Mastering Madonna - Rolling Stone
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Mastering Madonna

The pop icon becomes part of the syllabus at universities across the country




No female pop-music figure has ever infiltrated the halls of academia as Madonna has. Scholars like Susan McClary, E. Ann Kaplan and Camille Paglia have taken up the Material Girl as a postmodern icon, making her the subject of study at Harvard, Princeton and UCLA. Naturally, Madonna is at the center of the raging debate between high and pop culture. Those who teach her are often called upon to defend her place in their syllabuses.

Harvard University’s Lynne Layton, whose course includes a day on Madonna, says: “Teaching students how to read popular culture critically is as important as teaching them to read high art. Madonna is dedicated to breaking down hierarchies of race, class and gender.”

Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals, charges Madonna’s presence in the classroom with nothing short of “defrauding students of a liberal-arts education.”

“Here are four years in which students have an opportunity to immerse themselves in the history of their culture,” Kimball says, “and to spend time dealing with things that they are bombarded with every day is a waste of time and money. Madonna is entertainment.”

Ironically, it is Camille Paglia of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, herself something of a lightning rod of controversy, who emerges as a voice for coexistence. “We do not need a whole course in Madonna,” Paglia says, “but within a big course like mine, it is absolutely legitimate to show how images of the present inherit the meanings of the past.”

Given the fact that Madonna’s songs, videos and movies have only occupied our consciousness for a mere ten years, it may be fair to ask, is it art yet? Do we wait another fifty years before we dare to deconstruct Madonna? To ask what she is teaching us about ourselves and our culture? There will be those to whom a soup can will always be just a soup can and a pop phenomenon just a Midwestern girl in a bustier. But for those who seek some measure of meaning with their Madonna, here is a course of study.

Humanities 427: Women and Sex Roles, the University of the Arts, Philadelphia
The course follows images of women throughout the history of art and religion, from the cave period to modern popular culture, including historical references to the biblical Madonna up to the twentieth-century Hollywood Madonna, who is used as an example of “new” feminism.

Madonna text: “Open Your Heart” video to examine the similarities between pornography and art and to address the issue of performer as sex object in control; “Vogue” to examine the worship of art, beauty and glamour and to examine the New York drag-queen origins of voguing.

Instructor: Camille Paglia, professor of humanities, author of Sexual Personae, is nothing less than passionate on the subject. “Madonna has cured all the ills of feminism,” she says. With her “prosex, take-charge, streetwise, rock & roll, in-your-face, kick-the-door-down feminism,” says Paglia, “Madonna, like me, rejects the victim-centered view of the universe. Madonna is modern American womanhood.”

Women’s Studies 102: Women and Popular Culture, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
An examination of women’s roles in production and reception of pop culture, audience dynamics and women’s representation in various mediums.

Madonna text: “Oh Father,” “Keep It Together” and “Till Death Do Us Part” to examine elements of the dysfunctional-family discourse; “Lucky Star” to examine Madonna’s appropriation of the male “gaze” (meaning viewpoint); “Like a Virgin” to examine Madonna’s deconstruction of fixed female identities.

Instructor: Lynne Layton, associate of the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of “Like a Virgin” in Desperately Seeking Madonna, has a “measured like for Madonna.” She says: “My students say, ‘Almost everywhere men are on top, and I like seeing a woman on top sometimes.'”

Musicology 13: Twentieth Century Music, University of California, Los Angeles
A history of music from 1900 to the present in Europe and America.

Madonna text: “Like a Prayer” to analyze Madonna’s fusing of Catholic music and gospel; “Vogue” to examine Madonna’s connection to African American musical dimensions and gay culture.

Instructor: Susan McClary, professor of musicology, author of Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality, likes Madonna’s “unparalleled willingness to take very strong positions and get shot at for taking them.” “Madonna makes possible good discussions,” says McClary. “There is a great deal at stake there, much more than when you’re talking about Stravinsky.”

Popular Culture 350:367, developed at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
This course gives students a theoretical framework before examining detective fiction, soap operas and rock videos. Madonna text: “Material Girl” to show the video’s link with the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; “Like a Prayer” and “Papa Don’t Preach” to examine Madonna’s willingness to take on issues of the day.

Instructor: E. Ann Kaplan — professor of English and Comparative Studies, director of the Humanities Institute at State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Post Modernism and Consumer Culture — says she admires Madonna’s “brave way of exhibiting sexuality with a kind of autonomy.” “Some women students feel threatened by Madonna and don’t like her,” says Kaplan. “Others think she’s really groovy.”

English 370: Feminism and Mass Culture, University of Texas, Austin
An examination of mass culture targeted to a female audience, including pop novels, movies of the Forties, fashion magazines and Madonna.

Madonna text: “Vogue” to examine images of glamour in mass culture; “Like a Virgin” — live version — to examine images of genderbending and self-pleasuring female sexuality.

Instructor: Ann Cvetkovich — assistant professor of English and author of “The Powers of Seeing and Being Seen: Truth or Dare and Paris Is Burning” — finds herself “a dedicated but somewhat ambivalent follower of Madonna.” “Students are excited by Madonna,” Cvetkovich says. “It’s an eye-opener for them to realize serious issues of consumption and feminism are at stake when discussing Madonna.”

English 377: Post-Modernism and Contemporary Culture, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
This survey course of film, music, literature and fashion of the last twenty years uses Madonna as a reference point in lectures and seminar discussions.

Madonna text: “Papa Don’t Preach” to analyze the teenage persona and how it negotiates the question of choice on abortion issues and to compare the rebel persona of Madonna’s teenage girl with that of Public Enemy’s hard-core rapper in its song “Rebel Without a Pause.”

Instructor: Andrew Ross — associate professor of English and author of No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture — says, “Students will talk about Madonna till the cows come home.” Ross also notes students’ particular willingness to “write papers about her at the drop of a hat.”

Music 5: American Popular Song, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
This survey course introduces students to composers and performers from the mid-eighteenth century to the present.

Madonna text: “Living to Tell: Madonna’s Resurrection of the Fleshly,” an article by musicologist Susan McClary, to examine Madonna’s musical vision, as well as her mode of collaboration; “Live to Tell” — music only — to analyze the arguments put forth in the McClary article.

Instructor: Robert Walser, assistant professor of music, author of Running With the Devil: Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Walser finds students are skeptical when it comes to Madonna. “They haven’t thought about her in certain ways,” he says, “because they’ve been trained not to imagine that there could be anything important going on in popular culture, especially in popular culture produced by women.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Madonna,


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