“Culture” is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” according to Williams (1976, 87). Originally used to describe the process of tending, culture evolved as metaphor, as noun, and as a reference to a physical object. Today, culture is regarded as a unifying system, a worldview, a civilization, and as a psychology encompassing behavior, attitudes, and values as well as the symbolic structure of these activities. Music is one of the most globally ubiquitous forms of culture. Four elements are typically included in definitions of culture: institutions, norms, values, and artifacts. “Popular” is a term used to express favorability, high regard, and appreciation by the general public, as in the popular vote or to distinguish the popular from the academic press. Thus, “culture” used in this sense is political rather than aesthetic. Storey (1996) points out that culture is not a narrow sense of aesthetic nor only an intellectual product but rather a domain of contestation, reflection, resistance, and reconstruction.
Popular culture is culture of the people by the people and for the people. Traditionally, popular culture was thought of as the product of something made by hand, but it can also mean widespread fame, popularity, and commercialism as well as the idea of a shared culture. Sometimes viewed as the opposite of high cultural art forms (ballet, classical music, and opera), popular culture is a shared set of practices as well as the product of those interactions. It includes television programs, comic books, popular music (jazz, hip hop, rock), fashion, magazines, sports, advertising, food ways, and rituals. Whereas the high/low culture distinction views culture hierarchically, the second is a linear, non-evaluative perspective.
Cultural theorist Raymond Williams (1976, 90–91) articulates four meanings for the word “popular” in relation to culture: (1) a pejorative meaning referring to objects or practices deemed lesser than or inferior to elite culture, i.e., appeal to a mass audience; (2) objects or practices well liked by many people, i.e., not the small groups of elite or wealthy; (3) work designed with the intention of appealing to a great number of people, i.e., commercial culture meant to be widely consumed; and (4) things people make for themselves.
History Of Popular Culture
One of the first bringing together of the words “popular” and “culture” was in the culture of the folk. Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) is credited with coining the term “popular culture” as a way of describing authentic culture. Fiske (1992, 25) states: “popular culture is formed always in reaction to, and never as part of, the forces of domination.” Some scholars argue that popular culture emerged as the result of industrialization, urbanization, and modernization when the work day was divided between time spent working and leisure time.
It was in relation to folk culture and folklore that a widely understood, accepted, and enjoyed culture became thought of as culture of the masses, a vast, undifferentiated body of people with common tastes. The idea of mass culture is intimately connected with valuations of popular culture. This theory views the audience as essentially passive, malleable, sops for consumerism and advertising, predetermined to have bad taste, and devoted to repetitive formulaic forms of culture.
The theory of mass audiences for the mass media can be traced to the early constructions of consumerism and mass production in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and the rise of the market economy. What was identified as popular was not necessarily identified as such by the people it appealed to, but by those who produced it for them. Raymond Williams (1976, 199) points out that two characteristics identified early popular culture products – “inferior kinds of work” (popular press vs literature) and “work deliberately setting out to win favor” (pop celebrity or popular journalism vs serious, democratic work). Mass society theory presents a view of citizens as audiences for mass media products that are a homogeneous grouping of people, whose only connections to one another are through that which they find in common, that which is popular. Related to this is a belief in the decline of what is regarded as authentic, traditional, more personal forms of relating.
In advanced capitalist societies the popular is typically tied to the commercial and, given that, the term generally means the culture of ordinary people, i.e., working-class, non-elite members of society, or that which is left over after what is elite is defined. Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic work Dialectic of enlightenment, posits that the production and distribution of popular culture constitutes a “culture industry” (1997, 120). This argument holds that cultural products such as art become commodities that reflect dominant ideology, that in fact convey norms. Fashion is an example of this process that not only has the power to democratize but also to establish and affirm borders. Global popular culture includes fashion, imported and exported from country to country, as well as Japanese anime, Bollywood films, and spectacles such as the Superbowl and World Cup soccer.
Culture And Publics
Unfortunately, the expression “popular culture” is often used as a pejorative term, viewed as lesser than so-called high culture pursuits because it originates among a wide variety of everyday people and is deeply embedded in daily life. The contents of popular culture are perpetuated through a particular country’s vernacular (spoken, written), i.e., visual or verbal language. The objects, practices, and products that comprise popular culture are widely shared among a population. The quality and value placed upon the products are, however, socially constructed. Sociologist Herbert Gans is among the early scholars of popular culture and communication who studied the function of television in American society, the production of television news, and the composition and perspectives of audiences. One of his best-known books, Popular culture and high culture (1975), explores the place of fine art, popular art, mass media, and audiences and hierarchical rankings, based on social class distinctions, perceived scarcity, and social construction of value.
Gans examined criticisms of popular culture and perceived negative effects under four areas: (1) negative effects on high culture, (2) negative character of popular culture creation, (3) negative effects on the popular culture audience, and (4) negative effects on society. Gans also studied popular taste and the products of popular culture, identifying five “taste publics” which differ in terms of the “diversity of and disagreement about aesthetic standards and values”: age, class, religion, ethnicity, regional origin, and education, each of which helps determine cultural choices. Thus, popular culture carries and articulates social class and social group distinctions. Expressions such as “high art” and “low art,” for example, have immediate associations with social class. High art can feature nude bodies, while low art is pornographic. While Gans orders the products of popular culture in a hierarchical manner (from classical to kitsch), the intent was to de-privilege forms of cultural narrative from their economic foundations. A characteristic of popular culture is its definitional fluidity. For example, in its time, Shakespeare’s plays were the popular culture of their day. Jazz, for example, during its early days was considered vulgar and audiences were thought to fall “trancelike into vulgar and wanton behavior” (Lopes 2006, 387). Today, jazz is often played to sophisticated audiences in trendy clubs and nightclubs.
