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
Throughout the 20th century the industries of leisure have expanded to constitute an ever greater part of the economies of industrialized nations. From the Korean factory worker producing televisian sets to the part-time saleswoman in Stockholm who sells them, ever-increasing nurnbers of people are employed in the production and servicing of leisure activities.
All these activities are couched in the idioms of advertising and entertainment: theyall respond to real needs, but as they do so, they define what constitute the legitimate needs of the people of their society.
As critic Richard Dyer has expressed it, “The ideals of entertainment imply wants that capitalism itself promises to meet.. .entertainrnent provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism.”
Yet such ideals and alternatives, dismissed as merely entertainrnent, are held to be unworthy of serious consideration. As a result, we are alienated from our own dreams and utopian desires, persuaded instead that they can be fulfilled, or just disposed of, by two hours at the movies or a new dress and in the process reassured that, like the commodities that have replaced them, the dreams were never “about” anything important in the first place.
Through this apparent decline was due in part to a moral and/or cultural backlash, it had much to do with ingrained aspects of national life and character. One of these was a readiness to live with maiden “Auntie” BBC’s paternalism. British record companies were content – if not enthusiastic – to sell rock `n’ roll, but BBC resistance severely restricted airplay.
The only alternative – the commercial radio station Radio Luxembourg, broadcast from mainland Europe – was very popular with teenagers (especially at 11 pm on a Sunday night for the Top 20), but that popularity did not translate itself into wholesale dissatisfaction with the BBC’s music policy until 1964, when a rash of “ pirate stations” broke out, broadcasting unlicensed from ships moored just outside territorial waters. The pirates introduced an American style of disk jockey to an enthusiastic British audience.
Beneath the surface there was an unprecedented amount of popular musical activity. The steadily increasing popularity of the dance-hall as a venue for “sweet Saturday night” created a demand for bands at a local level. The existence of such bands was in large measure the product of a short-lived skiffle bom. This hybrid of American blues and folk music and British music hall was an offshoot of the fashion for traditional jazz (“trad”) of the mid-and late fifties. It had three important consequences: it gave a considerable push to the evolving process of musical “democratization”; it raised the guitar to preeminence; and it introduced a direct link to the roots of black American music.
Next Page: American Television and the Wider World