Revisiting Madonna-ology in the Era of Taylor Swift Studies
By Michael DangoJanuary 12, 2024
Maybe there’s some mild sexism or mild ageism—depending on who you think typically comprises Swift’s audience—in assuming the average Swiftie does not read, or at least does not read just for kicks. But everyone knows newspaper subscriptions, library memberships, and college English enrollments are declining. Although the causes are most likely related to the defunding of public goods, the casualization of cultural labor, and the preemptive obsession with what is deemed profitable, it has tended to be easier to suggest as a solution, not something like unionization or taxing the rich, but something like a PR campaign. And what makes Swift so ideal for that campaign is that hers is a kind of celebrity organized by relatability, which means she invites her fans not to gawk but to imitate.
Humanities professors, for their part, have already begun enlisting Swift as a silent partner. The organizer for the first international academic “Swiftposium,” to be held in February with the backing of seven Australian and New Zealand universities, began as a “half-serious tweet.” In November, Indiana University held the first such conference in the United States “focused on examining pertinent topics through the lens of sold-out stadium star Taylor Swift.” Meanwhile, universities ranging from ASU to NYU have made headlines for not simply putting Taylor Swift on the same syllabus as Jonathan Swift but devoting entire courses to her lyrics as a kind of literature.
There has been backlash, of course. Entering Swift into the canon confirms the worst (and most desired) fears of the Right, which has already demonized higher education as a fiscally irresponsible endeavor. Meanwhile, some members of the Left, so often in the reactive position, have doubled down on a version of respectability politics that shuns anything that might appear to fuel the charge of being unserious. But both “Swift studies” and its backlash are different from a remarkably similar phenomenon exactly one generation prior, when the media became obsessed with something equally scandalous: Madonna studies.
The year introducing the first symposia on Swift was also the 30-year anniversary of the first edited volume of academic essays on the elder entertainer, The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory. The volume’s editor, Ramona Liera-Schwichtenberg, remarked in her introduction that, although academics are “typically the last to know about popular phenomena,” “their reaction to Madonna has proved to be an exception to the rule,” because academics were among the first to pick up on the critical importance of Madonna’s early career. In her review of the book for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani nonetheless wrote, with characteristic generosity:
Despite pages and pages of […] pretentious blathering, the scholars in this book make some amazingly obvious assessments: “Madonna is incredibly popular.” Or: “Clearly, Madonna is not universally loved.” Or: “The politics of sex and gender representations as they relate to identity has not been lost on Madonna.”
If 2023 began with the launch of Swift’s Eras Tour, it is ending with the launch of Madonna’s Celebration Tour, a career survey of her greatest hits. And if Swift has an outsize influence on culture today, it’s hard to imagine someone besides Madonna who has had a more outsize influence on cultural studies, particularly in the early 1990s, when Madonna’s peak coincided with foundational works of queer theory such as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Influential media scholar John Fiske’s 1989 duo of books, Understanding Popular Culture and Reading the Popular, both developed theory significantly through Madonna, “an exemplary popular text,” and Suzanna Danuta Walters would get the title for her 1995 book on feminist cultural theory from a Madonna hit, “Material Girl.”
The generational scholarly movement from Madonna as a “text” to, in the words of the Indiana University conference, Taylor Swift as a “lens” tells the story of a larger transformation in how the humanities have understood their relation to popular culture, not just as objects to study but also as a means of popularizing their study, too, under institutional and economic threats to be relevant. As we will see, this is a story about the reification of humanistic skills, the downsizing of a technical vocabulary, and the preemptive embarrassment of wanting to tell the world we’re in on our own joke too.
Before there was Swift studies, there was Madonna-ology. In the early 1990s, Madonna became a science because of an emerging post-structural semiotic tradition that understood meaning to be created not by the sign itself, but in its “intertextual circulation,” as Fiske put it. Drawing on Stuart Hall’s theory of articulation, Fiske summarized a common sense of cultural studies through Madonna:
For a text to be popular, it must “utter” what its readers wish to say, and must allow those readers to participate in their choice of its utterances (for texts must offer multiple utterances) as they construct and discover its points of pertinence in their social situation. So Madonna […] utters quite different meanings for her teenage girl fans and her Playboy-reader fans, who each find in her quite different pertinences to their different positions in the patriarchal social order.
