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What is Popular Culture?

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What is Popular Culture?

  1. 1. What is Popular Culture?What is Popular Culture?
  2. 2. Defining Popular CultureDefining Popular Culture The People’s CultureThe People’s Culture Mass CultureMass Culture Low CultureLow Culture Culture that is PopularCulture that is Popular Popular ValuesPopular Values Commercial CultureCommercial Culture
  3. 3. The People’s CultureThe People’s Culture  Invokes the wordInvokes the word populuspopulus (Latin), or in English,(Latin), or in English, the populace: the people.the populace: the people.  Implies that some culture is somehow not theImplies that some culture is somehow not the culture of ‘the people’.culture of ‘the people’.  Or that ‘the people’ all have the same culture.Or that ‘the people’ all have the same culture.  Suggests that some culture is thrust upon usSuggests that some culture is thrust upon us against our will, while other forms of culture areagainst our will, while other forms of culture are made or chosen by us.made or chosen by us.
  4. 4. The People’s CultureThe People’s Culture This approach to popular culture isThis approach to popular culture is associated with folk culture, as opposed toassociated with folk culture, as opposed to culture produced in elite institutions suchculture produced in elite institutions such as art museums or symphonies.as art museums or symphonies. It is made at the local level in specificIt is made at the local level in specific communities.communities. We might think of quilting groups, localWe might think of quilting groups, local music scenes, or community art programs.music scenes, or community art programs. Folk music comes easily to mind, but lotsFolk music comes easily to mind, but lots of other culture fits this description.of other culture fits this description.
  5. 5. The People’s CultureThe People’s Culture Obviously, one problem here is that thisObviously, one problem here is that this form of culture simply isn’t what springsform of culture simply isn’t what springs immediately to mind when we use theimmediately to mind when we use the term popular culture. Instead, we think ofterm popular culture. Instead, we think of TV, movies, and music that are madeTV, movies, and music that are made within an industry, and not necessarily atwithin an industry, and not necessarily at the local level.the local level.
  6. 6. Popular Culture as Mass CulturePopular Culture as Mass Culture  Related to the notion of The People’s Culture isRelated to the notion of The People’s Culture is the idea of Mass Culture.the idea of Mass Culture.  Mass culture has less of a sense of locality orMass culture has less of a sense of locality or community.community.  This approach groups most of society into aThis approach groups most of society into a giant mass and assumes they all do the samegiant mass and assumes they all do the same things.things.  Historically, mass culture was a term used byHistorically, mass culture was a term used by economic elites (aristocrats), to describe peopleeconomic elites (aristocrats), to describe people who are not like them.who are not like them.
  7. 7. Popular Culture as Mass CulturePopular Culture as Mass Culture  Some flaws with this approach:Some flaws with this approach:  Economic elites still consume lots of things that fit theEconomic elites still consume lots of things that fit the mass culture model. They still like country music andmass culture model. They still like country music and TV shows, just like others.TV shows, just like others.  BUT, it turns out there really isn’t a single mass.BUT, it turns out there really isn’t a single mass.  Our cultural practices are divided into many differentOur cultural practices are divided into many different categories: in terms of preferences, in terms of racecategories: in terms of preferences, in terms of race or ethnicity, in terms of ideology, in terms of genderor ethnicity, in terms of ideology, in terms of gender and sexuality, in terms of age. There is no piece ofand sexuality, in terms of age. There is no piece of popular culture that we all consume.popular culture that we all consume.  There is no single mass.There is no single mass.
  8. 8. Popular Culture as Mass CulturePopular Culture as Mass Culture Counter-response: we really aren’t asCounter-response: we really aren’t as different as we think, and our culture isdifferent as we think, and our culture is surprisingly uniform.surprisingly uniform. An R&B song is remade by a country band.An R&B song is remade by a country band. A British TV show is remade by an AmericanA British TV show is remade by an American network, using the same script (The Office,network, using the same script (The Office, Coupling).Coupling). The exact same style of clothes is sold by theThe exact same style of clothes is sold by the Gap, American Eagle, Abercrombie and Fitch.Gap, American Eagle, Abercrombie and Fitch.
  9. 9. Popular Culture as Low CulturePopular Culture as Low Culture Defines popular culture strictly in contrastDefines popular culture strictly in contrast to “high culture.”to “high culture.” If high culture consists of fine art, classicalIf high culture consists of fine art, classical music, opera, PBS, and Shakespeare—music, opera, PBS, and Shakespeare— stuff that gets taught in schools andstuff that gets taught in schools and celebrated in art museums—then popularcelebrated in art museums—then popular culture is bad art or non-art, the otherculture is bad art or non-art, the other forms of music, the major TV networks,forms of music, the major TV networks, and the Da Vinci Code.and the Da Vinci Code. Implies that quality culture is “high” andImplies that quality culture is “high” and bad culture is popular.bad culture is popular.
