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September 19, 2014
 
 
Canadian Excellence

Definition of Popular Culture--A tutorial


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Popular Culture—A tutorial

 

Introduction

 

The first order of business in an introduction to popular culture ought to be a definition. Most of us have a vague notion of what is meant when the term "popular culture" is used: we think of the top-ten hits on the radio, music videos, blockbuster films, Stephen King and John Grisham novels, polyester and platform shoes, hamburgers and milkshakes. With a little critical analysis we might include topics such as the impact of the automobile on everyday lives, the raciness of Rock 'n Roll in the context of 1950s morals, or the irony of the financial success of anti-capitalist, anti-colonial reggae music of Bob Marley. Popular culture is certainly all of those things, but it also includes a vast amount more - everything from holidays to TV evangelists, from Victorian sexual proclivities to Early-Modern executions. In such an enormous expanse of topics, a definition does not come easily. To complicate matters further, the study of popular culture has been denied the respect of a serious field of study for most of its existence. It is only recently that attention has been turned towards establishing the value of studying popular culture from the condemnation of it. The consequence of this is that as yet no universally accepted definition of popular culture exists, and there is little in the way of a decided approach or methodology to the study. In light of this, this introduction to popular culture aims to provide an understanding of where the study of popular culture is at presently by briefly exploring its beginnings, the common conceptions of it, and presenting what definitions and methods of approach that have thus far been formulated.

 

The idea of popular culture, as we know it, only came about in the second half of the nineteenth century and for the first fifty years or so was viewed very negatively by those who dared to acknowledge its existence. The idea that "culture" was divisible into different types - high, popular, and folk are the most common distinctions - in the way that society was divisible into classes came primarily from the writings of Matthew Arnold, particularly his book Culture and Anarchy. Arnold was writing to the backdrop of the suffrage controversy of the late 1860s in Britain. The right to vote had been the possession of the wealthy landed class since the first inception of Parliament, but the nineteenth century saw men from the middle and eventually working class demanding the right to vote. The idea of universal male suffrage was as distasteful then as the idea of women's suffrage would be a few decades later. To aristocrats like Arnold the working class was "raw and uncultivated", consisting of "vast, miserable unmanageable masses of sunken people" , who if given the vote would surely create anarchy, as it was inherently in their nature to do. Certainly non-aristocrats have been viewed with disdain throughout recorded history, but Arnold was the first to assert that the lower classes posed a cultural danger to the elite. Though there had always been the idea of culture - of fine things, of education, of breeding, of taste - Arnold was the first to give it a definition.

 

'Culture' can be used to refer to how an entire society operates, including economy, political structure, and religion, but it can also be used to refer to the aesthetic elements of society - that which we do when we are not working directly on our survival: art, music, dance, theatre, and storytelling for example. To say that these are aesthetic elements is somewhat misleading because they do serve a necessary function in society. They are methods of educating, of conveying messages from the creator to the audience. They are, in fact, such important elements that familiarity with them is often used as a status symbol: we refer to the well-read as 'cultivated' and/ or 'cultured'. It was the latter notion of culture that Arnold was using . For him, in short, culture was "the best that has been thought and said in the world," which existed, "to make reason and the will of God prevail." Arnold believed that culture was the natural possession of the upper class (based on an evolutionary notion of society, that is, the working class was actually a less evolved form of life, which was why vulgarity and unruliness were inherent characteristics of their class). Knowledge and participation in culture was what kept the aristocrats more civilised than the lower classes, and it was therefore their duty to impart "culture" to everyone else.

 

Universal male suffrage was eventually granted, despite the concerns of the upper class for the ensuing state of society, but the perception of culture as Arnold had laid it out remained. In fact, his theories prevailed in the study of culture for some decades to come, and were to form the elitist backbone of Modernism. The significance of his idea of culture is that it associated culture specifically with the upper classes, that is, with education, with wealth, and with good upbringing. He designated the culture of the upper classes, their music, their art, their literature, their manners, and their values as the best the world had to offer. The music, art, literature, etc. of the other classes was worthless, banal, and vulgar. In designating "culture" to the upper class an enormous gap was left. If the aristocrats, politicians, intellectuals and other elite members of society were the only people who possessed culture, to be benevolently doled out to the rest of society, then how could the "culture" that the masses produced be described? If working songs, minstrel shows, railway novel stalls and art-nouveau advertising were not culture, then what were they? The need to address this latter type of culture became dire as the culture, or the un-culture, of the masses became increasingly prevalent in cheap novels, newspapers, comic strips, advertising and especially in the new inventions of film and radio in early the twentieth century.

