Sunday, May 19, 2013
When Ben Rybeck signed up for a University of Southern Maine class called "The Phenomenology of Performance: David Bowie," he wasn't quite sure what to expect.
Shelton Waldrep has been teaching a seminar on David Bowie at USM for more than 10 years. He became interested in Bowie when he first heard the 1980 album “Scary Monsters.”
Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
David Bowie in 2010. His first album in 10 years hits stores on Tuesday.
He knew the professor, Shelton Waldrep, to be a thoughtful, well-prepared teacher who challenged students. Still, he had never taken a course like this, and it made him wonder.
Could a course on a glittery, gender-bending pop music star be as challenging as, say, in-depth studies of the works of James Joyce or Charles Dickens? Or would the course be filled with Bowie fans hoping for an in-class Bowie love fest?
"I was surprised, in a good way, by the level of difficulty of the criticism we had to read," said Rybeck, who took the course about five years ago and now teaches English at the University of Arizona. "He (Waldrep) uses this very populist material and funnels it into some of the most difficult critical text, such as pieces on gender and performance.
"I think in an academic setting, people think if you're not studying Dickens or Joyce you're not doing serious analytical work. But the popular material can often teach you a lot more about the times in which they were made."
Bowie, 66, is releasing his first album in 10 years, "The Next Day," in stores on Tuesday. The event is causing fans and critics to reflect on a 40-plus year career that has significantly impacted the worlds of music, fashion, film, performance, art and pop culture.
But very few fans take such a wide-ranging, critical-analytic look at Bowie's cultural significance as Waldrep, a USM English professor since 1998. He became a Bowie fan in college, when he first heard Bowie's 1980 album "Scary Monsters."
As an academic, Waldrep has been teaching a Bowie seminar for more than 10 years, and wrote about Bowie in his academic book "The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie" (University of Minnesota Press). He's been working the last few years on another book, focused solely on Bowie, titled "Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie."
Waldrep is trying to finalize a publishing deal for the book, and hopes to finish it this year. The book is not a biography or a retrospective, but instead a critical look at the various stages of Bowie's career and the impact his work in so many areas has had on popular culture.
"The book is an attempt to bring the strands of his career together, looking at things like his connection to Lady Gaga and his connection to disability studies (Bowie's half brother was schizophrenic)," said Waldrep, 52. "I think what makes him stand out in popular culture is that he has exposed people to ideas that come from the avant garde consistently throughout his career."
In his Bowie seminars at USM, Waldrep says studying Bowie helps serve as a way to "dissolve the boundary" between high and low art, which is an increasing trend in academia. He thinks it's an important thing to do when trying to study a certain culture at a certain time.
"If we dismiss a lot of popular culture, we miss an opportunity to learn a lot about ourselves. The novels we read and the music we listen to are important to us; we care about them," said Waldrep. "It's not just a novel or a film, it's an artifact that tells us something about the culture we live in."
In the area of pop culture, Waldrep also co-authored a book called "Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World." But he teaches poetry and Victorian literature as well, and wrote a book called "Inauthentic Pleasures: Victorian Fakery and the Limitations of Form."
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Shelton Waldrep is author of “The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie.”
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Shelton Waldrep is author of “Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World.”