In teaching my undergraduate Media Studies seminar, I often illustrate concepts that students find abstract or complex with examples from pop music, and especially music video. A few weeks ago, I was using a series of clips to run through some dominant concepts in mid-twentieth century media studies, a funny thing happened in my classroom.
I started to play this clip…
…and just as I reached to turn the sound down and start talking about QD Leavis, my students started singing. All of them. Loudly.
White, black and hispanic, males and females, gamers and fashionistas, tattooed and pigtailed, suburbanites and urban immigrants, every single one of these students–many of whom are often too shy to raise their hands in class–were bobbing their heads (like yeah) and hey-eyey-ey-ey-ey-ing their little hearts out.
We eventually carried on with the day’s agenda, working the day’s scheduled readings. But the moment stuck with me long after class was over and my students had all gone home with visions of Barthes and De Certeau dancing in their heads. Considering how often we hear about narrowcasting and niche programming fracturing American audiences, this outburst seemed compelling. But such claims about uber-fragmentation have always been overblown, I think (the vast majority of my students seem to share the same core tastes, even if they differ a little at the edges.) The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that my classes’ singalong resonated with the narrative of the song, cut against much of the reading we’d done in class so far, and served as a reminder of both the utility, and the joy, of media studies.
In the song’s narrative, poor little Miley/Hannah/Destiny Hope/whatever-her-name-is hops off a plane at L-A-X with her dreams and a cardigan, dislocated from her home/social structure and chock full of anxieties. In this moment, she is under the conditions that left so many late 19th and early 20th century theorists, from Emile Durkheim to Dwight MacDonald clutching their pearls: increased mobility of populations, the expanding reach of capitalist markets, and the breakdown of traditional community structures left masses of thoroughly modern Mileys feeling adrift in an alienating world.
In the song, however, Miley’s feet are planted firmly on the ground. If the song’s sound doesn’t, the video’s visual elements consistently work to solidify Cyrus’ American heartland bona fides–there are EIGHT close-ups of Cyrus’ cowboy boots in a three minute video. She performs in a dusty drive-in theater overflowing with cutoff jeans and flannel shirts, muscle cars and pickup trucks, and (of course) a giant American flag. The video’s color palette looks astonishingly like an Instagram photo. Clearly, the idea here is to differentiate Cyrus from the culture industry capitals of New York and Los Angeles, as well as tie her to a community context (“Nashville”) that serves as the antithesis of the upper crust of commercial media.
Of course, this is all total bunk. Cyrus isn’t just some good-ol’ country girl. She is famously the daughter of country-pop crossover star and sometimes stage/screen actor Billy Ray Cyrus. She was raised on a 500 acre estate in an upper middle class suburb, but also lived in Toronto while her father filmed a TV series. By 2003, at age 11, she was appearing in major Hollywood films. So while “Miley Cyrus,” as a constructed image, represents an authentic heartland America, a quick glance at her Wikipedia page reveals that authentic Heartland America to be largely a slapdash collection of signifiers that stand for a series of vague social and political values. A “myth,” even.
But none of that matters in the song itself. Ultimately, songs are stories, and stories don’t play by the same rules as people do. It doesn’t matter that Superman REALLY COULDN’T fly around the world fast enough to turn back time, what matters is how the story reflects or constructs meaning for the world in which it circulates. In the story of “Party in the U.S.A.,” what finally connects Cyrus to her new L.A. community is not an embrace of taco trucks or the resounding success of a tween-oriented sitcom, but a Jay-Z song on the radio. It’s significant, I think, that Cyrus’ lyric says “They’re playing my song”–a privileged white tween from Nashville/Toronto/Hollywood claiming ownership of hip-hop might give us pause–but considering the degree to which Jay-Z has succeeded in redefining hip-hop success as “market saturation,” maybe it’s not so crazy after all. But Cyrus knows that the songs on Top-40 radio in Nashville are the very same songs on Top-40 radio in L.A., and that, if nothing else, that’s one thing that holds us together as Americans. She hears that song and she knows she’s gonna be okay, even if she’s not in Nashville anymore. It’s still her country, and it’s still her culture.