 

Contemporary with Arnold's view of upper-class culture was the late nineteenth century fad for "folk culture". The retrieving and preservation of folk culture in the form of fairytales, folksongs, proverbs, and dialects, led by the Brothers Grimm, became an academic hotspot. Although folk culture stemmed from the lowest class - mostly farmers, peasants and villagers - it was not considered a threat to society, because it was a culture in decline, doomed to perish in the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation. Academics raced about the countryside gathering cultural information and attempting to reconstruct a picture of a culture that was simple and quaint, and soon to disappear. These two different kinds of cultures - Arnold's elite culture and the academics' folk culture - only represented a very small percentage of the population, even put together. A vast number of people were left hanging in the middle, with activities, past-times, and entertainments unworthy, so it seemed, of a label. It was their culture that came to be called the contentious "mass" or "popular culture".

 

Not surprisingly, the first academic interest in popular culture (not until the 1930s) began negatively, with the condemnation of any cultural manifestation outside of the traditional, educated, and elitist class. The catalysts of the protest against the rising culture of the masses were F.R. Leavis and his wife Q.D. Leavis, who made a life's work of studying the decline of 'culture' (Arnold's definition of it) in the new 20th century. In its place was growing a monstrous ugly beast designed to appeal to the uneducated tastes of the working class. 'Mass culture' was the term designated for the Hollywood-movie goers, the romance readers, and the radio show listeners, but the term was used mockingly, an ironic joke to mark the lamentation of like-minded Leavisites. As far as they were concerned this mass culture was a hollow imitation of true culture. It taught nothing, it conveyed no worthwhile messages, and it had no value. Instead, mass culture worked as a type of drug, lulling its audience into a false perception of reality, deadening them to the true difficulties of life. For example, F.R. Leavis said this about Hollywood films:

 

"[T]hey involve surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest emotional appeals, appeals the more insidious because they are associated with a compellingly vivid illusion of actual life."

 

The same sentiment was expressed on the topic of popular fiction:

 

"This form of compensation [reading popular chapbooks in the place of real experience]…is the very reverse of recreation, in that it tends, not to strengthen and refresh the addict for living, but to increase his unfitness by habituating him to weak evasions, to the refusal to face reality at all."

 

Likewise, on the publishers of popular fiction, Leavis wrote that they were " 'the most powerful and pervasive de-educator[s] of the public mind'." Advertising, in its turn, was the greatest symptom of the cultural disease, with its " 'unremitting, pervasive, masturbatory manipulations'." Even radio, a critically important invention in communication, did not escape criticism. Radio, Leavis preached, would bring the end to critical thought.

 

The Leavis' critique continues even today, television and video games are often referred to as a 'drug', and as compensations for reality. While the Leavis' may have had a genuine concern that the public was reading mediocre material instead of Shakespeare, their appeals were also politically motivated. Their impression of history was that 'culture', that is, the likes of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michelangelo, had always been under the control of a minority, namely the aristocracy, who best knew how to mediate the culture to the majority, and more importantly, were in a position to quash culture that did not measure up to elite standards. In this role the aristocracy properly educated the masses, redeeming society in general from cultural profanity. But from the eighteenth century forward the power of the minority was gradually being eaten away. The Leavises, a last bastion of the aristocracy, or at least aristocratic thinking, were pleading with British educators to heed their fears. Society's standard of living was being demolished by the invasion of hollow culture, whose growth could only be slowed by a counter-growth of true culture in the schools.

 

Definitions of Popular Culture

 

The culture of the masses, no matter what was taught in schools, continued to proliferate. But the Leavises have not gone unnoticed. Much to their certain despair, their work would form the base for all study on popular culture to come. Their writings were the first attempt to study it in any concrete manner, consequently, their methodologies and opinions were reused and reiterated well into the 1950s. Even those who studied popular culture because they saw some merit in it usually resigned themselves to the methods of Leavisites, since there was no other methodology to follow. As a result of the study's negative beginning, popular culture has gone without a definition. It has been, rather, defined by what it is not. It is not the high culture of the Leavisites, nor is it folk culture (which the Leavises already claimed was lost). Their idea of folk culture, not unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, was reminisced for its quaintness, its embodiment in vast tradition, its grounding in nature and seasonal time. The culture of the masses oozed somewhere in between high and folk culture, thus the first step in defining what exactly mass or popular culture was, was to define the parameters of high and folk culture.

