Popular culture (commonly known as pop culture) is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus 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.
Popular culture is often viewed as being trivial and dumbed-down in order to find consensual acceptance throughout the mainstream. As a result, it comes under heavy criticism from various non-mainstream sources (most notably religious groups and countercultural groups) which deem it superficial, consumerist, sensationalist, and corrupted.
The term “popular culture” was coined in the 19th century or earlier to refer to the education and general “culturedness” of the lower classes, as was delivered in an address at the Birmingham Town Hall, England. The term began to assume the meaning of a culture of the lower classes separate from (and sometimes opposed to) “true education” towards the end of the century, a usage that became established by the interbellum period. The current meaning of the term, culture for mass consumption, especially originating in the United States, is established by the end of World War II. The abbreviated form “pop culture” dates to the 1960s.
John Storey, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, discusses six definitions of popular culture. The quantitative definition of culture has the problem that much “high culture” (e.g., television dramatizations of Jane Austen) is also “popular”. “Pop culture” is also defined as the culture that is “left over” when we have decided what high culture is. However, many works straddle the boundaries, e.g., Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
A third definition equates pop culture with “mass culture” and ideas. This is seen as a commercial culture, mass produced for mass consumption by mass media. From a Western European perspective, this may be compared to American culture. Alternatively, “pop culture” can be defined as an “authentic” culture of the people, but this can be problematic because there are many ways of defining the “people”. Storey argues that there is a political dimension to popular culture; neo-Gramscian hegemony theory “… sees popular culture as a site of struggle between the ‘resistance’ of subordinate groups in society and the forces of ‘incorporation’ operating in the interests of dominant groups in society.” A postmodernist approach to popular culture would “no longer recognize the distinction between high and popular culture”.
Storey claims that popular culture emerges from the urbanization of the Industrial Revolution. Studies of Shakespeare (by Weimann, Barber or Bristol, for example) locate much of the characteristic vitality of his drama in its participation in Renaissance popular culture, while contemporary practitioners like Dario Fo and John McGrath use popular culture in its Gramscian sense that includes ancient folk traditions (the commedia dell’arte for example).
Popular culture changes constantly and occurs uniquely in place and time. It forms currents and eddies, and represents a complex of mutually interdependent perspectives and values that influence society and its institutions in various ways. For example, certain currents of pop culture may originate from, (or diverge into) a subculture, representing perspectives with which the mainstream popular culture has only limited familiarity. Items of popular culture most typically appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Important contemporary contributions for understanding what popular culture means have been given by the German researcher Ronald Daus, who studies the impact of extra-European cultures in North America, Asia and especially in Latin America.
Popular culture and the mass media have a symbiotic relationship: each depends on the other in an intimate collaboration.”—K. Turner (1984), p.4
The news media mines the work of scientists and scholars and conveys it to the general public, often emphasizing elements 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.
Hannah Arendt’s 1961 essay “The Crisis in Culture” suggested that a “market-driven media would lead to the displacement of culture by the dictates of entertainment.” Susan Sontag argues that in our culture, the most “…intelligible, persuasive values are [increasingly] drawn from the entertainment industries”, which is “undermining of standards of seriousness.” As a result, “tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel” topics are becoming the norm. Some critics argue that popular culture is “dumbing down”: “newspapers that once ran foreign news now feature celebrity gossip, pictures of scantily dressed young ladies… television has replaced high-quality drama with gardening, cookery, and other “lifestyle” programmes [and] reality TV and asinine soaps,” to the point that people are constantly immersed in trivia about celebrity culture.
In Rosenberg and White’s book Mass Culture, MacDonald argues that “Popular culture is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple spontaneous pleasures… The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products.” Van den Haag argues that “all mass media in the end alienate people from personal experience and though appearing to offset it, intensify their moral isolation from each other, from the reality and from themselves.”
Critics have lamented the “replacement of high art and authentic folk culture by tasteless industrialised artefacts produced on a mass scale in order to satisfy the lowest common denominator.” This “mass culture emerged after the Second World War and have led to the concentration of mass-culture power in ever larger global media conglomerates.” The popular press decreased the amount of news or information and replaced it with entertainment or titillation that reinforces “fears, prejudice, scapegoating processes, paranoia, and aggression.”
