Defending Pop Culture

One of my favorite bloggers, Cranky Cuss, wrote a great essay bemoaning the state of American pop culture.  His decision not to renew his subscription to Entertainment Weekly made him question whether or not he had become a snob.  Allow me to become a popular culture apologist and defend the merits of superhero movies, sci-fi, Top 40 music, maybe even (shudder) reality television. 

First of all, I don't think Cranky Cuss is a snob. There is nothing wrong with expressing your informed opinion, and let us be honest, 99% of anything is crap.  But you can also find gems in 1% of anything too.  Real "snobs" are those arrogant folks who raise their noses at what they perceive to be inferior content and want the world to know that they peruse only high-end stuff.  And, yes, it is all "stuff." 

The problem with most pop culture is that it is usually churned out quickly and made to appeal to the lowest common denominator, so there often isn't much originality on display or anything of substance beneath the surface level.  But there are reasons people are drawn to schlock -- most of it is harmless, fun escapism. 

If people want to waste hours playing a video game, is it any more of a waste of time than spending an evening watching PBS?  Should we really debate whether it is better for our intellect and/or soul to watch an opera versus watching a professional wrestling match?  Can't some people find pleasure in both?

But comparing high art to pop culture is a pointless comparison.  It implies that a person can only appreciate one or the other.  It asserts that those who like the works of William Shakespeare cannot also get a thrill from the novels of Stephen King.  It also assumes that such a person who likes both cannot discern the difference in quality.  I sometimes want to eat a filet mignon and I sometimes crave a fastfood burger -- I can enjoy both, but I can also tell the difference.  The assumption is also there that pop culture holds no measurable value, that its creators have nothing of merit to say, that its audience gains nothing positive from its existence.

I respect those who do not have a television set or who never frequent a social network online.  But I feel like they are missing out on something too, just as those who have never been to a live theater show or have never listened to Beethoven or Mozart. 

For those who hate science fiction and fantasy, I feel sorry that they do not experience the same joy I do when I read Neal Stephenson, or China Mieville, or George R.R. Martin, or Margaret Atwood.  For those who despise rap music, I feel genuinely sad that they cannot find the same appreciation so many do from the songs of Jay-Z or Eminem.  For those who never picked up a comic book in their life, I feel pity that they may never have seen the incredible artwork of Alex Ross or the brilliant writing of Alan Moore. 

The greatest pleasure I receive from pop culture is the watercooler chatter -- talking with colleagues about which show had the worst finale, or seeing who can quote the most lines from our favorite movies, or debating which superhero powers would be the most practical to have in the real world.  And then sometimes pop culture sparks deeper discussions about social issues, philosophical conversations about the meaning of life and our role in the universe.  You scoff, but it happens.

Rather than abandon all pop culture as a waste, I wish more consumers of popular entertainment would merely look at it with a more critical eye.  That is why genre fandom is so near and dear to my heart -- we can enjoy cheesy nonsense like Godzilla for its simplistic pleasures, while voicing all the ridiculous flaws in its execution and seeing the metaphorical elements at its core -- all at the same time. 

Art house cinema can be just as craptastic as box-office blockbusters.  The books that the intelligenstia claim to read can be just as much bullsh!t as the latest paperback thriller by Mr. Bestselling Hack Writer.  Opinions are a dime a dozen for high culture as well as for pop culture. 

Cranky Cuss, you are not a snob.  But I beg you not to abandon all of mainstream entertainment.  The world needs your critical eye, so that the cream of pop culture rises to the top.