2009-04-30 / Sam Bari

Keeping the "pop" in culture

You can't beat a system you can't understand
By Sam Bari

Popular culture is commonly defined as the totality of distinct memes, ideas, perspectives and attitudes that are deemed preferred by the majority of any given society. In other words, things cultural that are acceptable and enjoyed by the "mainstream," or the working class, falls into the category of popular culture.

Since its recognition, popular culture has been criticized, belittled, berated, and snubbed by the elitists in the aristocracy. They have deemed anything popular by the icky working majority as bourgeois, low-class, and without sophistication.

Sophistication is a product of the educated. Those who have had the privilege of a pampered life enjoyed the luxury of being schooled in cultural pursuits. They have traditionally looked down their noses at those who do not understand or appreciate the intricacies of well-composed classical music, opera, the ballet, fine art and good literature.

The majority of the population has not had the opportunity to indulge in such endeavors because they spend the better part of their day being productive by working for a living. Consequently, their appreciation for the arts, literature, and things cultural has traditionally been more primitive, and in my opinion, more fun.

The advent of American "pop culture," as we know it wasn't widely recognized until the giant engine driving the media gained momentum at the turn of the twentieth century. The growth of the publishing industry produced newspapers. Then radio became popular. After WW II, television completed the picture by shrinking the world and bringing the masses together in a unified wall of solidarity seeking identity.

Mass communication was the key. The introduction of radio allowed people in the most remote areas to enjoy music they never had the opportunity to hear before. In rural areas, the music they heard on the radio didn't exist in their world.

When recorded music became affordable to the working class on records, and the publishing industry introduced magazines, dime novels, and comic books, pop culture exploded on the American scene. New authors, composers, musicians and artists appeared almost overnight and enjoyed tremendous success.

Then came the turning point. The beginning of the 1950s introduced "rock 'n' roll." Pop culture became a force that was felt around the globe. With the rock generation came critics. The aristocracy was infuriated by the popularity of the vulgar, "devil's music," that was sweeping the country and corrupting youth. Rock 'n' roll was deemed sacrilegious, even though its roots were in gospel music.

Then, jazz, rock 'n' roll, and any music that could be enjoyed in saloons, were considered entertainment produced by the followers of Satan himself. Unless, of course, the music was declared acceptable by polite society and could be heard in the elite country clubs of Palm Beach, Long Island, and the bastions of upper class American society.

However, it wasn't just the music that was criticized. Popular films starring actors like James Dean, and books written by authors like Jack Kerouac, and poetry by Allan Ginsberg, all suffered from unwarranted stigmas because they were popular with the masses. The working class understood their cultural heroes. The common man found an identity and the aristocracy was not pleased.

They questioned the morality of lyric, plot, and poetry. They used the power of money, government, and law enforcement to regain control of a youth movement that was overtaking society.

If morality were the issue that plagued the upper crust, then I have a few questions. Would they endorse a movie about a gypsy girl who worked in a cigarette factory, juggled two lovers, and sent one into such a jealous rage that he stabbed her to death?

Or, how about a 16th century story about a womanizing nobleman who expressed interest in a young girl who was a commoner while he was publicly courting a countess? He seduced the young girl and she sacrificed herself at the hands of an assassin to save the nobleman because she was hopelessly in love with him. He got off scott free.

Try a turn of the 20th century plot about a military officer who was a bigamist with wives in two countries. One of them had his baby. She was so devastated when she learned the truth that she committed suicide. The offi cer took their child and enjoyed life with his other wife.

These stories are not shining examples of moral inspiration for a young maturing audience, would you say? However, if they were banned from public performance, the world would be denied the operas, "Carmen," by Bizet, "Rigoletto," by Giuseppe Verdi, and "Madame Butterfly," by Giacomo Puccini.

Ladies and gentlemen, I do believe "pop culture" rules. Sophisticated, aristocratic snots are largely responsible for why we live in a system we can't understand.

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