What Is 'Pop Culture' in the 21st Century?
A world wide web.
In my head, the term ‘pop culture’ will always conjure the ancient realm of the 1990s. Comic books, glossy magazines, cartoons, neverending banks of music video channels - a colossal, largely tangible entertainment industry that delivered top-down, mandatory super-fun-times. A rockin’ and rollin’ mass culture peppered with originality, generously layered with toxic tropes, and delightfully lacking in self-awareness.
Today, while not much has changed in terms of power—the industries are still colossal, top-down, and sometimes, super fun—pop culture looks wildly different. News is inseparable from entertainment; apps have become a past-time; being ‘on our phones’ has become a way of life… this is not a sardonic sentence, simply a descriptive one.
Naturally, when I say ‘pop-culture’ here I’ll be discussing today’s expanded entertainment industry which, on the surface, isn’t so different from that of the last century: TV, films, podcasts, social media, their respective industries and work cultures.
But I’ll also be addressing a much broader and fragmented web of mass culture. The expansion of digital life at the turn of the century has collapsed certain cultural structures, and in building new ones we have brought most things to the table for the consideration of the global populace—if only for a minute.
The more intangible, digital, and user-generated culture is, the less clear its concept. Everything becomes potentially relevant to the definition if it all has the chance to go viral at the drop of a hat.
The globalised, Extremely Online world of Western pop culture is still—presumably, somewhere outside my flat—predicated on the tangible world of people, infrastructure, and the occasional physical exchange of ye olde goods and services. But it is no longer directly, cleanly tied to how many people are willing to pay £17.99 for a Jedward album.
The terrain of the culture industries, and their economics, have been thrown up in the air and we’re 🤞hoping🤞 that when they land they’ll settle better than they are currently.
As much as I hate writing this sentence, if I’m going to discuss the way that the culture industry works now, I have to discuss Tide pods, extremism, and stonks.
This makes for an interesting balance between trying to reflect genuinely impactful developments, and not buy into fleeting trends for the sake of it.
The news, apps, advertising, teen culture, slang, sexual expectations, algorithms, aspirational slogans, celebrity CEOs; culture is always developing, but its definition and contents are expanding so rapidly it’s feeling harder to reliably track. (Is it just me?)
I will beware of the bullshit Silicon Valley buzzword ‘disruption’ because the more things change, the more they stay the same — and that’s where power is so important to this. While streaming, blockchain, and NFTs are lauded as ‘innovative’ as though they are ‘entirely new’ concepts, people with power are hoping we don’t notice they’ve simply repackaged the capitalist economics of art.
So when I say this blog is about ‘Power and Pop Culture’, expect to read about:
The BBC World Service
WTF ‘identity politics’ and ‘cancel culture’ even mean
Unions, and the social and cultural relations of the workplace
Any academics who know a lot of details about stuff and also manage to make it accessible and hilarious
While I’m genuinely excited to cover the emerging absurdity (emurdity? I’ll never apologise) of our world, I will do my very utmost to remain anchored in real life, focus on the things that are impacting humans in a real and lasting way, and deliver some semblance of journalistic practice.
And I promise never to write about dogecoin. But mainly because I do not understand what or why it is.