Introduction to Popular Culture

Popular Culture

Popular Culture and Social Change

Because popular culture charts social change exactly and swiftly, it is commonly held responsible for the changes it reflects, and denounced as the harbinger of social disIocation. in the early years of the century, jazz and the movies were held responsible for juvenile deIinquency, as television continues to be today.

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The Gilded Age of American Civilization

The ways in which society may amuse itself around, in any country and at any time, an exceptional opportunity for the display of wealth and the assertion of social importance. Thorstein Veblen has graphically demonstrated this conscious or unconscious motivation in many forms of recreation. It is clearly evident throughout American social history.

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Hollywood and Cultural Imperialism

There is only one Hollywood in the world. Movies are made in London, Paris, Milan and Moscow, but the life of these cities is relatively uninfluenced by their production. Hollywood is a unique American phenomenon with a symbolism not limited to this country. It means many things to many people.

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Art and Escapism

“The movie is the art of the millions of American citizens,” an English writer in the Adelphi discovered, “who are picturesquely called Hicks-the mighty stream of standardized humanity that flows through Main Street. The cinema is, through and through, a democratic art; the only one.” Nor would this commentator have had it otherwise.

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The Rise of the Sports

While the west was going through its gorgeous epoch of gambling, drinking, and gun-play, a series of athletic crazes were sweeping through the states of the East. Baseball developed from its humble beginnings in the days before the Civil War to its recognized status as America’s national game. The rapid spread of croquet caused the startled editors of The Nation to describe it as the swiftest and most infectious epidemic the country had ever experienced.

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The Pleasures of Vacation Touring

The pleasures of vacation touring were depicted with even more fulsome praise of the joys of the open road. Every section of the country invited the growing army of motorists to visit it. Chambers of commerce, resort proprietors, and oil companies united in publicizing the attractions of seashore and mountain. New England was a summer vacation land, and Florida a popular winter resort.

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Popular Culture and Leisure

As to the first, if he asks several persons at a baseball game, what brought them there, he will receive a variety of answers: “to enjoy the game,” “to get the sunshine,” “to get away from home,” “to rest.” If asked what leisure means to them on a more general level, the same persons are likely to consider it as “time off from work,” “free time,” “my own time,” “doing what I like,” “rest,” and so on. A more sophisticated audience or a categorical-minded observer might attempt to classify such views in still other ways

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Popular Culture and Social Change

Popular Culture and Social Change

Because popular culture charts social change exactly and swiftly, it is commonly held responsible for the changes it reflects, and denounced as the harbinger of social disIocation. in the early years of the century, jazz and the movies were held responsible for juvenile deIinquency, as television continues to be today.

Cultural conservationists blame the spread of popular culture for their discomfort, believing that if only it could be kept under proper control, then the stability of the old ways of life might return. But this is to punish the messenger for the news he delivers. The media of popular culture are not themselves the origin of social change, although they encourage its novelties by making them appear desirable.

In one important respect popular culture is itself conservative, since, to be popular, it must speak a language that is already common to its consumers. To sell the people what they want to sell, the producers of popular culture must say what they think people most want to hear. In this sense popular culture is a form of dialog which a society has with itself.

The debates over censorship reflected a widespread belief that popular culture was an instrument of informal education and influence, and that as a result care needed to be taken over its content. Non-capitalist countries supervised their information and entertainrnent media at least as closely as they supervised their state education systems. In the United States, by contrast, the industries of leisure accepted “escapism” as a definition of their activities, since it has provided them with an easy means of avoiding responsibility for what they represent.

Next Page: The Gilded Age of American Civilization

The Gilded Age of American Civilization

The Gilded Age of American Civilization

The ways in which society may amuse itself around, in any country and at any time, an exceptional opportunity for the display of wealth and the assertion of social importance. Thorstein Veblen has graphically demonstrated this conscious or unconscious motivation in many forms of recreation. It is clearly evident throughout American social history.

The worthy citizens of eighteenth-century Philadelphia vied with each other in the magnificence of their banquets, loading their tables with massive silver plate and serving such a choice selection of imported wines that the visiting John Adams stood amazed at the “sinful feasts.” The planters of Virginia rode to hounds in close imitation of the English country squires whose social status they sought to emulate in every possible way. Merchants of New York and Boston were already aspiring to yachts in the 1850’s, their sons to membership in the exclusive boating clubs, while all the fashionable world sought out Saratoga or Newport as a step upward on the social ladder.

