This site is dedicated to the academic exploration of popular culture. What does “popular culture” mean to you – and to your academic work? Do you delineate between popular culture and, say, highbrow culture? Is it even useful or necessary to clearly define what “pop culture” is?
Andrew: I try not to delineate high culture from popular culture because it is a social construct. The difference between pop and high cultures is a well-developed and deep hierarchical construct, backed by social interactions and material practices that create numerous barriers for entry.
Take one example: I like The Ramones. I also like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. They are both music, but I’ve seen the former multiple times and I’ve seen the latter only once. Why? Barriers to entry. I live in rural(ish) Tennessee.
To see Mozart, I have to travel a minimum of five hours, get a hotel to stay in overnight, and get the tickets. If I take a date, that’s over $500 dollars. I could see The Ramones (when they existed) over two dozen times for the same amount of money. Finances are the first barrier to entry.
The second barrier: cultural norms. I know how to dress, how to behave, how to discipline myself to perform to fit within the scenario of seeing Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I have the broad-based liberal arts education to understand the importance of Mozart and DG.
I want to be clear here that none of this is because of me or anything I did. Being middle-class and having that sort of education is part of my privilege, but it also creates barriers to entry for other people without the same privileges.
Finally, the “where” constitutes the third barrier. What we call high culture artifacts – from Matisse’s The Dance, to Ney’s Lady MacBeth, to Prokofiev’s Symphony #2, to Shakespeare’s Richard III – are all housed in socially constructed and material “special” locations we call museums, or staged in special places we call performing arts centers or (and you have to say it with a haughty accent) “The THE-a-TAH!” There’s more to it than this, of course. Barriers to entry: I want to burn them all down.
Art: Ultimately, for me, what makes popular culture is us. More specifically, popular culture is whatever helps us to constitute us. Something becomes “popular culture” when we can discuss it or form bonds around it. That does not mean that popular culture needs to be ubiquitous.
Every small town has something “popular culture” that makes their town unique. Every local artists remains an artist because of their dedicated fans. It does not need to be mass to be popular.
For instance, the hashtag #fwaf has recently become popular here in Fort Wayne. People have been posting local art and food to social media using it. It even inspired a local arts magazine to exclaim:
Fort Wayne doesn’t have a #fwaf hashtag for nothing. We love our city, and we want to see it grow and prosper. The youths in our town get involved in non-profits, in city planning, and in politics.
It does not take a rocket scientist to decode #fwaf as Fort Wayne as F@*k, but the trend has been something that helped my students and other here in Fort Wayne connect around a sense of community. Like many, the hashtag may be gone tomorrow, but it is popular here, for now. We make it popular.
Alix: I’m writing this as someone who does not formally study or publish research on Pop Culture like others on this site do, but as someone who has worked in media and as someone who a maintains a pretty critical perspective.
I think I agree with Art that something becomes “pop culture” when people can form bonds or have conversations about it, even if those groups or conversations are seemingly very niche. I think it’s great that we live in a time in which people who might otherwise feel isolated or lonely in their interests/fandoms/etc are able to find their communities (hopefully this will remain the case in the U.S. #NetNeutrality).
One thing that perpetually irritates me is the dismissiveness of people when it comes to perceived “pop culture” – dismissiveness from so many fronts. Just a few examples:
- People who congratulate themselves on their cutting edge tastes by refusing to like anything that’s popular – who then bemoan when something they like becomes too popular as though that retracts from its value. Congrats on being so cool that you’re above it all. Come on, did you like it or did you not?
- People who refuse to admit to liking anything that’s seen as too fluffy or popular. I too love myself a good Frontline PBS documentary, but I’ve also seen the most recent episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and ANTM – because I enjoy all those things. It’s not a guilty pleasure; I have NOTHING to feel guilty about. Are some shows problematic? Yes, they are – I think it’s harder to find something that is NOT problematic. If I only watched completely problematic-free TV, I would watch… no TV… (that doesn’t mean I don’t have hard lines and refuse to watch certain shows) And yes sometimes when I’m watching Top Chef, I do consciously remind myself it perpetuates unrealistic food standards.
