The Multiplicity of “Pop”

As Editor, I helped shepherd the latest issue of the Popular Culture Studies Journal, in which PhD student Scott Bruner questioned the continued reliance on “popular” as the means to designate and legitimize this field of study — with the potential to create a new hierarchy to replace the one “popular culture” studies sought to undo. I just found this 2007 class paper I wrote on the topic of “popular culture studies” — and now I understand why Bruner’s essay clicked so much with me.

It was interesting to hear an academic proclaim pop culture studies as dead.  It’s almost as if the academic study of the terrain shares a characteristic with the terrain — its transitory nature, new today, majorly important tomorrow, and then utterly forgotten the day after.  Is this truly the fate that has befallen pop culture studies? 

In truth, that is the precariousness of such research — in order to study such a transitory phenomenon, one must have agile methodologies and theories that allow one to jump into and out of the field.  However, the demand of this type of research may be too taxing for all but the highly dedicated, and well-supported, of researchers.  Whether or not a death knell sounded has been sounded, and indeed if this is eulogy is too early, I agree there is a need to reconceptualize research done on culture in the everyday.

To start with, I’m not even sure I would continue to call popular cultural studies the study of the culture of the working class, and my reluctance to do so underlies my entire argument about what is the current status of the mass and the pop.  The culture studies of the 1970s, with its focus on the working class, is not truly adequate to explain the ways in which culture is experienced and produced in modern American society. 

Part of this is due to the mass distribution of popular culture through the media.  This mass distribution is akin to a large tsunami that washes over the entire society, touching all classes, albeit, naturally, at different levels.  Those more well-off may be more in control of the production of popular culture, but they may be just as likely to be caught in the tsunami’s eddies and surges.  Suburban whites and urban blacks may both react to hop-hop culture; however, their reactions will most likely be different due to the different social structures in which they reside.  This interaction between the mass pop culture and the social structure in which it is received results in a variety of receptions that can be studied, either as individual cases or as aggregates.

What adds to this complexity is a further challenge to traditional cultural studies.  Because the mass distribution of popular culture elides over class differences, to some extent, it is not quite so simple to say that there is only a dominant culture and it is being resisted by some subculture, counter-culture or alternative culture. 

Although I’ve described modern pop culture as being mass distributed, that does not mean that only one pop culture is being produced and positioned to be dominant.  American capitalism has, over the past thirty years, produced a media environment that has become highly fragmented: where three broadcast networks reached essentially the entire American audience, they are now challenged with two more broadcast networks, hundreds of digital cable networks, internet websites, home theater centers, and digital game playing.  The number of media types (specific technological innovations) has increased, and the number of media channels (specific conduits of transmission) has exploded.  All of these media channels, instead of trying to reach all potential consumers, have instead focused on reaching specific types of consumers.  And these media channels need to be filled with content to reach these specific consumers — content that produces and reproduces specific pop cultures.

The result is that instead of one dominant pop culture being produced, and then resisted in specific ways, there are a multitude of dominant pop cultures, resisting each other in certain ways and being resisted in overlapping ways by non-dominant pop cultures — all of which have their loyal followers, or fans, and all of which could switch their position as dominant or non-dominant at any time based on the activities and quantities of the fans associated with them.  Also, these crisscrossing pop cultures mean that one’s everyday life may not be determined by simply by being this much in accordance with the dominant or this much in resistance to it.  Instead, the individual may incorporate different elements from different pop cultures as they seek to make sense of their lives, their worlds, and their futures.  Just as individuals will remix songs, they may be remixing pop cultures to create a perspective they prefer. 

This conception of pop culture relies on a postmodernist understanding about the current media environment and how the explosion of media outlets has resulted in an abundance of possibilities for media users to construct their outlook.  It is also highly focused on American society (mostly because that is the one with which I have the most familiarity), particularly due to the relationship between media production and capitalism that drives this abundance of pop cultures, which includes bringing in non-American cultures and ascribing them with the same “power” in pop culture, such as Japanese anime.  I do put power in quotes here because I often wonder to what extent the commodification of other cultures actually empowers consumers of those commodities with knowledge of the other cultures, if it by extension can work to give power back to that culture, or if it merely provides to them the status symbol such pop culture fetishization typically does through removing any meanings ascribed to it by the culture of origin.

Additionally, this conceptualization of pop culture provides an approach to researchers showing this field of study as anything but dead.  In fact, the potential for study has exploded.  The multiplicity of pop cultures, the mass distribution interacting with specific social structures, the agency of the consumer in choosing and using pop culture, and the capitalist engine driving mass distribution of various pop cultures are all sites of potential critique and analysis. 

Of course, that does not mean the transitory nature of pop culture has been resolved. What is popular today is not the same as what was popular yesterday because the populous requires novelty.  Researchers would continue to have to be flexible in how they approach these studies.  However, the dynamism of pop cultures is another site of research interest: how does these pop cultures change over time, how does their reception of them change, and how does the individual change in their incorporation, negotiation and adaptation of the pop culture into their everyday lives?  These questions add a temporal element to the traditional cultural studies approach. 

Pop culture studies dead?  No, in fact, like any other species on this planet, it’s just undergoing a necessary evolution, just like the phenomenon it is studying.     

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