Sociology professor who taught class on Lady Gaga becomes “Gaga sensei” and celebrity himself

Read about the fame a sociology professor who taught a class titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” has himself found:

Deflem’s entry into the world of celebrity began quietly enough. He had an idea for a course looking at Lady Gaga’s rise to fame – and examining it from a sociological point of view – in the summer of 2010 and got the go-ahead to design it. In October, 2010, the course was announced to the university newspaper. From there – to the astonishment of many – the course suddenly became news across the globe.

In the weeks that followed, Deflem was swamped by interview requests and media appearances to discuss the course. They came from the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, MTV, Billboard, Elle and USA Today. Media from countries including Italy, Germany, Ireland, Slovenia, India, Vietnam, Lebanon, Oman and even Zambia ran pieces about it. He fended off accusations that he had cynically designed the course and its title just to get such attention. “There is no way I could have planned this. I am not that smart,” he said.

But that was just the beginning. Soon he got an avalanche of criticism from figures like conservative firebrand Ann Coulter as well as Christian fundamentalists. His course even became an answer on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Lady Gaga herself noticed the course and talked about it on radio interviews and a chat with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper on the flagship news programme 60 Minutes. Saturday Night Live did a skit about Lady Gaga featuring a fan of the star who was dressed to look like Deflem…

He was also amazed at the lack of agency he had over his own fate and image as it spiralled out of control in the hands of hundreds of journalists. “You kind of undergo it. You experience it. You do not really have any control,” he said.

Does this then count as participant observation?

The course did indeed get a lot of attention, see an earlier post here, but it sounds like it has been worthwhile in the end: it allowed a sociology professor to take a current topic and use it to teach sociology as well as learn on the inside about the nature of celebrity.

I still think it would be interesting to hear sociologists discuss their opinions about courses like this or Michael Eric Dyson’s courses on hip-hop. The names and subject matter of the course can stir up controversy but it helps draw attention to a discipline that doesn’t generally receive much. Plus, what is the difference between giving a course a provocative name and then using it to teach sociology well versus the current events and examples lots of sociology professors use in the classroom?

Lady Gaga comments on the University of South Carolina course about her

When the University of South Carolina announced it was going to have a sociology course titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” it was a big story (as far as stories about sociology courses go). Lady Gaga herself recent commented on the course:

Lady Gaga’s attention to cultural detail has inspired a sociology course at the University of South Carolina called “Lady Gaga And The Sociology Of Fame,” which Gaga describes as a “wonderfully interesting art.”

“When you look back, movie stars sort of created their own sense of fame. Andy Warhol appropriated the fame of others in order to appropriate his own.”

“Especially in today’s media with social networking and cameras, everyone can take that same picture that the paparazzi used to take…It’s not so much about doing it as it is about embracing the art of it. And I think that’s what the course is about.”

I wonder if she has actually looked at what is going on in the course but she still makes an interesting point: “fame” and “celebrity” seems to be more concentrated in the hands of people seeking it now rather than requiring certain gatekeepers like the media. In the case of people like Andy Warhol or Lady Gaga, they can retain their celebrity by turning their own fame and the fame of others on its head to create and reinvent their own image.

This reminds me a discussion I occasionally run into: does creativity or originality today require creating something new or remixing older themes or piecess?

Another thought: will anyone really consider Lady Gaga an “artist” or is she more of a blip in the world of pop culture?

I will be curious to hear what Lady Gaga says or does when her popularity wanes. Will she just keep going over the top to try to attract fans or will she gracefully fade away knowing that her time is up?

Lady Gaga mentions that she studies “the sociology of fame”

A recent course at the University of South Carolina titled “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame” drew a lot of attention. But it appears that Lady Gaga herself has an interest in the sociology of fame. Here is part of the conversation Lady Gaga had with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes:

“You’ve studied the fame of other people, how they got it, how they kept it and how they lost it,” Cooper remarked.

“The sociology of fame and how to maintain a certain privacy without, feeling like you’re withholding anything from your fans. My philosophy is that if I am open with them about everything, and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way. I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give,” Lady Gaga said.

The pressures of maintaining fame and the deadly price other superstars have paid for it are frequent themes in Lady Gaga’s performances. At the MTV Video Music Awards she shocked the audience by the ending of her song “Paparazzi.” Drenched in blood and hanging above the stage, she resembled a blond icon dying before our eyes.

“That’s what everyone wants to know, right? ‘What’s she gonna look like when she dies? What’s she gonna look like when she’s overdosed?’ on whatever they think I’m overdosing on? Everybody wants to see the decay of the superstar,” Lady Gaga said.