What was important to see was how Madonna as a text absorbed the contradictions of the social order in which she circulated, which means that studying Madonna was a means of studying that social order. “Contradiction” is the key word of this form of study. Madonna’s contradictions, it turned out, were mirror images of contradictions in larger social structures, including a neoliberal economy’s tendency to sell individual identity as a brand. So too did Madonna become not so much a text to be theorized, but theory itself. Chapter titles from the 1993 academic collection The Madonna Connection include “Embodying Subaltern Memory: Kinesthesia and the Problematics of Gender and Race” (Cindy Patton), “Justify Our Love: Madonna and the Politics of Queer Sex” (Lisa Henderson), “‘Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture” (Susan Bordo), and “Madonna Politics: Perversion, Repression, or Subversion? Or Masks and/as Master-y” (E. Ann Kaplan). Kaplan, in particular, was a Madonna-ology forerunner and was the subject of a New York Times interview in December 1991: “I have this fascination with pop culture,” she said, “although my thesis was on Hawthorne.”
The language of postmodernism is familiarly ubiquitous in these titles. What matters, though, is how scholars did not so much apply it to Madonna as they did view her as “embodying” it. Madonna’s notoriously frequent reinventions, often read as cynical plays at market relevance, were instead understood as performing the instability of identity itself, just as Judith Butler theorized as the power of parodic cultural forms like drag to subvert the apparent naturalness of gender performativity. This was, after all, Madonna’s “Vogue” period, named after the dance developed in the queer Harlem ballroom scene and simultaneously popularized by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. On the theoretical table was therefore also the question of cultural appropriation, including a critical exchange between Butler and bell hooks regarding the documentary. Of Madonna, hooks asked: was she a “Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister?”
To cross the high/low divide with Continental theory and an American pop star is itself one way of defining postmodernism. What many observers of these academic debates saw, though, was a masturbatory effort to complicate something that should be simple. In her review, Kakutani wrote that all the book was good for was “point[ing] up the distressing state of academic scholarship, a scholarship blindly infatuated with the solipsistic tenets of deconstruction, hogtied by jargon and critical dogma and devoid of common sense and the ability to make esthetic distinctions.” For The Washington Post, Henry Allen laughed at professors trying to use a “secret language to write about something people actually care about.” The Nation accused authors of “attempting to counteract their own marginality by making desperate forays into popular culture.”
As is often the case, some of these critiques of “jargon” might just betray an underlying anxiety that things we take for granted—like gender—really are more complicated than they seem, just as the presumption that academia and popular culture be segregated comes off as a prescription: stay in your lane, don’t yuck my yum. But more than taking a side, what seems important is noting that it was enough of a matter of national importance to take a side on Madonna-ology that reviews of a collected volume of academic essays were appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation. This is the same period that also gave us books like James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), and then, as now, these cultural wars are so often fought on the proxy battlefield of academia, where anxieties over what counts as knowledge, and who gets to produce it, become material questions about the distribution of resources and public funding. A college syllabus, too, is a “struggle to define America.”
But even a “culture war,” with its staging of two sides, does not accurately describe the attacks on Madonna-ology, because no one really seemed to be fighting on the side of Madonna-ologists. The Nation, after all, is supposed to be left-leaning. In her assessment of the debate for the 1993 spring volume of On the Issues, Laurie Ouellette endorsed Kaplan’s view that what was at stake was a backlash, within the Left, against feminism. As Ouellette concluded,
What will ultimately emerge is a situation where the right no longer needs to tell those scholars—feminist, gay and lesbian, and people of color—who are not part of the white male establishment that their work is not appropriate for the academy. Because the left will have done it for them.
I recently asked Cindy Patton, an original contributor to The Madonna Connection who went on to become the first gay and lesbian studies professor at Emory before recently retiring from Simon Fraser University, to reflect on this period. Anxieties about Madonna studies were anxieties about the modes of study emerging alongside and through her: “Much of that initial work on Madonna came from queer and feminist scholars (and some scholars of color) who were new entrants into the academy, both individually and as an intellectual movement.” In turn, “the dismissal of the work was simply misogynist and anti-queer.” But a larger problem, Patton says, is that “North American culture’s sense of history still tracks to politicians and warriors. Why is Madonna any less research-worthy than Bill Clinton?”
