“I do a talk on Tina Turner,” Yale doctoral candidate Madison Moore told The Observer recently, “and I wear a fringed skirt and bust out some Tina moves.”
Mr. Moore is in the American studies department at Yale, and, if you must ask, he is preparing a dissertation on “fierceness.”
“We know about her biography,” he elaborated, “but yet every night she got onstage and she let the audience have it.”
Mr. Moore is himself in possession of a certain charisma. When we met with him, he wore a plaid flannel button-down undone to reveal a sheer tank top; his braids, some black and some blonde, were swept to the side to reveal a single dangling earring. He speaks softly; you must lean in to hear him.
“True scholars are unorthodox, and Madison is a true scholar,” wrote Mr. Moore’s dissertation advisor, Prof. Joseph Roach, in an email. “He just dresses better than most of us.”
That unorthodox brand of scholarship has included teaching a course in the history of nightlife, last fall, that brought students on a field trip to the Boom Boom Room and Le Bain bars at the Standard Hotel, which the New York Post was less than charitable about. “Some parents might have mixed feelings about the Yale syllabus,” sniffed the paper. (“Yale had no problem with it,” wrote Prof. Roach, “though News Corp. did.”)
“There are many ways to study American history,” said Mr. Moore, “and you can study the changes in cultural mores by studying the history of nightlife. It was really cool, actually! We talked about really good music and did a field trip.”
The field trip was hardly the all-night bash the Post made it out to be: “We studied the architecture and the way it makes you flow through it, spending hours and hours and lots of money. When you go to a bar, you never get to see it, because it’s nice. But to go at 3 p.m. on a Saturday, you see all the small details.”
Simonez Wolf, former Beatrice Inn doorman and Madame Wong’s founder, spoke in front of the class. Speaking of Mr. Moore, Mr. Wolf said, “He went in depth as to why we party—why do we like certain music? At Yale, this prestigious university, you would not expect this class.”
Mr. Moore has brought a bit of Gotham to the hallowed halls of Yale—not that he’s in New Haven all that often.
A New York habitué, he abandoned New Haven as a full-time residence after two years. “I don’t like to be bored,” he told us, “not that my work is boring—but everyone’s work has its moments. But to me, to be in the library all the time: I don’t think I could do it. It’s an hour and a half away. It’s not like I’m going to Japan.” Even when he was living in New Haven, Mr. Moore interned at Jeffrey Deitch’s gallery in New York, just to, as he said, “be part of this world.”
The scholar began his Ivy career after four years in Ann Arbor, as a student of French. “My undergraduate thesis was on this genre of French gay pornography. And I was like, ‘Look! I write about cock! If you’re gonna admit me …’ And, anyway, it worked out really well.” Once ensconced in American studies, he commenced to write about “luxury.”
The story is a familiar one to any Ivy Leaguer—though not a story that usually begins an academic pursuit. “My friend would take me to high-end stores on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. He was a trust-fund kid and had all this money, and I didn’t understand the difference between a $500 button-up and one that you could get at H&M.
“I noticed how, when I went inside of these boutiques, there was this sense of anxiety. It made me nervous. I was interested in how that was produced architecturally, how they make you feel this sense of nervousness.” Mr. Moore’s investigation of his own emotions led him to the concept of “glamour.”
“I didn’t just want to talk about rich people,” he told us.
Mr. Moore referred us to the 2009 academic text Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity, by Brenda R. Weber, which, he stated, argues that “makeovers are about normative standards of gender. Normative race. Normative class. And glamour is about normativity. And now I’ve arrived at fierceness. Fierceness is actually the thing that people who have been disenfranchised do to make a place for themselves.”
The concept of fierceness, pre-Tyra Banks’s advice to fledgling models, was first brought to mainstream attention by the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. There it was the concept of reappropriating the trappings of confidence and luxuriousness of the upper-class by society’s most disenfranchised: to be “fierce,” one had to walk the walk of the executive (“executive realness” is the term for dressing in corporate drag) or of the society matron. Beyoncé’s later references to her onstage self as “Sasha Fierce” are instructive: placid in real life, the singer must aggressively perform not merely her music but the role of a pop star.
