Saturday, 12 May 2012

'Baby I'm Your Biggest Fan, I'll Follow You Until You Love Me': Why pop culture isn't 'low culture'

Popular culture, in particular pop music is attacked from the right and the left- by the former for attacking 'traditional values' and the latter for embracing what Theodor Adorno termed the 'culture industry' (think EMI, the Murdoch Group, Disney etc.). It is also generally attacked by a lot of bourgeoisie, hipsters and other intelligentsia for lacking 'substance'- a charge I'm certainly guilty of making in the past.

It is often ignored by academics (though this trend is changing)- which is deeply silly, because in examining popular culture we learn a lot more than by reading texts (some of which I certainly enjoy) which no one else reads. It is wrong to cast aspersions on all pop culture as 'valueless' and to treat it as an undifferentiated mass- both the music, books etc and the reactions to them are often as heterogenous and interesting as their alternatives.

I want to make to contend that the label of 'low culture' indicates more about those who wield this distinction than those any medium that fits into either category. I'd like to deconstruct two main arguments about the distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture: 1) whether pop culture is 'contentless' and 2) whether commercialisation has somehow 'cheapened' culture or enslaved us (the argument about whether the culture industry has captured as all has some merit I think- with qualifications).

'So, Call me Maybe': Is all pop culture free of 'content' and what is 'content', anyway?
It is often claimed (perhaps fairly in the case of say Rebecca Black's 'Friday'), that pop culture lacks 'content' (Theodor Adorno in particular in The Culture Industry- claims that modern society had invented the concept of a contentless 'free time' and 'leisure' in order to tie entertainment to the culture industry).

The first issue with this is that the word 'content' is a loaded one- for instance in what way does Beethoven's 9th Symphony contain more 'content' than say Lady GaGa's 'Alejandro'? One could claim that the 9th Symphony has stood the test of time and that is certainly true (but how can we tell what of modern culture will last? My guess is that it won't be an indie band, though). However, much of what we now think are classics were once 'pop culture' and some classics we might even consider crude and relatively 'content-free' now. I am thinking of many of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in particular- they are more vulgar than most modern fiction, not to mention that The Prioress' Tale is one of the more anti-Semitic texts in existence. If we take 'content' as requiring 'skill', this is a problematic test as skill is both subjective and that which we now value isn't necessarily the most ornate- it is mostly just what previous generations valued (who says objectively for example that Shakespeare was a more skilful playwright than Marlowe?).

The second issue with this charge is that even if we take a less vague definition of culture- say 'emotional range' or 'thematic range', then pop culture can live up to this test. It is first worth noting that the judgment of the present will make little difference to what is remembered later- the Impressionists were considered vulgar in their day and Ernest Meissonier was considered the height of French art, yet who is remembered now? Conversely, popular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has notable range- from the almost mythological Lord of the Rings to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, from the kitschy pleasures of Glee to the geeky Big Bang Theory, from the haunting satire of American Beauty to the classic romance of Casablanca and from the iconic Elvis to the rather controversially Grammy Award-winning Arcade Fire.

The key problem though is that the charge of 'lacking content' really indicates something about those who say it. Most people who reflexively claim to hate anything popular actually look down upon either the masses as commercial slaves or the masses as cultural proletariat. Disliking anything popular has become the social equivalent of sumptuary laws- one thing for a 'higher' class of connoisseur, another for the rest. I would not claim that certain aspects of popular culture can be without harm- it can be sexist, racist, voyeuristic and deeply glib at times (and I think a lot of it is terrible- but probably much of most media forms is terrible- you have to churn through a lot of any sort of music, literature or art etc. to get to a few gems, look at poetry). But it should not be dismissed out of hand just because it is popular. And these charges are not exactly new- ballads, the pop music of the Middle Ages, were accused by authorities of 'debasing' those who heard them (and indeed they were often deliciously subversive of chivalric or social norms).

But does the commercialisation charge have any weight, then? This brings us to whether culture has been 'cheapened'.

'We are Living in a Material World, And I am a Material Girl': Are we the slaves of industry? Has Culture been Cheapened?
Adorno saw all mass culture as creating false needs, of supplanting the 'true needs' of freedom, creativity and genuine happiness. The issue with this theory is that for the longest time, humans have turned to others to produce entertainment for them that merely entertained- from ancient Greek theatre to modern television. Indeed, very little of modern culture is as debauched as the ancient Bacchanalia!

A more serious inditement might be that the 'culture industry' of which Adorno speaks has taken control of our culture- which carries weight given the influence of News Corp. and all its subsidiaries- Murdoch's tendrils run deep.

However, while corporations have certainly used cultural media to make a profit they are not the only source of culture and various sub-cultures and counter-cultures demonstrate that hegemony can be resisted (e.g. gay subcultures, the Beatniks, mods etc.).

Certainly, modern pop culture is displacing many traditional cultures, which is a cause for concern throughout many societies. Further, even in Western societies it may be causing culture to be homogenised, an accumulation of American tastes and values. These are serious concerns- but rarely actually addresses by those who raise them. I have no comprehensive solution to note here, save that there may be a role for governments and other organisations to foster language and other cultural customs especially for indigenous groups- provided those customs do not actually harm the participants (practices which oppress women or minorities should not be encouraged, no matter their importance to anyone's culture).

On cheapness, I would argue that culture is as 'cheap' as it has always been- mostly people look for the same sorts of things from their entertainment- as Sherman Young points out in The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book, the idea that there was ever a vast, educated reading public reading literary classics is a fallacy.

'Don't You Step On My Blue Suede Shoes': Some Conclusions
Pop culture can be as terrible as any art form, but it is wrong to hate something just because it is popular. So dislike Lady GaGa if you think she is derivative or dislike sex-positive feminism (I think you're missing out on how fun her music is but whatever), dislike Britney if you think her music doesn't mean anything to you, dislike Game of Thrones if you think it is too violent or bad fantasy, dislike Glee if you think it is poor quality music (again missing its kitschy fun appeal, but again whatever) and dislike Lord of the Rings if you think it is too long-winded. But don't hate anything just because it is mainstream, especially not if you consider the mainstream 'below' you. I certainly know I've been guilty of this in the past, but it is a poor error to make.

Now certainly there are some questions that should be considered:
1. How much do corporations really control modern culture and is this actually new?
2. How much does modern culture alienate minorities, the poor etc.?
3. Is pop culture any more derivative than other art forms?
But none of these take away from my key point- pop culture is an important part of our society and doesn't deserve to be reflexively looked down upon or ignored by the chattering classes.

And who knows, if you're like me up until recently and you'd ignored large swathes of pop culture- maybe you'll actually find a lot of it deliciously fun.

For those who are interested, some interesting texts on this subject are:
- Theodor Adorno's The Culture Industry
- Ross King's The Judgment of Paris (on the rise of the Impressionists)
- Ken Gelder's Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practice of a Literary Field
- Hannah Arendt's The Crisis in Culture

Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

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