Tickling the Ivory Towers
by Ted Friedman — Georgia State University
February 07, 2011 – 00:00
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!