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Popular culture

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Popular culture (also known as pop culture) deemed as what is popular within the social context — that of which is most strongly represented by what is perceived to be popularly accepted among society. Otherwise, popular culture is also suggested to be the widespread cultural elements in any given society that are perpetuated through that society's vernacular language or 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,", that is, the culture of ruling social groups. The earliest use of "popular" in English was during the fifteenth century in law and politics, meaning "low", "base", "vulgar", and "of the common people" 'til the late eighteenth century by which time it began to mean "widespread" and gain in positive connotation. (Williams 1985)

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 has had a particular influence on art from the early 1960s on, through Pop Art. When modern pop culture began during the early 1950s, it made it harder for adults to participate. Today, most adults, their kids and grandchildren "participate" in pop culture directly or indirectly.


The meaning of popular and the meaning of culture are essentially contested concepts and there are multiple competing definitions of popular culture. John Storey, in "Cultural Theory and Popular Culture", discusses six definitions. The quantitative definition, of culture has the problem that much "high" culture (e.g. television dramatisations of Jane Austen) is widely favoured. "Pop culture" can also be defined as the culture that is "left over" when we have decided what " high culture" is. However, many works straddle or cross the boundaries e.g. William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Puccini-Verdi-Pavarotti- Nessun Dorma. Storey draws our attention to the forces and relations which sustain this difference such as the educational system.

A third definition equates pop culture with Mass Culture. This is seen as a commercial culture, mass produced for mass consumption. From a U.K. (and European) point of view, this may be equated 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." Story 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 postmodernism approach to popular culture would "no longer recognise the distinction between high and popular culture'

Storey emphasises that popular culture emerges from the urbanisation of the industrial revolution, which identifies the term with the usual definitions of 'mass culture'. 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.

Institutional propagation

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.

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 reality and from themselves." He argues that mass media then lessens "...people's capacity to experience life itself." ."

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 that and replaced it with entertainment or titilation 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 relentlessly pursue "populism and 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 focusing on scriptwriting and dialogue to creating formulaic films which emphasize "...shock-value and superficial thrill[s]" and special effects, with themes that focus on the "...basic instincts of aggression, revenge, violence, [and] greed." The plots "...often seem simplistic, a standardised template taken from the shelf, and dialogue is minimal." The "characters are shallow and unconvincing, the dialogue is also simple, unreal, and badly constructed."


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.


Owing to the pervasive and increasingly interconnected nature of popular culture, especially its intermingling of complementary distribution sources, some cultural anthropologists have identified the use of "popular culture within popular culture" as a distinct phenomenon. Literary and cultural critics have identified this as following the well-recognized but variegated concept of intertextuality.

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."

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.

Examples from American television

According to television scholars specializing in quality television, such as Kristin Thompson, self-referentiality in mainstream American television (especially comedy) both reflects and exemplifies the type of progression characterized previously. Thompson argues that 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 literally approach a kind of thematic infinite regress wherein the distinctions between art and life, commerce and critique, ridicule and homage become intractably blurred.

Examples include:

  • Seinfeld a show premised on the concept that it is a "show about nothing." The main character of the show has the same name as the actor who plays that character. In one episode, the character George mocks this very premise directly by asking "Who will go for that crap?" Such self-derision represents an especially salient and humorous critique considering the relative success of the show.
  • The Simpsons routinely alludes to mainstream media properties, as well as the commercial content of the show itself. In one episode, 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, he is shown floating by as an oversized inflatable balloon. The show also invokes liberal reference to contemporary issues as depicted in the mainstream, and often merges such references with unconventional and even esoteric associations to classical and postmodernist works of literature, entertainment and art.
  • Teen pop often influencing mainstream media through MTV, Channel V, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. It is primarily driven by Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and other teen pop artists.
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