What is Pop Culture?

Last month my niece asked me to answer a question for her high school social studies class. The Question was: Is pop culture a societal scream to be remembered, or is pop culture a scheme to gain power or wealth?

I am not exactly sure what her teacher meant by the question, but this was my response:

In 1949, George Orwell wrote his epic dystopian novel 1984, which follows Winston Smith’s encounter with Big Brother, a surveillance program that manipulates the realities that are experienced by the citizens of Oceania. In this narrative, government structures control all elements of pop culture and other ways of life, allowing no freedom or rights of individuals. The book was written in reaction to the rise of the Cold War in 1947. It played off of American’s inert fear of government power, and exemplifies the ability of a few to control images, thoughts, and power. That being said, you have asked if American pop culture is a societal scream to be remembered, or if it is a scheme to gain power or wealth. The question in itself presents inherent false dilemma fallacy that could be clarified by a proper definition of terms. Can pop culture be classified as both a “scream” to be remembered, as well as a “scheme” to gain power, or are the two terms diametrically opposed to each other?

As your question is written, I would suggest that pop culture could be understood to be both a scream to be remembered, or a scheme to gain power or wealth. However, based on context, I would suppose it more useful to stagger this quandary into a more accurately binary trope. In other words, I’ll rephrase the question, “To whom can we more greatly attribute the creation and control of pop culture, typical Americans, or public and private institutions?” To this, I would comfortably answer that private and public institutions create pop culture.

Abraham Maslow proposed that humans exhibit a natural hierarchy of needs. Towards the top are air, water, food, sleep, clothing, and shelter. As humans satisfy these basic necessities, their needs expand to safety and social belonging. Over the millennia, plutocrats discovered market niches for these more social, esteem, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Today, nearly all the money that Americans spend on everything that we eat, wear, watch, listen to, play with, indulge in, consume, live under, or purchase will go back to five hundred people, a majority of whom are old, white, and inherited their money from their parents.

This plutocratic caucus regulates government institutions in order to maintain their power and control of the market. They create schemas that transcend to the everyday life of individuals. For many it is believed that popular culture is dictated by the consumer, yet this is only true at a very-most fundamentally idealistic level. Those who control pop culture are those who distribute food, entertainment, and other aspects of the lives of normal people. Companies like Google, Walmart, ExxonMobil, Verizon, Comcast (including Universal and Universal Music Group), Sysco, Walt Disney Co., 20thCentury Fox, Time Warner (including Warner Music Group), Sony (and Sony BMG), National Amusements, General Motors, AT&T, Amazon.com, Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, PepsiCo, McDonalds, Starbucks, Yum Brands, Frito-Lay, and Mars Inc. are examples of large corporations that make most of the decisions regarding popular culture in America.

It can be argued that consumers willingly agree or purchase products from these corporations, and sometimes they do reject certain products, such as New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Sony Betamax, Crystal Pepsi, McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, The Barnes and Noble Nook, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7. However, when consumers reject certain products, or even companies, they revert to that company’s competitors, or even other products within the company. These expanding corporations only allow for a very selective few to control consumerism in America.

Out of necessity, the large portion of Americans are attracted to the best product that they can purchase for the least amount of money, and the only companies that can afford to produce low-cost quality products are the same ones that created America’s economic structures in the first place. Ultimately, these corporations pay off government institutions (or candidates) to allow them to separate from their competitors, which guarantees them the first exposure that Americans have to pop culture. These brands now use algorithms in their marketing to pinpoint exactly what we like, what we want, where we live, where we are, what we do, what we like to eat, how fat we are, how we date, how we worship, and how we vote, in order to deliver to us personalized persuasive multimodal messages to convince us to give them money. Americans once thought that Big Brother was a government entity, but experience has proven that it is the summation of a few private entities who want to sell us popular culture.


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