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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

What Exactly Can We Learn From Harry Styles? Enough For A College Course, Apparently

Jumpsuit 101? Treating People With Kindness 303? Not quite! Jezebel speaks to the Texas State University professor on his new class that broke the internet.

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Photo: Charles Sykes (AP)

“This is actually the most in-depth conversation I’ve had about this class,” Dr. Louie Dean Valencia confides near the end of our interview. It’s something of a compliment, considering that since July 16, when he announced a new university course of his own conception—”Harry Styles and The Cult of Celebrity: Identity, the Internet and European Pop Culture”—the Texas State Honors College professor has maintained a schedule solidly booked with calls just like this one.

As one would expect of any accredited class with a celebrity at its center (see New York University’s Taylor Swift course), the post went viral and has since garnered an onslaught of press and reactions that ranged from “How soon can I enroll?” to “1st class: How to queerbait.”

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Some have dismissed Valenvia’s class as unserious, or as one person on Twitter put it, “the downfall of civilization;” but his prospective pupils will certainly have plenty to debate about the undeniable mayhem Styles has inflicted upon mainstream pop music.

One doesn’t need to hit the books (read: Rolling Stone and Better Homes and Gardens) to glean that Styles is currently one of the world’s preeminent pop stars—he dominates charts, splinters records, and recently, stamped his name on a lifestyle brand that boasts a modest range of otherwise forgettable nail polishes, apparel, and exactly six skincare offerings. He’s also starring in two upcoming film projects, selling out international stadiums, and exclusively attracting suspiciously impeccable press. As a result, his fanbase rivals that of the BeyHive, Swifties, Beliebers, and the like—yet the admiration runs deeper, somehow. Unlike many of his fans, Styles, an obscenely wealthy white, and apparently cisgender and heterosexual man, can grace the cover of Vogue in a gown only to be anointed a “modern man.” He’s free to flounce around on stage with a gay pride flag to the cheers of thousands, and aid teenagers in coming out nightly, despite an otherwise increasingly queerphobic political culture.

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A quick scroll through Valencia’s Twitter feed indicates that even he’s a fan. And while that hardly precludes him from being an apt professor in that of everything Styles and celebrity culture, it does leave one to wonder whether or not his classroom could become just another place for the university’s Harry Styles fan club to convene. Fortunately, Valencia talked Jezebel through it.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What made a class on Harry Styles and celebrity culture feel necessary?

In the summer of 2020, when all of us were trying to hide from the world, I was like, “What would I do if I were 16 years old, and I was stuck at home during a pandemic?” So, the first thing I did was buy myself an electric guitar, and then I started thinking about what type of project can I do from home that I’d be really interested in. I started working on what will be a book on Harry Styles and sort of the idea of celebrity internet culture, and basically how things have changed in the last 12 years or so in the world.

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The next year, I taught all my classes on Zoom, and it was an extra challenge to break down barriers with students. One way that I found that was really effective was just talking about my own passions, the music that I like, and they did the same—even if we were just a bunch of little squares on the computer screen—and it opened up a lot of really interesting conversations about Harry Styles. He has a very positive message; he even has a song about treating people with kindness, which is mentioned in his social media posts about issues of anti-racism and misogyny. He’s taken very firm stances with the queer community and even protested in Black Lives Matter.

Now, I know a lot of people that do that. It’s not different from the work that a lot of really good people do. But I think when Harry does it, it opens up at least a conversation about these things, because for a lot of people—particularly my students, who are often between 18 and 22—they’ve grown up with him. He’s been in the spotlight for the last 12 years so, ostensibly most of their lives. Whenever we talked about certain types of music, or maybe songs from One Direction’s earlier career, which had misogynistic tendencies, we were able to talk about that and ask: “How do you come to terms with somebody not being perfect, but then trying to do better?”

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The class isn’t available until Fall registration, but what are you able to share about what the course actually entails?

One of the things I did see a lot online was a few comments and valid critiques along the lines of, “Why do we need a class by another white, cis man?” I absolutely think that’s kind of the point of why, on day one of the class, we start with sort of the origins of rock and roll music. Literally day one in the class, we’re going to be talking about Big Mama Thornton and Little Richard, who are pioneers and architects of the genre. That’s kind of one way I’m very consciously thinking about this course. It’s not just about Harry Styles—it’s about the world that he inhabits and the people who influenced him.

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I think that it’s very easy, then, to see how all of this is connected, by looking at Big Mama Thornton, who was a Black woman singer fundamental to modern rock and rock and pop music, and Little Richard, who was flamboyant, identified as queer, and his sexuality was questioned for decades. We start with the basics, and we talk about, sort of, how does this phenomenon grow across the Atlantic and influence the Brits—even though it’s a boy from a town of 5,000 people in the North of England.

I had the chance to actually go to where he grew up in Holmes Chapel, and I think one thing that I did not realize about him is, you go to this town, and I saw at least two tractors going down the street, and the whole town smells like flowers. It was just like a symphony to the senses. It kind of gives a totally different perspective of how you become who you are, and how you can influence the world and be influenced by the world.

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The internet’s reaction, expectedly, seems pretty varied. What’s your take on all of the discourse?

As far as the feedback I’ve gotten from people on the internet, it’s by and large been fantastic. There have been a few people who are like, “What is a Harry Styles course?” and “Why is this necessary?” Or “Why would a university do something like this?” But that’s probably two to three percent of what I’ve seen. I’ve had people from India asking to take the class online. I think that’s one of the things that actually did surprise me, was that so many people wanted an online version of this. I’ve also had people who are in their 70s reach out to me saying, “My friend and I have been trying to figure out what has happened in the last ten years, and we don’t know much about Harry Styles, but your class seems to be able to talk about some of these things, so we want to figure out a way of being a fly on the wall.”

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Will the class feature debate on the more controversial parts of Harry’s celebrity—namely, accusations of queerbaiting and actively benefitting from queer culture without actually claiming it or risking anything?

Valencia: It’s come up in discussions, and one thing I’ve found in my classes and in talking to students—particularly students who did not want to put a label on themselves, because they felt it confined their expression—they took solace in the fact that they didn’t have to put a box around themselves to make other people feel comfortable with their identity. In the class, we’ll get into two interviews in which [Styles] talks about not having to associate clothing with a person’s gender expression. He doesn’t talk about this too much, but he has talked about it in some interviews, and we’ll look at that. It’s a question for only to him to decide, but it’s something that I think a lot of people in the world are trying to grapple with. Ten to 12 years ago, a lot of people didn’t even have the language to describe some of this.

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As much as celebrities like Harry can be a paradigm of powerful change, the image being sold is also an illusion. People can relate to Harry, the art that he creates, and the brand that he and his team have proffered, while also recognizing that because of fame, wealth, etc., he’s able to enjoy and benefit from it in a way that the average person taking your course doesn’t. Will that be a part of the class as well?

Valencia: Harry made a post that we’ll look at in the class acknowledging his privileges. We can talk about it, and we can have open discussions. I think that, “What does it mean to have privilege?” is so important. Or, “Okay, you have privilege, but what are you going to do with your platform and celebrity?” I think that this concept, the cult of celebrity, is really trying to parse out: What does it mean to have privilege? What does it mean to be celebrated? What does it mean to have a platform, and how do you make change?

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Every single student should leave this class feeling that Harry does for many of his fans is encourages them to have self love, encourages them to be who they want to be, but also to try to make something different in the world to try to use their platform—whether it’s the size of his, or the size of a university professor’s, or the size of a student who is going to college for the first time and trying to figure out where they fit in.