July 28th 2020

Pop culture matters

Many people labour under the assumption that pop culture is trivial and useless while only 'high' art can grant us genuine and eternal knowledge about the world. Given that we have a finite time on this planet, we are permitted to enjoy pop culture up to a certain point, but we should always minimise our interaction with it and consume more moral and intellectual instruction wherever possible.

Or so the theory goes. What these people do not realise is that pop or 'mass' culture can often provide more information about the world, society in general and — possibly even more important — about ourselves. I don't believe I am the first to believe this. In his Creative Writing and Daydreaming, Freud noticed that the "popular" genres tend to write works that reflect the anxieties and desires of society, compared to more artistic writers who tend to express their own personal sentiments. Umberto Eco was not afraid to wade in on pop culture matters either, notably in his 1979 essay on the James Bond novels.

But this is not quite the debate around whether this 'high' art is artistically better, merely that pop culture can be equally illuminating, if not more so. On that, Jeremy Bentham argued back in the 1820s that "prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry" and that it didn't matter where our pleasures come from. John Stuart Mill, Bentham's intellectual rival, disagreed. Unfortunately, this fundamental question of philosophical utilitarianism will not be resolved here.

However, what might be resolved is our instinctive push-back against pop culture. We all share that automatic impulse to disregard things we do not like and to pretend they do not exist, but this wishful thinking does not mean that these cultural products do not continue to exist when we aren't thinking about them and, more to our point, continue to influence others and possibly even ourselves.

Take, for example, the recent trend for 'millennial pink'. With its empty consumerism, faux nostalgia, reductive generational stereotyping, objectively ugly æsthetics and tedious misogyny (photographed using 'Rose Gold' iPhones), the combination appears to have been deliberately designed to annoy me, and therefore curiously providing circumstantial evidence in favour of intelligent design. But if I were to immediately dismiss millennial pink and any of the other countless cultural trends I dislike simply because I find them disagreeable, I would be willingly keeping myself blind to their underlying ideology, their significance and their effect on society at large. Sure, if I possessed ethical or political reservations, I might choose not to engage with something economically or to not advertise it to others, but that is a different question altogether.

Even if we can't notice this reactive pattern within ourselves, we might first observe it in others. We can all recall moments where someone has brushed off a casual reference to pop culture, be it Tiger King, TikTok, team sports or Taylor Swift; if you can't, look for the abrupt change of tone and the slightly-too-quick dismissal. I am not suggesting you then attempt to dissuade others, or even to point out this mental tic, but merely seeing it in action can be highly illustrative in its own way.

We can say that pop culture is not worthy of our own time relative to other pursuits, but deliberately dismissing pop culture as irrelevant does not make sense when a lot of other people are interacting with it, so it will therefore always be deserving of some level of inquiry, and to pretend otherwise is either sophistry or a sign of a deeper incuriosity about the world. And if that doesn't convince you, just like the once-unavoidable millennial pink, simply sticking our collective heads in the sand will not mean that certain wider societal-level ugliness is going to disappear anytime soon.

Anyway, that's a very long way of justifying why I plan to re-watch TNG.