Levine centers on popular culture and how it is an adequate mechanism in comprehending Depression America. The writer attempts to get away from austere adjective labels as often as possible. He notes that while culture may not be seamless, it is integrated or connected. The piece asks for the reader to re-evaluate a long history of preconcevied notions and images that prevent the serious study of popular culture. The image of the strictly docile, non-aggressive mass audience and the endless amount of consumption defines pop culture in the eyes of academics. Popular culture is percevied as purely formulaic.
The idea that popular culture was and still is “escapist” and the concept that popular culture is not considered to be cutting edge on knowledge or style creates the belief it is not an art form or does not represent art. But what is popular culture? Popular culture is in its simplest definition a “commercial culture based on popular taste.” ( 1) Some might say it is whatever people in a community or region talk, think, and read about. Another way to interpret pop culture is “those trends in art and entertainment that society finds most appealing.” ( 1) It is a term used for a culture that is way more widespread and easily accessible to the masses instead of a small percentage within the population that can afford or access certain things (high culture). “To the Left, popular culture looked like the attempt of the ruling classes to exert hegemony over the masses; to the Right, popular culture existed as confirmation of the fear that if the masses and those who cynically catered to their low tastes were given free rein, the entire society would be awah in a flood of cultural trivia.” (7) Most of what comprises pop culture is entertainment. Parts of pop culture within entertainment are: sports, television, music, and movies. Popular culture is sometimes viewed in the same terms as mass culture when in actuality they are not entirely the same. “The familiar motif of elitism argues for the priority of mass culture on the grounds of sheer numbers of people exposed to it.” (6) Although there are many definitions, in order for something to be popular culture, it must be supported and made accessible to ordinary people and made profitable such as is in the business of entertainment and merchandise.
The consumption aspect of pop culture is what differs it from mass culture and folk culture. There is greater emphasis on consumerism in pop culture. Although popular culture is sometimes seen as apart of youth culture, it does not have to comprise entirely of youth culture. Age does not restrict pop culture or restrict it to high culture. Certain aspects of popular culture will appeal to certain groups, however this does not restrict it. Whatever interests the demographic group the most is a way one can identify current pop culture. Pop culture also relies on genuine interest and honest expression, a far cry from the popular culture some view. As Levine states:”The point of my title and my argument is not that popular culture is folklore or that the term “folklore” should be defined in such a way as to incorporate it. My intent is not to change definitions, except to the extent that I would like to see us get away from rigid adjectival labels as much as possible and recognize that, while culture may not be seamless, it is connected-at least, not outside the academic world.” (7)
Essentially popular culture is a form of culture. “Most anthropologists would agree that what we call culture is a system that includes beliefs, rituals, performances, art forms, lifestyle patterns, symbols, language, clothing, music, dance, and any other mode of human expressive, intellectual, and communicative behavior.” (2) Culture is essential in understanding a people and a society in an time or era. “This is why historians now tend to characterize the periods since the 1950s with terms such as the hippie era, the disco era, the punk era, the hip-hop era, and so on.” (2) The difference popular culture has with folk culture is the way it is driven.”Anthropologists other than Redfield have tended to use the terms “folk culture” and “folk society” uncritically, in the sense of non-primitive but relatively simple culture types which are rapidly being modified out of existence by increasing contact with modern industrial civilization.” (4) Popular culture is about modern civilization whereas folk culture is a preservation of a past civilization or traditions.
Levine felt that popular culture was a significant historical area to study because it pertained to how people identified history. Some historians even argue that pop culture enabled people to identify eras with certain aspect of entertainment. “This is why historians now tend to characterize the periods since the 1950s with terms such as the hippie era, the disco era, the punk era, the hip-hop era, and so on.” (2) Sadly other historians do not agree with the concept that popular culture was a means understanding the cultural and social variances in history. In his piece, Levine states there are five attitudes that he believes stalls the study of popular culture.
The first, is the image of the passive and sponge-like consumer created by popular culture. It is this belief that the consumer is susceptible to whatever message the industry wants to feed them that creates this shallow attitude towards popular culture. Within this first attitude, two constructs form: the “unknowing, all-absorbing consumer” and the “powerful, prescient producers of culture” (7). Again this can be argued as false because a lot of what is influenced in popular culture comes from a genuine source. Sincerety and creativity feed popular culture phenomenons, not the industry regime.
The second attitude as mentioned by Levine is that people believe popular culture is formulaic. To be more specific, if one understands any part of a popular genre, it can be applied to all. During the Depression Era there was a plethora of material the masses could absorb but as Levine says, the masses made decisions over what they liked and what they accepted. In actuality popular culture offers markers for historians to identify and understand what influenced people at the time and what people liked and believed in. “The study of popular culture has opened new doors for understanding how the ideologies and identities that shape daily life in the United States have been constituted and contested.”(5)
Third, popular culture is not escapist. This specific argument made by Levine is one that entirely explained. He says: those who attended films and plays, read novels and magazines, went to sporting events, and frequented musical performances of all kinds were not “escaping” from the “real” world; they were partaking of some of its essential features. One can argue entertainment was, especially during hard times like the Depression a means for people with little money to escape into fantasy and dreams. It is seen in modern times the need for entertainment to provide a means of escape from harsh reality. So for Levine to argue popular culture is not escapist is not entirely true. Cetain aspects of it create escapism because popular culture is so entertainment-driven, but it does not entirely comprise of escapism.
Levine does realize this by sayin popular culture helped people escape from the pressures of the Depression It was important to them and that is one reason why, for example, The Three Little Pigs was so popular and successful in the mid-1930s. Popular culture in that instance was more of a tool but not a definition for escapism. The fourth attitude is, popular culture is mass-produced. This creates the obstacle of popular culture not having the ability to be on the cutting edge of style or knowledge, and does not have the substance to be an art form. In actuality popular culture enabled invention of new technologies and techniques as was seen in animation and film with the use of color. “we think it connects the newly industrialized versions of leisure found in the nineteenth century such as circuses with the more commodified forms of the mid-twentieth century such as animation” (5)
Lastly and fifth, popular culture is more than just aesthetics. A multitude of historians have difficulty wrapping their minds over popular culture not just being about aesthetics. Their shallow beliefs and interpretations of popular culture keep them from fully realizing its worth.This inability to transcend the shallow beliefs given to popular culture had made it increasingly hard for historians to take popular culture seriously enough to understand the dynamic relationship that exists between the audience and the expressive culture with which they interact. They fail to realize history uses popular culture to express its significance. “As a model of historical engagement, reality history creates meaning via the lived experience of ordinary people as they encounter the past through privation and hardship.” (3)
To conclude, overall popular culture needs to be re-evaluated. It is an important identifier of history. It is something that can educate and invigorate interest in the past and present. It is a marker for past eras and a juggernaut for innovation.
1 Brookover, Sophie, and Elizabeth Burns. Pop Goes the Library: Using Pop Culture to Connect with Your Whole Community. Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc., 2008.
2 Danesi, Marcel. Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
3 De Groot, Jerome. Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
4 Foster, George M. “What is Folk Culture?.” In American Anthropologist, 159-173. 1953.
5 Franz, Kathleen, and Susan Smulyan. Major Problems in American Popular Culture: Documents and Essays. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2012.
6 Jameson, Fredric, Michael Hardt, and Kathi Weeks. The Jameson Reader. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000.
7 Levine, Lawrence W. The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
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