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Pop life: The continued evolution of popular culture

August 3, 2009

Copyright © 2009 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Amy Jacques

The following article appears in the August issue of PR Tactics.

It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Friday and Bob Thompson has already fielded nearly 30 media inquiries. We’d arranged our phone interview before receiving word that Michael Jackson had died the day before on June 25.

Thompson found time to speak with Tactics between teaching a summer master’s class at Syracuse University, where he is a trustee professor of television and popular culture as well as the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, and working from his home office, providing sound bites for various media outlets.

As one of the foremost communicators in popular culture, Thompson has been featured in numerous publications and TV programs during the span of his career and has written or edited six books on pop culture and TV. 
After speaking for more than an hour, we had to part ways so that Thompson could give another King of  Pop-related interview for a radio show.  Just another day at the office for one of the most quoted academics in the country.

What is the impact of the recession on pop culture? Do people seek it out as a comfort during recessionary times or does it wane?

It’s impossible to generalize all of pop culture in determining how a recession impacts it because different parts of popular culture are sometimes affected in the opposite ways. For example, if you’ve got a recession, the part of pop culture that includes cruises and trips to Disney World and other high-end leisure activities — those things obviously suffer. People don’t have the money to pay for them.

On the other hand, in the Great Depression, radio thrived. It was basically free entertainment once you bought the radio set. Movie going thrived as well because it was relatively inexpensive, certainly more inexpensive compared to average income than it is today.

In economic good times, people want to laugh. In economic bad times, people want to laugh. The desire for amusement, escapism and all doesn’t need an economic recession.  And, if you try to correlate the types of programming that are popular with economic ups and downs, you don’t get much of a conclusion.

People like to be amused, they like to see things that are escapist and funny, serious and relevant — and they will generally gravitate toward those to the extent that they can afford it.

While “American Idol” isn’t necessarily a novel concept, what is it about programs like this that resonate with people throughout the world, sharing a common cultural experience?

The amateur show has been around for centuries, and been on TV many times before. “American Idol,” by definition, is almost a natural for appealing drama if it’s done well. This idea that someone can go from nobody knows you to being famous in a short period of time is exciting and appealing. Most people take half a lifetime of acting lessons and going to auditions and being in high school plays to build up their stardom.

“American Idol” is the greatest stroke of genius as it’s two separate shows. It’s the audition period, which is good old-fashioned reality TV as a source of mockery where we can make fun of these people who think they’re good and they’re not — and who are entitled, think the world owes them a career as a rock star — but they can’t sing. The fun, mocking part of the beginning, the William Hung period.

Then, its second stroke of genius is that it completely changes. Once you get to your final 12 contestants, it becomes like watching a Mickey Rooney- Judy Garland movie. They all love each other, they hug each other.  When somebody gets voted off, everybody cries, no backstabbing. Part of that is because it takes place almost exclusively on the stage.

In that sense, the show becomes arguably, the most family friendly program on TV — as a matter of fact, one of the only shows on network TV that everybody from the young to the old might get into.  And there are so few shows like that.

Does pop culture dumb down our intelligence? Are more people reading now, or is it just the type of material that’s shifting?

Popular culture is such a massive body of stuff that to make a conclusion of whether it makes us smart or stupid or violent or promiscuous is absolutely impossible to do.

I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that people are reading now more than ever if for no other reason, but they’ve got to read all that e-mail — they can get books online, they’ve got their Kindle devices, Borders are these huge superstores. People have this nostalgic idea that back between the Wars or something, the average American was walking to [the] library every day and consuming a volume.

I don’t know that we were ever a highly literate nation except among the intelligensia, which still reads a lot. So, has popular culture made us stupid? As a general statement: no.

Much of what I know about some subjects, I learned in popular culture forums. Everything I know about the mating habits of marsupials I learned on TV.  And, remember that when we talk about popular culture, we’re including the news here as well.  Anything you buy at Borders is a form of popular culture. Maybe the reasons we have problems answering these questions — and that all of the questions are moot — is that calling something popular culture used to be based upon making a distinction between it and high culture.

There used to be a difference when there was a high culture, which generally meant royal and aristocratic culture.  And there was a low culture, which generally meant the peasants. That is not the case anymore.  When you go into a big box bookstore, you can buy Bon Jovi’s greatest hits right next to an anthology of Gregorian chants [or] a box set of the operas of Puccini.

Is it more difficult to predict consumer’s taste today with 10 year olds and 80 years olds watching the same reality TV programs and owning iPods?

