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Pop Goes The Culture

By Eric L. Wee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Popular culture Browsing at the Popular Culture Association Conference. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/For The Washington Post)
Go past the 24-screen cineplex playing two shows of "Titanic." Go past the Planet Hollywood restaurant with the flying saucer hovering over the door. Past Pleasure Island, where a band will soon climb onstage and play old Kool and the Gang songs. Past the Virgin Megastore. Past McDonald's. Past the Disney Store.

And then you'll see where they're gathering. Over there beyond the three swimming pools and lake with the fountain in the middle. Over there on the ground floor of the Buena Vista Hotel in the heart of Disney World, you'll find the people who are studying everything you can't get away from. The professors of popular culture.

They see revelations in Calvin Klein underwear ads, they construct new literary paradigms from R.E.M. lyrics, they explicate the oeuvre of Nicolas Cage, they analyze the crudest of porno flicks as if they were fine art. On many campuses, they're scorned by colleagues. Trash – that's what they're accused of teaching.

But here, they're among friends. Here, for four days, 1,500 members of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association present papers on such topics as "Godlike Knowledge and Human Understanding in 'Paradise Lost' and 'Star Trek' " and " 'Chasing Amy': Heterosexism and the Continuum of Gender Relations" – and they are taken seriously. Debates are heated; graduate students scribble copious notes; academic careers are launched.

The study of popular culture, they'll tell you, is the future. As incredible as it seems, they may be right.

Drop in on a lecture by Lynnea Chapman King, a promising English PhD candidate from Texas Tech University. Her specialty and dissertation topic: The Films of Generation X. The canon comprises youth-oriented movies made from 1982 to 1997, some of which she is describing to her audience with the help of a VCR and TV set at the front of the room. First a clip from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," then one from "The Breakfast Club," then some footage from "Reality Bites" – all the way up to "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion."

She's grouped the 18 films of the Gen X canon into subgenres, including high school films ("Ferris Bueller's Day Off"), post-high school ("Less Than Zero") and post-college ("Saint Elmo's Fire"). She talks about how these movies reflect the angst people in their late twenties and early thirties feel about family, their futures and death – and it all seems to be making sense. You nod your head and find yourself thinking that maybe Molly Ringwald is one of the great overlooked actresses of our time.

Then it hits you:

Lynnea Chapman King, age 30, is earning a PhD in "Pretty in Pink." She's made herself an expert on movies she happens to like.

She explains that these are all very significant films, worthy of her scholarship.

"I think that in 10 years we'll look back and say. 'Yes, I can see that "The Breakfast Club" and, yes, "Reality Bites" and, yes, "Before Sunrise" are a beautiful and valuable reflection of society, and standing alone are examples of good filmmaking.' "

Sure. Andy Warhol showed us that if you put a frame around anything, it becomes art. And if you put something – anything – into a college curriculum, it becomes worthy of study.

There was a time when teaching Plato at Oxford was considered radical. English literature as a field of study was considered avant-garde on American campuses in the 19th century. Sociology and political science were viewed with skepticism when they arrived on the scene earlier this century. Change has been part of the Western tradition of the university since the Middle Ages.

Still, the old canon provided certain constants. For decades, college students mostly studied the big thinkers and writers who had withstood the test of time. Aristotle, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens. We studied them based on a cultural consensus: They mattered. They reflected higher, eternal thoughts and achievements.

But inevitably the people being studied were dead, white, male – and hard to relate to. Anyway, they weren't all that fun.

The '60s turned everything upside down. Students – and professors – began occupying buildings and issuing demands. Why weren't we studying the histories of nonwhite people? Why was everything from a male perspective? The deconstructionists and relativists and multiculturalists took power.

Riding this crest of change have been the pop-culture profs.

Once the kooky idea of a few people at a backwater called Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the concept has spread and become institutionalized in colleges nationwide during the past three decades. Traditionalists may still sneer at popular culture studies, but as an academic discipline, it's not about to disappear. Students like it. They'd rather analyze "The X-Files" than Dante's "Inferno." Who wouldn't?

