Contemporary Media And Popular Culture Essay
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Pop Culture: An Overview
Tim Delaney sets the scene for our philosophical consideration of popular stuff.
The term ‘popular culture’ holds different meanings depending on who’s defining it and the context of use. It is generally recognized as the vernacular or people’s culture that predominates in a society at a point in time. As Brummett explains in Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture, pop culture involves the aspects of social life most actively involved in by the public. As the ‘culture of the people’, popular culture is determined by the interactions between people in their everyday activities: styles of dress, the use of slang, greeting rituals and the foods that people eat are all examples of popular culture. Popular culture is also informed by the mass media.
There are a number of generally agreed elements comprising popular culture. For example, popular culture encompasses the most immediate and contemporary aspects of our lives. These aspects are often subject to rapid change, especially in a highly technological world in which people are brought closer and closer by omnipresent media. Certain standards and commonly held beliefs are reflected in pop culture. Because of its commonality, pop culture both reflects and influences people’s everyday life (see eg Petracca and Sorapure, Common Culture). Furthermore, brands can attain pop iconic status (eg the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches). However, iconic brands, as other aspects of popular culture, may rise and fall.
With these fundamental aspects in mind, popular culture may be defined as the products and forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered or widely accepted, commonly liked or approved, and characteristic of a particular society at a given time. Ray Browne in his essay ‘Folklore to Populore’ offers a similar definition: “Popular culture consists of the aspects of attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and tastes that define the people of any society. Popular culture is, in the historic use of term, the culture of the people.”
Popular culture allows large heterogeneous masses of people to identify collectively. It serves an inclusionary role in society as it unites the masses on ideals of acceptable forms of behavior. Along with forging a sense of identity which binds individuals to the greater society, consuming pop culture items often enhances an individual’s prestige in their peer group. Further, popular culture, unlike folk or high culture, provides individuals with a chance to change the prevailing sentiments and norms of behavior, as we shall see. So popular culture appeals to people because it provides opportunities for both individual happiness and communal bonding.
Examples of Popular Culture
Examples of popular culture come from a wide array of genres, including popular music, print, cyber culture, sports, entertainment, leisure, fads, advertising and television. Sports and television are arguably two of the most widely consumed examples of popular culture, and they also represent two examples of popular culture with great staying power.
Sports are played and watched by members of all social classes, but (tautologously) the masses are responsible for the huge popularity of sports. Some sporting events, such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are consumed by a world community. Sports are pervasive in most societies and represent a major part of many people’s lives. Showing allegiance to a team as a means of self-identification is a common behavior. Further, cheering for a sports team or a favorite athlete is a way any individual can become part of popular culture, as I and Tim Madigan explain in our new book The Sociology of Sport.
Many people watch numerous hours of television everyday. It is such a prevalent aspect of contemporary culture it is difficult to imagine life without it. There are those who believe TV is responsible for the dumbing down of society; that children watch too much television; and that the couch potato syndrome has contributed to the epidemic of childhood obesity. The globally popular TV show The Simpsons provides us with an interesting perspective on television. In the episode ‘Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming’ (#137), while doing time in prison, Sideshow Bob becomes a critic of television. Although he was once a regular on The Krusty the Clown Show, Bob has become obsessed by television’s harmful effect on society. Bob argues that everyone’s lives would be much richer if TV were done away with. As a result, he devises a scheme to detonate a nuclear bomb unless all television is abolished in Springfield. Unable to locate Bob, Springfield’s city officials meet to discuss Bob’s demands of abolishing TV. A panicky Krusty proclaims, “Would it really be worth living in a world without television? I think the survivors would envy the dead.” Although there are people who agree with Sideshow Bob, the masses would more likely agree with Krusty: that living in a world without television is not really living. It is even more difficult to imagine a world without popular culture.
Folk and High Culture
Popular culture is usually distinguished from folk and high culture. In some ways, folk culture is similar to pop culture because of the mass participation involved. Folk culture, however, represents the traditional way of doing things. Consequently, it is not as amendable to change and is much more static than popular culture.
Folk culture represents a simpler lifestyle, that is generally conservative, largely self-sufficient, and often characteristic of rural life. Radical innovation is generally discouraged. Group members are expected to conform to traditional modes of behavior adopted by the community. Folk culture is local in orientation, and non-commercial. In short, folk culture promises stability, whereas popular culture is generally looking for something new or fresh. Because of this, popular culture often represents an intrusion and a challenge to folk culture. Conversely, folk culture rarely intrudes upon popular culture. There are times when certain elements of folk culture (eg Turkish rugs, Mexican blankets and Irish fairy tales) find their way into the world of pop culture. Generally, when items of folk culture are appropriated and marketed by the popular culture, the folk items gradually lose their original form.
