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The American Diva: Gender, Branding, and Celebrity in Cultural Industries, 1880-2020


My dissertation project, “The American Diva: Gender, Branding, and Celebrity in Cultural Industries, 1880-2020,” historicizes female popular music stars through the late 19th-century performance figure of the diva. My focus principally is on the transformations of the diva as a consequence of civil rights activism that marked the 1950s through the 1970s, a period that transformed vernacular cultural traditions, discussions around race, gender, & sexuality, and audience formations of U.S. media. This dissertation develops case studies of the branding logic of the diva historically through an engagement with early phonograph records, all-Black musical productions, the development of cable networks and MTV stardom, and the cultivation of gay & queer publics. In organizing this archive, I argue that scholars should view “diva celebrity” as a key investigative site for the public negotiation of identities, political expression, and commercialized citizenship practices. In turning to this figure, I explore how female music stars have been defined historically—and been positioned by media production—in terms of their racial, gendered, and sexual identities. Through this examination, I argue that this positioning demonstrates a corresponding intertwining of political and consumer identities around notions of intimacy and identity. In doing so, this research synthesizes musicological, performance, and cinema & media studies by developing the social history of how the diva came to be emblematic of mediated constructions of identity, debates over civil rights, and new consumer movements within cultural industries.

Following Leo Braudy’s suggestion that fame is rooted in a period’s technological conditions, I track the diva as a central emphasis within larger historical shifts and audience formations in media industries. My work, within this landscape, moves beyond a focus on the politics of identity to think about these issues more historically by tracing the shifting technological conditions of how cultural identities have been industrialized by media production across the 20th-century. Tracking audience formations arising from the civil rights decades, this dissertation studies the diva’s shifting brand logic as central to historical shifts in cultural ideologies about identity, arguing that this performance history models the ways that media consumption has been intensified as a privatized citizenship practice within the context of neoliberalism. Using this approach, this dissertation elaborates on the myriad and even contradictory practices of self-authoring by which these stars broker their status as ‘public’ women in commercial media. This history, as my work argues, can be traced to the migration of the social intimacy associated with the operatic diva into new audience formations articulated through the rhetoric of cultural difference and new forms of public intimacy with culture. Thus, my dissertation provides a history of how a specific genre of celebrity has been used to increase intimacy with specific audience communities – often black, often queer, often female – and that this level of public intimacy is filtered through ongoing historical, industrial, and political debates in the U.S.

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