Baby boom-era professors, themselves reared on television, like teaching these classes, too. They're popular – they bring in bodies. And they bring in tuition dollars.

"We're no longer in the closet," says Ray Browne, the silver-haired academic who is acknowledged as the godfather of the movement. They used to call him a nut. Now they call him professor emeritus. In 1970, Browne set up the nation's first popular culture studies program at Bowling Green and also started the Popular Culture Association. Its first convention a year later attracted 70 adventuresome souls.

Now, just look around. Hundreds of scholars have flocked to Disney World from schools like Michigan State, Carnegie-Mellon, Virginia Tech and the University of Toronto. They may not be Ivy League, but pop-culture studies have pervaded those hallowed halls as well. By Browne's estimate, at least 2 million students are taking pop-culture courses in some form (up from 1 million in 1983).

Of course, not everybody is studying Captain Kirk. There are some panels here on Depression-era workers, World War II veterans, and Alaskan children who were used in vaccine experiments.

For too long scholars ignored everyday people and their everyday lives, Browne says; academia has been been guilty of arrogant intellectual snobbery.

The explosion of mass media has helped fuel popular culture's growth since World War II, creating a nurturing environment for such studies. Today popular culture invades all of our lives in an unprecedented way: Television, movies and the Internet bombard us with images, archetypes and knowledge. City after city has become almost indistinguishable with shopping malls filled with the same Starbucks, Blockbusters and Pottery Barns. Disney seems to be taking over the world.

This mass culture provides brain food for hungry scholars. How much more can be said about Shakespeare after 400 years? But much can be learned from Homer Simpson.

And can we apply Descartes' concept of evil genius to a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode? Well, a philosophy professor from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania is doing just that down the hall.

Students can either be pawns in this hyper-commercial world or learn from it, the professors here tell you over and over. And teaching popular studies courses is pragmatic. No longer can profs make references to "The Great Gatsby" or "Wuthering Heights" and expect their students to know what they're talking about. But everyone will know Mr. Spock or Fox Mulder.

And, they say, studying popular culture can hone the same analytical skills as studying straight Cartesian philosophy. "Days of Our Lives" tells the same stories you can find in Greek tragedies or Shakespeare.

It's not about dumbing down, says Browne, it's about keeping up.

Is there any limit to what's legitimate to study here?

No, says Browne. After arguing so long for the study of the mundane, he is not about to start setting limits.

Joseph Slade, PhD, looks like a distinguished professor. His suit is dark blue. He has a receding hairline and a prodigious salt-and-pepper beard. And he acts the part. His voice is even. Calm. Rational.

As he stands at the lectern in front of about a dozen fellow academics, he sounds as if he could be giving a discourse on economic theory. But this evening he's lecturing on fetishes. He's just handed out a three-page, neatly typed reading/watching list with titles including "Hidden Obsessions," "Les Femmes Erotique" and "Latex" (voted best XXX-rated video of 1995, he notes). He switches on the TV. Two women on the screen are appreciating each other.

Above the pulsating music, he starts talking about the director's style.

"Mostly he's interested in female desire," says Slade. "The notion is that woman are so voracious in their sexual appetite that they will mate with anything."

He remarks on props in the video. A fairly standard collection of fetishes. The lingerie, the dark glasses, the elbow-length gloves, the high heels.

Slade is director of graduate studies at the University of Ohio's school of telecommunications. He began his porn studies about 27 years ago while a doctoral student at New York University. One night he got sick of working on his dissertation on the poet Edwin Markham, and decided to go walking in Times Square.

There he saw the light – specifically the garish neon lights of a triple-X movie house. He watched one hard-core film. Then he watched another. After a third trip, he wrote a paper about the experience.

Today his curriculum vitae describes him as one of America's leading experts on adult film, having analyzed more than 7,000 movies at a rate of about a dozen a month.

Why study smut?

Because, according to Slade, adult movies portray basic human nature. And pornography has "profoundly enriched American culture."

Besides, it's popular. Erotic or hardcore video titles account for $4.2 billion in business, he says. Did you know that we spend as much on adult movies as we do on hot dogs?

