Popular Culture: It is neither popular nor culture. Discuss amongst yourselves...
Why is it not popular? Let's take a look at what Webster's dictionary says about "popular":
Main Entry: pop·u·lar
Etymology: Latin popularis, from populus the people, a people
1 : of or relating to the general public
2 : suitable to the majority: as a : adapted to or indicative of the understanding and taste of the majority b : suited to the means of the majority : INEXPENSIVE <sold at popular prices>
3 : frequently encountered or widely accepted
4 : commonly liked or approved <a very popular girl>
synonym see COMMON
- pop·u·lar·ly adverb
Most of popular culture is not of interest to nor does it relate to the "general public". Instead, it attracts certain demographic sub-units; the 18-24 crowd; middle-aged baby-boomer, seniors, and there seems to be little overlap for the most part This is not to say that all "pop culture" artifacts/objects are this limited - there are TV shows that appeal to a broad demographic; there are singers whose works and image transcends generational gaps. However, the majority of music, television, etc. that is collected under the term "popular culture" (which, as of yet, I haven't defined) seems to be directed at certain groups - not at the "majority population". Furthermore, to what extent is this "popular" culture limited to certain countries and societies? In a sense it has true popularity, in that it has spread from the U.S. (for example) to Europe, to Asia, to parts of South America. However, I am still not convinced that "it" has made its way into all levels of society - sure, teens and younger adults across the globe have latched onto certain icons, certain forms of expression, certain styles, but do we then end up defining what "popular" is based upon what a vocal minority likes?
To continue, it is not culture, and this argument is not a matter of high culture and low culture, but rather one which deals with the question of what culture is. Let's go back to Webster's again:
Main Entry: cul·ture
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Latin cultura, from cultus, past participle
Date: 15th century
1 : CULTIVATION, TILLAGE
2 : the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
3 : expert care and training
4 a : enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training b : acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
5 a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company orcorporation
6 : cultivation of living material in prepared nutrient media; also : a product of such cultivation
Now, I have trouble with the elitist nature of Webster's definition, but let us use it for a bit, then critique it. How is "popular culture" not culture? First, it not developed to a great extent (1) - "culture" is related to "cultivate", for example, and it implies a notion of organic development. Instead, much of "pop culture" is mass-produced by marketing types (see, Spice Girls, BSB, other girl groups, other boy groups, and many other cookie-cutter musicians in other genres). Along this line of thought, the same can be said of much of what Hollywood produces, much of what shows up on TV, etc. Let us take a look at "alternative" for a moment. Alternative to what? The going trend - "counter-culture". "Underground", etc. However, as soon as such things become main-stream, they become the result/product of mass-production and commercialization, and insofar as they do develop as "alternative", they are not "popular" in the way defined above - instead, they are fringe. The irony then is that "alternative" is "popular" - a nice contradiction for us.
As for the elitist deinition provided by Webster's, it seems to limit "culture" to "high culture", which has always been - up til recent centuries, if not even now - the realm of the "elite" - that is, a tiny, tiny minority of any population. Indeed, it is/was an even smaller population working for the elites that often produced this culture. Furthermore, it is questionable whether a definition of culture as we use it today had any meaning hundreds of years ago to the ruling classes; our philology and classification of ancient works as "classsics" is to a great extent a modern process, whatever modern may mean in this case.
An alternative definition forces us to look at "folk" culture, and define it as the "true" popular culture. However, the problem here is still that part about "popular" - without modern means of mass communication (for the sake of argument, going back at least to mass printing), it is difficult to speak of the "masses" (in contrast to the "elite") as a unified group, making "a" unified popular culture a fiction. The best we can do is link such a "mass" based upon the ways in which they did share customs; either through long traditions and rituals, and/or through rites and activities passed down - in Christian Europe, then - through the Church. Insofar as this allows us to speak of a "unified mass", it does not allow us to speak of a single culture, and insofar as we can speak of culture (rites, traditions, folk music, etc.), we cannot speak of it as "popular" and unifed across this mass.
Instead, we must look to find another locus of popular culture, and this is among a group superficially pro-culture and superficially popular; the middle class - bourgeoisie. The middle class has been historically much smaller than the lower peasant class(es) and such, and in recent times larger than the ruling class(es) in western societies. Such a class is defined to a great extent, at least traditionally, by way of its economic status, and occasionally by its political role. The myth that there is a "popular culture" is tied to the concept that the middle class represents society in some form. What exactly the middle class means varies from society to society and era to era, but that which is popular is in contrast to that which is elite, and also different than whatever "culture" the lowest classes are assumed to possess. The middle-class is only superficially pro-culture in that it is willing to consume - to spend and to market and to purchase based on marketing - but at least in the opinion of many of "the elite" as well as those others considered "fringe" it is not a great producer of "culture", or at least that which many wish to identify with as their cultural heritage. For example, many artists are "Bohemian" - they don't contribute substantially to the economy; they are leeches taking from the public good, they are avant garde and "out there". At the other extreme we have producers of mass culture who are not part of the middle class, but from an economic stand point at least tower far above it (movie directors, Oprah, the big names in the computer industry, for example). In either case, much of which is "popular" is not of the social class that consumes it.
The dictionary definition of "culture" is an eletist one, but one which is in contrast with the development of that which is contained in the term "popular culture". Furthermore, the term "popular" as applied to "popular culture" is not at all fitting. However, to judge popular culture merely on such dictionary definitions would be a mistake given that such definitions themselves are somewhat limited - at least the term "culture" must take on a broader an more inclusive role. At the same time, it is important to remember that "popular culture" is a fiction, for it is neither popular, merely mass, nor is it "developed" from a broad-based well-spring of cultural forces, but instead produced and marketed as if it were...
This rambling, though, is merely mental masturbation, for what cannot be ignored is that despite the fictional nature of popular culture, it is still there, and the powers that be (be they the consumers who purchase, or corporations that market to the consumers, or even the share-holders/consumers investing in the corporations that in turn are marketing to the consumers/themselves) believe in it. Shouldn't we all?