One of the goals of the leading popular culture journal in the field, the Journal of Popular Culture, is to “break down the barriers between so-called ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture” and focus “on filling in the gaps a neglect of popular culture has left in our understanding of the workings of society.” Recent studies covered “Barbie dolls in Mexico,” Canadian superhero comics, Harry Potter, “Tricksters and the marketing of breakfast cereals,” and The Simpsons.
Postmodernism moves away from a singular gaze or perspective and argues for the value of a multiplicity of meanings. Popular culture is replete with multiple perspectives and interlocking parts, or what is known as self-referentiality, that is, where one form of popular culture refers to another form. Intertextuality is apparent, for example, on the television program The Simpsons, which often refers to or parodies mainstream media and contemporary issues. In the television comedy Seinfeld, the lead character’s name is the name of the actor who plays that role.
One of the most famous examples of intertextuality and popular culture is the famous Andy Warhol (1928–1987) painting of Campbell’s soup cans. This form of expression, known as “Pop Art,” was part of a movement in 1960s America that illustrated the mixed messages and complexity of popular culture with characteristic energy. Huyssen (1984, 16) argues that it was within the realm of “pop” that postmodernism took root, and “the most significant trend within postmodernism has challenged modernism’s relentless hostility to mass culture.” The intertextuality implicit and complicit with a postmodern approach to cultural text separates the perspective from the narrow, unidirectional, individualistic approach characteristic of modernism. This hierarchical approach to valuations of “high art” and “low art” then gives way under a postmodern view to valuing the popular as a body of work. The result is a rupture in a single identity, instead placing that which is high above that which is popular.
McRobbie (1994, 14) observes that postmodernism “implicitly challenges the narrowness of structuralist vision, by taking the deep interrogation of every breathing aspect of lived experience by media imagery as a starting point.” Thus, no one moment, no one thing, is privileged in the examination of the pastiche of the present. Popular culture theory recognizes the value of the everyday, arguing that objects and activities of everyday life, such as fashion, cosmetics, music, style, and dress, can be subject to the same analyses as topics considered worthy of “serious” scholarship.
Popular Culture Theory
Many forms of popular culture carry a stigma through association. Stigma is defined by sociologist Erving Goffman (1963) not as a particular attribute, but instead as a “spoiled identity,” as perceived lack of quality and a form of labeling. Comic books, for example, have been stigmatized since their introduction in the mid-1930s. The famous comic book scare of the 1950s attributed juvenile delinquency to youth reading, in particular, crime comic books. Particular forms of music or bands have also been accused of destroying young minds, for example, jazz, in the 1920s, the Beatles in the 1960s, and the Grateful Dead, whose fans were regarded as “directionless, drug-addled nomads with no link to reality” (Lopes 2006, 388). Fashion is an example of a form of cultural expression appropriated up (torn jeans) or down (designer knock-offs). Simmel (1971, 302) points out that the “very character of fashion demands that it should be exercised at one time only by a portion of the given group . . . as soon as anything that was originally done only by a few has really come to be practiced by all . . . we no longer speak of fashion.”
Lopes (2006) argues that stigma works in and through popular culture by association with particular objects, forms, practitioners, genres, and roles, and can effect the development of cultural forms. For example, the stigma associated with graffiti limits opportunities for creating and expression within the art form. A stigma associated with romance novel readers and writers both encourages a subculture of fans and authors who come together around their shared interest and a view of frivolity by those outside this culture. Various forms of social dance once stigmatized, such as tango and flamenco, have now gained widespread appreciation and participants. Popular culture producers, for example, hip-hop and rap artists, bear the burden of associations of violence, misogyny, and racism found in some of the music. Audiences and fans are also stigmatized for their appreciation and enthusiasm for particular forms of popular culture deemed banal or low-class during a particular time in a particular place. Opera lovers, classical music devotees, jazz fans, and antique collectors, who are regarded as of a higher social class and hence not stigmatized today, have different social experiences from heavy metal fans, motorcycle club members, or body builders. All participate in widely distributed mass cultural products, yet the focus on social class distinctions, often expressed in terms of stigmas associated with race, gender, or sexuality, overshadows the qualities of the actual art form, which becomes labeled as “bad taste.”
Popular culture carries an ideological imperative. In a Gramscian sense, popularity evokes conformity, operating as a site for the production and reproduction of political hegemony. This is why “popular culture” matters. It establishes, reifies, and contests established categories. Stuart Hall describes popular culture as “an arena of consent and resistance. It is partly where hegemony arises, and where it is secured” (quoted in Storey 1996, 466). When Spivak (1988) asks, “can the subaltern speak?” of global popular culture, she articulates concerns that western popular culture so dominates the world that nations of culturally and economically oppressed peoples lose the voice of their own culture. The study of popular culture offers a window onto the world of the everyday, a compelling view not only of individual groups and cultures, but also of social and cultural worlds generally.
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