Concert singing, visits by foreign musicians, and orchestral playing also revealed a growing taste among the sophisticated for more serious music. Jenny Lind had paved the way for the tours of European artists in the middle of the century, and Ole Bull had made two memorable visits. In the 1890’s Ysaye, Paderewski, Fritz Kreisler, Adelina Patti, Melba, Calvéé, and Madame Schumann-Heink were all on tour.

Symphonic music had had its start with the organization of the New York Philharmonic as early as 1842, but it was not until 1878 that this orchestra had any real rival. In that year the New York Symphony Orchestra was established, to be followed in another three years by the Boston Symphony, and in 1891 by the Chicago Orchestra. Walter Damrosch and Theodore Thomas were adding a new interest to the musical scene.

Grand opera also had become firmly established. It had long been a distinctive feature of the social life of New Orleans, and there had been various attempts to introduce it in New York and other cities. Troupes of Italian singers had come and gone; elaborate opera houses had been opened-usually to fail after one or two seasons. “Will this splendid and refined amusement be supported in New York?” we find Philip Hone asking in 1833. “I am doubtful.” And for almost half a century his doubts were largely justified. It was in 1883 that the Metropolitan Opera House, costing nearly $2,000,000, provided grand opera with its first really permanent home in America.

With the first post-war boom in the 1860’s, observers began to note that New York society was becoming entirely based upon wealth, social prestige being won by those who had the most splendid carriages, drawing-rooms, and opera boxes. George Makepeace Towle has described the balls and assemblies-ladies in sparkling tiaras, suppers of oysters and champagne, fountains gushing wine or sprays of perfume. He was somewhat horrified by “so unceasing a round of glittering gaiety and dissipation.” The advance of the new millionaires was picturesquely described as “the Gold Rush” by representatives of older social traditions. “From an unofficial oligarchy of aristocrats,” Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer sadly wrote, “society was transformed into an extravagant body that set increasing store by fashion and display.”

Nor was New York alone in this competitive rage for showy display. A sycophant press might boast that its ornate fancy-dress balls and ten-thousand-dollar dinner parties were the most expensive ever known, but the world of fashion throughout the land was closely following its lead. There was an epidemic of gaudy magnificence in the amusements of what went for society. One Chicago magnate brought an entire theatrical company from New York to entertain a group of his friends, and a wealthy woman in another city engaged a large orchestra to serenade her new-born child. San Francisco was notorious for its “terribly fast so-called society set, engrossed by the emptiest and most trivial pleasures.” A fortunate miner who had struck it rich in Virginia City drove a coach and four with silver harness; another had champagne running from the taps at his wedding party.

Next Page: Hollywood and Cultural Imperialism

Hollywood and Cultural Imperialism

Hollywood and Cultural Imperialism

There is only one Hollywood in the world. Movies are made in London, Paris, Milan and Moscow, but the life of these cities is relatively uninfluenced by their production. Hollywood is a unique American phenomenon with a symbolism not limited to this country. It means many things to many people. For the majority it is the home of favored, godlike creatures. For others, it is a “den of iniquity”; a center for creative genius, or a place where mediocrity flourishes and able men sell their creative souls for gold; an important industry with worldwide significance, or an environment of trivialities characterized by aimlessness; a mecca where everyone is happy, or a place where cynical disillusionment prevails.

Rarely is it just a community where movies are made. For most movie-goers, particularly in this country, the symbolism seems to be that of a never-never world inhabited by glamorous creatures, living hedonistically and enjoying their private swimming pools and big estates, attending magnificent parties, or being entertained in famous night clubs. The other symbols belong to relatively small groups of people.

The United States has remained the dominant influence on world culture throughout the century, and this position has hardly been challenged. It has been by far the largest exporter of eultural commodities – larger than the rest of the world combined.

In addition to being a social phenomenon, which reflects a particular ideology, the Hollywood star system is a business strategy designed to generate large audiences and differentiate entertainment programs and products, and has been used for over seventy years to provide increasing returns on production investments. As a marketing technique and business strategy, the system was first used in the theater industry. Between 1910 and 1948 Hollywood borrowed and expanded the star system and stock company approaches from the stage; and through the simultaneous exhibition of films throughout the world, the industry eventually established movie studio stables of stars and earned profits well in excess of those of the largest theatrical companies.

Significant historical changes in the status of movie stars have paralleled decisive technological, economic, and social changes that have affected the American film industry as a whole, such as the coming of sound, the Great Depression, and the rise and fall of movie attendance. The contractual terms and salaries for movie stars have also been affected by the same factors.

