In Defense of Pop Culture6 October 2016
“First, you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen.” – Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama recently said that she is a “product of pop culture”, informing Variety that “first, you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen. This year I’ve written about and defended many facets of pop culture. But why does any of this matter? Does it even matter? Isn’t pop culture just for mindless entertainment?
Anything to do with pop culture is often rejected as trivial or “soft news” as my media lecturers like to say. But pop culture is so much more than just entertainment. It is integral to our lives, culture and society in the modern world. A defining aspect of pop culture is its ability to reach a large audience – and it is in this ability that pop culture is so powerful. Unlike other forms of art or news, by belonging to pop culture, TV shows, movies, social media platforms and memes have greater potential to change social norms and illicit important conversations simply because they are, by nature, pervasive and wide-reaching.
Reaching a Large Audience
The use of pop culture to highlight niche issues and give them a much larger audience has become integral in raising awareness for social issues today. With the increasing prevalence of social media, popular celebrities have harnessed their ability to garner a large audience to broaden the reach of important and timely issues that would otherwise not have been as successful.
The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is one of particular significance at the moment,. There have been a lot of news stories, horrific events and names of people associated with this movement but it is through social media and celebrity participation that it has really gained momentum. Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram have produced hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName to propel the movement beyond those who are immediately affected by it. In themselves, platforms like Snapchat, YouTube or Instagram are not popular culture, but it is in their ability to enhance the voice of already prominent figures that they, in turn, become engines of pop culture.
For example, Beyoncé’s recent album, Lemonade, is full of feminist lyrics and ideas of racial politics that are integral to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement as well. By integrating a social movement within the realms of pop culture, artists like Beyoncé have contextualised the ‘BlackLivesMatter’ movement in a way that appeals to her audience on an emotional level. So when she is accompanied to the VMAs by the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin – all black men who were unjustly murdered – people understand and contemplate the issue far more deeply than they do when watching a two minute news story.
Michelle Obama is another person who masterfully uses her popularity on social media to reach a wider audience and appeal to a younger generation that is often characterised as apathetic towards politics or social issues. During her appearance on James Cordon’s viral ‘Carpool Karaoke’ segment, which consistently gets millions of views on YouTube, Michelle talks about her upcoming trip to Liberia, Morocco and Spain to promote the ‘Let Girls Learn’ initiative that aims to ensure girls around the world are educated.
She also talks about how she has set up Snapchat as a way of teaching kids and teens in countries like the US and Australia not to take their education for granted. Rather than just announcing a bunch of new initiatives through a press release, Michelle Obama is making an active effort to engage with young people through Snapchat and Corden’s viral video segment. It is through pop culture that she has consequently found an extremely wide and diverse audience to communicate her ideas with on a more personal emotional level.
Prominent figures in pop culture have the power to shine a spotlight on important topics and issues that would otherwise not have reached the level of traction that they have. Whilst forms of art and news that don’t fall into the pop culture category have the power to do this as well, the reach and accessibility of pop culture makes it an incredibly powerful force of expression.
Validation and Representation
All art has the ability to help people who may be struggling. But in entering the realm of pop culture, that piece of art has the potential to influence the norms and customs of society. When something that has been previously stigmatised in society is normalised through pop culture, it becomes validated within the wider psychology of society.
The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it difficult for people who are struggling to see what they’re going through as ‘normal’. During my own struggle with my mental health, I was convinced that nothing I felt was valid. Then one evening when things were particularly bad, I decided to watch The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which ultimately helped me recognise and understand my own feelings. This is a story that was first a cult-classic book then a highly successful movie that openly addressed mental illness in an honest way. Pop stars like Demi Lovato have also been significant in changing the conversation about mental illness in talking about her own experiences with depression. Whether it is in the form of a highly publicised movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or in the sentiments of pop stars like Demi Lovato, pop culture has been a significant vehicle in changing the way society as a whole views mental illness by removing the stigma around it.
Similarly, shows like Orange is the New Black have been extremely significant pop culture landmarks in the way that they represent such a diverse range of people. The show itself has capitalised on Netflix as a platform and vehicle of pop culture in order to achieve recognition within the wider realms of society. The popularity of Orange is the New Black when it highlights diversity and typically stigmatised topics is significant because it validates and normalises the experiences of those who these issues concern in real life. Diversifying the world of pop culture through popular platforms like Netflix has meant a consequent shift in the perception of previously repressed groups of people in the real world. For example Lavern Cox, a transgender woman who plays Sophia Burset on the show, has been integral in furthering the awareness of transgender people in the world. Since appearing on the show, she has been on the cover of Time magazine, proving how the place of diverse shows like Orange is the New Black within the world of pop culture has changed the way that society as a whole views minority groups.
Whilst any art form has the power to represent a minority group, it is through pop culture that this representation gains significance. In entering the realms of pop culture, shows like Orange is the New Black have most importantly validated the experiences of minority groups, and it is ultimately through validation that pop culture has the ability to change social norms and the psychology that surrounds such topics within mass society.
Changing the Story
The reason so much of pop culture matters is because it gives us a different perspective on news and has the power to influence the way we understand events. Throughout history, pop culture has acted as a window for people to comment on and change the way their story is told, and continues to do so today. ‘
Memes are a current phenomenon that demonstrate how pop culture has the power to change the way people understand situations and provide insightful and witty commentary on some aspect of life or society.
Harambe is the perfect example of this. When Harambe was shot at Cincinatti zoo after a child jumped into his enclosure, the internet was initially outraged. But as most things do, the story died down after a little while. That is until the memes began.
Some say that the Harambe meme is insensitive to his death and that people should not be laughing about such a tragedy. In response, I would like to highlight that this meme is not about laughing at Harambe. It is generating pain into humour. The Harambe meme reminds people of the terrible injustice that occurred and has ensured that it wasn’t just another news story that fades away after a week or two. Nobody is laughing at a gorilla who died. People are laughing to mask their pain and anger because Harambe was killed for someone else’s irresponsible behaviour.
If it weren’t for memes, Harambe would have faded into obscurity like all other news stories do, possibly mentioned a year from now to commemorate the incident. But instead he lives on through a meme which serves to comment on the incident itself but also, more subtly, on the internet’s ability to change the way a story is told through a new and original form of media.
Pop culture is ultimately important because it gets people to listen when they otherwise wouldn’t. Of course pop culture is fun. It’s supposed to be entertaining and that’s one of the best parts about it! But entertaining is not synonymous with useless or trivial. In its ability to reach such a large audience, pop culture has the ability to validate the experiences of a diverse range of people and change the way stories and events are understood for the better.
I would be seriously lost without the influence of pop culture in my life, as I’m sure many people would. And in the end, if Michelle Obama is a self proclaimed “product of pop culture” then I think we can all see just how powerful a force it is in the world today.