In some ways it’s harder and some ways it’s easier. The difference is that we used to have this big body of work that was designed for everybody — and that was network TV and network radio before it and even the mainstream weekly magazines. Now, the culture has become so fragmented and niched that there is no equivalent anymore to “The Cosby Show” for example, or “I Love Lucy.”

If you want that mass appeal programming, you’ve got to watch it in reruns because no one is making it. “American Idol” is the closest thing. In predicting if you put a whole range of people in front of a single niche show, [then] yeah, you’re going to get different responses. Put a 5 year old in front of “Real Housewives of New Jersey” and they’re going to see significantly different things than a 25 year old.

So, is mass media dead and how does it imprint the cultural vernacular? Or, is it all just fractured demographically?

I wouldn’t say mass culture is gone. When you get 10 million people to watch an obscure cable channel when “Jon & Kate [Plus 8]” comes back for the new season, I’d still call that mass culture — even though 10 million is a small percentage of our population of 300 million, that’s still a big audience. So, there’s a mass culture, it’s just more fragmented and the things that everybody watches, we simply don’t get as often.

The Super Bowl is still predictable. Every now and again something like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” will come along. But, we can’t count on those shows that everybody will consume any more than we can count on everybody hearing the same music.  When I was a kid, whether you liked rock and roll or not, everybody heard the top 40 songs.  You couldn’t help it. They were on every radio station — they were all over the place. Now, I’ve had times where I’d ask a class of 150 if we can arrive at one or two songs that every one of them have on their iPod and we can’t.

So, [fragmentation] comes with advantages and disadvantages. “The Sopranos” is made for a certain kind of sophisticated viewer. I’m glad it exists. There was nothing like it 20 years ago. You had to settle for stuff that was appropriate for everybody. Its disadvantage is that the cultural glue that some of that stuff provided was important — a way of bringing everybody at least to a temporary middle.

Now there’s no place where that happens anymore. If you have a certain opinion of how the world works, you watch a certain news channel. If you have a different one, you watch another [channel]. Maybe we should no longer call it left and right. We should call it Olbermann and O’Reilly.

What is the fascination with the use of snark and irony and the publications that seem to have this edgy, smart-ass attitude on blogs?

Irony is one of the most efficient modes in which to approach [pop culture]. I started seeing this emerge in a big way in the 1980s — not that it hadn’t already been there to some extent.  And David Letterman, who arguably was the crown prince of irony, starts his “Late Night” show in 1982. That’s kind of a good mark for that.

What started happening is that popular culture [became] a lot more sophisticated in the 1980s. So, we started getting shows like “Hill Street Blues,” and “Moonlighting” and “Twin Peaks” — these shows that were so much better, more literate, more complex than we had seen before. But at the same time, we retained a love for the cheesy garbage that we’d grown up with.

We were simultaneously becoming more sophisticated consumers of culture [and] hanging onto a love of the dumb. Irony was one of the most effective modes of talking about that.

“The Brady Bunch” was unrealistic, the dialogue was terrible, the acting lacked any sense of subtlety. It was a terrible show.  Yet, we still liked it. So, snark allows you to do both of those things. When the Internet videos began to come, when Numa Numa guy comes up, there was something appealing.

The culture became something that thrived on this and was a lot of fun.  As for blogging, it’s one of the easiest modes of communication. Making ironic, snarky comments about things is easier than making analytical statements that give you insight.

Now, that isn’t to say that there aren’t snarky people who do good analysis — the writers of  “The Daily Show” are an example. The people who are doing some of these, not just regular snarky Internet comments, but some of this stuff going on “The Soup”— it’s ironic, but sometimes [it’s] actually very good — sometimes, not so much.

What are some other trends that you’re noticing?

If  I were to look at the giant trends in American culture, the first would be fragmentation — and that has been extreme and happened relatively quickly in a generation and a half. The second is complete cataclysmic shift in modes of consumption.  As a young person, one used to listen to music on a big stereo system that drove the neighbors crazy.

Now, much of music is being consumed individually — by one person with earbuds. The same is true of  TV, not that TV was ever a grand social experience.

On average, most TVs are watched by one to two people at a time. But now, the fact that so many people, especially young, emerging generations, are doing most of their TV viewing on laptops, it’s become an individual thing. So, those two shifts are big ones.  You’ve fragmented an audience that was defined by its lack of fragmentation through most of the 20th century — and then the way we consume popular culture in the simple technological delivery systems has changed in ways that I don’t think anyone could’ve imagined 15 years ago. If I ever thought that you could be sitting on a bus and watching live TV on a device in your palm, up into the 1990s — that seemed absolutely impossible.

