In a recent blog post, I railed against popular culture as being an unhealthy force in our lives. In response, Dr. Lawrence Rubin, a fellow blogger who studies popular culture, commented: "If we simply consider popular culture as banality, it certainly seems meaningless...even potentially destructive. However, if instead we recognize that it is simply an expression of our collective experiences, its importance becomes more clear." I would have agreed with that statement 30 years ago when popular culture was, in fact, an expression of our collective experiences. But I think it's time for those who study popular culture to wake up and smell the Starbucks (popular-culture reference intended): popular culture is not popular!
As Terry S., another commenter, noted, there is nothing popular about popular culture these days: "90% of what is considered popular culture is churned out by corporations...with the sole purpose... that we can be converted into voracious consumers..." We didn't demand, for example, Desperate Housewives, Grand Theft Auto, or Facebook. They were created to make money and then marketed as "must-haves" which, admittedly, the masses then embraced.
I believe in truth in advertising, so we should stop calling popular culture popular culture because, well, it no longer is a reflection of popular sentiment. I think a more accurate phrase is "synth culture" because it is a synthetic product created by corporate conglomerates rather than being an expression of the shared experiences of real people.
We Are What We Consume
Terry S. also offered a wonderful metaphor for popular culture. She likened authentic popular culture to organic food, which is grown and consumed by people who have a deep respect for themselves and healthful living. In contrast, synth culture, like processed food, is largely artificial, unhealthy and driven by the profit motive. And entire generations are being force-fed this unwholesome diet while the synth culture is sating its own rapacious appetite.
Terry S. concludes her metaphor beautifully, suggesting that "pop culture is fast food for the soul." American Idol, People Magazine, iPods, and Brangelina (just to name a few) are tasty and addictive. But, extending her metaphor further, just as fast food isn't healthy for the body, synth culture isn't healthy for the soul. Neither provides real "nourishment;" in both cases, our bodies, minds and spirits remain hungry for real sustenance.
A "Diet" of Empty Calories
So what happens when a genuine popular culture is replaced by a synth culture? Well, what happens when you replace an organic diet rich in nutrients with one that is artificial, calorie-intensive and nutrient-poor? The answer is self-evident, yet we continue on this diet without realizing that that it may very well be slowly killing us individually and collectively.
Why would we not recognize this unhealthy diet and make a change for the better? In the face of global instability, economic uncertainty and unsettling societal change, synth culture offers us mighty fine "comfort food;" it's delicious, fills us up, and makes us feel good. Synth culture really has become the new "opiate of the masses," dulling our existential and all-too-down-to-Earth angst with a diet of tasty, though empty, calories.
And what is really scary is that the current generation of young people is the first to be raised entirely in this synth culture with no experience of what an authentic popular culture is.
The Real Harm
Most people think of popular culture as the most common forms of entertainment, whether television, movies, music or what's on the Web. But popular culture is grounded in expressions of shared experiences that are much more fundamental to our society, including the values and beliefs that have shaped it, for example: integrity, community, compassion, courage, sacrifice, respect, hard work and justice.
Here's what worries me: if our popular culture is no longer this deeper expression of our collective experiences, then something important is being lost. We may be entertained by The Biggest Loser, Knocked Up, or Jay-Z, but we are also unwittingly influenced by the messages that underlie this popular entertainment and which form the basis of synth culture, messages of greed, consumption, schadenfreude, win at any cost and misogyny, just to name a few.
Collectively, a popular culture that is an expression of a society's shared experiences has essential value and a beneficial function to that society. It is an important contributor to the formation and growth of a healthy society. Perhaps as much as the rule of law, an authentic popular culture acts as a societal truth, a shared bond that holds societies together and communicates that "we are one." And maybe more powerfully than the top-down government-provided glue, a genuine popular culture, created "of the people, by the people, and for the people," acts as the real, bottom-up glue that unites diverse people into a cohesive society.
As individuals, a genuine popular culture instills a sense of ownership and empowerment in our society because each of us knows that we contribute to that culture. We are more likely to act in our society's best interests because we know that those best interests are also our own. An authentic popular culture also gives us a sense of shared identity, meaning, and purpose that transcends differences in geography, race, ethnicity, religion or politics. All of these then encourage us to lead a life in accordance with our culture's values and norms because they are our own.
Tyranny By Any Other Name
Consider other societies where a genuine popular culture was suffocated. Until now, the only examples have been found in totalitarian societies, such as those under Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler. What we saw in these societies, when the lid finally came off, were deeply injured populaces that took years of freedom to recover from the individual and societal damage and reestablish their authentic popular culture. And, sadly, the people of Cuba and North Korea have yet to have this opportunity.
What we now have in America is a seemingly free democracy in which popular culture has also been strangled. But instead of governmental and military control by an authoritarian regime, our popular culture has been throttled by economic and media control by a corporate oligarchy. Our current generation of young people may turn out to resemble those raised under Stalin and Mussolini, failing to be nourished by an authentic popular culture.
Much like those who, living under repressive regimes, have lost their will to think independently and to fight for what they believe, the real threat of synth culture is that we lose touch with and become incapable of expressing our own deeply held values and convictions; we become passive recipients of whatever synth culture feeds us. In fact, we are already hooked on synth culture's diet, whether our preoccupation with wealth, fame and physical appearance, the debt-incurring materialism, or the absence of respect in our civil discourse. And the future does not look pretty.
A Future With No Popular Culture
Might it be too great a stretch to suggest that the loss of a genuine popular culture is contributing to the fragmentation and polarization of our society? Or that the widespread feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness many in our society feel could be a sad result of our loss of real popular culture? Or that many Americans' relentless and seemingly futile search for meaning and purpose is caused by a synth culture that offers neither? And what will happen to America when authentic popular culture is only a distant memory? Now that is a question that is truly terrifying to ponder.