Popular culture, or pop culture, (literally: “the culture of the people”) consists of widespread cultural elements in any given society. Such elements are perpetuated through that society’s vernacular language or an established lingua franca. It comprises the daily interactions, needs and desires and cultural ‘moments’ that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream. It can include any number of practices, including those pertaining to cooking, clothing, consumption, mass media and the many facets of entertainment such as sports and literature. (Compare meme.) Popular culture often contrasts with a more exclusive, even elitist “high culture.”
Pop culture finds its expression in the mass circulation of items from areas such as fashion, music, sport and film. The world of pop culture had a particular influence on art from the early 1960s, through Pop Art.
Popular culture in the 20th and early 21st centuries
Popular culture can describe even contemporary popular culture as just the aggregate product of industrial developments; instead, contemporary Western popular culture results from a continuing interaction between those industries and those who consume their products(Bennett 1980, p.153-218). distinguishes between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ popular culture, defining primary popular culture as mass product and secondary popular culture as local re-production.
Popular culture changes constantly and occurs uniquely in place and time. It forms currents and eddies, in the sense that a small group of people will have a strong interest in an area of which the mainstream popular culture has only partial awareness; thus, for example, the electro-pop group Kraftwerk has “impinged on mainstream popular culture to the extent that they have been referenced in The Simpsons and Father Ted.”
Items of popular culture most typically appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Some argue that broad-appeal items dominate popular culture because profit-making companies that produce and sell items of popular culture attempt to maximize their profits by emphasizing broadly appealing items (culture industry). But that may over-simplify the issue. To take the example of popular music: the music industry can impose any product they wish. In fact, highly popular types of music have often first evolved in small, counter-cultural circles (punk rock and rap provide two examples).
Since World War II a significant shift in pop culture has taken place: from the production of culture to the consumption of culture. Commentators have noted that those in power exploit consumers to do more of the work themselves (for example, do-it-yourself checkout lines), and advertising on television, movies, radio, and in other places helps those in power to guide consumers towards what those in power consider needed or important.
Popular culture has multiple origins. In conditions of modernity the set of industries that make profit by inventing and promulgating cultural material have become a principal source. These industries include those of:
- video games
- book publishing
Folklore provides a second and very different source of popular culture. In pre-industrial times, mass culture equaled folk culture. This earlier layer of culture still persists today, sometimes in the form of jokes or slang, which spread through the population by word of mouth and via the Internet. By providing a new channel for transmission, cyberspace has renewed the strength of this element of popular culture.
Although the folkloric element of popular culture engages heavily with the commercial element, the public has its own tastes and it may not embrace every cultural item sold. Moreover, beliefs and opinions about the products of commercial culture (for example: “My favorite character is SpongeBob SquarePants”) spread by word-of-mouth, and become modified in the process in the same manner that folklore evolves.
A different source of popular culture lies in the set of professional communities that provide the public with facts about the world, frequently accompanied by interpretation, usually as vulgarisation, i.e. adapted for consumption by the public at large (which may lack the training to appreciate academic language). Such communities include the news media, and scientific and scholarly communities. The news media mines the work of scientists and scholars and conveys it to the general public, often emphasizing “factoids” that have inherent appeal or the power to amaze. For instance, giant pandas (a species in remote Chinese woodlands) have become well-known items of popular culture; parasitic worms, though of greater practical importance, have not.
Both scholarly facts and news stories get modified through popular transmission, often to the point of outright falsehoods. At this point, they become known as urban legends. Other urban myths may have no factual basis at all, having simply originated as jokes.
Criticisms of popular culture
Popular culture has attracted much criticism. Some attribute this criticism to the sheer breadth of its availability, others posit that the very notion of “pop culture” is merely an arbitrary construct used to perpetuate elitism.
Some charge that popular culture tends to endorse a limited understanding and experience of life through common, unsophisticated feelings and attitudes and its emphasis on the banal, the superficial, the capricious and the disposable. Critics may also claim that popular culture stems more from sensationalism and narcissistic wish-fulfillment fantasies than from soberly considered reality and mature personal and spiritual development. Cultural items that require extensive experience, education, training, taste, insight or reflection for their fuller appreciation seldom become items of popular culture.
Corporations and advertisers are commonly accused of engaging in campaigns (as by attempting to generate pseudo-popular discussion, controversy, or memes), to generate increased purchasing of their products and services. Some Marxists claim that popular culture — and its implied insistence on a necessary causal relationship between consumption and self-actualization — perpetuates pernicious, deep-seated social and economic divisions which alienate the working class from the ruling professional and leisure classes and result in general discontent and a diminished quality and enjoyment of life for all (compare situationism).
Asa Berger, Arthur (1990). Agit-Pop: Political Culture and Communication Theory. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0887383157.