by / September 13th, 2010 /

Top Story: Pop Goes to College, Gets An F

When pop is subjected to academic-style analysis, the results are typically dreadful. You can read all the commentaries on 1970s subcultures in compendiums of cultural theory by Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall, but I maintain that if you want to understand what pop was really like, what it was about at that time, you’d be better off with a copy of Jackie magazine and an ABBA album. Pop music, to its credit, is academia-proof. This is why you can do film studies for three years as part of a degree, but that B.A. in Pop remains elusive. People who love rock, indie and various other kinds of (cough) earthy, authentic, matured-in-an-oak-barrel-for-40-years types of music may live to see the day when ‘Hammer Of The Gods’ or Nick Kent’s ‘The Dark Stuff’ become required reading for their uni course, but rightly, the day a dissertation on The Cheeky Girls is taken seriously within the ‘groves of academe’ still seems far off. Good.

The banner at the top of yesterday’s Sunday Times trumpeted: “Lady Gaga: Camille Paglia Demolishes An Icon.” This had better be good, I thought. And if one were to add to that headline some small print that said: “…in the sense that Paglia damages her own reputation as an astute commentator on popular culture,” then it would have been nearer the mark. Paglia is obviously an intelligent writer, and she’s written eloquently on various issues regarding sexual politics in the past. But crikey this article is way off. She misquotes what is possibly Lady Gaga’s best-known song: “Her lyrics can be blatantly explicit…there’s talk of a ‘vertical stick’ in ‘Bad Romance'”. It’s “vertigo shtick”, actually, but why let that get in the way of a rant. She doesn’t attribute lyrics properly, confusing ‘So Happy I Could Die’ and ‘Teeth’. She makes the astonishing observation that Lady Gaga isn’t really like all the people she likes to compare herself to, and uses phrases like “the Death of Sex” and “the Diva of Deja Vu.” It’s all very “high-concept” and all a lot of tosh. I’m reminded of Martin Amis describing 9/11 as “the apocollapse.”

Why are academics allowed to write about pop? When they first mention the idea of a pop article to their acquaintances those people should see to it that the academic in question has their laptop destroyed and their pens confiscated immediately. I’d stop short of actually breaking fingers. Luckily, outside of Rolling Stone and 1980s issues of NME which couldn’t get through a review of Kim Wilde’s latest single without mentioning Cartesian Dualism, such articles are not that common. Can you imagine how awful it would be if this sort of thing were more widespread? Next week in The New Statesman, Alain Badiou: The Trouble With Michael Bublé. Dense ontological analysis in full effect!

In its weird way, Paglia’s piece illustrates perfectly the fact that when it comes to writing about pop music, scholarly types are about as much use as a saxophone made of wool, or a glass crash helmet. So Paglia’s piece takes us through the history of representations of sex in art since the age of silent movies – noting that in 1933 the critic IA Richards, writing on TS Eliots’ The Waste Land hhhhhhhhhhgyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyttg666666666666666666666666666666. I do beg your pardon, I nodded off there for a second and fell asleep on my keyboard. But then there is another bit where Paglia discusses just how important an understanding of Theda Bara’s role as The Vamp in the 1915 film ‘A Fool There Was’ is; this is the character that was also played onscreen by Mary Pickford and Dorothy Gish and gvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvyyyyyyyyyyyyvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvgty – I am sorry, I must stop doing that.

Paglia’s piece is so staggeringly tedious, point-missing and condescending it’s untrue. “Most of [Lady Gaga’s] worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin”, she muses unjustifiably and pointlessly. “Elton John is still being played on the radio after 40 years”, she blethers irrelevantly, implying that Gaga’s success is a passing fad and as if peering into a crystal ball that predicts Gaga’s omission from the radio playlists of the year 2050. “Gaga’s sexual reticence can’t be chalked up to priest-ridden sexual guilt”, she offers with an air of disappointment, as the opportunity to deploy some clumsy pop-psychology vanishes. Poorly argued, huffy and contrarian for the sake of it, this is How Not To Write About Pop. You’ll learn cock-all about Lady Gaga from reading it.

It’s not just that Paglia’s having a go at pop and that pop must be defended. She is equally boring when writing in praise of Madonna, and indeed says she has time for Beyonce, Shakira, Rihanna, Lily Allen and Nelly Furtado. What’s disappointing is the combination of shoddy research and the thudding predictability of the argument. Lady Gaga isn’t properly erotic enough, or “original”, or “deep” enough apparently. Demands, demands, demands fly all over the place. The gist of the article can be summed up as follows: ‘Why can’t Lady Gaga be more like the feminist ideal I have in my head?’ She bemoans Lady Gaga’s refusal to allow images of her without her barmy work clothes on to proliferate, and the point is illustrated by…a dressed-down, no make up pic of “fresh-faced Stefani Germanotta” from 2003, the same one that accompanies almost every article on Lady Gaga. And Gaga-watchers have seen umpteen other paparazzi snaps of Ms Germanotta with no slap on and in tracksuit bottoms. Google Images is just a short click away. Paglia believes Madonna’s occasional public appearances with no make up on makes her more “honest” than Lady Gaga, somehow. The relationship between wearing lippy and honesty is never established. It’s all just so infuriatingly lazy.

