For me, attempting to define popular culture generates more questions than definitive answers:
- How widely accepted does something have to be before it can be given ‘pop culture’ status?
- What does it mean to be ‘popular’?
- If ‘popular’ is ‘of the people’, then which people, where?
- Who exactly gets to decide what is popular?
- How long does popularity have to last before something can graduate from ‘fad’ to ‘culture’?
- Why is popular culture all about youth?
Every generation identifies with particular ideas, attitudes and practices, usually embodied as trends in fashion, music, TV, idols, language, customs etc. In terms of popular culture, “generation gap” can be quantified fairly precisely by calculating the time it takes for particular trends to return to fashion. I was a child of the 70s and an 80s adolescent. I’ve seen men’s ties wax and wane and wax again. Paisley, platforms, bell-bottoms and Farrah Fawcett hairstyles have all spiralled back around. I choose “spiral” rather than “circle” quite deliberately – there are always subtle distinctions between “in” and “vintage retro”. Thankfully those ear-high shoulder pads have never again seen the light of day and I’ve not needed to dust off the gaudy plastic parrot clip-ons since my own teen years.I do find it amusing and gratifying to catch my teenagers’ looks of incredulity (then horror) when they catch me singing along to their Glee cover of a song I grew up with. Which brings me to another question…
- Why are cross-generational pop culture discussions always based on ‘us’ and ‘them’?
Thankfully recent commentators on popular culture are moving away from definitions based on categories such as ‘elite’, ‘folk’ and ‘mass’ (Lally, 1980 in Marsh, 2010, p. 13). Nor do they wrinkle their noses, pop a plum in their mouths and harp about “the culture that is left over after we have decided what is high culture” (Storey 2009, p. 6). Personally I love Parker’s (2011) paraphrasing of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s comments concerning pornography (in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964): “We may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it.”
The following (cherished) quote from one of my most beloved authors (posthumously published) seems fitting at this point. Douglas Adams could just as easily have been referring to pop culture generally when he wrote:
I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
Douglas AdamsThis letter to the editor of The Sun, in response to Bill Haley’s 1957 tour, exemplifies extra-generational reactions to popular culture:
‘It will be interesting to note the effects of the visit to Sydney of a band of American entertainers.
Reports of the way ‘rock and roll’ has been received by overseas audiences, coupled with the almost unanimous acceptance of Elvis Presley who, despite his repulsive antics, is now the current idol of the younger set, lead one to believe that the arrival of Mr Haley could be regretted for years to come.
We have only to glance through the daily papers to read the shocking manner in which teenagers of today, throughout the world, carry on.
The morals of the modern generation, with the exception of a small minority, have nearly reached an all time low, and ‘rock and roll’ has done nothing to improve them.
Already the general outlook of the Australian teenager has begun to deteriorate rapidly and to such an extent that something must be done to prevent the low level which they are gradually approaching, being attained.
Strongly opposed by most leading musicians, both modern and classical, ‘rock and roll’ represents a serious threat to the community.
In both Britain and the United States riots are prevalent where this form of entertainment is played. We must see that it is not given the same opportunity to take a grip on our own youth.’
John J. Sutton
‘Serious threat to the community’ or not, Mr Sutton, no amount of highbrow outrage was going to stop the global snowball of rock ‘n’ roll music. Can you imagine how Sutton might have reacted to Hardcore Punk? Or even Miley Cyrus’ recent performance at the VMAs???
Yes, there are Mr Suttons in every generation who rail against popular culture that is “against the natural order of things” merely because it is not something they have been acclimatised to in their own youth. I think the message for educators is to stay in touch with the popular culture of our youth, talk with our students about what interests them and try to make connections between those interests and what we do in classrooms. We may sometimes be called to, particularly for younger students, make moral and ethical judgements in order to filter content that may not be “appropriate” in a developmental sense. But we must also be careful to take off the “personal preference” spectacles, stay open-minded and maintain respect for diversity, lest we foster an impassable chasm of misunderstanding and unfair judgement between ourselves and our young people. Such a divide does not further the goals of schooling in my view, most particularly for those young people who already feel misjudged and switched-off before they cross our path.
Adams, D. (2002). The Salmon of Doubt. Macmillan (UK).
Marsh, J. (2010). Childhood, culture and creativity: a literature review. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education.
Parker, H. N. (2011). Toward A Definition Of Popular Culture. In History and Theory 50,147-170.
Storey, J. (2009). Cultural theory and popular culture: an Introduction. 5th ed. Essex, England: PearsonEducation.
Sutton, J. (1957) letter to the editor. The Sun. Sydney: Fairfax. 1st January 1957.
Bill Haley and the Comets – The Pop History Dig: “Bandstand Performers”
Blue platform shoes – Beautiful Brown Girls: “She Gets it from her Mama: Throwback Fashion Trends”
The Salmon of Doubt – Mat Hampson on Flickr