On Pop Culture: Part 2
This is the second part of a series on pop culture. Part 1 can be read here.
Pop gets a bad rap. The surest way to self-aggrandize and demonstrate purported taste is to criticize what everyone else likes. A reaction is all but guaranteed, and by the nature of popular culture, it’s sure to be a controversial opinion. Musical artists are considered “sell-outs” when they “go mainstream”. Scorsese isn’t the first person to denigrate Marvel movies, nor will he be the last. Older works are considered classics and hallowed, though they were likely the pop culture of their time. More avant-garde pieces are held in a certain esteem, though it isn’t certain if anyone truly enjoys them, much less if they will be held in the same esteem going forward.
This casual elitism comes from the idea that anything the hoi polloi enjoy are of inherently lower value, because they cannot have taste. Exclusivity is a marker of merit, and through denying the antecedent, accessibility becomes an indicator of worthlessness. Like discussed in the previous post, this elitism attempts to justify itself through claims of cultural significance, but only serves to gatekeep a dying reverence for the irrelevant. Rather, it is pop culture that is a sign of the times.
If we can suspend our disbelief for a moment and find that the masses don’t simply consume whatever capitalist drivel is shoved down their throats, then pop culture suddenly becomes much more interesting. Though our paternalistic friends at the Frankfurt School might say differently, most people are capable of taste, and distinguishing the good from the bad. Pop culture then becomes an excellent barometer of current events and sentiments.
It’s easy to do this for cultures outside of our own. Chinese blockbusters are criticized for having imperialist and neo-colonialist undertones, but a closer examination of the pro-military, pro-American values of Hollywood blockbusters are no different. Squid Game was interpreted as a criticism of cutthroat South Korean economic disparity, and by some even as a portrayal of North Korean violence before finally realizing that it took the world by storm because it resonated with all capitalist societies. It’s easy to dismiss Japanese isekais as something unique to a culture hyperfixated on material success and honour, but it’s not so disregardable when it gains traction in North America.
In all three of these examples, the industries have caught onto a certain zeitgeist: ultra-nationalism in the first, and the failure of capitalism in the latter. It’s this cultural chord they struck that caused their success. Granted, there is a certain degree of manipulation by the moneymen in the industry, but no one could have predicted the overnight success that led to any of these phenomenon, particularly Squid Game. I’m certain no Netflix strategy board meeting had a slide somewhere that said: “Capitalizing on Disillusion with Capitalism”. Perhaps there was an initiative to increase the amount of Korean content, but no one knows where pop culture is going to go next. Companies and industries can only see emerging trends and try to emulate what’s hot. By the time something passes production and is ready to be released, the culture has moved on. If there were a second season of Squid Game, I doubt it would be to the same acclaim.
With certain definitions, popular art is actually the best art that society has to offer. It has the widest reach, and is comprehensible to the largest body of people. It is relatable, containing the relevant ideas of the times. Critics and detractors claim that it’s derivative, that it is a watering-down of high art and that it mimics its contemporaries for profit, but that doesn’t diminish its value. Squid Game is neither original nor a strong representation of Korean audiovisual entertainment. The idea of a game where the bettors only have their lives to stake started in manga with Akagi and Kaiji some thirty years ago, and now is an extremely popular genre. The Korean film and television is very mature, and consistently turns out quality soaps and serious films, but none of this is evident in the mystery-thriller. Even the gratuitous violence is only a fraction of what it is in Park Chan-Wook’s movies.
Like I’ve written about before, I agree with Tolstoy’s assessment that there are really only two stories, and everything else is an iteration on that. Similarly, there are only so many chords and notes that can be played, and much will be a variation of something already created. If artists were valued only on their ability to create something entirely new, not many artists would be valued. The ability to combine elements of various old works, to reforge them into a story, a song, or a sculpture that makes people feel emotions that they haven’t felt before by looking at the old works, but feel now by looking at this one, is what is valuable.
Popular media’s significance is the creation of a common tapestry for the whole world, or at least the neo-liberal democratic one. It reuses old tropes, repackages worn ideas, and recycles stock characters into something that is relevant and forces viewers to reconsider how they live their lives. Viewers’ paradigms aren’t completely shifted, but reflection of certain behaviours should be given. Though Squid Game might not cause any drastic shifts in anyone’s understanding of capitalism, perhaps it will lead to a more empathetic viewer afterwards. Maybe there will be a little less grumbling come tax season. Maybe there will be a little more compassion for migrant workers. There should certainly be more empathy for those in dire financial straits.
With the sheer volume of content created on a daily basis, it’s also likely that what becomes popular is the cream of the crop. There will occasionally be a fluke, but even Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Bling Empire, and Selling Sunset are shows that feature the most unique cast, the best editing, and the catchiest stories. What the layperson obsession with unproductive wealth and glamour says about current society is a topic for another day, but it doubtless says something. Regardless of its artistic merit or innovation, the importance lies in that these are elements of culture that bind a society together.
Whether these works will endure the ravages of time or be lost in the annals of history is unknown. Surely neither Ovid nor Shakespeare thought that they were going to be immortalized for creating a bit of theater, but they were. However, their relevance today is what’s important, not if they will be remembered a century or even a decade from now. For those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, but those who have no idea what’s going on in the present can’t apply it anyways.