A key characteristic of popular culture is its accessibility to the masses. It is, after all, the culture of the people. High culture, on the other hand, is not mass produced, nor meant for mass consumption. It belongs to the social elite; the fine arts, opera, theatre, and high intellectualism are associated with the upper socioeconomic classes. Items of high culture often require extensive experience, training, or reflection to be appreciated. Such items seldom cross over to the pop culture domain. Consequently, popular culture is generally looked (down) upon as being superficial when compared to the sophistication of high culture. (This does not mean that social elites do not participate in popular culture or that members of the masses do not participate in high culture.)
The Formation of Popular Culture
Through most of human history, the masses were influenced by dogmatic forms of rule and traditions dictated by local folk culture. Most people were spread throughout small cities and rural areas – conditions that were not conducive to a ‘popular’ culture. With the beginning of the Industrial era (late eighteenth century), the rural masses began to migrate to cities, leading to the urbanization of most Western societies.
Urbanization is a key ingredient in the formation of popular culture. People who once lived in homogeneous small villages or farms found themselves in crowded cities marked by great cultural diversity. These diverse people would come to see themselves as a ‘collectivity’ as a result of common, or popular, forms of expression. Thus, many scholars trace the beginning of the popular culture phenomenon to the rise of the middle class brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
Industrialization also brought with it mass production; developments in transportation, such as the steam locomotive and the steamship; advancements in building technology; increased literacy; improvements in education and public health; and the emergence of efficient forms of commercial printing, representing the first step in the formation of a mass media (eg the penny press, magazines, and pamphlets). All of these factors contributed to the blossoming of popular culture. By the start of the twentieth century, the print industry mass-produced illustrated newspapers and periodicals, as well as serialized novels and detective stories. Newspapers served as the best source of information for a public with a growing interest in social and economic affairs. The ideas expressed in print provided a starting point for popular discourse on all sorts of topics. Fueled by further technological growth, popular culture was greatly impacted by the emerging forms of mass media throughout the twentieth century. Films, broadcast radio and television all had a profound influence on culture.
So urbanization, industrialization, the mass media and the continuous growth in technology since the late 1700s, have all been significant factors in the formation of popular culture. These continue to be factors shaping pop culture today.
Sources of Popular Culture
There are numerous sources of popular culture. As implied above, a primary source is the mass media, especially popular music, film, television, radio, video games, books and the internet. In addition, advances in communication allows for the greater transmission of ideas by word of mouth, especially via cell phones. Many TV programs, such as American Idol and the Last Comic Standing, provide viewers with a phone number so that they can vote for a contestant. This combining of pop culture sources represents a novel way of increasing public interest, and further fuels the mass production of commodities.
Popular culture is also influenced by professional entities that provide the public with information. These sources include the news media, scientific and scholarly publications, and ‘expert’ opinion from people considered an authority in their field. For example, a news station reporting on a specific topic, say the effects of playing violent video games, will seek a noted psychologist or sociologist who has published in this area. This strategy is a useful way of influencing the public and may shape their collective opinions on a particular subject. At the very least, it provides a starting point for public discourse and differing opinions. News stations often allow viewers to call or email in their opinions, which may be shared with the public.
A seemingly contradictory source of popular culture is individualism. Urban culture has not only provided a common ground for the masses, it has inspired ideals of individualistic aspirations. In the United States, a society formed on the premise of individual rights, there are theoretically no limitations to what an individual might accomplish. An individual may choose to participate in all that is ‘popular’ for popularity’s sake; or they may choose a course of action off the beaten track. At times, these ‘pathfinders’ affect popular culture by their individuality. Of course, once a unique style becomes adopted by others, it ceases to remain unique. It becomes, popular.
© Tim Delaney 2007
Tim Delaney is a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Oswego. A member of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association, Delaney is the author of Seinology: The Sociology of Seinfeld and is currently writing a book on The Simpsons that is scheduled for publication in February, 2008. Visit his website at www.booksbytimdelaney.com.
"Pop Culture" redirects here. For the Madeon song, see Pop Culture (song).
