Among his many sartorial enthusiasms, Harry Styles has demonstrated a fondness for pearls, which is perhaps apt, given that the latest Styles-related news has had some clutching theirs. It’s emerged that, from next spring, Texas State University is to offer a course entitled 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 history professor, who spent much of the pandemic writing a book on Styles. His class will focus on how the singer and actor’s career relates to modern celebrity and to “questions of gender and sexuality, race, class, nation and globalism, media, fashion, fan culture, internet culture, and consumerism”. Which, to be truthful, sounds like a lot to cover.
After the course’s announcement, Valencia has added that the 20 students selected will also learn “hard skills” such as source evaluation and audio editing and – with a hint of wryness – “how to manage a social media campaign”.
Traditionalists might raise their eyebrows at a course of study that sounds worryingly enjoyable, but celebrity studies – there are similar elsewhere in the US on Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Beyoncé – have been taking place in less overt forms for as long as the phenomenon itself which, according to Dead Famous, a fascinating book by historian Greg Jenner, dates to the early 1700s.
Jenner distinguishes between fame and celebrity, arguing that it was the emergence of daily newspapers, and a consequent public space where noted people’s activities 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 ensuing “bubbling cauldron of grief”, he writes, “I realised just how productive celebrity culture is: how much it shapes us; how we chart celebrity careers against our own ambitions; how we devour the gossip with a mix of ironic detachment and zealous emotional investment; and how useful it is as a social glue that binds us together in voyeuristic fascination.”
Certainly, Styles fits the bill; when I asked for the inside track from my 16-year-old twin nieces, who recently queued for nine hours in Dublin in order to secure the best spot at his concert, sustained only by their mother’s mercy-dash deliveries of chips, I got a series of WhatsApp messages far, far longer than this piece. It concluded with information about the star’s forthcoming projects, and a warning that they were still “very hush-hush”. I consider myself duly D-noticed.
In a week that saw the continuing decimation of humanities in the UK – the University of Roehampton, for example, this September proposes to close its English literature, film, photography, philosophy and linguistics degrees, among others – the idea of building a course around an icon of popular culture is strikingly at odds with a government that believes there must be a demonstrable line between learning and employment (were such a thing even vaguely possible).
The reality is that those hellbent on requiring education to be “useful” would be just as opposed to the idea of students sitting in a language lab learning Anglo-Saxon (me, 35 years ago, still traumatised) as they would be with an American cohort of 21st-century undergraduates analysing 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 intrinsically greater value than a deep-dive into the appeal of a hugely famous contemporary figure and what it might tell us about the world? (“The ruler’s tree was worthily adorned / With gems; yet I could see beyond that gold / The ancient strife of wretched men”, in Richard Hamer’s translation, somehow seems apposite.)
It’s the kind of question that gets confused with establishing a hierarchy of artworks themselves. Is Middlemarch better than a Mills & Boon? Yes. Is it interesting to consider the production and reception of a Mills & Boon in relation to the wider culture? Also yes. Which one should I read? As you prefer, because books, art, music and all are not indicators of intelligence or moral superiority, they’re just incredible sources of enlightenment and pleasure. You will probably get more of both from Middlemarch, but not if you hate it.
A final note about Dr Valencia: his delight and excitement with his forthcoming classes, as shared on social media, are utterly infectious. This, one might argue, is more valuable – and, the more we chip away at the humanities, harder to preserve – than his actual material.