Compare this broadside with the superb Gaga feature from the Times Magazine back in May which was written by Caitlin Moran, who cut her teeth writing for Melody Maker in the ’90s. Paglia’s article is the impotent whinge of someone who doesn’t really get it; Moran’s is insightful, vivid, entertaining and revealing (Gaga admits to suffering from Lupus in Moran’s piece). Paglia writes sweeping, patronising, generalizing sentences like: “Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages” (Translation: “Hey! These kids today don’t talk anymore! When they need to communicate they just tap phrases like “R-Pattz FTW ROFL LOL!” into hand-held devices!” What planet is this woman on?). Moran on the other hand is light, witty and bang-on-the-money: ‘[Lady Gaga] is clearly smart and clearly hilarious…but has never ruined the fun by going “Actually, I’m smart and hilarious,” like say, Bono would.” A good point, concisely made.

Moran goes into detail about her weekend spent in Berlin with Gaga, taking in an impromptu visit to a sex club and containing the following passage: “The club – the Lab.Oratory – is an industrial, maze-like building. To get to the dancefloor, you have to pass a series of tiny cell-like booths, decked out with a selection of beds, bathtubs, hoists and chains. ‘For f***ing’, a German member of our entourage explains – both, helpfully and unnecessarily.” It’s funny, and you feel like you’re right there. That’s the difference between academic pontification on pop and actual pop writing. There are no references to 1930s literary critics in Moran’s piece, no sneery conjecture on how broad Generation Gaga’s musical tastes may or may not be. Instead, Moran’s article is fun and memorable in the way Gaga’s music, theatrics and general demeanour have been to observe over these past two years. If it rides roughshod over intellectual rigour in pursuit of a good gag from time to time, that’s okay because this sort of writing isn’t making any claims about its own loftiness.

“Since her rise, Gaga has remained almost continually on tour. Hence she is a moving target who has escaped serious scrutiny,” writes Paglia, for whom Lady Gaga is like a slippery little pest, always getting off the hook; like Radovan Karadzic trying to evade prosecution for war crimes – where will she be tomorrow, who can say, and why oh why can’t she be brought to account? Gaga’s work ethic is apparently the problem. She keeps moving, she hasn’t allowed the dust to settle for long enough to let academic types arrive at a tired, hackneyed consensus view of her work. Perhaps this is the only reason Paglia’s article is so poorly researched and full of pathetic generalisations. Yes, that must be it.

  • Don’t suppose the original article is online is it?? After that, I’d love to read it!

  • The full article is paywalled but all the good stuff is here:

  • DEV

    why are you allowed to write?

  • Amanda

    This kind of rage is normal after reading The Sunday Times Style. When will people learn?

    Ps. You can do a BA in Pop Music in a few UK colleges. Choc full of John Storey and Hebdige hell I imagine.

  • Ciarán

    Clarification: Of course you can study a degree in Music, and anthropologists and media students can touch on popular music as part of their courses, I was talking about the notion of a full three year degree on pop as such. I Googled “pop + bachelor of arts” and found courses in how to MAKE pop music:

    And this course in Applied Theatre offers a module on pop music history:

  • Amanda

    Sorry should’ve been clearer. It exists sadly. Johnny Marr teaches on this pop music theory course in University of Salford:

    Completely agree that you’d be better off with a few Jackie annuals and an ABBA album though

  • Ciarán

    Ye Gods!

  • Kim

    Good point. Still hate the Gaga though.

  • Perry

    Reverse-snobbery in all its glory, argued with the kind of dismissive and narcissistic vim you’d expect from the comments box beneath said Sunday Times article, seemingly predicated firmly on the notion that Pop is some kind of hermetic, Hegelian absolute immune to everything except fawning praise. C.R.E.A.M., indeed.

    I agree that Paglia is off the mark, but to suggest that the kind of boot-licking obsequiousness offered by most pop journalism is a viable or respectable alternative is pure fantasy.

    You broadly deny the validity of academic scrutiny in pop, which leaves you in a pretty comfortable position to affirm its alleged excellence without fear of a genuine reprisal which you haven’t already pre-emptively discredited.

    It may be frustrating when somebody disagrees with you, but to dismiss them entirely and without justification does only harm to popular discourse.

  • @Perry “Hegelian absolute” is exactly the kind of idea that this piece is arguing against, even if its specific meaning is applicable to your (simplistic) view of what you think it makes pop out to mean. Same for “boot-licking obsequiousness”, which reflects the internal dynamics of the subject in pretty much the same way as jargon-filled, self-absorbed academic writing does, at least in appearance to the outsider.

    I agree that the broad denial or dismissal of “academic scrutiny” (although I don’t think scrutiny is the right word… it’s not an objective science, quite the opposite) of pop is reaching to far, and smart, critical discourse is valuable – but not when it uses academia or cultural criticism as a dressing or a substitute for actual engagement. A positive case in point – the 33 1/3 series of books; my personal favourite, on the first Ramones album, is written by a film academic and a Hebdige-style cultural lexicographer of punk.

  • Perry


    The thing is that “actual engagement” is quite easily interchangeable with “fandom” (of one class or another), which advances the idea (seemingly at the heart of this article) that analysis of pop is somehow invalid if its findings are negative.

    If this piece is opposed both to the linguistics of academic analysis and a Marxist reading of popular culture, then its proposed alternative seems to be prescriptive, aspirational pop journalism that exists on its own self-indulgent terms.

    Also, to suggest that anything published in the Sunday Times qualifies as academic insight is absurd, but it seems to advance the juvenile ad hominem at the heart of the article quite nicely.

  • Pauric Briody

    What i would like to see is Ciaran and whatsherface put in a room with several weapons and in pure Thunderdome style two enter and one leave…preferably fatally wounded….