In the highly competitive and expanding market that existed between 1910 and 1920, the most popular silent-movie stars eventually obtained contractual terms that equalled and possibly exceeded their individual contributions to box-office success, and some of them also became involved in film production themselves, although the development of sound and its demand for experienced stage and radio performers ended the careers of many silent film stars. Those working during the early 1930s, when movie attendance declined and industry power was concentrated in the hands of a few studios, were placed in a poor bargaining position, and studios began exercising near autocratic control over the star system.

The Paramount antitrust decrees in the late 1940s resulted in a shift from a mature oligopoly/ monopoly, or semicompulsory cartel, involving the Big Five studios ( Warner Bros, Loew’s/ MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Twentieth Century-Fox) and the Little Three ( Universal, Columbia, and United Artists), to a bilateral oligopoly with six major distributor/ producers and a dozen nationwide theater circuits today. This shift created a slightly more competitive market that benefited the most popular movie stars.

Unfortunately, the decline in movie attendance and the rise in production costs, which also occurred during this period, left many less popular contract players unemployed, as stock companies disbanded. In the 1950s and 1960s, although many of the more popular stars remained under studio contract, they also obtained more liberal terms than existed during the studio period, sometimes receiving a percentage of the profits or becoming directly involved financially in film production for both tax advantages and artistic control.

During the 1960s and 1970s the absence of studio control forced Hollywood increasingly to rely upon other media, such as television and popular music, to cultivate stars who could then be exploited by the film industry. Eventually some scholars and executives began to question the validity of the star system, embracing instead the “auteur” approach, which suggested that the previous success of a director ensured box-office success better than did the supposed popularity of movie stars.

But, as the American film industry has argued almost from its infancy, cultural products play a crucial role in opening export markets for other goods and the way of life they promote. On the other hand the very existence of American dominated popular culture has been responsible for the development of national styles in fashion or media, as govemments try to resist the encroachment of a homogenized “world” culture, whether it emanates from New York, Hollywood, Paris or Tokyo.

This is ultimately not an argument about esthetic quality, but a demonstratian of real cultural, social, and finaily economic power. Since the cultural elite in European societies has corresponded closely to the economic and political elite, it has been able to dictate the terrns of the debate. This has, for example, been a powerful influence on British broadeasting, whose patrons insist, against ail evidence except cultural prejudice, that it provides the “least worst televisian in the world”.

The adaptations and documentaries which give British television its envied reputation for “quality” reproduce the “worthiest” remnants of British culture. As in Gerrnany, television has absorbed writing and directorial talent which might have contributed to a cinematic renaissance. Innovation has been contained within the hierarchies of television. Elsewhere in Europe the forrnal experimentation of the avant-garde and international Art Cinema has been rendered harmless by being kept within a cultural ghetto of smail metropolitan theaters for a middle-class elite, where its power to disrupt or subvert has been reduced to an untroublesome minimum.

On accasion, as in the Cinema Nova mavement in the 1960s in Brazil, cultural resistance has been linked to opposition to the political and economic dominance of the United States as well as to its cultural influence. Cinema Nova used the history, mythology and imagery of traditional Brazilian culture as the basis on which to revive a national culture free of North American domination. Much Third-World cinema has derived its impetus from an opposition to the cultural colonialism of Westem countries, which has often dominated distribution and thus hindered or prevented the emergence of an indigenous film industry.

The most enduring forrns of cultural nationalism have been those able to integrate imitations of American media forrns with a culturally specific, preferably traditional content: the martial arts films of Hong Kong; Japanese “home dramas”; or, largest and perhaps most spectacularly successful of all, the Indian cinema.

Curiously, the American film industry is required to be most sensitiye to the demands of audiences outside its own cultural boundaries, since it is dependent on foreign sales for more than half its income. This heavy dependence on foreign markets is one explanation for the continuing ability of American popular cultural forms to absorb and assimilate almost anything.

Polish filmmaker Andrej Wajda caught the other basic ingredient of their success: “The paradox is that because the American cinema is so commercial, because the pressure of money is so strong, everything in a film has to be the very best. That means the most expensive, but it alsa means the most authentic, the most honest. No half measures, everything on the edge of excess…. The amount the Americans are prepared to spend on making their films is in a way a sign of resped for the audience.”

Essentially the argument has changed little in substance, only in scale, from the complaints against Hollywood’s influence in the 1920s. As the mass audience for the electromic media began to decline and fragment in the West, broadcasting became increasingly internationalized through coproduetion arrangements, seeking its audience in many countries simply to pay the bills.