The professor, who has shown porn clips in his courses, admits he enjoys this particular speciality. "Originally I became interested in pornography because it makes you horny," says Slade. "I would never want to pretend that my interest is wholly sociological or academic."

A fellow panelist has a question for the professor. How often are Asian women represented in the films Slade has studied? Raoul Kulberg, a former University of District of Columbia librarian, wants to know.

Kulberg has just finished giving a talk on "Asian Babes," arguing that more and more Asian women – but not men – are showing up in porno. He's not sure why; he's still gathering the statistics to test his hypothesis.

Soon Kulberg, a large, round retiree with a Santa Claus-like beard, is passing around photocopies from magazines titled Asian Affair and Asian Heat. The people in the room are middle-aged and male – except for one college-age woman. All nod seriously, inspecting the images.

As the session breaks up, another professor and fellow porn expert approaches the presenters' table. He hands Slade and Kulberg a stack of X-rated pictures of young, innocent-looking Asian woman he downloaded from a Web site.

"Great color," Slade says. Just then his 6-year-old daughter comes into the room and sidles up beside him.

"Hello, sweetheart," he says, quickly handing the stack of photos to another panelist.

Father and daughter depart to enjoy the cartoonish delights of the Magic Kingdom.

Kulberg loads up a video of "Erotic China Dolls" and stands about two feet away from the screen. As a group of naked women covered in oil begin wrestling, he cranes his neck closer. A smile creeps across his face as he continues his research into the night.

The crowd gathered in this conference room is mostly female. "Hormones and Heartache: Coming of Age in Pine Valley" is the topic. It's a discussion of the characters in soap operas, specifically "All My Children."

Kathy Lyday-Lee, in the audience near the rear, is an English professor at Elon College in North Carolina. She's going to teach a course called "Soap Operas and Social Issues" this summer. Not that such a class will stick out all that much, considering that the schedule also includes "The World of NASCAR" and "The Culture and Business of Nashville."

She sees the study of soap operas as a way to teach her students about social changes as well as broadcasting history. After all, some of them have been on the air for decades.

Yet for all the rational-sounding statements you hear from the conferees, you begin to sense the real reason they study pop culture is much more simple: They can't help themselves. These are people who need a 12-step program to help them admit that they are powerless over exegesis. After endless years in higher education, constantly trying to plumb meaning from turgid texts, they can't shut off when they hit the streets or turn on the tube.

The academic babble is just as incomprehensible as you'd find at any other convention stuffed with liberal arts PhDs. Phrases like "postmodernism," "post-capitalism" and "patriarchy" seem to flood out of every mouth that opens. And then there are theories beyond classification:

"What about transgression of human-animal boundaries with Mulder's first name being Fox?" asks University of Alberta English lecturer Ann Howey in one seminar, referring to the lead male character of "The X-Files."

"There may be something there," nods Karen Pike, a University of Toronto doctoral student who just presented a paper called "From Dracula to 'The X-Files': Exsanguination and Other Boundary Issues of the Postmodern Fantastic." It's interesting, she says, that the female lead is named Dana. That could be a male or female name – and doesn't Dana Scully act like the logical, archetypal man sometimes? Yes, we're talking about cross-gender boundary issues here.

Down the hall at the session on horror books and movies, Roger Platizky sees links between Stephen King's "The Shining" and affirmative action issues. He's just finished hearing a panelist contend that a black character is portrayed less heroically in the latest "Shining" movie compared with the book.

The English instructor from Austin College in Texas wonders if that's a reflection of changing attitudes about race. The panelist tells him there's no evidence to support that, but Platizky isn't completely sure. He still thinks the character is a "cultural artifact."

Poke your head into another meeting room and there's Jonathan Kraszewski talking about film and symbolism in his paper, "The Cultural Significance of Nicolas Cage's Coppola Roots Within the Narrative of Mike Figgis's 'Leaving Las Vegas.' " A baby-faced graduate student at Georgetown University, Kraszewski divines several layers of meaning in the grim tale of an alcoholic and prostitute.

