The term “popular culture” faces much criticism, with many viewpoints being at odds with one another. The main questions have been what is popular culture, and is it truly popular and culture, or is it simply mass-produced brainwashing? Popular culture is indeed mass-produced and handed down from the dominant culture; however, other cultures/subcultures take the popular culture and provide their own meanings to it, so that popular culture serves and provides pleasure for everyone in that people group.
Popular culture is indeed mass-produced as Theodor Adorno believes. It is a “culture industry” (Adorno 98, emphasis added). Everything that constitutes popular culture must be purchased and is mass-produced: music, literature, hair products, movies, clothing styles, etc. Nothing that constitutes culture is not purchased, except for behavior. If popular culture must be purchased, then it follows that it is mass-produced, because rarely is something available for purchase that it does not have duplicates. According to Adorno,
The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms. Ever since these cultural forms first began to earn a living for their creators as commodities in the market-place they had already possessed something of this quality (Adorno 99).
If the culture industry is based on a profit, then as many products are going to be sold as possible to increase this profit; therefore, mass production is inherent in this profit-based motive. More quantity equals more profit. Adorno calls these cultural forms “commodities” since they are transformed into objects to be sold and bought (Adorno 100). Culture is its products, whether that be music (mp3s, CDs, etc.), clothing, dance (theatrical performances, lessons), etc. Culture is indeed an industry, mass-produced commodities created for profit.
Popular culture is a form of control. Recently, many movies have been remakes of old movies or sequels of popular “first” movies. The people in power take advantage of viewers because they know viewers will pay to see a remake and/or sequel to a film, even if the second film is not very good. Therefore, movie quality has diminished because directors and producers are more interested in profit than in quality and good name. Even Adorno says
although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary, but secondary, they are an object of calculation…The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object…Neither is it a question of primary concern for the masses, nor of the techniques of communication as such, but of the spirit which sufflates them, their master’s voice (Adorno 99, emphasis added).
Cultural producers might keep the public in mind, but the producers are still in control because they control what is produced. The people are subject to whatever the powerful give them while believing that they control what is being produced by their spending habits; in reality, they take what they are given. Popular culture provides choices, but most of the choices are lower quality than what earlier culture produced. People in power know that they can get away with lower quality products because the products will still bring in the cash. In a sense, these products control the masses because they reel them in; people do not realize that they are being brainwashed into accepting low quality products because they have become so used to viewing and using low quality products.
Although culture may be mass-produced and somewhat controlling, it can still be considered culture. If enough people like or dislike an item/idea, then that like/dislike is automatically a part of culture because popular culture must be approved by the masses, the majority – it has to be a popular decision. When an item or idea in culture becomes popular, it will inevitably become popular culture. The masses assign connotations to items and ideas. These connotations are what make popular culture culture. According to the Cultural Dictionary, culture is “The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next” (“culture”). Since culture is determined by a people group, whatever is considered culture must be decided on by the group. If a group decides that Justin Beiber is the latest heartthrob and that his music is worthy of attention, then Justin Beiber becomes a part of that culture, because that people group decided on it. Those who disagree with this belief may be part of a subculture which accepts some or most of the culture but not Justin Bieber or his music. Bieber’s music is art which will likely be passed down to future generations, either as a critique of this era of culture or as something worthy to continue listening to. Popular culture serves the people because the people decide what is to be popular culture or not.
Fiske believes that people accept culture distributed by the dominant culture in society but that people provide their own meaning to it. He says that “Popular culture is made by subordinated peoples in their own interests out of resources that also, contradictorily, serve the economic interests of the dominant…Popular culture is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology” (Fiske). It is this meaning that gives a particular item its cultural value. If an item does not have meaning, it will not be an important part of culture. However, if a group takes something that the dominant group has distributed and assigns new meaning to it, then that object has new value in a certain group of people and consequently becomes culture.
While some people may be duped by certain aspects of popular culture, other people are not. For example, a senior adult may be duped into believing that she needs something in an As Seen on TV ad, but young people may look at an ad, mock it, criticize it, and yet accept it for its ingeniousness. Advertisements are posted on YouTube partially for advertising, but more likely for people’s entertainment. It is highly unlikely that people go to YouTube to view an ad to see what the advertisement is promoting and where to find the item; people probably want to re-view an ad after seeing it once before because they find some quality of the ad endearing. In the article by Mica Nava and Orson Nava “Discriminating or Duped? Young People as Consumers of Advertising/Art,” the authors propose that youth are not duped into accepting advertising and popular culture: “young people consume commercials independently of the product that is being marketed. Commercials are cultural products in themselves and are consumed for themselves” (Nava and Nava). Youth discriminate ads, and they often view an ad for its own sake, as its own entity, not blindly accepting its brainwashing. They appreciate well-constructed ads, for example, storylines developed, commonalities in a “series” of ads (such as the Progressive commercials with Flo), ingenious marketing techniques, etc. Many people are not duped by advertisements but consume advertisements as a cultural text in and of itself.
Popular culture serves the people that deem it popular. It makes people happy and makes life more enjoyable. Music products help students get through school, and adults through their workday. Fiske also believes that popular culture is for enjoyment: “The victories, however fleeting or limited, in this struggle produce popular pleasure, for popular pleasure is always social and political” (Fiske). Not only can popular culture be pleasurable, it can be enjoyed popularly, in groups. A lot of popular culture can be enjoyed in group settings; for example, people enjoy going to movies and eating out in groups. Popular culture is a way for the masses and individuals to express themselves. Individuals can take mass-produced culture, tweak it (or not), and call it their own – an extension of themselves. Popular culture is partially how people define themselves because it is what a certain people group likes or dislikes.
Popular culture is a surprisingly controversial issue – not the culture itself, but what defines it, who controls it, and what its purpose is (whom it serves, or whom serves it). Popular culture is mass-produced, an industry; however, the masses deem what items/ideas are popular and culture, and they use culture to serve them and bring them pleasure.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. London: Routledge Classics, 1991. Print.
“culture.” The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. 27 Sept. 2011. <http://dictionary.reference.com/ browse/culture>.
Fiske, John. Reading the Popular. London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1989. Print.
Nava, Mica and Nava, Orson. “Discriminating or Duped? Young People as Consumers of Advertising/Art.” Media Studies: A Reader. Ed. Paul Marris and Sue Thornham. 2nd ed. New York: New York University P, 1999. 776-774. Print.