The media have been important forces in maintaining Western influence and interests in Third World countries after independence from colonial rule: into the 1980s the majority of joumalistic and technical staff continued to be trained by American or European agencies, and, partly as a result, to adopt Western values in regard to media content Equipment and programs have enabled broadcasting services to be established, but have inhibited local production because of its high cost by comparision to American programýning of much more ostentatious production qualities.

Next Page: Art and Escapism

Art and Escapism

Art and Escapism

“The movie is the art of the millions of American citizens,” an English writer in the Adelphi discovered, “who are picturesquely called Hicks-the mighty stream of standardized humanity that flows through Main Street. The cinema is, through and through, a democratic art; the only one.” Nor would this commentator have had it otherwise. The attempt to educate the public to higher standards of taste except through the movies’ natural evolution in response to a gradually maturing public sentiment was pious humbug. Europe had failed to realize the possibilities of the moving picture and was hiding behind that “singularly putrescent hypocrisy that masquerades as ‘artistic culture.'”

The reigning stars during the thirties also revealed how diverse moving-picture entertainment had become. Micky Mouse rivaled Greta Garbo, and the Dionne quintuplets competed with Clark Gable. Lawrence Tibbett and Zazu Pitts, Will Rogers and Jean Harlow, Adolphe Menjou and Shirley Temple, Bette Davis and James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Vivien Leigh, each had an enthusiastic following.

The movies’ success in reaching such a broad public had long since had a most far-reaching effect on other forms of entertainment. From nickelodeon days they had been gradually drawing off the patrons of the popular melodrama, the devotees of variety and burlesque. They now dominated more completely than ever the whole field of commercial amusement. The people’s theatres were either closed or made over into movie palaces, variety shows were so reduced in number that the old two-a-day vaudeville circuit was completely disrupted, and the doors of the local opera houses (unless they too were wired for sound) were everywhere boarded up. The triumph of the movies over the popular theatre was complete.

The legitimate stage which was primarily centered in New York — the theatre of classical drama, sophisticated comedy, problem play, and also musical revue — remained a vital force. It was perhaps more important in some ways than in the nineteenth century. If vaudeville had left it free — or forced it — to go its own way without considering entertainment that would appeal to the urban workers, it was now more than ever the arbiter of its own fashions. It could encourage playwrights — Eugene O’Neill was the country’s leading dramatist — who really had something to say. It could present plays dealing with social problems, and musical comedy that deftly satirized the current scene.

The 1930’s saw a revival of stock companies, especially summer stock; other cities followed the lead of New York with its Theatre Guild and Group Theatre; the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union staged a musical skit which played on Broadway and toured the country; and the Federal Theatre Project became for a time an active force in the theatrical world. Under such stimulating influences there also sprang up a mushroom growth of community theatres with some five hundred thousand amateurs playing before an estimated annual audience of fifteen million.

Escapism that is not an escape from or to anywhere, but an escape of our utopian selves, has always been present in the idea of Camival, where the inhibitions which bind us to conventional roles are loosened. It is our Camival selves that we take on holiday, and the holiday resort – from Atlantic City to Blackpool to Pattaya – has always been a place of loosened inhibitions. If it is the crime of popular culture that it has taken our dreams and packaged them and sold them back to us, it is also the achievement of popular cultýne that it has brought us more and more varied dreams than we could otherwise ever have known.

Popular amusements had more generally evolved from diversions that were originally available only to the wealthy. The theatre in America had at first been primarily class entertainment, the democratic audiences in the large playhouses of the mid-nineteenth century, as we have seen, offering a marked contrast to the more exclusive theatre patronage of the colonial period. And from this gradually democratized theatre had developed the even more popular minstrel shows, burlesque, and vaudeville. But the first appeal of moving pictures was to the masses rather than the classes. They were cheap and popular from the very beginning. The support which in time enabled them to raise their standard of entertainment came entirely from their nickel-paying customers.

Their early development along such unashamedly popular lines was not by any means inevitable. It was in part due to the class of people who happened to take them over. The outstanding figures were Jewish garment-workers or fur-traders who bought up the penny arcades, and then the nickelodeons, to merchandise films as they would any other commodity. And their dependence on a mass market led to their continuing to place emphasis on quantity rather than quality. They were not troubled by an artistic conscience, not concerned with culture, in promoting this profitable business. But at the same time what might superficially be dismissed as merely shrewd commercial tactics represented an approach to the development of this new amusement which would not have been possible in any other country. It reflected a democratic concept of the general availability of popular entertainment which was thoroughly American.

Next Page: The Rise of the Sports