 

High Culture - The creations of high or elite culture are unique and difficult. They are unique in that their creators aim to break the boundaries of what is known, to create in a manner yet untried, perhaps with materials not commonly used for their purpose, or to combine elements in a new or innovative way. They are difficult in that the creation itself, or the means used to create it, challenge accepted beliefs, cause its audience to question their perceived reality, or to forge new paths in thinking. Thomas Inge in the introduction to The Handbook of Popular Culture puts it well:

 

"The function of high culture is to validate the experience of the individual. Creation is a purely aesthetic act in pursuit of truth and beauty, and, that being so, therefore self-justifying. 'Art for art's sake' is a phrase generally applied to allow for creations that are non-representational and totally without use or even meaning … The art piece is designed aggressively to confront us, to challenge our assumptions and beliefs about art and life, and to identify the unanswered questions about existence."

 

Theoretically, creators of high culture create not for financial success but rather for the timeless recognition of their having introduced to the world a new way of seeing, hearing, feeling, or experiencing life. The high culture audience is small, hence the creator is usually easily associated with their work. In our day, high culture includes the works of such artists as Picasso, Glen Gould, Shakespeare, Karen Kain, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

Folk Culture - The creations of folk culture are communal and anticipated. They are communal because the creator and their audience belong to the same small societal division - the social distance between them is negligible if even present. They are anticipated because the creator draws from the traditional knowledge and the everyday experience of their societal group. Michael Bell has described folk culture as "personal".

 

Those who create folk culture…work with and within the tried and true patterns of experience, and those who are its audience expect that their experiences will reflect the conventions of what has gone before and served them well in the past. Folk culture, accordingly, is a culture of continuity, governed by traditions and the expectation that the experience of daily life, lived as most people do most of the time, will continue largely as it has gone before.

 

Like high culture, folk culture audiences are small, limited to the group in which the folk creation is made. Folk culture of course consists of folk music, folk art, folktales, folkdance, folk costumes, but also localised jokes, oral literature and history, home remedies, old wives' tales, and superstitions, among others.

 

Popular Culture - Situated in between the definitions of high culture and folk culture, popular culture is whatever they are not. If it is not high culture then it cannot be unique, or difficult. Creators of popular culture must remain within known boundaries, use common methods, and common materials, staying away from innovation. The creation, or its method of creation, must not cause its audience to question accepted reality, and must remain on accepted paths of thinking. The audience for popular culture must be large, and the likelihood of the creator being known to the audience should be minimal. If it is not folk culture then popular culture must not be communal, or anticipated. Creators of popular culture must not draw from traditional knowledge nor relate to everyday experience. The audience must not "expect that their experiences will reflect the conventions of what has gone before and served them well in the past." Popular culture is impersonal.

 

To a certain extent these descriptions hold true. The audience for popular culture is usually quite large, hence the label 'popular', and therefore, due to the number of people it aims to please, it can not draw from the traditions of a small group. It must draw from a greater consciousness. But creators are just as often known to their audience as not. Popular culture can usually be situated somewhere between unique and anticipated. It must be novel enough to hook attention, but not so novel as to question beliefs. At the same time, it makes much use of regular formulas, detective stories for example, which have anticipated elements throughout. Popular culture has, in this century, been quite innovative in its use of media, particularly media which can communicate to a large number of people at once: the radio, film, television, the Internet. Finally, despite the association of popular with mass markets, many creators of popular culture are in their business simply because they love to create (though there a sizeable number in it for the money).

 

Clearly popular culture overlaps high and folk culture a good deal. To prove how confusing classifying items can be let us have a quick look at Elvis Presley. Immediately, most of us would have no trouble identifying his performance as popular culture, but on second look, his work has characteristics of both high culture and folk culture. His music was highly innovative, combining hillbilly country music with the blues, both, at the time, specimens of folk culture. This was a new combination that certainly stretched the boundaries, in music, as well as in black and white relations. Not only was the music disconcerting to parents for its elements of African-American music, but also because of his provocative way of dancing, which was disturbingly sexual in the conservative Fifties. His impact on culture was enormous. Leonard Bernstein, a respected, well-known American composer and conductor, and therefore a representative of high culture, once called Elvis Presley "the greatest cultural force in the twentieth century," even over Picasso, because "He introduced the beat to everything and he changed everything - music, language, clothes, it's a whole new social revolution - the Sixties comes from it. Because of him a man like me barely knows his musical grammar anymore." The work of Elvis Presley leans into the definition of folk culture by borrowing folk music, and then leans into high culture by combining them in an innovative way that caused its audience to question its perceived reality. Through his enormous popularity, he and his music were made popular culture.

