How to Avoid Pop Culture
In these dark times holding out against the constant barrage of pop culture
has become more challenging than surviving a succession of carpet bombings.
Pop music seeps and swells from the ceilings and nooks of shops, offices, and
coffeehouses. Television sets are now permanent fixtures in airports, post offices,
saloons, and doctor’s offices – in fact, one dangled precariously above me as
I suffered a recent root canal, tuned to Oprah no less, which was far
more painful than the surgery itself. I commenced to pray the set would dislodge
from the ceiling and put me out of my misery, but Yahweh spared me – evidently
to continue His good work.
So much of popular culture is so indescribably bereft of good taste that
a thinking man will attempt to isolate himself from it whenever and however
possible. This, unhappily, is getting increasingly difficult to manage. It is
naturally assumed not only that we poor saps queuing in line need constant diversion,
but that we need infantile diversion of the worst kind. The relatively harmless
elevator music that once unassumingly infected public spaces has been supplanted
by commercial radio with its jackass disc jockeys and morning "zoos,"
while classical music is now wielded primarily as a weapon to drive loitering
and horror-stricken teens from parking lots. On the boulevards and byways one
finds insipid advertisements plastered to every imaginable surface, moving and
sedentary, human and inanimate. These days one moves in and out of pop culture
the way one dodges raindrops in a downpour. Against such overwhelming odds,
one has no choice but to hoist the white flag and lay downs one’s arms. Vulgarity
and boorishness have won the day.
It is unfortunate that in order to avoid the indecencies of pop culture one
must isolate oneself like a medieval monk in a Carpathian monastery; a monk
with a remote hopelessly surfing through hundreds of television channels, reeling
up and down the radio dial in a vain attempt to find some offering that only
mildly offends. Happily there are still enough decent books published, enough
tolerable music being recorded, a few passable newspapers and journals printed
so that one can stop his ears to the siren song of pop culture’s pimps.
I find noteworthy new music not by listening to KY-98, but rather by reading
reviews, and through the old reliable word of mouth, the same way I hear about
good films and good books. In this way, criticism is essential to my well-being,
and one first-rate critic is to me worth a hundred artists, if only for the
time and money the former saves me by sifting out the chaff.
But pop culture is far more insidious than mere TV and radio. It is films and
fashion, it is magazine fare and performance art, it is dance and design. These
too are impossible to avoid completely, particularly fashion – or its absence
– which has morphed into a perfidious form of advertising one might call fadshion,
for lack of a better word. Avoiding dance is as simple as avoiding dance clubs,
which is easy enough for a middle-aged homebody like myself. And as for magazines
and films, one learns to be selective, which is the one essential criterion
in a society where overabundance and choice are supreme.
Indeed the very term pop culture may just win the award for the most absurd
oxymoron. There has never been anything sophisticated, cultured or cultivated
about popular taste. Take rap musician Snoop Doggy Dogg. Granted, Snoop is the
coolest human being alive. Far cooler than me. Far wealthier than me. Am I jealous
of Snoop? Damn right. And yet what Snoop does in the recording studio has nothing
to do with culture; and yet what Snoop does is somewhat legitimized by the term
pop "culture." Sorry, but Snoop doesn’t deserve it. Culture, said
a very cultured fellow, Matthew Arnold, is "to know the best that has been
said and thought in the world." Elsewhere, in the same vein, he said, "Culture
has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light." Knowing the
best that has been said in the world is rarely associated with the masses, who
seldom know what even they are saying (let alone thinking). And as for
sweetness and light, the only light Snoop gives off is the one from his crack
What we are really describing then is a form of popular entertainment,
not culture, and if we need a word to describe this I suggest Dwight Macdonald’s
term masscult, which has a slightly malicious sound to it that appeals
to me. It may seem silly to make distinctions between good and bad masscult,
and yet that’s exactly what we do all the time. The Clash are good, P. Diddy
is bad. Old Paul McCartney is good. New Paul McCartney is bad. How much easier
to say all masscult is bad and be done with it. But we can’t. I love the Clash,
despite their undeniable lack of culture, class and teeth.
Macdonald also described a third level of culture he called "midcult,"
or the culture of the new state-college-educated middle-class suburbanites,
who occupy the no-man’s land midway between the masses and the highbrows. I
suspect Macdonald gives the middle class too much credit for brains. My own
feeling is that Macdonald’s midcult is nothing more than the best of bad popular
culture, and what has happened is that contemporary pop culture has gotten far
worse than anyone ever believed possible. Take television. In the 1950s, NBC
had its own orchestra led by the greatest director of the day, Toscanini. Nowadays,
NBC has Fear Factor on which we are invited to watch bikinied bimbos
I’m inclined to think there are rather two levels of mass culture that we might
profitably call low mass and high mass. If these terms do nothing
else they at least succeed in disassociating the words popular and mass from
the term culture. As you might expect, it is low mass that I find so annoying,
so troubling, so irritating, and it is low mass that I try desperately to avoid.
Then again, it is high mass that I am most comfortable with, that speaks to
me, not in the lofty, intellectual manner of high culture, but in the warm,
friendly tones of a sympathetic companion. I may occasionally dip a toe into
high culture, take in a production of Lear, reread Beckett’s Watt,
put on Gould’s Bach Goldberg Variations, but I find the water a bit warm
for my liking and can only take it in short spurts.
This is unfortunate because it is precisely high culture that allows us to
"become all we are capable of being; expanding, if possible, to our full
growth, which is the law of culture," to bring in Thomas Carlyle. High
mass does nothing but briefly entertain us. Low mass corrupts.
If the U.S. seems backward culturally, it is small wonder. Its democratic leaders
give very little weight to high culture; even in its colleges and universities
there is little encouragement "to know the best that has been said and
thought in the world," as schools have generally moved from educating young
men and women to job training. What pittance the government doles out to support
the arts often goes to low mass institutions and other forms of popular entertainment,
since that is what the majority of voters long for.
There is, I suspect, an undeniable pleasure, a rank smugness in being in the
high mass minority, just as I suppose those in the high brow minority are doubly
smug. Smugness, to my mind, is a greatly under-rated amusement. If one must
be continually annoyed by pop culture – and I see no alternative to this in
the near future – one may as well get some pleasure out it.