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 all 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 and mass culture can often provide more information about the world, humanity in general and — what is even more important — ourselves.

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

However, what might begin to be resolved is our instinctive push-back against pop culture. We all share an 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 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 with Rose Gold iPhones), the very combination appears to have been deliberately designed to annoy me, 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. If I had any ethical or political reservations I might choose not to engage with them economically or to avoid advertising them to others, but that is a different question altogether.

Even if we can't notice this pattern within ourselves we can 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, simply look for the abrupt change of tone and the slightly-too-quick dismissal. I am not suggesting you 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.

In summary, we can simultaneously say that pop culture is not worthy of our time relative to other pursuits while consuming however much of it we want, but deliberately dismissing pop culture doesn't mean that a lot of other people are not interacting with it and is therefore undeserving of any inquiry. 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 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.