Illustration by Henry Chamberlain
There’s a classic moment I fondly recall from my favorite art theory class. The professor was a true bohemian from his shock of disheveled hair down to his well-worn sandals. We were constantly peppering him with questions back then in that little closet of a classroom. Back when the world was a little slower than it seems today, back in the early ’90s. Someone threw out the latest query: “At what time period would you place the taste of today’s general public?” He shot back with a mischievous look, “No later than 1840!” I appreciated the sarcasm and the point he was making: many people just want traditional portraits and landscapes. However, looking back on this, he must have been having a bad day. If he’d been feeling less gloomy, he would have acknowledged the undeniable power of pop culture. In Marcel Danesi’s book on pop culture, he takes a far more optimistic view and we’re all the better for it.
Marcel Danesi has written an essential book on pop culture, both enlightening and entertaining. The third edition of “Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives” will be required reading on many a campus this year. And it will prove quite useful whether you take it as part of a course or not. Danesi wastes no time in setting the stage and cutting to the chase: this is serious as well as lively business. He begins with “Runnin’ Wild,” a 1923 Broadway musical that introduced the sexually suggestive, and highly popular dance, The Charleston, that became a national sensation. If you’re looking for a key moment that ushered in the elements of pop culture as we’ve come to know them, then that is definitely a perfect one to focus on. There was no turning back as the energy and the spirit spread its way across the globe.
The question of what defines pop culture is inextricably linked to the question of who owns pop culture. And the short answer is that pop culture is for and by the people. If that echoes a declaration of independence, it is no mistake as all this is caught up in youthful rebellion. To be young, or at least young at heart, is most characteristic of this subject. Danesi guides us through the inevitable cycle, or transference pattern, that occurs as one generation passes the torch to the next. Youth culture gives way to mainstream culture. What was once scandalous in one era will, as that generation ages, transition from fringe to mainstream. It may be hard to believe now but, in the future, even Miley Cyrus’s current antics will eventually be swallowed up by mainstream culture. Each transition holds its own surprises and challenges. As the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, it was wrongly assumed by conventional wisdom that the flames from the “Rebel without a Cause” generation would just flicker out. Instead, it gave way to a firestorm of protest.
A wide net is cast in each chapter to scoop up various signs of life and proto-life for the world of pop. Print culture, for instance, goes back to 2700 BC and the first books made from papyrus. You could also look back to 1453 and Johannes Gutenberg taking a wine press and converting it into a printing machine leading to the mass production of books. More to our purposes, a significant signpost of upcoming events would be the advent of the Gothic novel with Marry Shelly’s “Frankenstein” in 1818. Throughout Danesi’s work we see how pop culture is inextricably linked to technology. Marshall McLuhan is often cited regarding his views on how the medium of the time will influence content and how people perceive it and reality itself.
One of Danesi’s best examples on the origins of modern-day pop culture comes from his observations on the 2002 Academy Award winning musical, “Chicago.” It’s the roaring ’20s and a brash new chapter in media is opening up. Using the power of the new celebrity culture, starlet Roxy, hopes to win over the press and win her freedom after being sent to prison for murder. Ironically, the reason she murdered is wrapped up in her desire to be famous. Facing a death sentence, her only hope is to become famous, manipulate the media and the jury. With the new hot jazz of the day playing throughout, pulsating and sexually suggestive, Roxy, and her media savvy cohorts, rule their time and would not seem out of place in our own time.
What the future holds for pop culture is related to its cycular nature and technology. The warnings over content overload have been sounding since McLuhan proposed we have entered into a global village. No longer do we have the thought patterns of print culture. The electronic age has yielded a hyperreality. Today, with Facebook, we sacrifice privacy for instant gratification. And we let Google determine what is relevant through statistics rather than measuring the value of content alone. The current Mashpedia form highlights our focus on the ephemeral. Danesi asks if this all signals the end of the pop culture experiment. If so, what would replace it or will it survive? The answer may lie in a persistent desire to rise above any limitations and the individual’s own quirky need to create. Something tells me we will never see an end to talented, persistent, and quirky, individuals.
The third edition of “Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives” is published by Rowman & Littlefield. Visit them right here. You can also find this book at Amazon right here.