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Popular Culture

June 2024
4min read

“Popular culture” is not the opposite of or the alternative to something called “high culture.” It is not degraded, debased, simple, or undisciplined. Nor is it defined primarily by its mass appeal or commercial values. It is not the size of the audience Aa* is important but its diversity. In its productions and performances, popular culture brings together into the public space a variety of social groupings: women and men; adolescents and the aged; ethnics and “natives,” white, black, brown, and yellow; rich, poor, and middling; urban and suburban; the overeducated and the newly literate; the established and the recently arrived.

At its best popular culture is exuberant, sometimes ecstatic; it overflows its formal boundaries; bends, breaks, and reconfigures genres; is often naughty, seldom “nice,” and usually vulgar (but in the largest sense of those words). It can be fun and frightening, engaging and enlightening, acerbic and celebratory. But it is above all else a shared or public culture, with its own particular politics.

Shakespeare and Italian opera in the nineteenth century, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, the world’s fair midways and Coney Island amusement parks, Elvis and Sinatra, the Simpsons and the Sopranos, Tupac and Destiny’s Child—all represent popular culture in its appeal to audiences defined by their heterogeneity.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

by Lawrence W. Levine (1988; Harvard). The centerpiece of Levine’s book is his discussion of how performances of Shakespeare were, in the course of the nineteenth century, integrated into American popular culture in such a way as to become indistinguishable from it. Only later in the century was Shakespeare transformed, for social reasons, into a “sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences.” Performances of Shakespeare, Levine shows us, were not the only cultural products that were “sacralized” and removed from the broader public as urban elites established new cultural hierarchies in the late nineteenth century. Italian opera, symphonic music, painting, and sculpture were similarly walled off from the larger public as the exclusive property of upperclass audiences.

Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century

by John F. Kasson (1978; Farrar, Straus and Giroux). There is no popular-culture subject more thoroughly fascinating and richly documented than the amusement park. John Kasson’s Amusing the Million remains a classic of social history. It conveys the excitement the visitor must have experienced on entering this magic peninsula, just off the Brooklyn mainland, and the anxiety engendered in cultural critics who refused to understand what Coney Island was all about. The photographs are as evocative and revealing as the text.

The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements

by Woody Register (2001; Oxford). Register follows the career of Fred Thompson, an unrecognized giant among early-twentieth-century showmen as he moved from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago to the midway of the PanAmerican International Exposition at Buffalo, then to Luna Park at Coney Island and the Hippodrome theater on New York City’s Sixth Avenue, inventing new and more extravagant multimedia spectaculars everywhere he went. The breadth of Thompson’s work is extraordinary, from “A Trip to the Moon,” the multimedia fantasy extravaganza that he first presented in Buffalo to astonished spectators, to the exhibits, architectural delights, and live productions he designed for Luna Park, and Little Nemo, his Broadway show based on Winsor McCay’s immensely popular comic strip. Thompson used light, color, special effects, architecture, and live, costumed performers to transport Americans into increasingly bizarre and fantastic new worlds.

All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at America’s International Expositions, 1876-1916

by Robert W. Rydell (1984; Chicago). The world’s fairs and their midways were more than spaces where Americans could amuse themselves in public and buy cotton candy. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century world’s fairs, in Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo, St. Louis, and San Francisco, educated as well as entertained, taught Americans about the world, and carefully demarcated the boundaries between the “civilized” and the “uncivilized.” Rydell fills in the backstory, delineates the economics and politics of the world’s fair, and the ways in which the fairs prepared for and justified a new twentieth-century American empire.

The Marx Brothers Scrapbook

by Groucho Marx and Richard J. Anobile (1974; Perennial Library; out of print). Popular culture could be enlightening and educational, but it was also just plain fun. The Marx Brothers trespassed through dozens of different popular-culture forms and marked every one with their particular brand of New York ethnic humor. From vaudeville and burlesque to musical comedy, Broadway theater, film, radio, and television, they made bad taste and bawdy humor a high art form. The Scrapbook, besides being a thoroughly entertaining documentary history, provides an invaluable compendium of interviews, photographs, scenes from the films, sheet-music covers, correspondence, newspaper articles, and advertisements.

The 7 Lively Arts

by Gilbert Seldes (1957; Dover). Seldes wrote this book in 1923 and 1924 and added an introduction and slightly revised it in 1956 and 1957. The first edition was the contribution of a young man to “the assault against ‘the genteel tradition’”; the revised edition added the commentary of a more mature critic slightly abashed at his younger, more enthusiastic self. Seldes was among the first critics to take the “popular arts” seriously. This is a chatty, informative, opinionated book about Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett; ragtime and Irving Berlin; Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids; Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. It provides a fine introduction to popular culture before it was known as popular culture.

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin

by Alice Echols (1999; Henry Holt). There are dozens of terrific books on popular music and rock ’n’ roll. One of my favorites is Alice Echols’s biography of Janis Joplin. There is a demonic quality to popular culture that is too often submerged in our analyses of its forms and contents. Echols situates Joplin within the sixties counterculture that made her music possible and her premature death all too inevitable.

Why Sinatra Matters

by Pete Hamill (1998; Little, Brown). Hamill’s is a short book but an important one. It is a study of style, of grace, of sexuality, and of longing, all hallmarks of popular culture. Like so many of the critically important artists and performers who invented twentieth-century American popular culture, Sinatra was an outsider who refashioned himself into the ultimate insider. In asking why Sinatra matters, Hamill answers the larger question: Why does popular culture matter?

Blues People: Negro Music in White America

by Amiri Baraka (1963; HarperTrade). First published more than 40 years ago, before LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, Blues People is one of the best and most readable social histories of jazz and the blues. Jones is generous in his judgments of white as well as black musicians, but he makes it abundantly clear that American popular musical forms are rooted in the black experience.

Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America

by Tricia Rose (1994; Wesleyan). Hip-hop has now dominated the American cultural scene for almost two decades and the global arena for nearly as long. Tricia Rose’s book brilliantly describes rap as “an outgrowth of black cultural traditions, the postindustrial transformation of urban life, and the contemporary technological terrain.” Her multilayered reading of rap music—and the large hip-hop culture to which it belongs—uncovers some of the reasons for the music’s vitality, longevity as a cultural force, and widespread appeal. As the “culture wars” make clear, popular culture is not just a form of entertainment but an arena of political debate that speaks to our values and identity as a society. Nowhere are these conflicts and contests clearer than in rap; nowhere are they more forcefully chronicled than in Rose’s work.

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