Mr. Moore’s chosen avatars of fierceness include the singer Ms. Turner, Daphne Guinness, Lady Gaga and recent RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sharon Needles: “These people are sartorially fascinating, but might have a shy interior. I find that contrast fascinating.”
Mr. Moore fits this description as well, though he demurs when asked if he is, himself, fierce: “I can’t really be objective about myself, even though I’m writing about these things.” He expresses himself through clothes. We asked him if, once he enters academia, he would adopt the tweed mufti preferred among the professorial class. “I wouldn’t, unless it was a fabulous Balmain jacket with pointed shoulders,” he said. “I think I seem relatable to students. Who knows how I’ll be when I’m 50, but like, at this point, I think students relate to me. The way that I lead a class and the way that I encourage discussion shows that, yes, I might have on sequined pants, but this is a very serious two hours.”
And Mr. Moore will be entering academia, despite the fact that he’s in only lightly charted territory; he noted to us that in the absence of historical documentation of fierceness, “you have to go and find the archive and make it yourself.” This fall, he’s joining the faculty of the University of Richmond in Virginia, where he’ll be a postdoctoral fellow teaching a class called “Lady Gaga.”
“Students emerge from the course with sharpened critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze and theorize pop culture,” promises the fall 2012 Rhetoric & Communication Studies prospectus.
“Course concludes with a creative final project.”
“In theoretical terms, he is renovating Veblen and Warhol,” said Prof. Roach. “As an intellectual innovator in a breaking field who is also a gifted teacher, Madison will have multiple job offers from which to choose.”
Not that Mr. Moore feels as though he has to make a choice. He’s already pondering his first book, which he says he wants to be an elaboration on the theme of fierceness and to be available from a major publisher. “I used to go to some of the big publishing houses Uptown and stand there and emote,” he said. He’s already gotten started with a vibrant freelancing career, including interviews with the likes of model Sasha Pivovarova and Downtown fixture Amanda Lepore for Interview’s website and an apparent memoir of sex addiction at Yale for emotive-youth-oriented site Thought Catalog. (“Who needs to read Judith Butler? I’m about to act gender out right now, for the next 25 minutes.”)
His freelance editor at the website Splice Today, Russ Smith, listed Mr. Moore’s interests: “Pop culture, the perils and pleasures of academic life, fashion, music, divas, gay culture, New York City, racism … lots of stuff.”
Beyond publishing, Mr. Moore sees fame as a canvas through which to convey, well, ideas about fame: “The great thing about academia is that it’s the one field where you pretty much make your own schedule. You always have summers off, so that’s great. I wouldn’t trade that for anything! And your currency is your ideas. For me, I’d love to be able to be legible in academia and also be legible in popular culture. I want to go on Chelsea Handler and tell her what I’m doing, and be like, ‘Hey, Chuy [Ms. Handler’s little-person sidekick].’”
(Mr. Moore is able to write compellingly about the matters that stymie some academics. When The Observer first met him, in our moment of post-college anomie, to discuss the Yale American studies department—Mr. Moore was the doctoral program liaison. He advised us to find an edgy topic. “You should make it something sexy—become the world’s greatest expert on porn!” he suggested.)
We asked him to explain his big idea about fierceness, the argument he promulgates in his dissertation. He demurred, but gave us an example: a recent flash mob by Lady Gaga fans in Indonesia after her concert there was canceled for security concerns. “They take over the space. They’re performing Gaga. To me, this is relevant, because they’re saying ‘Fuck you.’ Fierceness is about claiming space—the mall—and just owning it.”
While Mr. Moore may not be able to determine whether or not he, himself, is fierce, he has little monsters of his own. A Yale undergraduate—“a little baby”—turned to Mr. Moore for advice recently.
“He said ‘I wish I could be fierce like you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t think I’m that fierce, I’m doing what I like.’ And he said, ‘No, you’re an inspiration. I used to wear my mom’s high heels around the house, but everyone here is so conservative.’ So now he’s studying abroad in Paris and he texted me ‘Girl, I’m wearing a leather jacket with no shirt,’ this fierce outfit that’s fierce for him. ‘So thank you for that.’”
Mr. Moore paused. “And he was able to respond to that inner sense of restraint. People who are fierce are reacting to some restrictive thing.”