 

There are numerous examples of crossovers between the three cultures to confound the issue. The music of Mozart is classified as high culture for all the reasons it should be, but also because of the socio-economic class that patronised him in eighteenth-century Vienna. But his audience was not limited to that class; if a tune caught on, it was whistled in the streets, thereby becoming 'popular'. How should Mozart's music's appearance on a "Greatest Classical Hits" mass produced CD be classified? Likewise, how do we define the use of Mozart's music on a film soundtrack? Is the medium the means for classification? That is to say, if Mozart's music is heard anywhere but a symphony hall, then it cannot high culture? But the reasons for it being classified as high culture remain whether it is transmitted over the radio, or heard in a movie theatre.

 

An example of folk music becoming popular music and then becoming high culture is jazz and blues. They arose out of the poorest communities in America (which is not to say that folk culture stems from poverty), but in the explosion of popular music in the fifties, the music became an enormous seller, while the artists became a household name. More recently, an appreciation of jazz or blues is akin to a status symbol.

 

Shakespeare, in his time, did not only play to the elite; he was widely popular and wrote to a popular audience. Many of his plays seek to capture popular currents of the day. The sixteenth-century English were very interested in the Italian Renaissance: Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar all speak to this interest in Italian culture. Likewise, there was a renewed sense of nationalism, if we can call it that, following the defeat of the Spanish Armada, consequently Shakespeare wrote a number of plays that dealt with English history, particularly focussing on great kings: Macbeth, Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III. Today, the difficulty of the early-modern English may alone relegate Shakespeare to high culture, but his audience is vast. Again we are faced with such problems as mass-production, of his plays in print as well as his plays on stage, of film versions, and film adaptations, as well as the fact that some lines from his plays have become so common that their origins are sometimes forgotten: 'Something's rotten in the state of Denmark", and of course, "To be or not to be", both adapted from Hamlet.

 

Andy Warhol, the originator of "pop art", directly challenged the notion of high art by choosing a mundane and/or popular subject for his work. By painting a Campbell's soup can in an innovative way he raised the question of what truly can be classified as high art. Soup cans, mass produced, mass marketed and mass consumed, are part of popular culture, but if they are painted by an artist trained in the traditions of high art, do they also become high art? If a work of high art is mass produced on postcards and posters does it cease to be a work of value? Is it again a matter of context? Increasingly we are forced to take a deconstructionalist stance, claiming that the Mona Lisa is high art whilst she stands encased in plastic on the wall in the Louvre, but she becomes popular culture in the postcard reproduction available at the gift shop. This assessment does not even take into account whether the audience's reactions differ depending on the context.

 

Defining popular culture by what it is not has clearly been unsuccessful. In response there have been a number of attempts at defining popular culture for what it is, but there are difficulties with each.

 

1) POPULAR CULTURE IS WHATEVER IS WIDELY POPULAR

 

 

 

This definition at first seems obvious, a given meaning contained within the word 'popular', but, to belabor the issue further, how is 'popular' to be quantified? How many makes 'popular'? The greatest problem with this definition are items commonly recognised as popular culture because of their formats, but which draw a small audience. For example, television pilots that do not get picked up by a network, comic book runs which sell less than a thousand copies, or pop music which fails to break the charts, selling no more than a few thousand copies. This definition is insufficient because it fails to provide any characteristics to popular culture.

 

2) POPULAR CULTURE IS MASS COMMERCIAL CULTURE

 

 

 

This definition only differs from the first in its incorporation of the marketplace, and therefore shares the same problems. But Michael Bell attributes financial success to artefacts of popular culture because they fulfil certain needs of the audience. He supplies some characteristics that can be put towards a definition:

 

The audience for popular culture seeks most of all to be entertained or to have a product that will serve a purpose. They want their values, their expectations, and their experiences to be validated. In a sense, they want novelty, but they do not want that novelty to be overwhelming. The audience for popular art or products wants to recognize themselves in what is being presented to them. They want it to conform to their own personal set of critical standards, to be what they like. Popular culture thus tends to be responsive to the marketplace. It aims for a consensus among its public and for the possibility that in reaching out to the majority of the community it can affirm what is already valuable in their lives and offer direction toward what ought and might become important in their world.

 

The last sentence here is a diplomatic way of expressing the more negative sentiments associated with this definition. Popular culture as mass commercial culture is culture produced en masse by profit conscious creators, who, as Michael Bell puts it, "aim for consensus among its public and for the possibility…" of reaching the majority of the community for the purpose of maximising their profit. Creators base their creations on what sells well, and on what has been known to sell well in the past. The audience in this definition has the passive role of merely consuming whatever they are told they should through advertising, and they play no role whatsoever in the creation of what is 'popular'.