  10. 10. Popular Culture as Low CulturePopular Culture as Low Culture  Problems: Classical music looks more and moreProblems: Classical music looks more and more like a rock concert, with sexed up musicians andlike a rock concert, with sexed up musicians and top selling CDs. Lots of popular culture istop selling CDs. Lots of popular culture is celebrated as art of the highest level and lots ofcelebrated as art of the highest level and lots of high culture is bad art as best. Some networkhigh culture is bad art as best. Some network TV is really great and some PBS is pretty bad.TV is really great and some PBS is pretty bad. Shakespeare was considered trashy in his day.Shakespeare was considered trashy in his day.  There’s also a sacred/mundane distinction beingThere’s also a sacred/mundane distinction being made here: high culture is treated as specialmade here: high culture is treated as special where popular culture is treated as everyday.where popular culture is treated as everyday.
  11. 11. Culture that is PopularCulture that is Popular  Another approach is to say that when theAnother approach is to say that when the audience for a certain form of culture reaches aaudience for a certain form of culture reaches a critical mass—when it gets popular enough—critical mass—when it gets popular enough— then it counts as popular culture.then it counts as popular culture.  But how do you decide what that mass is?But how do you decide what that mass is?  The culture itself doesn’t change when theThe culture itself doesn’t change when the audience reaches a certain size.audience reaches a certain size.  The song that everybody loves sounded the sameThe song that everybody loves sounded the same when nobody had heard it.when nobody had heard it.  Plus, culture that is popular has a relationshipPlus, culture that is popular has a relationship with culture that is not yet popular. They sharewith culture that is not yet popular. They share resources, and offer inspiration and new ideas.resources, and offer inspiration and new ideas.
  12. 12. Popular Culture as Popular ValuesPopular Culture as Popular Values Another approach to popular cultureAnother approach to popular culture focuses on the values of groups.focuses on the values of groups. The term culture always invokes the ideaThe term culture always invokes the idea ofof meaningmeaning, so popular culture is any set, so popular culture is any set of meanings that are widely shared.of meanings that are widely shared. Often used in the context of “youthOften used in the context of “youth culture,” “American culture,” “Blackculture,” “American culture,” “Black culture,” etc.culture,” etc.
  13. 13. Popular Culture as PopularPopular Culture as Popular ValuesValues This approach allows us to examine theThis approach allows us to examine the varieties of values that are embedded invarieties of values that are embedded in the culture we consume.the culture we consume. Those values touch on an infinite varietyThose values touch on an infinite variety of issues, but we will be focusing on race,of issues, but we will be focusing on race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, andclass, gender, sexuality, disability, and age.age.
  14. 14. Popular Culture as CommercialPopular Culture as Commercial CultureCulture  The term popular culture is often used to describeThe term popular culture is often used to describe culture that is produced and/or sold by a market.culture that is produced and/or sold by a market.  In this sense, mass produced forms of culture such asIn this sense, mass produced forms of culture such as CDs and movies certainly count as culture, but so tooCDs and movies certainly count as culture, but so too does art that is sold on the market. In fact, not much isdoes art that is sold on the market. In fact, not much is left out at all. Indie rock bands still record in studios andleft out at all. Indie rock bands still record in studios and sell CDs. Independent movies still need distributors,sell CDs. Independent movies still need distributors, movie theaters, and video stores.movie theaters, and video stores.  That does not mean that the only way to understand thisThat does not mean that the only way to understand this culture is in terms of money and sales, but it does givesculture is in terms of money and sales, but it does gives us one thing unifies the many diverse forms of popularus one thing unifies the many diverse forms of popular culture.culture.
  15. 15. Our ApproachOur Approach The approach in this class is to combineThe approach in this class is to combine the popular values approach with thethe popular values approach with the commercial culture approach.commercial culture approach. We will examine the complex system thatWe will examine the complex system that produces popular culture—a set ofproduces popular culture—a set of corporations and institutions responsiblecorporations and institutions responsible for the commercial production of culture—for the commercial production of culture— as well as the complex system ofas well as the complex system of meanings that we find in popular culture—meanings that we find in popular culture— both those intended by the makers andboth those intended by the makers and those that are discovered by the audience.those that are discovered by the audience.
  16. 16. OverviewOverview POPULAR VALUES COMMERCIAL CULTURE WHAT’S MISSING •Mass Culture •People’s Culture •Culture that is Popular •Low Culture But each of these overlaps with what we see to the left, so they are by no means excluded.

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