Toward a Definition of Popular Culture

I never thought that to define “popular culture” would be such a struggle.  Defining pop culture as “commercial culture based on popular taste” seems adequate.  Yet, Parker argues, quite correctly, that common definitions, “suffer from a presentist bias and cannot be applied to pre-industrial and pre-capitalist societies.”

Parker starts his article in referencing Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, saying that popular culture is similar to pornography: we may not be able to define it, but we know it when we see it. Soon after, he references what Tony Bennett wrote in Popular Culture: a Teaching Object,

“The concept of popular culture is virtually useless, a melting pot of confused and contradictory meanings capable of misdirecting inquiry up any number of theoretical blind alleys.”


Here’s my (wonderfully grotesque layman’s) version of the compiled definitions of Pop Culture:

  • there’s lots of it(?)
  • it’s good(?) (but not too classy)
  • it’s massed out by the man and his devices(?)
  • ‘we the people’ made it(?)
  • it’s made to ‘stick it to the man'(?)
  • there is no pop culture, Bennett is right(?)

an image from the google search "pop music artist"

But I ask, “Do we know it when we see it?” Sure, that last hit song by (insert pop artist here) that came out on the radio is it.  We can look at how well it does on the pop charts.  It’s measurable – it’s popular.

But is it good? And who decides, or does that matter?  Does ‘the man’ produce music? or do ‘the people’? Is the music part of resistance to culture?  (maybe if it’s grunge or punk).  All of these questions make us question what pop culture really is.  I can think of plenty of things that fit the bill for: “I know it [as pop culture] when I see it”, but too often they, like our pop song example, only qualify for one or two of the definitions.

We’re left with Bennett though.  How can pop culture be both: something we know when we see and yet confused and contradictory in meaning?  It can’t, right?

I’ll say that it can.  Though the differentiations are potentially confusing, there is a difference between culture and pop culture.  How distinct and clear that difference is though – remains to be defined.

Virtually useless is infinitely better then actually useless, because if it weren’t, professor Harris would be in some serious trouble.


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