For the past semester, roughly 15 students in Yale College have been studying something rather out of the ordinary, academically-speaking: clubbing. The class, “Dance Music and Nightlife Culture in New York City,” has recently gotten the attention of several national news outlets, from Fox to the British Tabloid the Daily Mail. That’s why yesterday afternoon, WEEKEND sat down for a conversation with the class’s instructor, Madison Moore GRD ’12 — a Ph.D. candidate in Yale’s American Studies program, a prolific WEEKEND staffer (from the days of its nostalgically-recounted predecessor, scene) and a minor star in The Gossip’s “Men in Love” music video — to discuss the impetus for the class: glamour and fierceness.
Q. Okay, so, Professor Moore, how did you come up with the idea for this class?
A. It really comes out of my dissertation research, which is about how glamour has been performed in the late 20th century. So, in my dissertation I have chapters about Tina Turner and fierceness … Really! There’s another chapter on Andy Warhol and this theorist from the 19th century, Thorstein Veblen, who gave us the idea of conspicuous consumption. There’s other stuff on music and I have a chapter on nightlife in the ’80s — and so this is originally where [the idea for the class] came from.
Q. Wait, so let’s go back to that chapter on Tina Turner and fierceness. What is that about?
A. Okay, so what I’m trying to do is think about fierceness as a way that minoritized groups — like gay men, women, people of color — have used to express themselves aesthetically.
Q. Wait, but before you continue — what is fierceness?
A. Okay! Fierceness, I think, is a way of kind of returning the gaze. So in popular culture, we talk about how images and people are looked at — fierceness, I think, looks back at you. I think it’s a way of changing the social dynamic in a room. So if you’re in a room and all of a sudden someone fabulous like — I don’t know, who’s fabulous? — so if you’re in Bass [Library] and Lady Gaga walks in, you know it does something to the room, to the way the room feels, the way people react to the space and that presence does something to activate normalcy. Like okay, you guys are all normal. It puts into motion ideas about how we are beholden to particular kinds of dress or style.
Q. So it instigates self-reflection in a way, or self-consciousness in people who … aren’t fierce?
A. No, no, no, it’s not about that. Well, it’s a really broad question because the dissertation overall is looking at glamour, and glamour has usually been written about from a perspective that talks about Hollywood, and whiteness in particular. And so my interest in fierceness actually comes from the fact that when I was researching glamour and looking at all of the Hollywood stars, there was no conversation about black bodies or Asian bodies or queer bodies in terms of the production of glamour. I was like, “Something is wrong here.” So when I started to look at Tina Turner’s videos, I thought maybe black and queer bodies are doing something different altogether — maybe it’s not glamour, maybe it’s fierceness, which is where the idea comes from.
Q. Okay, so fierceness … I’m still grappling with this idea. What differentiates fierceness from glamour?
A. I think that glamour is more commercialized. I think it’s packaged in a particular way — after all, it comes from Hollywood, which is about packaging stars in a particular kind of way to be sold to a mass public. And I think fierceness is a little more raw and a little more organic. So if you want an image, glamour might be Gloria Swanson and fierceness might be Grace Jones. I also think that fierceness is more democratic, because the idea of glamour is that you have to have money to buy fabulous bags or buy these crazy things, whereas fierceness, you can just go to the 99-cent store. Like, this earring is like four dollars.
Q. And that’s a fierce earring?
A. Yeah — do you think so?
Q. Yeah. I guess it’s not for Gloria Swanson?
Q. Who would you say is the fiercest person in the world right now, if you can pick one person?
A. Oh, I’d have to pick several. Well, I think Daphne Guinness is pretty amazing.
Q. Wait, is she glamorous or fierce? Is she both? Can you be both?
A. Hmm, that’s a tough question … You know, what makes her fierce is risk, and I think that that is also part of fierceness. A friend of mine just posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing high heels at work, and I was like, “That’s fabulous.” That takes real guts, to actually walk the streets of New York or wherever and look like that — I mean, you’re taking a risk, you could be injured. And to be able to confront people and say aesthetically that I’m going to look like this and there’s nothing you could say about it — that is really dangerous and empowering at the same time.
Q. So who would you say is the most glamorous person?
A. I think Gwyneth Paltrow is really glamorous.
Q. Oh really? What makes her glamorous?
A. Well, there’s this whole narrative about how she’s … I don’t know, she’s kind of like America’s princess. Although I think a lot of people would say the Kardashians are glamorous — I don’t understand that. I just don’t understand what, uh, what that’s about. It’s reality, it’s fame for the sake of being famous… And when I walk through New York and I walk past a store and everyone’s lining up [to see the Kardashians], I’m like, “What are you lining up for?” I don’t understand, but then again I’m not a 15-year-old girl watching that show.
Q. What do you think about Paris Hilton? Is she glamorous? Is she fierce?
A. Paris Hilton is glamorous — I don’t think she’s fierce.
Q. That’s really interesting. So you say that Gwyneth Paltrow and Paris Hilton are glamorous, but the Kardashians are not?
A. No, I think the Kardashians are glamorous.
Q. Oh they are?
A. Yeah, totally. I think the issue is that any of these starlets are [glamorous] — again because glamour is tied to Hollywood, so there’s a way in which you have to be glamorous in order to be …
Q. Is there a way to objectively quantify or measure how fierce or glamorous a person is? Because it all seems very subjective and in order to study it, I feel like you have to be able to apply some sort of an objective lens, no?
A. It is subjective, and this is sort of where the idea of affect comes in. I think fierceness means different things to different people. In many ways it’s that feeling you get in your stomach when you’re just like, “Whoa, that is really amazing.” I’ll see someone in a dress and think, “Okay, I have to look at that, how did you come up with that outfit?” For instance, I was once at a party and this guy, he comes in wearing black patent leather stilettos that are 10 inches high — he’s already tall so he was really big. He was wearing black fishnet stockings and black panties on top of that. No shirt — okay? And he has a piece of chainmail over his whole head. And I thought, “Okay, he is working it!” Complete visual stimulation — that’s what it is.
Q. But I can’t tell if we’re giving too much credit to this. Like, is someone dressed like that in an intellectually thoughtful way — to provoke you in some planned way — or would any random combination of items have had the same effect?
A. See, this is the idea of having a look. It’s about taking unconventional items and wearing them and making fun of fashion. Because fashion is, in some ways, about having the latest thing or the it bag or whatever, and [it’s about] saying, “I’m going to take this remote control and make it a headpiece.” It’s remixing. And in terms of whether it’s intellectual — I think it takes a lot of creativity to be able to come up with that. He didn’t look like a hot mess.
Q. He looked put-together?
A. Yeah it was a look. It was a look.