“Do you think people wanna see your decay?” Cooper asked.

“What? Of course they do! They wanna see me fail, they wanna see me fall on stage, they wanna see me vomiting out of a nightclub. I mean, isn’t that the age that we live in? That we wanna see people who have it all lose it all? I mean, it’s dramatic,” she replied.

“And then climb their way back,” Cooper remarked.

“Right. It’s a movie. And yet I just am not like that on my own time. I’m not a vomit-in-the-club kind of girl,” she said.

A few questions come to mind:

1. Would sociologists agree that the cycle that celebrities go through (rise to stardom, decline, comeback attempt) is “the sociology of fame?”

2. Does this mean that Lady Gaga is simply playing a role for her fans and for others? If she is so aware of how the script goes, is she doing anything original or authentic? She suggests she “art direct[s] every moment of [her] life” but also claims she is still able to maintain a private side. A classic front-stage/back-stage Erving Goffman explanation.

2a. If she knows that the decay is coming, will she choose to initiate it herself or at least push in a certain direction to maintain some control over it?

2b. There could be some interesting material in thinking about the entertainment or spectacle that Lady Gaga offers and why this is attractive to people.

3. What did Lady Gaga think of having a sociology class named after her (even though the class was about popular music in general)? Is this when she started thinking about “the sociology of fame”?

A student’s inside view of the Sociology of Lady Gaga course

Several months ago, the Internet was worked up over a new sociology class being offered at the University of South Carolina: Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame. I read numerous articles about this with a number asking some variation on the question, “How exactly is this proper material for a college course?”

A student in the course offers an inside view – and it sounds like they are doing what the course title says: sociology.

I’m four classes into “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame,” and every day, someone new demands, “What are you doing in there?” Maybe, like Cosmo, they envision that I clothe myself in bubble wrap and lunch meat as part of my pre-class ritual…

This is a serious course about the sociology of music. What it does not cover: The coded symbolism behind “Alejandro”; Gaga’s decision to wear a dress made of Kermit the Frogs; whether she has a disco stick for real. This is, as my professor underlines, a class about the social conditions that contribute to the fame of Lady Gaga.

And here is the description of the final project for the class:

At this point, we will turn in research papers detailing a single social condition contributing to Gaga’s fame – and then, we will analyze her fame. The findings of our papers will have an effect on the direction of discussion because, as Deflem argues, fame is as much about the fans that popularize the famous as it is about the artist.

Although the subject matter and the title are aimed at gaining attention (it seems to have worked to some degree as the student says some students are in the class because they are curious – though I doubt the school could have guessed at the number of outside people who ended up commenting on the class), the class sounds like a fairly normal sociology class: to explain why social life happens as it does.

And the headline, “Why Lady Gaga Class Is Not Sexy,” seems misleading as the student suggests she keeps coming back to class to see “where this semester is going and just how Gaga we’re going to get.”

Next hot topic in sociology: one journalist suggests Quidditch

I am always interested to see what people in the media think sociologists should study. According to a blog at Time, some sociologist should link the study of emerging adults (and particularly those who ones who delay real adulthood after college) and the growing game of Quidditch:

A sociologist looking to underscore the narrative of Generation Y’s prolonged immaturity would have had a field day with the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup, the Harry Potter–inspired sports competition that drew legions of muggles to midtown Manhattan this past weekend. Quidditch is, after all, an event inspired by a magical sport in a line of far-fetched children’s books that most of this weekend’s competitors read way back in elementary school. Indeed, at the event’s opening ceremony, many of the 700 athletes arrived dressed in costumes, capes and T-shirts, singing songs from 1990s Disney musicals while masses of media surveyed the endless Potter in-jokes proudly scrawled on their attire (“Pwning Myrtle”). The high point of these people’s lives, it might have appeared, was sometime around 1998.

But this sense of nerdish camaraderie came to an abrupt end right around the time of the first gang tackle.

Quidditch is a sport striving for legitimacy.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a sociologist is indeed studying this. This phenomenon has been growing for a few years as I remember hearing about competitions at Notre Dame at least four years ago. (The story suggests it began at Middlebury in 2005.)

But if sociologists did take this seriously (and perhaps there could be some nice ties to ideas about the sociology of sport with leisure games that begin at elite private colleges), would they just be laughed at and become another light viral news story like the recent stories about the sociology class about Lady Gaga?

(A final question: is it really worth playing this game without flying brooms?)