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Miley Cyrus studies? Not the gimmick it might sound

The pop star’s work may not be high art, but the US professor behind a new Cyrus syllabus believes it is a gateway to the analysis of race, class and gender
  • @gillian_orr

When Skidmore College, a liberal arts institution in New York state, announced last week that it was to offer a summer course about Miley Cyrus, the internet quickly laughed it off and used it as an opportunity to get “hometwerk” into a headline.

“The Sociology of Miley Cyrus” is only the latest university course to be based around a musician of note. Others that have used a cultural icon as a starting point for discussion include New Jersey’s Rutgers University, which runs a course called “Politicising Beyoncé”, Princeton and its “Bruce Springsteen’s America”, the University of Missouri’s “English 2169: Jay-Z and Kanye West”, and the University of South Carolina, where little monsters can study “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame.”

And it’s not just the United States that likes its learning with a side of lyrics – at Liverpool Hope University, you can take an MA in “The Beatles, Popular Music and Society”. But are these courses just an easy ride through further education, or are they a shrewd way of inviting students to engage with bigger ideas? Carolyn Chernoff, the professor behind the Miley Cyrus syllabus, believes the pop star is a gateway to discussing core sociological theory.

“I wish it were a savvy marketing move, but it actually is that I think Miley Cyrus is a really rich example of how race, class and gender are performed in the media,” says Chernoff.

“I think she’s a great case study. People ask academics and intellectuals to make our disciplinary theories and training relevant to the real world. And focusing a course on Miley helps to better critically read culture that’s all around us. I agree with [the academic] Raymond Williams that culture is ordinary, culture is everyday.”

It was after watching Cyrus’s performance with Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Awards last year, and the subsequent hullabaloo, that Chernoff started to put the course together. “The performance was so clearly drawing on certain tropes and stereotypes about a particular vision of black culture, but most mainstream pop culture reporters only discussed it in terms of gender and ‘bad, sexy Miley’,” Chernoff notes. “In that moment, it illustrated a lot of the types of cultural conflicts that I research.

“This is not a trivial thing. I have some smart students who are really interested in unpacking the social world and they would take this course whether it’s called ‘The Sociology of Miley Cyrus’ or ‘Intersectional Feminism and Modern Media’.”

Kevin Allred, from Rutgers’ Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, whose “Politicising Beyoncé” course pairs the pop star’s music videos with black feminist theory from the likes of Alice Walker, Sojourner Truth and bell hooks, suggests detractors should do their research before they judge.

“I’d say, sit in a class and see how we do this,” says Allred. “The biggest misconception is that I’m teaching dance moves or pieces of her biography and that’s just not the case. We’re using academic sources and the writings of noted black women through history to discuss gender, race and struggle, and using the music videos to talk about how they affect people today.”

Such classes are intense and Chernoff, for one, has little time for pupils who are expecting an easy A. Those who sign up will have to participate in three two-and-a-half-hour-long sessions a week for five weeks, as well as additional writing assignments, presentations and reading.

“I will remind students that this is actually going to be much more difficult than they might think,” she insists. “And if people don’t understand that, then they will certainly get it after the first lecture.”

Miley might be responsible for inflicting tongue-wagging and twerking on the masses, but perhaps an academic curriculum is her most surprising cultural contribution yet.