Pop Theoryby Nathan Zeno / 10.06.2009
Popular Culture is a term that is bandied about a lot. Often we use it when referring to music, television or film that is not that popular. I don’t mean to suggest that we refrain from using it when referring to Goldfish or Lost, but just that we use it as an all-inclusive term. Sure, there is the subtle distinction that is made between pop and popular, but really what do we mean when we refer to something as being popular culture? Is it an insult or an attempt to raise it up?
We hate it when our friends become successful (is a clever sub pop culture reference to a Morrissey song) but why, then, do we want others to like them? I like discovering new bands and feel sick when I hear them on radio. And sometimes something as awful as Xtina will sing something that resonates to the very core of us. When I see a fabulously decorated taxi in the centre of Durban or a strange Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of industria and I feel something, I think of it as part of my popular culture. Does this “popular” mean that I think it will have meaning to those who understand me? Or to the world in general? Or are my popular culture references a way of explaining myself?
Way back when Nelly Furtado released her only slightly credible album, we were treated to the sentiments of “Shit on The Radio”, basically a song about ‘why don’t you like me now that I’m popular’ syndrome. It is this syndrome that defines the subtle distinctions between the levels that define popular culture -mine, ours, everyone’s. In essence, Furtado was probably never as “underground” as she thought she was. If she had any of the ‘I’m doing it for myself sensibility’ she claims in that ditty then she would have no problem with the hipness snobs going off her. Popular Culture touches us when it’s genuine – the use of a bedazzler in a non look-at-me way. Pop Culture seems superfluous when it serves no purpose other than sales. We like rich popular people to recognise their vacuousness in the same way we like our someone on a stage (in a stadium or in a corner bar) to reach out and gently stroke our battered hearts. Popular culture, it seems, is the use of cultural tools – film, music, dance moves – to reveal humanity in a way that can be shared. Pop Culture is when something that is being consumed en masse winks at us.
So when someone who used to sleep on a couch at their drummer’s place and sing songs that we had to get turned on to by a friend’s hairy boyfriend suddenly finds fame and wealth, we feel betrayed. But surely, as Furtado sings, they deserve it? That may be the case but, really, it’s not like I want my face rubbed in it. I feel this way about 340ml and any other band that I enjoyed when they were first breaking out; I feel this way when ex-girlfriends find new lovers. I love it when some form of expression resonates, when I can talk for hours about how it made me feel, but am never able to describe it. If you love something newly discovered set it free. If it comes back to you it’s Popular Culture, if it doesn’t, it’s Pop.