"The film also uses Nicolas Cage's star [status] to validate and subvert the Hollywood narrative tradition," the student reads, pointing out that Cage is the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and that his aunt is Talia Shire. "Cage's personal background serves as a sign that falls within the Hollywood tradition. . . . By making Cage an alcoholic and then moving him out of Hollywood to Las Vegas, the movie suggests that the Hollywood conventions need to be revised and torn away from their roots."

Figgis gave female lead Elisabeth Shue several monologues. These "give hope to the potential to revise patriarchal traditions within Hollywood cinema." And Figgis himself, playing an avenging mobster who kills another character, "signifies that the movie is killing off traditional, Hollywood techniques and directors in order to make room for new ones."

"Amazing." That's the first thing Mike Figgis, on the phone from London, says when these academic insights are read back to him.

No, he didn't hire Nick Cage to subvert traditions – he was just "the best actor for the job." Figgis, a Brit, wanted someone who came across as pure American.

As for Shue, she got all those monologues because the hooker character in the book (upon which he based the film) expressed herself through internal ruminations. To vocalize those thoughts he created the monologues. Simple.

What about his role as a gangster? It was a way to save money; the film was done on a shoestring budget. He didn't have to pay himself.

Figgis says film theorists such as those at the conference shouldn't over-intellectualize his movie. "It's a love story set in Las Vegas."

That's all?

"I found it moving."

It is the nature of scholars to find meaning in the ordinary. It is, in fact, their job. The "Iliad" was once just a war story, but it eventually entered the temples of Academe.

Anne Cheney, a professor of English at Virginia Tech, has just found the sublime in the more recent. The Georgia rock band R.E.M. is her beacon of truth and beauty.

"The lyrics of 'Fables of the Reconstruction' read more like a Southern 'Spoon River Anthology' than words for a rock album," she says in her heavy Alabama accent, reading from her paper "R.E.M. and the South." "They capture the Southern sense of community, sense of family, love of nature and, indirectly, the South's eccentric sense of loss over losing the Civil War."

She cites the song "Losing My Religion." And, yes, she's comparing it to T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of the most celebrated and studied poems of the 20th century.

From R.E.M.: "That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight/ losing my religion . . . Oh no I've said too much. I haven't said enough."

"One is reminded of Prufrock's laments," says Cheney. "Do I dare to eat a peach?" and "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

The smallish, red-haired woman has been an English professor for 29 years. Her main focus has been on literary heavyweights, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay. One of her books, she mentions, was a Pulitzer finalist. But her passion is music and for five years now she's been leading a class called "The Literature of Rock and Roll" that studies the lyrics of songs by the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, among others.

Part of the class used to be a field trip to see the Dead in concert. She remembers the last one they took up to RFK to see the Dead and Dylan play. The students were going wild. The music rocked. Then Jerry Garcia died six weeks later and messed up that part of the syllabus.

She's now in the hotel's bar unwinding with a Dunhill and a Miller Lite next to Walter Coppedge, who teaches English at Virginia Commonwealth University. She wants to know his opinion of her R.E.M. paper.

"I always love your writing," he says, pausing a moment and rubbing his chin, trying to tread gingerly. "But . . . you might of come across stronger if you had a hypothesis you could argue around."

"But I did. I was hypothesizing that R.E.M. is the merger of the Old South and the New South."

Coppedge backpedals.

"Yes. Yes, that came across. Yes, that came across very clearly."

He backpedals some more.

"I loved that quote you give from 'Losing My Religion.' 'I've said too much. I haven't said enough . . .' " He repeats the words slowly, letting the last few linger there for a second.

"I worked hard on that part," says Cheney.

"It lends itself to so much because it's so vague," agrees Coppedge.

"But I've listened to it so long, it's not ambiguous to me," she reponds.

Coppedge turns to fellow scholars at the table.

"Anne is a pioneer in the work she's doing in the rock studies, and she's not getting credit for it. They're looking down on her like they looked down on film and comic book studies at universities before. Anything new is suspect."

They all nod.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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