The idea that the mass standardization of mass culture would allow for greater connection and communion cuts against much of the reading we had done in class. Dwight MacDonald famously warned against the alienation and atomization of “mass society,” and feared that the consumption of mass culture would serve as a surrogate for actual community, leaving us unable to interact with, or contribute to, either our local communities or with “high culture.” But the “Party in the U.S.A.” experiment in my classroom suggested a different role for mass culture in American society.
For both my students (who arrive in my classroom from wildly different backgrounds and with divergent social and cultural perspectives on the world) and for the “Miley” character in the song, pop culture texts like silly tween-pop songs represent a lingua franca over which they can bond, exchange, argue, and even rejoice. It can also be the launching pad for new creative endeavors.
Which, it seems to me, is part of the value of teaching theory in a media studies department. It matters to me that my students think rigorously about the function of culture in society, understand concepts like ideology and hegemony, and think about how media texts produce and accumulate meanings throughout their processes of production, circulation, and reception. But I also want to make clear that these things are not just present in dense theoretical texts, or just in “intellectual” literature or film. In fact, texts like “Party in the U.S.A.” give us a common point of reference over which we can discuss difference, privilege, culture and politics. These are things that surround us all of the time, and acknowledging that need not be a grim rejection of all earthly pleasures.
This is, I’m afraid, how my students initially respond to the thing we roughly call “theory.” Students often get the impression that “theory” or “critique” is a self-righteous condemnation of mainstream culture or American values. As a result, students often remark that a lecture on ideology leaves them “depressed,” or still worse, they become defensively angry and frustrated.
This is not the point of learning “theory” in media studies, of course, and to my mind it is precisely the wrong attitude to have about learning in general. But this is how our students often experience their first exposure to “theory,” and as instructors, educators, and as citizens we have an obligation to address this discomfort in as direct, honest, and empathetic way possible. While it is often dispiriting to think about one’s own complicity in systems of inequality and oppression, we must relentlessly oppose the idea that thinking about things can paralyze us or destroy our ability to enjoy ourselves. It gives us the agency to understand, and shape, the world around us. Acknowledging the political and social values that are implicit within film or pop music does not mean holding one’s self above, or outside of the audiences that enjoy those texts. It simply means identifying those implicit messages as neither neutral, nor natural. It means dealing with complexity, instead of denying it.
I believe there is a utility to media studies, and not just in preparing students for careers in media industries, and not just so they can understand “academic” writing. I don’t subscribe to the idea of teaching theory as a series of “lenses.” The metaphor has always struck me as ill-fitting, as it suggests that Marxism or psychoanalysis or whatever is a singular or monolithic “view” of a particular text that one can put on or take off depending on the assignment. Instead, I prefer to organize my theory courses around a series of interpretive methods, that can work in concert or in conflict with one another, and make available an irreducible number of potential readings that can themselves be a source of further debate, contestation, and even pleasure.
One of the primary goals of my course is to emphasize to students that we don’t have to choose between critique and consumption. Both are valid pleasures, and neither makes the other irrelevant, or impossible. I try to emphasize that, as Judith Butler said in a recent interview:
To re-examine our thinking is not just our dour political duty. It is a singularly human ability, among all living things, to reflect upon our own processes of perception, of reasoning, and of evaluation. It is invigorating, exciting, empowering…even fun. My students may initially roll their eyes at that claim, but once they grow out of the idea that ‘theory’ is some foreign and intimidating drill sergeant trying to destroy everything they hold dear, and begin to acknowledge that “theory” is an acknowledgement of the complex and constructed nature of our “common sense” visions of the world, I can see my classroom change. It becomes clear that critique need not replace “normal” consumption. Critique can coexist and contest with consumption, and even cooperate with it.
Just like we can.