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Defining Popular Culture

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Dustin Kidd

on 1 September 2010

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Transcript of Defining Popular Culture

What is popular culture? 'Popular' refers to the populace or 'the people' But all culture is made by people, so why not just say 'Culture.' What culture is not popular? High Culture: This is the culture that is privileged in society and reflects the interests of elites. What's an elite? Usually, we think of elites as rich people. But not all elites are rich and not all rich people are elite. Family wealth is tied to elite status, but other factors are political power, racial privilege, religious identity, etc. So what kind of culture is 'high'? We tend to think of high culture as timeless: "the best that has been thought and said," according to Matthew Arnold. But... lots of things we think of as high culture today were not seen that way in the past. For instance, Shakespeare had limited success in his time and theater actors and dramatists were largely seen as immoral and unimportant. They were like the Paris Hilton's of their time. As much as we think of high culture as timeless, history proves otherwise. The real issue is... If you are a privileged member of your society, you get to define your culture as 'high culture.' High culture in America arose in the 19th century with the growth of museums and other cultural institutions. Old money elites were concerned about rags-to-riches stories in which men with modest backgrounds and limited educations were striking it rich. The old money elites needed a way to distinguish themselves and establish that their power was more legitimate. One way they did this was to invest large sums of money to establish museums and orchestras. This is a standard practice today, but it was new at the time. At the same time (mid-19th century), the mass media was developing. Advancements in printing and in transportation allowed for national magazines and catalogs, and for mass consumption--the production of goods that could be sold across the country. Of course, this was also tied to industrialization. So America was quickly dividing into two cultural worlds. High culture: fine art, theater, ballet, opera, etc. Popular/mass culture: pop music, mass produced styles, and eventually radio, television, and movies. But what about QUALITY?

Isn't high culture also higher quality? Not necessarily. Some works of art might meet the basic criteria of high culture, without actually being the BEST high culture. Similarly, some mass culture films, books, songs, and television shows can be of the finest quality and exempify incredible skill. Although we tend to think of the high culture/popular culture distinction as being an issue of quality, it is really about... Popular culture is defined as the culture that is associated with the broad masses, rather than the powerful elite. But even powerful elites love a good pop song! For our purposes: 'Popular' culture is defined as commercially produced culture. This commercial production implies that it is made for a broad audience and sold for financial gain. What about the word 'Culture'? The term culture invokes the issue of MEANING. What meaning does our world hold? What is the meaning of our lives? We answer these questions through cultural practices--from going to church to listening to music. 'Popular Culture' then implies that some meanings are broadly shared in society, bridging across our class identities, religions, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and regional locations. Popular culture if full of meanings about all aspects of human life. For our purposes this semester, we will focus on meanings related to:
-Disability Status
Which brings us back to... Reflection Theory: One approach to the relationship between culture and power suggests that culture simply reflects the power system in our broader society. If television is full of narrow and stereotypical images of women, it's because that how our society treats women. Television is not to blame, society is. If television, music videos, movies, fashion magazines, and popular books are a mirror... Distorted reflection! Shaping Approaches: If we think that popular culture actually has some power, then we have to use theoretical models that acknowledge culture's capacity to:
-Create meaning
-Reproduce meaning
-Transform meaning How does culture shape the meanings of race, disability, gender and sexuality? STEREOTYPES ABSENCES UNDER-REPRESENTATION OVER-REPRESENTATION SIDE-LINING VILLIFYING ANNOINTING: MAKING SAINTS OUT OF A PARTICULAR GROUP So, although our focus this semester is on how popular culture deals with sexuality, disability, gender and race, what we're ultimately examining is...
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