AAmong his many sartorial enthusiasms, Harry Styles has demonstrated a fondness for pearls, which is perhaps appropriate, given that the latest Styles-related news has been a hit. It has emerged that starting next spring, Texas State University will be offering a course called Harry Styles and the Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet and European Pop Culture.
It’s the brainchild of Dr. Louie Dean Valencia, an associate professor of history, who has spent much of the pandemic writing a book about styles. His course will focus on how the singer and actor’s career relates to modern stardom and “issues of gender and sexuality, race, class, nation and globalism, media, fashion, culture fans, Internet culture and consumption”. Which, to be honest, seems like a lot to cover.
After the course was announced, Valencia added that the 20 selected students will also learn “technical skills” such as evaluating sources and audio editing and – with a hint of irony – “how to run a social media campaign. “.
Traditionalists might frown at a curriculum that sounds ominous, but celebrity studies – there are some elsewhere in the US on Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Beyoncé – have been going on in less overt forms for just as long. than the phenomenon itself which, according to famous deatha fascinating book by historian Greg Jenner, dates from the early 1700s.
Jenner distinguishes between notoriety and celebrity, arguing that it is the emergence of daily newspapers, and a substantial public space where the activities of people rated could be relayed and discussed, that marks the arrival of the latter.
Sitting down to work on the book in the aftermath of David Bowie’s death and the “bubbling cauldron of grief” that followed, he wrote: “I realized how productive celebrity culture is: how shapes us; how we compare celebrity careers to our own ambitions; how we devour gossip with a mixture of ironic detachment and zealous emotional investment; and how useful it is as a social glue that binds us in voyeuristic fascination.
Sure, Styles fits the bill; when I requested the inside track from my 16-year-old twin nieces, who recently queued nine hours in Dublin to secure the best seat at her concert, supported only by their mother’s deliveries of fries, I had a series of whatsapp messages much, much longer than this piece. It ended with information about the star’s upcoming projects and a warning that they were still “very low key”. I consider myself duly D-noted.
In a week that has seen the continued decimation of the humanities in the UK – the University of Roehampton, for example, is offering in September to close his degrees in English literature, film, photography, philosophy and linguisticsamong others – the idea of building a course around a popular culture icon is in stark contrast to a government that believes there must be a demonstrable line between learning and employment (if such a thing was even vaguely possible).
The reality is that those bent on demanding that education be “useful” would be equally opposed to the idea of students sitting in a language lab learning Anglo-Saxon (me, 35 years ago , still traumatized) than they would be with an American cohort of 21st century undergraduates analyzing the lyrics of Watermelon Sugar and Harry’s ad campaigns for Gucci.
Is the ability to read The Dream of the Rood in the original of inherently greater value than a deep dive into the appeal of a hugely famous contemporary figure and what she might tell us about the world? (“The sovereign’s tree was adorned with dignity / With precious stones; yet I could see beyond that gold / The ancient conflict of wretched menin Richard Hamer’s translation seems somehow relevant.)
This is the kind of question that merges with the hierarchy of the works themselves. East Middle-walk better than a Mills & Boon? Yes. Is it interesting to consider the production and reception of a Mills & Boon in relation to the culture at large? Yes too. Which should I read? As you prefer, because books, art, music and all are not indicators of intelligence or moral superiority, they are just incredible sources of enlightenment and pleasure. You will probably get more of both from Middle-walkbut not if you hate it.
A final note on Dr. Valencia: his joy and enthusiasm for his upcoming classes, shared on social media, is quite contagious. This, one might say, is more valuable – and, the more we nibble at the humanities, the more difficult to preserve – than its actual material.