August 22, 2004

The Horrible Relevancy of Pop Culture

WE READ with interest James Lileks' recent commentary on the state of American popular culture, in which he largely condemns said culture as useless and gauche. His thoughts mirrored our own in many respects, except on one point. Mr Lileks argues the Internet represents true American popular culture, and says the democratic aspects of the Internet will eventually cause the present "celebrity paradigm" to become irrelevant.

How we wish we could agree with Mr Lileks' analysis; we would like for it to happen as much as he would. Yet we cannot. Instead, we fear the opposite reaction will eventually take place -- that popular culture, already horribly relevant and meaningful to a significant portion of the populace, will become an even more entrenched and powerful force. Even now, those uninterested in it cannot escape its influence, and we see no reason why this state of affairs should suddenly change for the better.

Now, readers should know that in his essay, Mr Lileks takes the most recent issue of People magazine and deals with it masterfully. The cover of this magazine, a publication which we have never read except when waiting for a dentistry appointment, features the singer Britney Spears, her fiance Kevin Federline, and a little girl who looks a bit confused at the whole spectacle. We learn from Mr Lileks the girl in question is Mr Federline's daughter with a woman he did not marry, and Mr Lileks rightly proclaims immense contempt and powerful disgust at Mr Federline's behavior:

Plus, look at that guy. These are our celebs. Not exactly a Hurrell portrait of Cary Grant, eh? He knocked up one woman, produced the little girl you see here, and now he’s sauntering off to bed another doxy. Men like this make me ill.

Now, earlier in his essay, Mr Lileks defines popular culture as follows: "I mean the stuff some people think we care about – Paris Hilton’s dog, reality shows designed to humiliate Amish youth, etc." It is this definition, we would argue, that is the crux of the matter.

Mr Lileks, in our view, is correct -- but only if one clarifies the meaning of "we." It is true there are many people who care little about such things, and instead focus on other interests. But here's the thing. We are like that, and all our friends are like that, and pretty much all the people we know are like that. But the fact there are several magazines and television shows devoted to celebrity matters, all of which are extraordinarily profitable, is prima facie evidence that a large contingent of Americans find the trials and tribulations of Paris, Nicole, Britney, Brittany, Lindsey, Kevin, Nick, Justin, Ryan Seacrest, That Guy Who Played A.C. Slater, Dave Coulier, Susan Sarandon and Roseanne Barr, et al., extraordinarily interesting.

Hence, we do not see any reason to believe these magazines and television shows will eventually wither and die, especially since the content being vomited forth grows ever stronger in its intensity. And despite the complaints and hand-wringing over it, the popularity of that content has not waned; instead, it has increased. Therefore, we can only think things will get worse -- perhaps even far worse -- as time goes on.

It is a troubling situation, and not because we particularly care what people watch, or what they do in their spare time, and so on. That is their own business. Yet it does concern us a little that a lot of folks might be more concerned with the travails of Paris Hilton than the far crueler and more pressing issues of the day. We would hope, if any of those folks read this essay, they would consider rebalancing their portfolios in this regard. Certainly issues like famine and war and slavery deserve as much consideration as a lost chihuahua?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at August 22, 2004 11:34 PM | TrackBack

But has popular culture ever not been rubbish?

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at August 24, 2004 01:21 PM

I don't know. Sometimes I need a break from the real world - and I love to read People magazine in those times. I'm interested in foreign policy AND I like to read about Paris Hilton's ridiculousness. I like to read People magazine and shout about what idiots Britney and Paris are. I find that enjoyable. I also like reading The Wall Street Journal, and watching movies from the 30s and 40s.

I don't know. I just can't see it in as gloomy a light as so many others do.

There's always gonna be stuff "for the masses", there's always gonna be stuff "for the elites" - and then there's a lot of us who like BOTH. I would NEVER want just a diet of pop culture, but damn - it's good to have for a treat.

Posted by: red at August 24, 2004 02:08 PM

Yeah, and I think popular culture has always been rubbish.

Posted by: red at August 24, 2004 02:22 PM

Andrew -- I would care to venture that pop culture was all right in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, although not having lived through that time, I haven't experienced the part of that culture that was properly left on history's cutting room floor.

Sheila -- excellent points! My concern here was simply that there are plenty of people who ONLY exist on a diet of popular culture. I know I should not be bothered by this ... but it does bother me just the same.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at August 24, 2004 09:10 PM

I think I ought have a nice, relaxing gin and tonic right now.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at August 24, 2004 09:12 PM

Gee, one more of these and I won't be concerned with ANYTHING.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at August 24, 2004 09:14 PM

HAHAHAHA (I'm looking at the time stamps of your last two comments, Ben.) heh heh It gives the impression that you sucked down 3 gin and tonics in a minute and a half. No judgment if that is the case. :)

Posted by: red at August 25, 2004 10:30 AM

The reason popular culture is rubbish is that its lowest common-denominator type stuff. Its meant to be as appealing (or at least acceptable) to as many people as possible.

Posted by: Andrew Ian Dodge at August 28, 2004 05:21 PM