 

There are truths and fallacies evident here. On the one hand, the film industry, and popular music industry (the fact that they are referred to as 'industries' is revealing in itself) circulate billions of dollars, and certainly the distributors of those products are more concerned with monetary intake than they are with artistic quality. An excellent example of this is the difficulty in getting funding for a film that does not have a celebrity in the cast; the greater number of celebrities, the greater assurance of a blockbuster for those distributing the film. The recent Hollywood film, Armageddon, had no less than six celebrities. On the other hand the assumption that the audience buys whatever they are told like so many sheep in a market is inaccurate. John Fiske reports that in spite of the billions of dollars spent on advertising, only 10% - 20% of new products can be considered successful. Likewise in entertainment, Firth recorded a mere 20% of singles and/or albums make a profit. Evidently, consumers are discriminating, though it remains true that they have little input into what is created for them.

 

This definition - popular culture as mass consumer culture - has been used often by critics of popular culture. Their complaint echoes that of the Leavis' and couples it with the fears of technology and control. Partly, their concern is that culture controlled by an invisible group of profit-seekers is culture necessarily created for the lowest common denominator in society, and thereby completely lacking in any meritous content, in order to sell to the widest group of consumers. They fear that aiming culture at the largest audience possible removes anything that might challenge an audience, leaving that audience unstimulated, and reluctant to accept change. Prolonged exposure, the critics believe, would create a population of passive, unquestioning citizens who could then be easily manipulated, clearing the way for totalitarianism. In some cases, critics claim that the mind control has already begun, and it is the producers of mass culture who control the nation. Though it may sound rather dramatic, these are legitimate concerns raised against the disturbing number of hours many people sit in front of their T.V.'s.

 

Mass cultural control of audiences is also a major concern here in Canada, but from a somewhat different perspective. American television programming, films, magazines, and numerous other artefacts of American popular culture bombard the Canadian cultural scene, leading many to fear cultural imperialism in the face of American ubiquitousness. Hence the CRTC regulations on Canadian content in radio and television, and, less obviously, the programming of CBC, which, at least in radio, consists of high culture (classical and jazz predominantly) and Canadian folk culture.

 

Another problem with defining popular culture as mass commercial culture is that it necessitates dating popular culture to this century, or at the earliest, the beginning of industrialisation. In fact this is a view held by a number of students of popular culture, and from our perspective at the end of the twentieth century it is difficult to think otherwise. Most of the media which transmit popular culture today: the radio, television, film, computers, were invented in this century or at the end of the last. The danger in relegating popular culture to the last one hundred or two hundred years is that many past cultural events, such as the Roman gladiators, and the medieval carnival, are forced to take on far too serious social implications to explain their existence.

 

3) POPULAR CULTURE IS CREATED BY THE PEOPLE

 

 

 

This definition is in obvious response to the idea that popular culture is controlled from above. Instead popular culture is created, or at least initiated, by the population in what they decide to buy, and what they deem reflects the values in their lives. No one who is not included in the 'popular' can decide what the culture for the 'popular' will be like. This definition aligns itself more closely with folk culture, and protests any attempts to claim that culture is imposed, for then it would not truly be 'popular'. The difficulty here is that while most of us like to think that we are in control of our own tastes, we as individuals are unable to create a cultural product in enough numbers to constitute it becoming 'popular'. Only large corporations have the money and the material to create something popular. The definition takes on more plausibility if we include the manufacturers in "the people", but generally speaking in the literature "the people" goes undefined.

 

4) POPULAR CULTURE AS A CULTURAL BATTLEFIELD, OR THE NEO-GRAMSCIAN HEGEMONY THEORY

 

 

 

This approach to popular culture was adopted from the writings of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). In the twenties and thirties, in response to the rise of fascist states and the failure of working-class movements, Gramsci proposed to explain why socialist revolutions had not yet occurred in the developed capitalist nations. It was an assumption of Marxism that the oppressed would rise up against their oppressors and form a new society based on equality. Gramsci explained that the reason for this was that a give and take relationship of sorts existed between the capitalists and their workers. Very simply put, if the workers protest their conditions as unfair, their employers will concede to fix a number of grievances that will pacify the protesters while simultaneously reaffirming the existing power structure. On a larger level, Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to demonstrate how bourgeois capitalism imposed and held power over society. We can further clarify by putting the idea into the broader terms of dominant and subordinate groups in society. The dominant groups rule society and lead it morally, intellectually and culturally. On the surface the subordinate groups appear to actively support the ideals, values, and goals of the dominant groups, but in truth the relationship between the two is much more dynamic. Subordinate groups do protest, rebel and demand change in a variety of ways - demands which, if power is to be maintained and the present ideology upheld, the dominant groups must address. In short, the people in power stay in power by recognising some of the demands of the people who are not in power. Ultimately the dominant ideology is preserved, and the protests of the subordinate groups are incorporated into the system.

