designs clothes and produces her own videos. Gaga is every bit as challenging as Patti Smith. Unlike Madonna, she is authentic and playful in her experimentations with superficiality. Unlike Joni Mitchell, who has clearly imbibed a few angry pills during the past decade, Gaga laughs at herself, fame and celebrity.

Lady Gaga shows that femininity may yet be the great social experiment of the 21st century. When choosing a Pied Piper, I would much rather follow a dancing diva with a sense of humour and interesting shoes than the techno-enthused sixtysomething scholar who mobilises sexism with such force that he thinks it is his original contribution to knowledge. Gaga shows that popular culture can play with art and industry while providing the soundtrack for a different way of living.

The best of popular culture teaches us to commit to our moment. Perhaps one of the most moving questions about time and cultural value was asked by Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues: “How much history can be transmitted by pressure on a guitar string?” Powerful, evocative and elegant, Palmer thinks about sounds, sensations, tones and textures. Without being pulled towards justifications of art or industry, generations of scholars can be motivated by such a question.

Pop agitates the patterns of our daily life, unsettling the relationships between production and consumption, information and knowledge, expectations and opportunities, creativity and industry. While pressing a guitar string or dancing to Gaga, we find an alternative path through the present and a new method for writing history.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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