The September 17, 1992, issue of Rolling Stone included a roundup of university courses and professors teaching Madonna. One of these professors, Ann Cvetkovich, remarked, “It’s an eye-opener for [students] to realize serious issues of consumption and feminism are at stake when discussing Madonna.” Another, Andrew Ross, welcomed how students would “write papers about her at the drop of a hat” because they “will talk about Madonna till the cows come home.” Tapping into the popularity of Madonna, these courses might be seen to follow the thought process of the “despairing assistant professor[s]” ventriloquized in The Washington Post review of The Madonna Connection: “You need students, you need tenure, you need to publish something with real world appeal. But how? What to write about?”
A generation later, “class engagement” is still “a big motivator” for assigning Taylor Swift, as Alexandra Wormley explained to USA Today after her class dedicated to the entertainer launched at Arizona State University this fall. Now, it is not just assistant professors leading the charge, not least because tenure-track assistant professorships have themselves become a privileged rarity. Instead, it is often graduate students like Wormley or, in the case of a course at Stanford, undergraduates. And if, for the assistant professor of Madonna-ology, the problem was one of cultural capital, today the problem is one of economic capital, because of dipping college enrollments. As USA Today paraphrases Wormley: “How do [instructors] help students catch up academically and socially, while showing them their degrees have real-world value?”
A dissertation could be written about the subtle change from Madonna’s “real world appeal” to Swift’s “real-world value” and how the “cultural war” of the 1990s is more clearly, today, an economic war over resources, profits, and investments. What interests me is how the economic pressure of profitability has taken the new field of Swift studies in a different direction than the Madonna studies of the 1990s. If, as Cindy Patton says, Madonna studies was tied to new fields of theoretical study, what is surprising about the turn to Swift studies is the linking of a new musician with older methods and canons—the literature department’s bread and butter of close reading and Shakespeare. The course description for one of the first Swiftie courses, taught at UT Austin last fall, promises to “us[e] the songwriting of pop music icon Taylor Swift to introduce literary critical reading and research methods—basic skills for work in English literature and other humanities disciplines.” The ultimate learning objective for a course taught at NYU last spring: “Students will develop greater sophistication in their artistic appreciation, critical thinking, research and writing skills.”
If for Madonna-ology the learning objective was theory, today the recurring idiom is one of “skills.” In the humanities, we have become used to telling our students, or really the tuition-paying parents of prospective students, that in the literature, history, or philosophy classroom you will learn what you need to be successful in any job: how to read, write, analyze, communicate, empathize, collaborate, debate, compromise, adapt, and reflect, all of which, too, is bundled up in the larger project of how to sell yourself to an employer. Because an anti-intellectual disinformation campaign about the humanities has been so successful, it is indeed important to remind people that, for instance, humanities majors make salaries comparable to other majors. But in speaking the language of the market, we risk, ironically, selling ourselves short. Not to mention, uselessness may even be one of the things the humanities should be teaching us: how to take a break from capital’s relentless drive to productivity.
The other idiom often invoked in Swift studies, as in the Indiana University conference, is the singer as a “lens” for understanding social forces like race, gender, and sexuality. Other times, race, gender, and sexuality become the lens for understanding Swift. In either case, the metaphor of the lens presents a mode of study that we can put on or take off at will. The idea is that the underlying object remains the same. The world is still there whether or not we’ve got our glasses on. So too can close reading be turned off or on regardless of the choice of text.
This abstraction of method from object, of skill from content—so that Swift becomes as much a testing ground as Shakespeare—has been an important part of our ability to adapt syllabi and shift canons, often with the laudable diversifying goals of teaching voices other than dead white men. It has also, as critics such as Tim Aubry, Michael Clune, Merve Emre, and Joseph North have worried, taken us out of the business of teaching aesthetic judgment, explaining why Shakespeare was worth reading in the first place. What, in comparison, seems so compelling about an earlier moment of Madonna-ology was how text and theory could not be separated: not just any text would do for the theoretical work Madonna was seen to be doing.
I, for one, am no big defender of “the canon.” Indeed, I’ve earlier argued on this platform that the social media culture of memes provides an excellent playground for exploring Marxist literary theory and formalist analysis. At the same time, part of our resistance to market logics of productive and marketable skills must be in our curation of reading lists that are not agnostic about content but make an implicit claim on why these readings deserve your attention more than those. In “Vogue,” Madonna might seem to offer content agnosticism when she says, “Beauty’s where you find it.” But she would also go on to list, as we should too, its exemplars from Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “They had style, they had grace.”
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