 

Using a neo-Gramscian analysis, popular culture becomes the product of the ever-changing relationship between dominant and subordinate elements in society, a battleground for recognition between these groups. Youth subcultures are a good example of the hegemony theory at work. Youth cultures start out as a protest against the establishment through music, clothing, and language. At first their behavior is shocking, and even frightening for some, but quickly the symbols of that subculture become more popular and eventually they are incorporated into the establishment, albeit in more understated forms. Punk, for example, started out as very radical and with a small following in the late 1970s, frightening a lot of parents, but very quickly the following grew and by the mid 1980s elements of punk clothing, such as safety pins, and torn clothes, became fashionable among non-punks.

 

An example of hegemony in popular culture is the explosion of films made in the late sixties and seventies, following swiftly on the heels of the civil rights movement, such as Up Tight (1968), Putney Swope (1969), Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), and Shaft (1971). Most movies, created as they were by the dominant white groups in society, had casts and crews made up entirely of white people, with the exception of the stereotypical roles of maids, farm hands and the like. In contrast, these films from the sixties and seventies were created by African-Americans, with African-Americans in all the starring roles. They demonstrate one of the areas where a minority culture, disadvantaged in terms of political, legal, and cultural recognition, took on a format of the dominant culture to express itself, in order to make its presence and issues with the dominant culture known.

 

5) ALL CULTURE IS COMMERCIAL CULTURE

 

 

 

The final major definition circulating in the study of popular culture is the postmodernist approach. Postmodernists deny that any divisions exist in culture. There is no high culture, no folk culture, and no popular culture, for the very reason that caused us so much trouble at the beginning of this section: there are simply too many exceptions to allow for a rule. This reaction to the thinking of the Leavises and like-minded elitists began to grow already in the 1960s, and was mostly a reaction to their partitioning of culture into worthy high culture and unworthy mass culture. The pop art movement of the fifties and sixties in Britain and the U.S., including Andy Warhol's soup cans, was the first outright cultural demonstration against the rigid categories that divided high and popular culture. Lawrence Alloway, the first popular art theorist explains the change:

 

"The area of contact was mass produced urban culture: movies, advertising, science fiction, pop music. We felt none of the dislike of commercial culture standard among most intellectuals, but accepted it as a fact, discussed it in detail, and consumed it enthusiastically. One result of our discussions was to take Pop culture out of the realm of 'escapism', 'sheer entertainment', 'relaxation', and to treat it with the seriousness of art."

 

Artists formerly classified as high culture intermixed with artists classified as pop culture so that the distinctions between them have become nearly illegible. Hence all culture has become one large commercial culture.

 

The trouble with this definition, or eradication of popular culture as a term in itself, is that it competes with what seems to be reality. The majority of us still recognise divisions in culture, though we may not wish to categorise exactly why we think one creation belongs to one division over another. Many of us are disappointed when we learn that an artist we liked suddenly becomes widely popular. Perhaps that has more to do with our individualism than it does our opinion of culture.

 

Components of Popular Culture

 

For popular culture to be 'popular' there must be something in it for the audience. Popular culture is not hollow, void of content or meaning, a series of shapeless images flickering on a screen, because if it were there would be no reason to partake in it, nor would there be any reason to study it.

 

Popular culture is composed of a variety of elements. Creators draw on societal beliefs, myths, icons, heroic ideals and stereotypical fears, rituals and holidays, which they then transmit through a selected medium. The end result is to reaffirm, through cultural symbols, our values and existence within our own culture. Popular culture places us securely into what we already know, reaffirms our membership in society, and allays our fears of exclusion.

 

To reflect the values of the audience, the creator of popular culture must draw from the people's common beliefs, its shared values, its fears and superstitions. For instance, common Canadian beliefs, or myths, that creators of popular culture might draw from include: Canadians are all polite, follow rules to the letter, and enjoy cold weather. The television program Due South capitalizes on these myths exactly. The main character is a Mountie who is sent to Chicago to work with the police force there. He embodies all of the above traits: he is exceedingly polite, he never wavers from the rule book, he comes from the Yukon, and he has a close relationship with his husky dog (supporting another myth that Canadians are somehow closer to nature). Although the Mountie appears at first naïve in comparison to the street-smart, big-city American that he is partnered up with, at the end of the program he inevitably "gets his man". But the humor of the program rests not only in the interaction between this quintessential Canadian and his savvy American partner, who also embodies all the myths Canadians possess about their American neighbors, but also in the irony with which these ridiculous traits are played. The show was popular because it reaffirmed, tongue-in-cheek, beliefs that Canadians have about themselves.