- People who don’t think it’s worth interrogating the content we consume – or people who think this research is intrinsically less valuable than that on more serious matters – or matters traditionally considered more serious. I think the #metoo and #timesup movements are showing that persistent, hegemonic, and seemingly subtle (and often not) discrimination can have deleterious effects not only on the victims, but on the culture at large – fostering an atmosphere/culture in which there WILL be more victims. A “joke” about grabbing a woman’s body while she is asleep is absolutely part of a culture that cultivates men who see women and their bodies as something that is owed to them – that is absolutely an integral part of rape culture.
Adam: You catch me thinking about this just as I am diving deep into my Popular Culture grad seminar. This idea of “popular” v “mass” v “high” v “vulgar” has been going on for over 100 years now (at least this current conversation).
It was picked up by the Frankfurt School and the American Pragmatists around the same time, refuted as we moved from objective measurement to subjective recognition as ways to understand the reality we exist in, and now is possibly both giving credence to the arguments of Horkheimer and Adorno AND Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall at the same time. What is Popular Culture?:
- Popular Culture is the assemblage of a myriad intersecting memes, trends, ideas, hashtags, musical hooks, fashion statements – whatever we consume that gives us some sort of social or exchangeable capital with others around us.
- It IS capital. Don’t let someone tell you it is only performative (more on that below). We exchange the products we consume through likes, posts, conversations, GIFs, events attended, viewings, binges, concerts, etc. Popular culture is as much the things themselves and how we use/choose the things.
- It IS performative (told you it was coming …). We watch, wear, listen to, attend, and exchange our popular culture. These cultural tropes, artifacts, or whatever terminology you prefer are draped inside and on us, constructing our identities as much as we construct ourselves through the performance of our popular culture”ness.”
- It IS a process, never-ending. We just keep adding and subtracting, changing and rearranging ourselves through our popular culture. There are aspects that never change, perhaps becoming a “core” to who we are, yet other aspects are loved/hated/loved/despised/revisited/etc over and over again.
- It is pleasureful. Even if you are (like me) a political news glutton, making me nauseous and angry and wanting to scream … there is still pleasure that comes from being in the know. Popular culture is a pleasure-creating practice.
- It is us. All of us. We are popular culture. Non-popular culture is only “non-” to the people who do not embrace or other those particular discourses. For those that do embrace them – they are popular.
Alix: Very well said, Adam. I like this six-point list a lot.
Andrew: I pretty much agree here with Adam. I was going to add that it is participative, but that’s covered in 2 and 3 above. I’ve always found the demarcation of popular culture odd. According to Dictionary.com popular culture Is “culture based on the tastes of ordinary people rather than an educated elite.” That’s a hell of a thing to say when you think about it. For one, it suggests that ordinary people are nothing but a bunch of ignorant dunderheads, idiotic mooks, and simple-minded nimrods. All the discourses surrounding high culture are both historical and problematic.
Think of Picasso’s Guernica, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Items considered high culture are often put into the frame of “art.” That too is a very loaded discourse. Barriers to entry might well also be part of the answer. Did they become “art” because you have to go to Reina Sofia to see Guernica, a theatre to watch A Doll’s House, an opera house to see Don Giovanni? Is it because they are “old?”
What makes them so special, compared to The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, the television series Firefly, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, or Stephen King’s LIsey’s Story? Is it simply because of reproducibility and accessibility? That I – and everyone else – can watch or listen to or read the latter with relative ease? What makes the first three examples “art” and the latter four examples “not art?”
Is not popular culture also art? If popular culture should not be considered art, we’d have to scratch Shakespeare off the “art” list. His plays were popular. We’d have to scratch A Doll’s House off the list of art, as well as most of the work by Ibsen, Mark Twain, and innumerable other items we we consider “art.”
Upon the unveiling of Guernica 20,000 people per day came to the Prado to see it. (I was lucky enough to see it in person in 1984 on a High School Spanish class trip.) It was popular – does that render it not art? Is not Ghost in the Machine a piece of art? And if not, why? If rhetoric is the “art of discourse” then we communication scholars might need to do a better job of articulating, interrogating, and dismantling the “discourse of art.” As always, I come with more questions than answers.