One Community Under Gaga: An Interpretation of Modern Emerson Culture

The following is a paper I wrote that identified the culture of Emerson College.  It’s not directly about TV, but includes many references and one of my main points revolves around Community.  Also I figured I’d post it if only for the fact that in the part about Community I go meta within the essay.

Communities are often identified by the culture that forms around them, but the question of what defines the term “culture” is one of much debate. During a speech to the World Congress, poet, author and politician Aimé César claimed, “Culture is everything. Culture is the way we dress, the way we carry our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties – it is not only the fact of writing books or building houses.”  This is a working definition that can easily be applied to help classify what exactly is Emerson College culture.  Emerson College is an institution greatly known for its acceptance of a wealth of different lifestyles, a place where everyone is encouraged to be unique and create a name that makes them standout from the crowd.  And as a student at the college, I can testify to the truth of that statement.  In a population that is meant to be so greatly diverse it may at first seem hard to label what exactly is Emerson culture, but the college’s dedication to media, communications, and the arts makes it an easy pick.  Emerson culture is essentially the same as general popular culture.

Emerson is a college that is largely defined by the latest films, television shows, and music.  Take a step into any conversation amongst students, and odds are, they’re discussing the latest episode of Glee or their thoughts on Daft Punk’s score for the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy.  Students largely pick Emerson College with the goal of being apart of the media whether it be through making films, scripting TV, acting in plays, publishing novels, or writing journalism.  Emerson’s big selling point is being “the only comprehensive college in America dedicated exclusively to communication and the arts in a liberal arts context”, as they proudly advertise on their website.  The college almost works as a haven built for people who were once told they spend too much time watching TV and movies, and as such Emerson is largely defined by the media students that are obsessed with media and frequently consume it.

Orientation acts as a new student’s first real, full introduction to a college and Emerson makes sure to go above and beyond.  Their orientation is a lavish production that is a performance in itself with what appears to be non-stop constant dancing by the hyper energetic Orientation Leaders.  If there isn’t a speech being told or a video being shown the Cutler-Majestic Theatre, or whatever location the event is being held at, is filled with the sounds of the biggest in pop music.  People get out of their seats and dance along to hits such as Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” and Passion Pit’s “Little Secrets” as an auditorium full of people who have never meet each other before bond over a shared sense of excitement and popular culture.

In fact many of the important bonds people form at Emerson are sparked originally by similar interests in TV shows and films.  Having a favorite show in common works as an initial icebreaker and leads to instant conversation.  A person’s taste in media can tell a lot about them and talking media a basic foundation of communication at Emerson.  Some of my closest friendships at the school were formed by first referencing the FOX comedy Arrested Development, only for them to quote it back.  I have lunch with friends after class and at least 90% of the conversation is on film and TV.  This form of referencing for communication between people is something that has become quiet prominent in the 21st century as pop culture becomes the defining sense of unity among people.

The NBC comedy series Community, a series wildly admired amongst screenwriters at Emerson, is in many ways a study of this new generational trend.  In an essay by television studies graduate student Cory Barker, bluntly titled “’Hey, Did You Guys See Toy Story 3?’ – Exploring Pop Culture As A Catalyst For 21st Century Interpersonal Relationships In NBC’s Community”, he discusses the show’s frequent use of references to other TV shows and movies as a way that seven unlikely friends often get along and communicate with each other while attending a local community college.

“It [Community] displays a snapshot of the 21st century, wherein diverse individuals, most of whom have been raised on contemporary media and the internet, attempt to relate to one another, if even they are from distinct backgrounds.”

This is similar of Emerson culture, as despite the fact that everyone comes from a different background, different part of the nation or even the world, pop culture remains a common denominator amongst students.  Pop culture has moved from simply a source of entertainment to a way of understanding the world.  We use films to talk to others, to share experiences, and comprehend life around us.  Community often takes this idea to the extreme for the sake of comedy, but it’s a notion that rings true, especially at Emerson.

Barker selects a perfect example from the show to reflect this school of thought in the episode “Contemporary American Poultry” in which plays out as a spoof of the 1990 film Goodfellas with the character Abed, who fills the role of the pop culture obsessed Millennial student, becoming a mafia head using chicken to buy people’s friendship.  Typically the character is an outsider in the world around him as he struggles to understand the real world, using media references to grasp real life, but by controlling the distribution of the much sought after chicken fingers in the school’s cafeteria he found a way of connection outside of pop culture references.  But when his ring is taken down, he reverts back to his old habit.

Abed: “Please don’t do a special episode about me…everyone else needs my help. That’s what people don’t get; they need to get me. I just need to connect to people like you can, then I make everyone happy again.”

Jeff: “Don’t you see what happened? I manipulated the group into getting you the fry cook job so I could have some chicken, and you turned into a way to make everyone like you. That made me ashamed of myself, made me jealous.”

Abed: “Maybe this is a special episode; that’s pretty alarming behavior Jeff.”

Jeff: “In the meantime, let’s make a deal. I’ll help you connect with people and you help me do a better job with them.”

Abed: “Like Knight Rider.”

Jeff: “Exactly.  Like Knight Rider.”

In a way Abed represents an Emersonian taken to the pure extremes, representing the college’s tendency to connect via pop culture.  Film and TV is the very foundation of how he views life.  In talking to a group of TV writers at the school Community was said to be their dream show to write for as the numerous references and meta jokes played directly to them who share the same extreme passion for the media.  Just as Emerson is as a college infatuated with pop culture, Community acts a TV series equivalent fascinated with the notion of popular culture.  Even the mere fact that I as an Emerson student would take a paper simply about culture and turn into an essay comparing similarities to a TV series shows an extreme fixation on the world of media and entertainment within the school.  It’s not enough that Emersonians watch lots of TV and film, but they also desire to write about it.  Pop culture is all around Emerson College and defines much of what goes on around the campus.

The definitive example of Emerson College culture being an explosion of pop culture lies in the EVVY Lip Dub, a giant advertisement for the school that shows the entire student body and all the major organizations on campus coming together with singing and dancing all through the music of the school’s goddess Lady Gaga.  Over four hundred students worked on the production with many of them spotlighted singing a line or two of the Lady’s lyrics as the campus moves throughout the campus showing all parts of this unique school.  The video is more or less Emerson culture in exactly nine minutes.  Everyone is doing something different and dressed to standout, yet they come into unity under the music of Lady Gaga.  Everything in the video is pure Emerson culture, just as Aimé César wrote about.  The skinny jeans, the narrow ties, the purple and gold, the Quidditch team, the fierce dance moves, and attention grabbing attitude all make up what can defined as Emerson culture.  Not only is Emerson obsessed with pop culture, but it attempts to become apart of it and create it’s own pop fueled creations.

In an essay titled ““Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for Research” by TV professors Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch make the argument that “contemporary cultures examine themselves through the arts.”  Emerson College exists as a culture that not only examines itself through the arts, but one that fundamentally defines itself based on the arts.



1) “About Emerson College.” Emerson College. N.p., 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.



2) Barker, Cory. “‘Hey, Did You Guys See Toy Story 3?’ – Exploring Pop Culture As A

Catalyst For 21st Century Interpersonal Relationships In NBC’s Community.” TV

Surveillance. N.p., 7 Dec. 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.



3) “Contemporary American Poultry,” Community, NBC, 22 Apr. 2010.


4) Horace Newcomb and Paul M. Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum: Implications for

Research,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 8.3 (1983): 48-49, Print.


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