What is Popular Culture?

What is popular culture?

I’m a big fan of popular culture. I like spotting pop culture references in TV, video games, films and comic books. I like seeing how people react to popular culture and I like seeing how culture becomes popular. But what exactly is popular culture?

Culture” according to Raymond Williamsis one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (Keywords; 1983; 87). Popular culture is a very interesting concept and one that doesn’t seem to have a wholly accurate, unanimously confirmed definition. It often seems that when discussing the term, ‘popular culture’, more questions crop up leaving answers harder to find. In my efforts to understand the term I shall be looking at Raymond Williams’ definitions of ‘culture’ and ‘popular’, examining John Storey’s six definitions of ‘popular culture’, looking at ideology and post-modernism along the way and then ultimately drawing a conclusion on the subject. I will relate these theories, where appropriate, to a particular culture: The modern rock scene.

Raymond Williams (Keywords, 1983) suggests that there are “three broad active categories of usage” for the term culture. His first definition states that culture is: “The independent and abstract noun which describes a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development” (Ibid.: 90)

This typically allows connotations to great thinkers of our time as well as artists and poets who contributed towards the general evolution of something such as Western European culture. However, this is probably the least likely of the three definitions to be mentioned when asked what popular culture is.

Williams’ second definition says that culture is:

“The independent noun, whether used generally or specifically, which indicates a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group, or humanity in general…” (Ibid.)

This definition states that if we are to examine the culture of a particular group or period in time that we would not only have to look at ‘traditional culture’ such as those mentioned in his first definition, but we would also have to examine factors such as sport, holidays, clothing and fashion styles, festivals, and so on. These are also known as lived cultures. This is where modern rock can be seen as a popular culture as devout followers of each of the individual sub-genres dress similarly to one another and they also attend similar events. If we take “emo” culture for example, followers typically wear lots of tight-fitting, dark, often black, clothing, have piercings, keep diaries, write poetry, are quite creative and attend alternative music concerts. Broadly speaking, they are easily identifiable by their attitude and physical appearance.

Williams’ third definition of culture is as follows: “The independent and abstract noun which describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity.” (Ibid.)

This appears to be the definition that is used most widely in today’s modern society as it states that culture can be music, film, soap opera, pop music, theatre, painting, sculpting, and so on, and these are probably the first things that come to mind nowadays when asked to think of what culture contains.

Also in ‘Keywords’, Williams offers four definitions of the term ‘popular’. He suggests the following meanings: ‘well liked by people’; “inferior kinds of work”; “work deliberately setting out to win favour”; “the culture actually made by people for themselves.” (p237)

We can ascertain then, that a universally accepted definition of ‘popular culture’ is looking quite difficult to find considering the different definitions of the words themselves when separated.

John Storey, however, offers six definitions of ‘popular culture’ in his book, ‘Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction’. The first definition he suggests is that popular culture is simply culture that is well liked or widely favoured by many people (p4). Storey writes that we already analyse the sales of books, CDs, films, the number of fans at concerts, festivals and sporting events. However, Storey argues that scrutinizing these numbers “paradoxically, tells us too much” (Ibid.) and that without a universally accepted figure that would indicate whether something is popular or not the idea becomes somewhat useless. The theory does, according to Storey, make clear that:

“…any definition of popular culture must include a quantitative dimension. The popular of popular culture would seem to demand it.” (Ibid.: p4)

Just using a quantitative index would not provide enough data to adequately define popular culture as such counting would also have to include ‘high culture’ which in terms of book sales, record sales and audience ratings for televised theatrical dramatizations of classic plays can justifiably claim to be ‘popular’ in that sense.

Is opera high culture or popular culture?
A night at the opera? High culture of popular culture?

Storey’s second definition suggests that popular culture is the culture that has been left over after it has been decided what is high culture. So, if going to a typically middle class dominated event such as an operatic performance is high culture then going to see a band such as The White Stripes would be considered popular culture. This definition describes popular culture as inferior culture; a residual category for products that fail to meet up to the elitist expectations of ‘high culture’. By making a text more difficult to understand it excludes a lot of people, guaranteeing the exclusivity of those who do understand it and allowing only the elite to appreciate it. French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu says in his book (La Distinction, Critique Sociale du Jugement) that cultural differences like these are often used to support class distinctions:

“That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences.” (p5)

This definition of culture is often supported by those who maintain that popular culture is merely mass-produced commercial culture and that since high culture is the result of an ‘individual act of creation’ it deserves a more moral and artistic response. Whatever the case, the division between high culture and popular culture is not only clear, but as Storey describes it, “transhistorical – fixed for all time.

However, as Storey points out, there are many problems with the latter point. At present, William Shakespeare is considered to be paramount to the realm of high culture but in the 16th and 17th Century he was very much part of popular theatre culture. The same can apply to Charles Dickens, Mozart and a plethora of other geniuses now considered part of high culture.

However, there are some signs of cultural blurring whereby texts previously considered part of high culture being lapped up by the masses and eventually becoming firmly part of popular culture – this is known as hybrid culture. An example of this is Pavarotti who shot to number one in the charts after releasing a cover of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” in 1990, resulting in a free concert held to over 100,000. This allowed people who could not normally afford a night at the opera to experience something new (Storey, 2006).

