THE EDITOR’S DESK: F*#@ Pop Culture

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When we say pop culture, what do we mean? John Story, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, discusses six definitions. Do we mean culture that is popular, like Shakespeare or Dickens?

Or do we mean mass produced commercial culture, celebrity memoirs, pre-packaged music that intentionally sounds like music you’ve heard 1,000 times before, music you’ve already memorized? Are we talking about movies plotted out in marketing meetings meant to appeal to a segment of the population, instead of a segment of our brain? In other words, when we say pop culture, are we talking about the lowest common denominator, factory produced entertainment sucked down with soda pop and Kentucky Fried Chicken and everything else that’s making us fat? If that’s what we’re talking about, then I say fuck pop culture.

When did pop culture become cooler than regular culture? Was it when Britney replaced Madonna? When did we let the marketing executives into our living room? When did we stop being embarrassed by “guilty pleasures”?

But maybe that’s not what we mean. Maybe what we mean is pop culture appropriation, like Quentin Tarantino or Malcolm Gladwell. Or maybe we just mean anything popular. Maybe you think Jim Thompson’s The Getaway is pop culture. Maybe anything that’s fast-paced and fun, irrespective of where it originated or whether it makes you think or sheds light on the human condition. Maybe when I’m thinking of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, CSI, and American Idol, you’re thinking South Park, The Sopranos, Radiohead, and Flight of the Conchords. It gets complicated, especially when Kim Gordon starts designing for Urban Outfitters.

It’s possible that what we’re talking about is so undefined that the only thing we can actually discuss is the meaning of the word.

But that’s not what I mean. I love Quentin Tarantino, The Breeders, TV on the Radio, early Liz Phair. I’m looking forward to The Watchmen, the Tyson documentary, and the next great HBO series.

But when people write The Rumpus offering to cover “pop culture” I say, “We don’t cover pop culture, actually (Mainstream K. excepted).” We cover regular culture. We like books, art films, music that doesn’t sound like everything else. We will undoubtably write about things you consider pop culture. We will even write about things we consider pop culture. But not too much. All the other magazines already have that covered for us.

Fuck pop culture. We’re going to focus on everything else.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →