In Defense of Critical Thought for Pop Culture

This post comes about as an outgrowth of a recent discussion I had about the state of American poetry. Now those of you who read a particular recent post of mine know I don’t really read poetry in literary magazines much. Well while I was talking to a friend about American poetry I pointed out that I didn’t really think what you found in literary magazines really represented American poetry.

The heart and soul of American poetry is in our music industry. Be it country music, rap or generic “pop” music, the rhythm and rhyme of song and dance form the meter of our nation’s most important poetic expressions.

Now why should that be? Aren’t music labels focused on driving the bottom line? Bent on creating albums that will appeal to the consumer and do nothing for the human condition? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, there’s more at work in this equation than you might think.

Make no mistake – all great cultural touchstones were originally parts of popular culture. Homer was blind – it’s unlikely he wrote down his great works himself. We don’t know much about his life but it’s commonly believed he traveled about as a minstrel and sharing his stories to make a living before he was “noticed” and his stories recorded. Shakespeare’s plays were considered lowbrow and his writing not up to the standards of university educated playwrights of his time. Jane Austen wrote brilliant novels filled with characters who are timeless and loveable. She also saw things about human nature that the greatest scholars still miss in their sweeping treatises. She was taught by her parents, reading books and basic socialization, there is nothing scholarly about her novels.

Yet these people are fairly representative of their eras of great Western culture.

There were no gatekeepers these people had to go past. No journals promoting them, no scholars encouraging them (the opposite was true in at least Shakespeare’s case) and no intent on their part to create timeless works. They just tried to share something with an audience in the best way they knew how and they did it so well they set a benchmark in some way, shape or form. When they set that benchmark people took note and their work began to spread.

This brings me to the real point of this essay. In the world of pop culture critics it’s not uncommon to hear people apologizing for scrutinizing TV, movies, pop music or comic books. It’s as if there’s no reason to sift through all these new media outlets that are catering to the populace at large rather than the particular psychosis of academia. Surely the only ones deserving of critical analysis are the artistes, the literary masters, the great poets. I would like to propose to this group of pop culture critics – of which I am a very minor and unimportant member – that it’s time to stop with that attitude.

The definitive voices of days past were working in popular culture, gaining recognition and praise precisely because vast swaths of people could get to their work and appreciate the deep and timeless truths masterfully presented in ways they could clearly understand. The proliferation of mediums and technology have made tracking with culture both easier and harder. We have more information at our fingertips but at the same time anyone can create quality content very cheaply and there’s more people doing it than ever before. The need for people to sift culture with a critical eye and find the things that are truly timeless and truly accessible is greater than it’s ever been. Pop culture critics have an important role to play in that.

There’s also a need for people who will stand up and say that our movies, music, novels, comics, TV and YouTubers could be doing better. Saying that there is room for improvement and suggesting how it might come about, not because of esoteric theories but because of human nature and the need to understand, will elevate the culture and bring us closer to the next great touchstone in culture.

So the next time you take a hard look at a movie or song that you really enjoyed and want to talk about it with your friends, don’t apologize. Own it. Think long and hard about pop culture, try to create some yourself and share the lessons with others. That’s the only way culture can go from a brief pop to a timeless classic.

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One response to “In Defense of Critical Thought for Pop Culture

  1. I completely agree with you, Nate. I have said for years that the only serious orchestral music being written (which is worth listening to) is being scored for film. Howard Shore’s film score for the LORD OF THE RINGS movies will, I predict, outlive the avant garde dissonance of so-called modern music. If no one listens to, watches, or reads something for pleasure, how can it possibly be more ‘worthy’ than something EVERYONE does? But I agree with you that more discernment is called for: WHY do we like what we like, and how could it be better?

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