Popular culture is as omnipresent and important, as it is complex and debatable. The use of this term, in the 19th century and beyond, connoted the culture of the lower classes—as opposed to high culture. Though such a definition continues, popular culture now has much broader meanings for most people and scholars.
John Storey, professor of Cultural Studies at the Univ. of Sunderland’s Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, has found and described six different academic definitions of popular culture (Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction (2009) 5th ed., p.5-13). They range from the one just given to equating popular culture with mass culture…or, the manner in which those controlling a society manipulate those under them into social compliance.
We may think of popular culture as a distillation of the changing needs, desires, tastes and values of the general population. I have described it this way:
Popular culture surveys and critiques (prophetically) the human landscape; it provides common values by which we can live together…. In all popular culture, human creativity, the exploration of important themes, public exposure of social foibles and hypocrisies, and provision of relief from the tediously mundane still remain…. All this is popular culture’s positive role. (Dean Borgman (2013), Foundations for Youth Ministry: Theological Engagement with Teen Life and Culture, p.35)
Negative aspects of pop culture have been adequately documented—from Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1977) to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and James Twitchell’s AdcultUSA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture (1996). Answers to these powerful arguments against popular culture have come from thinkers such as Mitchell Stephens (the rise of the image the fall of the word, 1998) and others.
Beyond its many benefits, we might say (perhaps rather simplistically) that popular culture is a negative force in society when it
fails to relieve the tedium of daily labor and to ennoble our lives which so often feel restricted,
hinders the nurture and growth of children, women, and any marginalized by dominant society, in achieving their full human potential,
fails to uphold the dignity of any kind of person and fails to critique injustice for any people or classes of society,
fails to promote the protection and stewardship of the environment,
hinders individual or corporate search for morality and spirituality.
We see constant interaction among the primary actors or “producers” of popular culture:
artists and designers of all kind who produce “the stuff” of pop culture,
entrepreneurs of companies who make profit from pop culture,
the audience and consumers whose changing tastes dictate the redesign of produce (whether music, clothes or aps),
journalists who trace fads and changes, and
academics who try to study and expound on the intricacies and directions of popular culture.
Yes, we are all involved in the production of popular culture—as consumers… and by all manner of digital choices.
I tend to call the music (tattoos, clothes, graffiti, etc.) of a subculture, folk art. The folk art of earlier societies endured for centuries. In our times subcultures have “replaced” tribes. You may remember when tattoos were no longer just for sailors and tough guys; you began to see them mainstream. The music of punks, grunge musicians, or hip-hop street musicians of the 1970s was to me the folk music of a particular subculture—oppositional to an oppressive dominant culture. As their popularity grew, their music was pushed into the mainstream—and it became a variety of pop music. This is another possible cultural distinction: subcultural folk culture, popular culture and high culture (for the artistically elite).
Popular culture can act as a mirror or stethoscope into the souls of those we care about. It can promote significant discussions about the meaning of life. It can be a bridge in dialogue over life’s most contentious issues. Its study is necessary for many disciplines of academic life.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How important has popular culture been in your life? What music, movie, TV series, book, or Internet program has made the most impression on your life? What are your most efficient releases from the humdrum and stresses of life?
What in this Overview was helpful or confusing? Do you want to study and discuss popular culture further? Why or why not?
What questions would you raise, or what suggestions or criticisms do you have about this article?
Would you be able to take something from this Overview to discuss in a family setting, classroom or youth group?
Where do you want to go from here in your understanding of popular culture?
By definition and by our social natures, we all “swim” in the tide of popular culture. It is important that we understand it, realize its impact on us, children, and all ages. We need to see how we contribute to its formation, and how rapidly it is changing.
A purely negative attitude toward popular culture is defeatist and self-depreciating. Popular culture is dramatically good and bad. Like the tide, it has its ebbs and flows, its highs and lows.
Our lives, more than our arguments, are needed to steer popular culture toward the common good…for all.