Popular Culture

Popular culture has become segmented into a myriad of forms, genres, audiences, tones, styles and purposes, so much so that it cannot meaningfully be talked about as a monolith. While some so-called ‘popular culture’ is produced en masse (and has certain of the characteristics of mid-twentieth-century mass culture that cultural critics of the period complained about), a great deal is produced for relatively small numbers of people who are familiar with, and more or less passionately interested in, the genres involved. And a great deal of popular culture – such as hip hop for instance – does retain links with geographical communities. Yet, at the same time it is increasingly finding new links between sectors and ways to market one set of products in terms of another. Branding across formats has become increasingly important with tie-ins: comics, computer games, books, films, music CDs, music videos, TV shows can all be produced around the same characters and ‘brand’. From the industry perspective this is one of the forces driving consolidation as large media conglomerates look for ‘synergies’ in a quest that has not been as successful in business terms as was once predicted. The point is, however, that both these forces – of segmentation and of consolidation – exist simultaneously and do not have to be thought of in contradiction.

Certainly popular culture is riddled with art niches, in the sense that it produces work which resists immediate pleasures and satisfactions; which is experimental in terms of its media; which is ambitious in that it expresses unusual and thoughtful feelings and messages; which is often conscious of the history of its particular genre; and which requires some familiarity with a wider field than with the piece of work itself. In these terms there exist thousands of movies (David Lynch), songs (Radiohead or the Magnetic Fields), comic books (Chris Ware), even television shows (The Sopranos), which hybridise high and low forms. Indeed, art values are not only being democratised but are breaking into new spheres as they colonise fields such as food, car culture, wine and fashion (at the same time as art itself is becoming deaestheticised). Admittedly these values may be class markers and the products that express them available mainly to the privileged, although not exclusively: take aestheticised or ‘custom’ car culture as an example of an aesthetic practice that has barely been taken up or enjoyed by the bourgeoisie.

From the other side, sectors of old high culture have embraced the instruments of popular culture without losing much credibility. For instance, much art produced by artschool graduates and aimed at the art world has absorbed commercialism and the media. (In fact it is the very strength of the ‘art world’ as an institution which allows this to happen.) This has largely been Andy Warhol‘s legacy, and has been taken up, to much controversy, by the Brit artists of the late nineties. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin have become celebrities and cultural entrepreneurs in a way not especially different from any rock star or fashionable restaurateur. Actually, the whole phenomenon of Brit Art is an example of the complex relation between different styles and audiences that cannot be broken down into the high and low division (Betterton 2001).

Modern popular culture has also developed tones and moods unique to itself partly because its consumers know that it is profit-orientated business and that they are being, to some degree, exploited, but generally don’t care! The enjoyment and the meaning of the music, the fashion, the movie or the record exist, not despite commercialisation but because of it. To enjoy and consume it is, whatever else it is, to participate in the present. Hence some popular culture is enjoyed in this spirit – ‘It’s rubbish, but I like it’ – and there is often a sense of solidarity between producers and consumers in that they share the joke. A typical example: the laddish British magazine, Loaded’s logo, ‘For men who should know better’. This is sometimes called irony, but that’s not quite right. It’s an attitude that does not fit the old categories developed to describe the possibilities of cultural orders still under the grip of the classics and aesthetics.

There is a closely related phenomenon in which conventional images of being a girl or being a boy for instance are pastiched slightly, exaggerated with a trace of mockery, as in the Hollywood teen-movie Clueless. This is sometimes read as providing a political space in which new grounds for identity formation can be explored (McRobbie 1999, 127). This is doubtful however. That kind of interpretation falls prey to what we can call the fallacy of progressive self-referentiality or self-ironisation. Being aware that one is being positioned into stereotypes of femininity say, and gently making a joke of it by camping the stereotypes up, implies no liberation from that position. If anything it implies a tolerance of being positioned.

Popular culture often displays its intelligence in the way that it develops new styles to appeal to new audiences. Often these involve the old category of wit. So to riff on an example from Paul Gilroy , that of the early-nineties Californian rapper Snoop Dogg. Snoop was involved in the project of popularising rap, transforming it into a mainstream pop genre. Why did he pass as a dog? Because dogs chase pussy. Because it is a dog eat dog world. Because dogs hunt in packs. Because the dogfather is an inverted godfather. Because a dog is an abject creature and doing it doggy style is thought of by some as gross and as demeaning to women, although (jumping ahead in time) it is also a move in the sexy perreo dance style which caused an uproar in San Juan. Because, on the other hand, a dog is man’s best friend and a favourite of white Hollywood family movies, where no family is a real family without one. Because dogs (like Snoop) are dogged. And because a man impersonating a dog is comic (if a little embarrassing) rather than threatening (Gilroy 2000, 204ff.). Snoop disseminated a trope from the streets in which abjection was turned against itself so as to attract the widest possible audience/ market.