What’s the next big thing in technology — the new device that will revolutionize how we communicate?

The big thing, we’ve already got the technology for, it’s a matter of implementing it. When everybody can come into their house from work, take out their laptop [access sites such as Hulu], sit on the couch in front of their 50-inch flat screen and make whatever is happening on their laptop show up on their TV.

That begs the question of how long it will take before everything isn’t just distributed through the Internet? But even though the technology of that is available right this minute, few people have it.

So, once everything that you can do on the Internet can not only be accessed on the Internet, but with ease and not a lot of complications onto your home theater, then all of this stuff that’s already happening is going to kick in.

It’s a matter of getting a user-friendly system, preferably wireless. The one big trick to it is that it’s all now costing so much money because of multiple services.

In regard to cultural vernacular, what do you think it takes for a video to go viral?

No specific recipe, because if it were that simple, everybody would constantly be working on the recipe. It’s usually some combination of things that hits what’s being impolitely called these days, the WTF factor — something that’s completely bizarre. Remember “Badger Dance?” I still like that video because [I wonder], ‘Why are these badgers doing calisthenics?’

It’s just that — “what is this?” If you look at some of the great viral videos, a lot of them are just the fact that they’re so strange.  Another one of my favorites, Chris Crocker, “Leave Britney Alone!” That’s really a masterpiece of something, I’m just not quite sure what.  Highly cute will sometimes do it. Things that aren’t supposed to happen, which includes all the cats playing pianos [and] using toilets, all the dogs being on skateboards, cars running into shopping malls.

Those are characteristics of videos that have gone viral before. But it’s like that judge said about pornography, “I’ll know a viral video when I see it.” And, when I know it, then I e-mail it to other people and that’s how it becomes viral in the first place.

Some viral videos totally mystify me. There are certain things that have gone viral really fast and you wonder, “Why did this become as big as it did?” In that way, these user-generated videos are different than most other art forms we’ve had because there is no professional gate keeping. This stuff just appears that people absolutely love and nobody would have predicted.

What makes people want to share every detail of their lives?

There are a lot of forces afoot. Modern Western culture has been moving in this direction for some time. Freud, the development of psychotherapy, this idea that you shouldn’t repress what’s in you, the talking cure [to] get it out. The 1960s, let it all hang out, the idea that we were too repressed. High school counselors constantly telling us, “Tell us your problems. Come to us. That’s what we’re here for.” Every talk show depending on people doing this and letting them be on TV. Parents saying, “You know you can always talk to me about anything.”

These messages we hear in modern life are constantly encouraging us to talk about things, to not hold back, to not be shy — to go against that old  Yankee attitude that you should be a man of action, not of words. We hear the exact opposite and we’ve been hearing it for some time. Tie that to the fact that most of us are narcissists by definition. Until we learn otherwise, most of us are concerned with ourselves most. We are our own beings, we want to survive, we want to be happy.

It’s only as we learn manners in civilization that we can move between a natural human sense of self importance tied to a general cultural message that we shouldn’t hold back [or] repress these things. I’m not surprised that we’ve emerged into this highly confessional culture. I always make the comparison: We used to buy diaries — they have keys so you could lock them. Now, a kid will [go to or] from school bragging about how many hits they got last night by total strangers on their personal blog where they confess things that a generation ago you wouldn’t have told your best friend.

How can popular culture reach across all borders — like the example of Michael Jackson as an international icon transcending cultural and lingual barriers?

With music it’s easy. Half the lyrics in songs that we listen to in our own native tongue we don’t get right anyway. So, you don’t need to understand the words to enjoy music and you don’t need to understand the words to enjoy dance. Michael Jackson’s a guy that could move like no other. His videos, even if they weren’t in your native language, or if you didn’t understand a word of them, were easy to [comprehend].

Think of watching “Bad.” Is it necessary to speak English to get that video? The more I listen to the lyrics of that, the less I understand it. So, that stuff translates easily.  American culture generally was exportable for so long because it was already designed to appeal across many barriers. During the network era, you had to have shows that the 8 year old would like and that grandma would like. That the conservative would like and that the radical would like. Girls and boys, men and women, old and young, Black and White, it would appeal to everybody.

Shows [were] user friendly on such a broad level that they were going to be exportable by definition. If you’re able to appeal to as wide and diverse an audience as the United States of America, you’re probably going to export well.

Amy Jacques is the associate editor of  Tactics. She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. E-mail:


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