Popular culture studies is the academic discipline studying popular culture from a critical theory perspective. It is generally considered as a combination of communication studies and cultural studies.
Following the work of the Frankfurt School, popular culture has come to be taken more seriously as a terrain of academic inquiry and has also helped to change the outlooks of more established disciplines. Conceptual barriers between so-called high and low culture have broken down, accompanying an explosion in scholarly interest in popular culture, which encompasses such diverse media as comic books, television, and the Internet. Revaluation of mass culture in the 1970s and 1980s has revealed significant problems with the traditional view of mass culture as degraded and elite culture as uplifting. Divisions between high and low culture have been increasingly seen as political distinctions rather than defensible aesthetic or intellectual ones. (Chandra Mukerji & Michael Schudson, 1991 (eds.), Rethinking Popular Culture, University of California Press:1-2)
Popular culture (commonly known as pop culture) is the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred through an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given society. Popular culture is heavily influenced by the mass media and permeates the everyday life of many people.
Adaptations based on traditional folklore provide a source of popular culture. (On the Ambiguity of the Three Wise Monkeys A. W. Smith Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 1/2 (1993), pp. 144-150) This early layer of cultural mainstream still persists today, in a form separate from mass-produced popular culture, propagating by word of mouth rather than via mass media, e.g. in the form of jokes or urban legend. With the widespread use of the Internet from the 1990s, the distinction between mass media and word-of-mouth has become blurred.
Although the folkloric element of popular culture engages heavily with the commercial element, the public has its own tastes and it may not embrace every cultural item sold. Moreover, beliefs and opinions about the products of commercial culture spread by word-of-mouth, and become modified in the process in the same manner that folklore evolves.
A cultural icon can be a symbol, logo, picture, name, face, person, building or other image that is readily recognized and generally represents an object or concept with great cultural significance to a wide cultural group. A representation of an object or person, or that object or person may come to be regarded as having a special status as particularly representative of, or important to, or loved by, a particular group of people, a place, or a period in history.
In the media, many well-known manifestations of popular culture have been described as “iconic”.
Cultural studies is an academic field grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. It generally concerns the political nature of contemporary culture, as well as its past historical precedents, conflicts, and issues. It is, to this extent, largely distinguished from cultural anthropology and ethnic studies in both objective and methodology. Researchers concentrate on how a particular medium or message relates to matters of ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or gender.
Cultural studies is extremely holistic, combining feminist theory, social theory, political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, communication studies, political economy, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies. Thus, cultural studies seeks to understand the ways in which meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced through various practices, beliefs, institutions, and political, economic, or social structures within a given culture.
The blurring of the boundaries between high and low culture is one of the main complaints made by traditional intellectuals about contemporary mass society.It is hardly surprising then that a lot of studies deal with this topic. There are, for instance, a number of sociological studies on literary institutions which are held responsible for this mix.Among the first were the commercial book clubs, such as the Book-of-the-Month-Club, appearing from the twenties on. The aggressive reactions they provoked are described by Janice Radway in “The Scandal of the Middlebrow”. According to Radway, the book clubs were perceived as scandalous because they blurred some basic distinctions of cultural discourse. In a society haunted by the spectre of cultural standardization and leveling towards below, they dared to put “serious” fiction on the same level as detective, adventure stories, biographies and popular nonfiction. Book clubs were scandalous because they created a space where high and low could meet.
Soon, the term “middlebrow” was introduced to qualify this phenomenon, and to dismiss it as threatening the authenticity of both high and popular culture. A bit after the book clubs came the paperbacks, and their influence was even more wide-ranging. More about this can be found in Thomas Bonn’s book (Thomas L. Bonn, 1989: Heavy Traffic and High Culture. New American Library as Literary Gatekeeper in the Paperback Revolution, Carbondale/Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.) It shows through what elaborate strategies the respectable hardcover editors had to go in order to hide the fact that, from the sixties on, paperback publishers had taken over the control on the production of serious literature.
The question whether popular culture or mass culture is inherently conservative, or whether it can be used in a subversive strategy as well, is equally hotly debated. It seems widely accepted that popular culture forms can function at any moment as anti-cultures. “Bad taste” products such as pornography and horror fiction, says for instance Andrew Ross, (Andrew Ross, 1989: No Respect. Intellectuals and Popular Culture, New York/London: Routledge.) draw their popular appeal precisely from their expressions of disrespect for the imposed lessons of educated taste. They are expressions of social resentment on the part of groups which have been subordinated and excluded by today’s “civilized society”.
The question whether popular culture can actually resist dominant ideology, or even contribute to social change, is much more difficult to answer. Many critics easily read popular fiction and film as “attacks against the system”, neglecting both the exact ways in which the so-called revolutionary message is enacted, and the capacities of dominant doctrines to recuperate critical messages. Tania Modleski in “The Terror of Pleasure”, for instance, presents exploitation horror films as attacks on the basic aspects of bourgeois culture. Thus a loving father cannibalizes his child, and priests turn into servants of the devil. Other scholars claim that, by presenting their perversion as supernatural, or at least pathological, horror films precisely contribute to perpetuating those institutions.
Similarly, many critics exalt stories which feature a lone hero fighting for his ideals against an inert and amoral system. Thus Jim Collins in Uncommon Cultures sees crime fiction opposing a smart private detective and an inefficient police force as a critique of state justice. On the other hand, Thomas Roberts demonstrates in An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, a study of the historical background of the private detective model, how the detective story came into existence in the middle of the 19th century, at the time the institution of state police was developed. This force consisted mainly of lower-class people, but nevertheless disposed of a certain authority over the upper class. The fears among the upper classes for this uncontrolled force were eased by domesticating the police in stories explicitly devoted to them. Their inability to pass on correct judgment was amply demonstrated, and forced them to bow for the individual intellect of the detective, who always belonged to the threatened upper class.
Finally, Umberto Eco’s studies on Superman and James Bond as myths of a static good-and-evil world view should be mentioned as very early and lucid examples of a combination of semiotic and political analysis.
Still, there may be ways to wage revolt in an age of mass media. One way could be to introduce small gradual changes in products otherwise conforming to the requirements of a dominant ideology. The problem here, of course, is that isolated messages get drowned in the discourse as a whole, and that they can be used to avoid real changes. Some scholars, however, describe how opposition forces use the logic of the media to subvert them. In No Respect, Andrew Ross mentions the late sixties Yippie movement. Yippies would stage media events, such as the public burning of dollar bills in Wall Street, thereby drawing heavy media coverage. This politics of the spectacle brought the counterculture right into the conservative media and filled their forms with subversive content.
Whether this strategy is effective or not, it points to an important fact: the mass media are not above, but dependent on the public. As Alan Swingewood states in The Myth of Mass Culture, the ideological messages the mass media receive are already mediated by a complex network of institutions and discourses. The media, themselves divided over innumerable specific discourses, transform them again. And finally the public meaningfully relates those messages to individual existences through the mediation of social groups, family networks, etc., which they belong to.