Critics of television and film have argued that the quality of TV output has been diluted as stations pursue ratings by focusing on the “glitzy, the superficial, and the popular”. In film, “Hollywood culture and values” are increasingly dominating film production in other countries. Hollywood films have changed from creating formulaic films which emphasize “shock-value and superficial thrill[s]” and the use of special effects, with themes that focus on the “basic instincts of aggression, revenge, violence, [and] greed.” The plots “often seem simplistic, a standardized template taken from the shelf, and dialogue is minimal.” The “characters are shallow and unconvincing, the dialogue is also simple, unreal, and badly constructed.”
Adaptations based on traditional folklore provide a source of popular culture. This early layer of cultural mainstream still persists today, in a form separate from mass-produced popular culture, propagating by word of mouth rather than via mass media, e.g. in the form of jokes or urban legend. With the widespread use of the Internet from the 1990s, the distinction between mass media and word-of-mouth has become blurred.
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 spread by word-of-mouth, and become modified in the process in the same manner that folklore evolves.
Owing to the pervasive and increasingly interconnected nature of popular culture, especially its intermingling of complementary distribution sources, some cultural anthropologists, literary, and cultural critics have identified a large amount of intertextuality in popular culture’s portrayals of itself. One commentator has suggested this self-referentiality reflects the advancing encroachment of popular culture into every realm of collective experience. “Instead of referring to the real world, much media output devotes itself to referring to other images, other narratives; self-referentiality is all-embracing, although it is rarely taken account of.” Furthermore, the commentary on the intertextuality and its self referential nature has itself become the subject of self referential and recursive commentary.
Many cultural critics have dismissed this as merely a symptom or side-effect of mass consumerism; however, alternate explanations and critique have also been offered. One critic asserts that it reflects a fundamental paradox: the increase in technological and cultural sophistication, combined with an increase in superficiality and dehumanization.
Long-running television series The Simpsons routinely alludes to mainstream media properties, as well as the commercial content of the show itself. In the episode “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”, Bart complains about the crass commercialism of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade while watching television. When he turns his head away from the television, the screen shows an oversized inflatable balloon of Bart Simpson floating past.
According to television studies scholars specializing in quality television, such as Kristin Thompson, self-referentiality in mainstream American television (especially comedy) reflects and exemplifies the type of progression characterized previously. Thompson argues shows such as The Simpsons use a “…flurry of cultural references, intentionally inconsistent characterization, and considerable self-reflexivity about television conventions and the status of the programme as a television show.” Extreme examples approach a kind of thematic infinite regress wherein distinctions between art and life, commerce and critique, ridicule and homage become intractably blurred.
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- Although the Oxford English Dictionary lists the first use as 1854, it appears in an address by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in 1818: The Address of Pestalozzi to the British Public. 1818. “I see that it is impossible to attain this end without founding the means of popular culture and instruction upon a basis which cannot be got at otherwise than in a profound examination of Man himself; without such an investigation and such a basis all is darkness.”
- Per Adam Siljeström, The educational institutions of the United States, their character and organization, J. Chapman, 1853, p. 243: “Influence of European emigration on the state of civilization in the United States: Statistics of popular culture in America”. John Morley presented an address On Popular Culture at the town hall of Birmingham in 1876, dealing with the education of the lower classes.
- “Learning is dishonored when she stoops to attract,” cited in a section “Popular Culture and True Education” in University extension, Issue 4, The American society for the extension of university teaching, 1894.
- e.g. “the making of popular culture plays [in post-revolutionary Russian theater]”, Huntly Carter, The new spirit in the Russian theatre, 1917-28: And a sketch of the Russian kinema and radio, 1919-28, showing the new communal relationship between the three, Ayer Publishing, 1929, p. 166.
- “one look at the sheer mass and volume of what we euphemistically call our popular culture suffices”, from Winthrop Sargeant, ‘In Defense of the High-Brow’, an article from LIFE magazine, 11 April 1949, p. 102.
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- She is the author of Storytelling in Film and Television. Her other publications include Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Harvard University Press, November 1999); Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton University Press, August 1988); and, as a co-author with David Bordwell; Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill College, January 2003); Film History: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill College, August 2002)
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