Storey’s third definition proposes that popular culture is mass culture: “Hopelessly commercial culture” that is “produced for mass consumption” (Ibid.: p6). This theory depicts the audience as hopelessly passive; however, John Fiske points out in his book (Understanding Popular Culture) that 80-90% of new products fail despite lavish and extensive advertising. This is surely evidence enough to argue against the passive audience idea.

This theory also states that mass consumerism is mainly imported from America. Storey writes: “Its central theme is that British culture has declined under the homogenizing influence of American culture.” (p7)

If popular culture and mass consumerism are indeed linked as this theory suggests, then the birthplace of popular culture would be in America during the 1920s when mass production and consumerism came into being. The fact that these practices have been in place for so long allows for more money to be put into the final product making it appeal to more people. The same is true in the music scene. Whilst British bands perform moderately well, their success is mostly limited to Britain (Robbie Williams, for example, famously found it difficult to break into America), and even then they have to contend with the high-selling American competition. American artists, on the other hand, have a universal appeal and bands such as Black Eyed Peas, Outkast or The Killers enjoy worldwide success, maybe due to higher production values. More recently, artists such as Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, and One Direction have managed to make huge waves in the American music charts.

Storey argues that there is a benign version of the mass culture perspective whereby popular culture could be considered a “collective dream-world” (p7). Storey argues that cultural practices such as Christmas and seaside holidays function in the same way as dreams as: “They articulate, in a disguised form, collective (but not repressed) wishes and desires.” (Storey: 2006: p7)

It is therefore argued that although popular culture repackages and sells us back our dreams, it allows us to have more varied dreams than ever imagined (Richard Maltby; Dreams for Sale, p14).

Storey’s fourth definition states that popular culture originates from the people, i.e., culture by the people for the people. Bennett writes:

“[Popular culture is] often equated with highly romanticised concept of working-class culture construed as the major source of symbolic protest within contemporary capitalism.” (Bennet: 1980: p27)

An example of this in terms of modern rock music would be the band Rage Against the Machine who were noted for their prominent leftist beliefs. During their most successful years they spoke out about America’s foreign and domestic policies. One of their live performances actually shut down the New York stock exchange! They are responsible for getting a lot of working-class young people aware of, and involved in, American politics. This definition of popular culture is rife in the music industry, with fans constantly complaining of bands ‘selling out’ and instead of making music for their fans they are said to be making it to please record producers or advertisers.

A problem does arrive, however, in that no matter how much a text may be made for the people, the ‘raw materials’, as described by Storey, are commercially provided.

John Storey’s fifth definition relies heavily on Antonio Gramsci’s views on hegemony. Although Gramscian theory is traditionally routed in politics, it can be applied to cultural studies. Gramsci uses the term hegemony to refer to the way in which foremost groups in society seek to win the approval of subordinate groups in society through a process of what Gramsci describes as “intellectual and moral leadership”. Popular culture arises from resistance and incorporation. Gramscian hegemony theorizes that popular culture is the result of the area of struggle between the subordinate and the dominant groups. In today’s society, the dominant group could be opinion leaders in specific fields, such as Jonathan Ross or Mark Kermode for film, with the subordinate group being the general audience.

John Storey’s sixth definition is based on the idea of post-modernism that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as:

“A style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions.”

With reference to popular culture, post-modern culture is, as Storey writes: “…a culture which no longer recognizes the distinction between high and popular culture” (Ibid.: p9)

An example of post-modernism is Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film, Romeo & Juliet. He uses the original Shakespearean play and places it in a more recognizable setting with more recognizable props (i.e. guns instead of swords). Whilst the text is the same as the original play, it became mainstream thanks to it being brought up to date and as such became popular.

Storey argues that there are two groups of post-modernists:

“[those who see it as] an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary distinctions of culture; for others it is a reason to despair at the final victory of commerce over culture.” (Ibid.)

An example of this is music from bands being used in adverts to sell products. Not only is the audience being sold a product, they are also being sold a music single which in many cases can be bought separately. For example, Apple used a song by The Caesars called ‘Jerk It Out’ to advertise the iPod shuffle. The song was re-released and went to number eight in the UK singles chart on the strength of the advert. The song promoted the product and the product promoted the song.

Popular culture: Song promoting product, product promoting song
‘Jerk It Out’ Apple iPod advertising campaign

By the combination of William’s combined seven definitions and Storey’s six definitions, I think it is clear that any precise and unanimous definition of popular culture is far from being found. What is clear though, is that the idea is a fairly new concept brought about by industrialization and urbanization. Storey argues that, before the two processes outlined above, there were only two forms of culture: Common culture and elitist culture (p10).

If I were to give my definition of what popular culture is to me, I believe I could sum it up in one word: Life. Popular culture, to me, is a constantly evolving idea that grows and expands as each new generation dawns as others come to a close. It creates currents and eddies which constantly grow and develop and eventually, perhaps inevitably, enjoy rejuvenation years later when it perhaps becomes the style once more, much like how rock music has overtaken ‘pop’ music to become the current popular music, something the genre last truly enjoyed in the 1960s.

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