 

The Mountie in the program also works as a symbol. Commonly recognized symbols and icons, as well as heroes/-ines and stereotypes, are used as a type of shorthand in popular culture. Symbols and icons are images that have meaning at two levels: their literal meaning, that which is apparent from their physical appearance, and their figurative meaning, a history which they represent.

 

Some examples of Canadian symbols and icons are our flag, the Mountie, the beaver, maple leaves, maple syrup, the fleur-de-lis, and British architecture (as in the parliament buildings in Ottawa). Literally, a Mountie is a police officer to rural areas; figuratively, they represent rule and order over the wilds of Western Canada and the Yukon. If the Mountie in Due South were only meant to have a literal meaning, the focus of the program would change completely. In order for the play on Canadian identities abroad to work, the creators had to ensure that the Mountie character was interpreted as an icon, that the sight of him immediately reminded the audience of all that the Mountie icon represents. It is for this reason that the character is dressed in the traditional scarlet tunic, riding pants, and the familiar hat, an outfit which the RCMP of today no longer wear on duty.

 

Stereotypes are inaccurate and usually negative images of a certain group of people in society. They are, however, accurate expressions of the way many people think and feel about those whom they aim the stereotype at, and are, therefore, just as much as symbols and icons, representative of popular beliefs. Stereotypical characters in the popular culture artefact immediately portray to the audience all of the characteristics associated with them, however false, eradicating the need for further exposition.

 

Conversely, popular heroes/ines capture all that is most highly valued in a population, whether those heroes/ines are real people or imaginary ones. To qualify as a hero/ine one must exhibit an exceptional talent, embody cultural ideals, and must put their talent and their excellent qualities to work for the good of others. We are all familiar with the Superheroes/ines - Superman, Wonder Woman, and so many others - who have much to say about what we expect of ourselves in our careers and lives, but real people heroes/ines are few and far between, especially at the level of popular consciousness. Their disappearance has been blamed on historical reanalyses which question the status of real heroes/ines (e.g. Billy Bishop was not truly a hero because he…), and the rise of psychology which has prescribed to all humans the same heroic or villainous traits. There are however two other types of heroes/ines whom we still admire:

 

1. The Rebel Hero/ine: Rebel heroes/ines act out against injustices in the dominant culture, succeeding at their goals with sometimes great costs, or perhaps suffering martyrdom before their goals can be obtained. Nellie McClung, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. are all examples of rebel heroes/ines.

 

2. The Celebrity: Celebrities often have exceptional talent, but that is not usually what they are best known for. They represent whatever values and attributes are faddish in the nation at the moment. Their designation as a celebrity is often short-lived, lasting only as long as the nation's preoccupation lasts.

 

Up until now we have been referring to popular culture as though it were only entertainment, but the culture side of it encompasses much more. Any aspect of culture which appears to have a popular following is included under the heading. Rituals are one of those aspects. The Popular Culture Reader describes popular rituals as "enactments in which people participate in the communal celebration of highly valued ideals and myths. They are regularly repeated, patterned, social events which help us to shape our relationship to other people, and to our culture as a whole."

 

Common rituals include rites of passage such as baptisms, confirmations, graduations, club initiations, and weddings; holidays such as Easter, Ramadan, the summer holiday, and Spring Break; and rites of unity like team sports, fraternity events, and sorority events. Obviously many of these rituals have very serious religious components to them, but it is the celebrations that coincide with the ceremonies that students of popular culture are most interested in.

 

The last component of popular culture that will be dealt with here is the formula. Formulas are pre-set structures in which a creator frames a story. They operate in much the same manner as symbols do, in that a particular formula will signal to the audience what they can expect, how they can expect it and when it will happen. Geist and Nachbar assert that "Formula stories…reaffirm cultural values and beliefs by providing a means to demonstrate their importance and utility within a fictional (or even non-fictional) framework." They also claim that new cultural values can be spread and better understood by those as yet unfamiliar with them if they are presented in a traditional format.

 

Common formulas used in popular literature and film, for example, include the detective story, westerns, romance, and murder mysteries. A formula in action would play out something like this: readers begin their murder mystery novel. They know before they crack the first page, that a murder will occur very near the beginning of the book, no later than the end of the first act. They know that all of the characters will be suspected at some point or another, and they expect the clues to be divulged a bit at a time. A clever reader hopes to be able to announce who the murderer is before the book ends.

