I follow the H-PCAACA list on H-net, and recently someone posed the question, “what is popular culture?” He asked that we keep our responses to 2 sentences. It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s one I’ve never given much thought to. I curiously followed the responses as they trickled in over the next few days, but I never replied with my own answer. I tend to be the type to observe, ask other people questions, and read a bit, before coming to diving in and my own conclusions.
Only one of my Facebook friends indulged me with a reply. She wrote:
i see it as “what is hot right now” people pick and choose what they pay attention to, but when everyone happens to pay attention to the same thing (charlie bit me, olympics hair styles, super bowl beer fetching dog) THATS pop culture.
No arguments from me. She brought up some interesting points too: mass appeal, its link to a specific moment in time, and the sort of underlying assumption that it can be anything regardless of content. In other words, for her it was more about audience and context than it was about content.
The list didn’t really disagree. One scholar wrote:
Any form of expression that a lot of people like.” Keys words are “expression” and “like.”
Although there was some disagreement about the role that aesthetic value plays in labeling something “pop culture.” A few suggested and many wondered if popular culture was more “low culture” than “high culture,” referring to Lawrence Levine’s book Highbrow/Lowbrow. I’m not entirely familiar with the book (but I’m adding it to my list), so I can’t offer much comment. Based on my readings of cultural history, however, I tend to think the high/low delineation was mostly the product of Victorian and Progressive ideals/judgement. For me, contemporary popular culture encompasses both. For example, people often consider artwork by Picasso and others to be of high aesthetic value but its also quite popular.
What then do we make of these notions of audience and context. Is popular culture a phenomena of a specific time/place? Does it have to have mass appeal and popularity? I tend to think that time and place do matter. As scholars trying to analyze a work of popular culture context gives us a lot of clues. To properly understand it we ask questions like: who created? why did they created it? who consumed it? why did they consume it? and so on.
Jefferson Cowie’s recent book Stayin’ Alive provides a nice example of the complexity of studying popular culture and why digging deep is is important. His discussion of music from the 1970s shows the frequent disconnect between the artist and the audience. Using the example of Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee,” Cowie explains how working class, conservative Americans identified with the song so much that Richard Nixon enlisted him to perform as some of his events. Republicans loved the song because it contrasted the values of “livin’ right and being free” by obeying and respecting the law with the marijuana smoking hippies of the 1970s. Yet, Haggard admitted he originally wrote the song as “a series of satirical riffs on what else they did not do in small town America besides dope”(172) revealing that the popular reception and interpretation of the song was the opposite of its intention. He was mocking small towns. This example shows that context is important to understand popular culture but the audience often appropriates its own meaning. Time and place both matter and don’t matter.
George Lipsitz important book Times Passages really gets at the complexity of popular culture, and argues that it is precisely its complexity that makes it worth studying.
The complicated relationship between historical memory and commercial culture, between the texts of popular culture and their contexts of creation and reception, resist conventional froms of cultural criticism. The coded, indirect, and allegorical aspect of popular culture, its inversions of speech and ideology, and its refusal to isolate art from lived experience (a source of corruption as well as social connection) baffle and frustrate critics trained in traditional western aesthetics and criticism (17).
Lipsitz suggests that veiled within popular culture we can discover oppositional politics and the struggles to reshape “the prevailing power relaties” within our collective memories. Popular culture offers evidence of our struggle to keep our memories as they are being reshaped for new means. According to Lipsitz, this is done by people bringing their cultural memory into the mainstream by embedding it in newer and different cultural creation. For example, rock-n-roll musicians often brought in elements from gospel and jazz to create something new and culturally distinct. The fact that many were white but influenced by and were now appropriating variations of black music gets at the issue of audience, power, and oppositional politics. And it relies on the issue of time and context.
Finally, what about audience and popularity? I think the reliance on mass appeal is a misnomer in popular culture. Lipsitz hints at this and I tend to agree. Popular culture can be specific to a certain group identity. My friend’s notion that the “charlie bit me” Youtube video is an example of popular culture is correct only if it is limited to specific groups. The “charlie bit me” video has no resonance for those who live in a world without a computer or the internet. I do agree that popular culture is somewhat based on mass appeal and wide audience, but those audience are never all encompassing. There can be overlapping popular cultures.
So what is popular culture? Here is my best attempt at an answer: Popular culture is an expression(s) of various mediums that meet a mass appeal, and perhaps, embody a certain moment within a significant segment or group of the population.