Popular culture also routinely creates more or less invented notions of tradition and innovation: there are neo-modern, neo-classic and a plethora of retro styles , (just thinking of decades, there’s a taste for each – thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties styles, you name it). Of course, there is nothing new in the anchoring of taste formations in the past: neo-classicism, which shifts its meaning and its content across generations in the period between the Renaissance and the mid-twentieth century, is arguably the key taste/style formation of modern Western culture and has always involved elements of ‘invented tradition’. Neo-classicism has generally meant order and harmony in turbulent times, and under modern capitalism all times are turbulent, so that one function of taste and style has been to indicate a historically transcendent calm and stability. But in contemporary popular culture, retro is neither a principle of order nor even of nostalgia: it organises fashions which know themselves as such, soliciting complex modes of reception which involve memory, irony, regret and pastiche.

To point to popular culture’s rich and innovatory tonal range, however, is not to say that popular culture does not have real limits and problems. But in most cases these are confined to specific occasions or genres and can’t be used to demonise the domain as a whole. One of popular culture’s more systemic limits is that of obsolescence. In it, individual works or arts do not usually acquire prestige and aura because they are rare and exist at a distance from those who appreciate them, but on the contrary because certain names and texts are everywhere, because they have a culturally saturating fame. It is true that the objects of specific and limited tastes (Lou Reed, South Park) can acquire considerable prestige among the hippest taste monitors at a particular moment, but they have, even at their period of greatest acclaim, nothing like the massive popularity (or circulation at any rate) of Madonna or The Simpsons at their peak. Yet all prestige and appeal is acquired only in the process which will exhaust it: at a certain point repetition and celebrity turn into boredom and satiety, and the object is trashed into final uncoolness and obsolescence, awaiting its call into history’s dustbin – from which it will be retrieved (perhaps) as retro or nostalgia. Only premature death can stop this process it seems:Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, James Dean.

The transitoriness of much popular culture is linked to its generationalism: massified popular culture is directed in particular to the young, since they have the greatest ‘discretionary’ spending power, as well as the most need to use it to make social connections. This complicates things considerably since old popular cultures become intertwined with youth memories for ageing generations, and getting into contemporary popular cultures routinely comes to require negotiation with the sense that one is ‘too old’ for this.

And popular culture can be exploitative – let’s call two important forms of this the rip-off and the beat-up. The rip-off appears when marketing efforts are made to entice audiences to consume low-quality work. The sad tale of the Star Wars franchise is a good case in point: the most recent films have contained no (good) new ideas and have none of their predecessors’ energy. Their main impetus was clearly profit, and most people seeing them would feel slightly cheated. Almost every franchise (and notably television series) involves a certain rip-off since they are under structural pressure to end a little past the time that they can maintain quality.

The beat-up is the intensifying of prejudices and cultural divisions: in a sense almost all Hollywood production before about 1980 is a beat-up on African Americans. This does not mean that all films that pandered to and intensified negative images of blacks are simply to be rejected on those grounds (as if films that encourage horrible prejudices cannot have other attractive – if not quite ‘redeeming’ – features), but it does mean that those films were exploitative of white racism. Rabidly conservative talk-show hosts, offering false information, closing down on dissent, bullying and ranting have refined the beat-up into a form all of its own. The effort to end that kind of exploitation is, of course, one of cultural studies’ most important and easily defended tasks.

Because, under capitalism, popular culture is fundamentally commercialised, it is a standard bearer for commercial values and the ideology that supports consumer capitalism. This means that it has a somewhat conflictual relationship with publicly funded culture and in particular with public broadcasting. There may, indeed, be good reasons to support the public funding of culture – and, as we know, these reasons usually boil down to maintaining diversity and news services which are not ratings-driven and protecting the poorest in the community from the overpricing of media services. On the other hand public subsidy for middle-class tastes is not so easily defensible. And so in certain contexts, commercial popular culture as an enemy of, or at any rate an alternative to, public culture can work against the best interests of the community.

The big point is, then, that cultural populists need to recognise limits and problems to popular culture as it exists (some of which are open to cultural policy intervention), while cultural elitists need to recognise that those limits and problems do not define popular culture as such.


Miller, Toby. A Companion To Cultural Studies. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.
Brantlinger, Patrick. Bread & Circuses:Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.
Fiske, John. ‘British Cultural Studies and Television’. Channels of Discourse: TV and Contemporary Criticism.Ed.R.C.Allen.Chapel Hill,NC;London:University of North Carolina Press,1987.
–– Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
Frow, John. Cultural Studies and Cultural Value. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hartley, John. The Politics of Pictures:The Creation of the Public in the Age of Popular Media. London: Routledge, 1992.
Jenkins, Henry,Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc. Hop on Pop:The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
McGuigan, Jim. Cultural Populism. London; New York: Routledge, 1992.
–– Culture and the Public Sphere. London; New York: Routledge, 1996.

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