 

Successful popular culture (for there is much that is temporary and fleeting) reflects the values, beliefs, desires and fears of its audience. It reaffirms their position in their culture, and their knowledge of that culture. It is much like a shared joke. With that in mind, those who study popular culture do so to unlock exactly what values, beliefs, desires and fears are being reflected. Thus far we have made it sound as though the process of creating popular culture and incorporating these meanings is completely conscious. We have said that creators choose symbols or stereotypes or formulas to create shortcuts to what they wish to express, but this is not entirely accurate. As with all creative processes, often these aspects of popular culture just appear out of our deeper knowledge. In fact if one consciously thinks about which symbols would be most appropriate for which meanings, the project usually fails, or at least appears labored or transparent. The traits are elusive, and it is because of that elusiveness that scholars study popular culture. They work backwards, studying the creation to discover how the creation was made, in hopes of pinning down our values.

 

Methodologies

 

In the study of popular culture, scholars have borrowed primarily from literary criticism, but also from philosophy, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology to structure their research. There is much debate on which approach to popular culture is the most fruitful, but since the methodologies of literary criticism have been the most commonly used approaches, we will focus on those in this section. Basically there are five different aspects of any one creation that can be focussed on. They are the text itself, that is the book, the film, the doll, the house, i.e. the complete creation; the creator, or the author, director, producer, idea-person, i.e. the person(s) responsible for the creation; the audience; the media, that is the format in which the creation is conveyed - the TV, film, radio, book, stage etc.; and the context.

 

1. The Text: Examining the text is the most common approach used in the study of popular culture, and there are several ways of going about it. The most important are the Rhetorical, the Formalist, and the Structuralist approaches. The Rhetorical approach aims to discover the intention of the text by analysing the parts out which it was constructed. For example in the case of a novel, the characters, the plot structure, and the setting can all reveal clues about the purpose of the book, and what message was intended for the reader. A study of this kind may also take apart the events in the story to determine exactly how the audience may move from interpretation to interpretation, that is, how the story reveals itself in steps, and in turn, how this manipulates the message.

 

The Formalist approach began with the study of folktales, and is a popular approach in particular intellectual frameworks, especially in Jungian circles. Here the components of the texts, for this approach is best with more than one, are studied for the patterns that they might reveal. Patterns across stories (texts) are then categorised into archetypes, as in the archetypal mother character, or the archetypal virgin for example. Archetypes are somewhat similar to stereotypes, with the exception that they are not based on erroneous or biased information, but they do reveal the same sort of information about their creators.

 

The Structuralist approach functions closely with the principles of linguistics. The idea is to break the text into constituent units, and then compare these units to units from other texts to see whether a universal human principle can be found.

 

2. The Creator: Studies of the creators of popular culture texts are biographical in style. Biographies can be done either internally or externally. By internal we mean that the study takes a psychological approach - an attempt to discover what the artist's feelings, desires and unconscious mind had to do with the piece that they created. An external approach studies the external influences on the artist that helped shape their creation. For example, the artist's schooling, the fact that they were rich or poor, friends that they had, and so forth.

 

3. The Audience: Often this approach assumes that the creation, or text, is incomplete until an audience has seen it, and interpreted what it means to them. Some argue that no matter what the artist's original intent, there is no wrong interpretation of the work, because each individual brings their own experiences to it. The study then, focuses on the interaction of the creation and the audience's reactions to it. Audience studies also include things like product surveys, and television ratings.

 

4. The Media: Media analysts believe that the text, the creator's intent, and the audience's perceptions change according to the choice of media. As Marshall McLuhan once said, "The medium is the message." So an analyst could take a Shakespeare play and compare how it works in book format to how it works on stage, to how it works in a film adaptation.

 

5. The Context: There are three sub-approaches to contextual analysis. One can study contextual limits, cultural context, and historical context. The first examines where texts begin and end. For example, a hockey game can be limited to the players on the ice, but it can also be extended to include people in the stands, to what goes on before and after the game, to bars where the game is watched on television, or even to people's homes. It is the relationships and differences between these limits that are interesting.

 

Cultural contextualists study how people define themselves within a culture. Cultural analysis is particularly effective with popular culture studies as so much of what is popular is "constructed out of the conventional images and ideas that make up American [and Canadian presumably] society."

 

Historical analysis of popular culture attempts to discover why certain forms of popular culture appear in some eras and not in others. What were the social, political, and intellectual surroundings that caused Westerns to be so popular in the middle of the century for example. Is this the only time that Westerns will be popular, or will another, different configuration of factors make them popular again?

 

Original document found at:

 

http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/popculture/