Popular culture or pop culture is generally recognized as a set of practices, beliefs, and objects that are dominant or ubiquitous in a society at a given point in time. Popular culture also encompasses the activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society. Therefore, popular culture has a way of influencing an individual's attitudes towards certain topics. However, there are various ways to define pop culture. Because of this, popular culture is considered to be an empty conceptual category, or something that can be defined in a variety of conflicting ways by different people across different contexts. It is generally defined in contrast to other forms of culture such as mass culture, folk culture, working-class culture, or high culture and also through different theoretical perspectives such as psychoanalysis, structuralism, postmodernism, and more. The most common pop culture categories are: entertainment (such as movies, music, television, and video games), sports, news (as in people/places in news), politics, fashion/clothes, technology, and slang.
Popular culture is sometimes 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, or corrupt.
History and definitions
See also: Cultural history
The term "popular culture" was coined in the 19th century or earlier. Traditionally, popular culture was associated with poor education and the lower classes, as opposed to the "official culture" and higher education of the upper classes.
The stress in the distinction from "official culture" became more pronounced towards the end of the 19th century,[need quotation to verify] a usage that became established by the interbellum period.[need quotation to verify]
From the end of World War II, following major cultural and social changes brought by mass media innovations, the meaning of popular culture began to overlap with those of mass culture, media culture, image culture, consumer culture, and culture for mass consumption. Social and cultural changes in the United States were a pioneer in this with respect to other western countries.
The abbreviated form "pop" for popular, as in pop music, dates from the late 1950s. Although terms "pop" and "popular" are in some cases used interchangeably, and their meaning partially overlap, the term "pop" is narrower. Pop is specific of something containing qualities of mass appeal, while "popular" refers to what has gained popularity, regardless of its style.
According to author John Storey, there are 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., William 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.[clarification needed] Alternatively, "pop culture" can be defined as an "authentic" culture of the people, but this can be problematic as there are many ways of defining the "people."[page needed] Storey argued 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 emerged 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).[need quotation to verify]
Popular culture is constantly evolving 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.
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 always embrace every cultural or subculture 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.
Main article: Television program
A television program is a segment of content intended for broadcast on over-the-air, cable television, or Internet television, other than a commercial, trailer, or any other segment of content not serving as attraction for viewership.
Television programs may be fictional (as in comedies and dramas), or non-fictional (as in documentary, news, and reality television). It may be topical (as in the case of a localnewscast and some made-for-television movies), or historical (as in the case of many documentaries and fictional series). They could be primarily instructional or educational, or entertaining as is the case in situation comedy and game shows.
Main article: Popular music
Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training. It stands in contrast to both art music and traditional or "folk" music. Art music was historically disseminated through the performances of written music, although since the beginning of the recording industry, it is also disseminated through recordings. Traditional music forms such as early blues songs or hymns were passed along orally, or to smaller, local audiences.
Main article: Sport
Sport includes all forms of competitivephysical activity or games which, through casual or organised participation, aim to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants, and in some cases, entertainment for spectators.
Main article: Corporate branding
Corporate branding refers to the practice of promoting the brand name of a corporate entity, as opposed to specific products or services.
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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: Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich (1818). The Address of Pestalozzi to the British Public.
- ^Per Adam Siljeström (sv), 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 Birmingham Town Hall in 1876, dealing with the education of the lower classes.
- ^Rabelais and Bakhtin: Popular Culture in "Gargantua and Pantagruel" p.13
- ^Rabelais's Radical Farce p.9
- ^"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.
- ^The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, volume 15, p.85 entry Pop music
- ^Steinem, Gloria. Outs of pop culture, in LIFE magazine, 20 August 1965, p. 73 quotation:
Pop Culture-although big, mercurial, and slippery to define-is really an umbrella term that covers anything currently in fashion, all or most of whose ingredients are familiar to the public-at-large. The new dances are a perfect example... Pop Art itself may mean little to the average man, but its vocabulary...is always familiar.
- ^Bill Lamb, "What Is Pop Music? A Definition", About.com, retrieved 8 March 2012 quotation:
It is tempting to confuse pop music with popular music. The New Grove Dictionary Of Music and Musicians, the musicologist's ultimate reference resource, identifies popular music as the music since industrialization in the 1800s that is most in line with the tastes and interests of the urban middle class. This would include an extremely wide range of music from vaudeville and minstrel shows to heavy metal. Pop music, on the other hand, has primarily come into usage to describe music that evolved out of the rock 'n roll revolution of the mid-1950s and continues in a definable path to today.
- ^John Storey. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, pp.4-8
- ^Sérgio Campos Gonçalves, “Cultura e Sociedade de Consumo: um olhar em retrospecto”, InRevista - Núcleo de Produção Científica em Comunicação – UNAERP (Ribeirão Preto), v. 3, pp. 18-28, 2008, ISSN 1980-6418.
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