Why do people care so much about big blockbuster movies and pop music and comic books and video games and television and sci-fi and fantasy books and all other pop culture? This stuff is junk. This stuff doesn’t matter. This stuff just isn’t that important, right?
But it is.
High culture is dead. It died a long time ago and is firmly in the “smells funny” phase. Pop culture matters because pop culture is all we’ve got.
Culture helps transmit values. This used to be the province of myth and story, painting and sculpture and poetry and music.
We are talking things that are shared by a people. Things that are enjoyed for their portrayal of truth, their embodiment of beauty, and the pleasure they bring to the eye or to the ear or to the mind or to the soul.
Maybe these things are cliched, but some things are cliche for a reason. They are cliche because they work. Hence the continuing popularity of narratives that show the struggle of good triumphing over evil.
“That’s not realistic!” many say. “It’s simplistic!” they criticize. But that’s the point. Good doesn’t always win, but that doesn’t mean human beings want a culture that reinforces the worst case scenario all the time, one that embodies and exalts the nastiest parts of being alive. It’s not in our nature.
Back to high art: Quick! Name a modern “serious music” composer who matters! Or a poet! Or a painter!
But I’m sure you know who Taylor Swift is. Or what Star Wars is. Or what team LeBron James plays for. Because pop culture has become our culture, for better or for worse.
This is why people argue about movies involving aliens and laser swords. Or books taking place in fantastical realms with dragons and magic. Or television shows about zombies. These stories reflect and shape who we are as a people. This stuff matters.I’m talking about America here, because it’s my country, but you can extrapolate to your geographic area of preference.
Pop culture is “lesser” than high culture–I’ve said as much about rock and roll before despite being a massive fan of the genre. But pop culture doesn’t have to be stupid. There is no reason why it can’t reach for the ineffable and the transcendent they way the best of high art does. In fact, I’d argue that lots of pop culture has hit these rarefied heights. This is why it matters.
The culture war is about more than just who makes better superhero comics or what video games are more fun. It’s about what these things mean. There is a reason that Superman has resonated so much for the almost 100 years (!) he’s been around: Superman said something about America and who we wish we could be. He’s like a modern-day Hercules (minus the family murdering).
The Big S is but one example, but this is why so much time and energy is expended in these culture wars, both for preserving existing norms and changing them. There is a reason that the counter-culture, whatever it is, tends to infiltrate cultural institutions, attack them, and subvert or invert them: it’s not only easier than creating something new, and it can put counter-values into a package that’s palatable to people while keeping the bait-and-switch invisible.
Yeah, this stuff matters. Ask yourself why people who get called out on this freak out so much if it didn’t matter. The stakes are that high.
Art and culture, of course, are two-way streets. You need a creator who has a vision but also gives the audience what they want, or are at least expecting. Without an audience of the public–yes, that much-derided group of “idiots”–you’re approaching something that resembles auto-eroticism. Unless, of course, you’re subsidized by a group of well-heeled gatekeepers, but that’s a story for another day.
And the audience is both shaped by and can shape the creator: Audience reactions can mold what the creator puts out, and the creator can introduce new things that can “train” or “educate” the audience to be more receptive to what the creator wishes to make.
Each side in this conflict, however you want to define them, wants that audience.
So how do you do this? If the audience seems to reject post-modernism, nihilism, and the forcible inclusion of fringe contemporary politics–as is happening with Marvel Comics and fan reaction to The Last Jedi—then you attack the audience as stupid and ultimately irrelevant. “The consumer doesn’t matter!” screams the “artiste.” Or you freeze out those who disagree with you with personal smears and professional ostracization.
Again, I ask, if pop culture didn’t matter, why the bitter fight?
I think it’s easy to see where I come down on this. I think people should have the choice to create and consume whatever it is they want without interference from government or gatekeepers. I do think that market tastes are indicative about the quality of a thing, but not the only indication. There is some stuff that is objectively good artthat goes right over many people’s head. Similarly, there is stuff that is objectively terrible art that makes a whole lot of money.
I also think that there are objective standards of good and evil, right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, and so on. This doesn’t mean one should never play with tropes or operate on the edges. But unremitting and expensive ugliness runs counter to human nature. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself: why is Beethoven’s 9th symphony vastly more widely loved than, say, Pierre Boulez’ “Le Marteau sans maître“?
“Pierre who?” you’re asking?
There is one side of the culture war that embodies the ideals and beliefs that have ruined high culture. They now look to do the same thing to pop culture by the same means: infiltrate, subvert, destroy. There is no order. There is no reason for anything existing–no reason for this note to follow that note, for words to rhyme or even have any semblance of rhythm or cadence, no ultimate purpose to this story or rationale for the hero to win (because, after all, what is a “hero”?), no real meaning to life itself. The world is chaos and confusion, disorder and whim. Old stories need to be “updated” to reflect new and therefore better values.
This is why it matters. Until there is some kind of high culture Renaissance, pop culture is all we’ve got.