Definitions matter. Culture is an inherently nebulous concept since it is defined and used by people. Since it is so subjective and can mean something different to each person, it is important to define for the purposes of this blog, so that we can all have the same framework to conceptualize what we are talking about. We must determine what exactly we are up against and what to avoid. You have to identify your enemy in order to defeat it.
Fortunately, we can find a pretty good definition on the internet. Here is the first paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for “popular culture”:
“Popular culture or pop culture is the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society. The most common pop culture categories are: entertainment (movies, music, television, games), sports, news (as in people/places in news), politics, fashion/clothes, technology, and slang. Popular culture has a way of influencing an individual’s attitudes towards certain topics.”
The emphasis in bold is mine because I wanted to draw attention to it. These phrases are the key to why pop culture is part of the problem. The key word here is “influence”. We are influenced by mass media, an entity that does not have our best interests in mind, an entity that seeks its own advantage above all else. It influences our attitudes toward certain topics. It permeates the everyday lives of our society. Our entire quality of life is dependent on our attitudes and our society, and both of those things are being directly manipulated by forces that merely want to use us for their own gain. This is our definition of pop culture.
I encourage you to read the entire Wikipedia entry. It’s not long. After this first paragraph, it goes on to list other definitions of pop culture. These are what I call the False Narratives and the Distraction Narratives. As we strive toward lives that are free from pop culture, we will undoubtedly encounter those who are antagonistic to our goal. It’s possible that they might be antagonistic because they hold to one of the alternate definitions of pop culture. I will list the alternate definitions, so that we know what we are NOT talking about when we refer to pop culture.
FALSE NARRATIVE #1: Popular Culture versus High Culture. The term “popular culture” has been around since the 1800s, at least. In those days, popular culture meant the culture of the common people, as opposed to the culture of the aristocracy. You can think of this as the Queen’s English versus a dialect, or square dancing versus ballroom dancing. This antiquated interpretation still survives today. I recently read an article about a man trying to promote the art of breakdancing. His impression was that breakdancing was culturally associated with “the people” and life on the streets, and he wanted to promote it to the high culture folks who think ballet is culturally superior to breakdancing. This dichotomy of cultures doesn’t hold up in the 21st century. The lines between what was once considered popular culture and high culture have become so blurred that there is no longer a relevant distinction between them. Students everywhere in the US read Shakespeare just as they read Mark Twain. You can find ballet studios in the poorest of neighborhoods, and rich kids listen to rap music or bluegrass.
FALSE NARRATIVE #2: Popular Culture versus Counter Culture. Counter culture people are the rebels, the revolutionaries, those who reject popular culture and carve out their own place in the world. The problem is, counter cultures often end up merely being a miniature version of pop culture. It might exist within a smaller sphere, and so there is the temptation to believe that they have escaped the trap of pop culture. But since counter culture is just a mini-pop culture, there is still the “influence”. Now we are back to that key word. It’s about influence. When I was in high school, there were the cool kids, popular kids, jocks, whatever you want to call them. The unpopular kids tried to mimic them to gain acceptance. Then there were those who didn’t even try to be in that clique. They formed their own clique. They were the rebels. But they ended up just forming their own alternate version of being popular within their own miniature society. There were still rules of behavior and acceptance. The clothes and activities changed but the story was still the same.
These are false narratives because eventually popular culture, high culture and counter culture all converge.
There are also narratives that attempt to distract us from our focus on avoiding pop culture in our lives. These narratives don’t necessarily have anything to do with culture but they are often cited as the cause of the problems associated with pop culture.
DISTRACTION NARRATIVE #1: Haves versus Have Nots. Economic disparity is an important topic, but it is a wholly different topic than what we are talking about here. Some people attempt to associate certain types of culture with economic class, and that’s just not the case in our modern, American society. This narrative is a thing of the past. In our 21st century society, all economic classes consume the same pop culture.
DISTRACTION NARRATIVE #2: Technology is causing disengagement. Some people conflate pop culture with technology and lament how people nowadays are tuning into tech and out of real life. Everyone is on their smart phones instead of having conversations. People pay more attention to online relationships instead of real ones. We know our online friends better than our next door neighbors. All this may be true, and worthy of reflection, but it’s not what we are talking about. Pop culture and technology are not one and the same.
DISTRACTION NARRATIVE #3: The latest generation is so…. Millennials are way too into pop culture. What’s wrong with them? I hear so many complaints about millennials nowadays. However, I recall hearing many of the same complaints about “Generation Y” years ago. And all the grown-ups were so up in arms about “Generation X” in the 80s. They were convinced Gen X was going to ruin us all. The people complaining about them were the hippies. I wish I was alive back then to hear all the complaints about the hippies. They sound like an insufferable group of people. Generational tension is real, but it is also not the narrative we are after.
I’ve presented these false narratives and distraction narratives because they are each arguments that I’ve heard coming from people who don’t quite understand what the problem is. In order to understand what our problem is, we must first understand what our problem isn’t. Our problem isn’t these alterative narratives.
TRUE NARRATIVE: Popular culture versus us. The key takeaways in the true narrative bring us back to the original definition from the Wikipedia paragraph. It’s all about influence of the mass media, or what I refer to as the “Pop State”. The Pop State is trying to steal YOUR culture. They have created their own culture and are dictating it to you. It is time for us to reject that which is forced upon us. Live the culture that is important to you!