Tickling the Ivory Towers

Curator's Note

Pop music and academia have a chequered history. MTV and American cultural studies grew up together in the 1980s. Critics liked to dismiss the entire field as "Madonna Studies" - which they presumed was inherently preposterous. But the work of that first generation of scholars, while groundbreaking, sometimes carried a whiff of slumming. For example, John Fiske's otherwise brilliant "British Cultural Studies and Television," the centerpiece of the hugely influential collection Channels of Discourse, hinges on an analysis of Madonna's "Material Girl" that manages to get the plot of the video all wrong. Fiske writes that "she rejects a rich suitor and accepts a poor one," (p. 310) but as any Madonna fan knows, mogul Keith Carradine only buys an old truck to appear poor. That book went through multiple editions - Madonna's on the cover of the first one - but the error was never corrected, evidence that pop culture illiteracy saturated the entire chain of scholarly production.

Today rock critics and academics warily circle each other at conferences for the Experience Music Project and International Association for the Study of Popular Music, reflecting the same schism that divides working film critics from scholarly film theorists. Scholars have long called for pop music studies to develop a canon of "music theory" akin to film theory. That might help more folks get tenure, but it would only exacerbate the gap between theory and practice. On the other hand, most rockcrits seem to follow the rallying cry of science fiction writers of the 1970s who, worrying over the insitutionalization of their field, proclaimed, "Keep SF in the gutter where it belongs!"

But this divide seems increasingly silly in an era in which criticism is converging just as the rest of culture is. There is another way. Television studies in recent years has thrived on the interplay between scholar/critics in journals like Flow and critic/scholars on sites like The Onion's A.V. Club. In that spirit, this week In Media Res offers five curators working inside and outside of academia who all got their start in an appropriately hybrid environment: a college zine. Zines, like blogs, never paid much attention to cultural boundaries. On the mimeograph, like the internet, nobody cares if you're tenured - just whether you've got something to say.

Critical convergence also means breaking down barriers between writers and readers. So please join the conversation by posting your comments below, or by participating in the ongoing Twitter dialogue at #IMR, culminating in a live tweet chat on Sunday night (2/13/11) during the Grammys. See you there!


The town-gown critic mote is interesting, especially, as you point out, how its contours and depth can be seen to vary depending on the given pop-culture subject (you list music, film, and TV, to which I'd add comics, video games, and sports, just for starters).

I wonder if some of that has to do with the extent to which the given media has worked its way into academia, has found a solid home, a department. When we five were all in college (retrospect is in large part the context for our discussion, at least for the first couple of days of this series), film had, if I recall correctly, recently passed some sort of milestone whose meaning was entirely lost on me, but seemed to signify it was more "real" than it had been. Did the department have a new home, had someone been the first to graduate with a degree (undergraduate, graduate)? It was something like that. In any case, what it meant was even in my first semester, I was experiencing how different departments felt about their relative solidity. Also informing this acculturation, this socialization, was that I was double-majoring at the time in English (deeply rooted, as signified by having its department right on Old Campus) and Computer Science (way up on Science Hill, which seemed to mean both "We've got some money!" and "Uh, we're sorta new to town"). 

For a long time, a lot of academic people I knew working in film were situated in their school's English department, or another department, which depending on the school is still the case. Which leads me to wonder if academia has its own version of the proclamation you offer ("Keep SF in the gutter where it belongs!"), something along the lines of "Keep [my subject] interdepartmental, because it doesn't belong anywhere." 

The Sacramento, California, area, where I lived for the seven years I was an editor on Tower's music magazine, Pulse!, recently had a bit of an identity tempest, when a local publication ran a story whose title, "Keep Midtown Janky," pretty much says it all: the faux lofts are coming in, the semi-employed are moving out, and thus Midtown (where I lived most of my time there) is losing its cool over losing its cool. That's a conversation about gentrification, and there's a cultural-boundary divide there that resembles but doesn't directly map to the town/gown one: to what extent is one actually fighting against gentrification, and to what extent is one enjoying the comforts of gentrification and merely wearing a T-shit that says one is fighting against gentrification.

Just a quick tangential point, Ted.  I was amused by your example of the never-caught misreading of the Madonna video.  One thing that occurred to me was the ease with which such errors once could stand, even with such well-known sources as "Material Girl."  How many editors (or readers) had a copy of Madonna's video collection at hand?  You couldn't check it out of the library. If t.v./video scholarship had a whiff of slumming in those days, those slums could be somewhat inaccessible or at least moderately inconvenient to visit, so many readers would take the author's word for some of their byways.  Now anyone can click through and check the facts/plot instantaneously.  I wouldn't be surprised if loads of other similar little (or big) errors from scholarship of that period crop up all the time now (& obviously there are analogies here to film scholarship and the days before videos).

Hey, I was a computer science major who switched over to English!

And part of the reason I switched was that it seemed to gobble up many other areas I was interested in: I could take classes in film, literary theory, and "creative writing." I wasn't too savvy to academic power bases at the time, but even I could see how the film department was getting steadily whittled away year by year--courses kept disappearing from the catalog.

Ivan - I dug up my VHS copy of The Immaculate Collection as soon as I read the article in my first semester of grad school, Fall 1992. The video wasn't instantly accessible, but it was on a collection for sale in any decent Sam Goody. What's changed isn't just the technology, but the readership. 20 years ago, academic publishing and MTV rarely crossed paths; today, they meet all the time on twitter, facebook and the web.

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