After the VMAs last weekend, pop culture has been on my mind. I take a strange view of pop culture often times. I both enjoy it and feel exasperated by it; I both take it seriously and refuse to take it seriously.
Pop culture does matter. I don’t think there’s a way of getting around this fact. It’s something that reaches tens of millions of people every day, more if you consider how much American pop culture manages to spread across the world. You only need to be on one tour of the floating island in Peru where the locals wish you farewell by saying “Hasta la vista, baby” to recognize just how much this stuff spreads. And while I have no idea how much pop culture might impact our attitudes as a country (or other countries’ attitudes towards us) I do know that anything that is integrated into so many lives is something that matters.
And honestly, I enjoy pop culture. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. When it’s done well, it’s awesome. Even when it’s not done well, it’s fun to participate in anyway, just by complaining or mocking or over analyzing.
Because that’s the thing: pop culture is really interesting to analyze sometimes. And the way in which we collectively conceptualize various aspects of it and discuss them and debate them, it all says something about who we are as a society. Pop culture is able to inspire debate in a way nothing else really does in America. Religion is “live and let live,” politely left unspoken. Politics is too fraught and opinions are too entrenched. But pop culture? Once we outgrow our pre-teen fundamentalist phase where you either are a directioner/belieber/insert-name here, once we move beyond a die-hard stance ‘N SYNC v. Backstreet Boys debate, pop culture is a wide open topic, one shared by enough people and with low enough stakes that it’s up for discussion anywhere and with anyone.
And what happens in pop culture and the things we say about it afterwards, those things matter. If pop culture exists to entertain the masses, then what it produces and how we react are a reflection of where we are as a society. And if you’re not buying that idea, consider this: in the 1968, Star Trek, broadcast the first interracial kiss on American TV, between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhurra. Now ask yourself whether that was a noteworthy historical moment and whether the public’s reaction mattered. Pop culture is an informal barometer, but one worthy of attention.
At the same time, pop culture is sometimes so ridiculous that I often times can’t take it seriously. Lady Gaga wore a meat suit to an award show. Taylor Swift dated Taylor Lautner (did they use first names with each other? I really want to know). Charlie Sheen has tiger blood. There are moments where you just have to throw your hands up and recognize that a lot of this is ridiculous. And in a lot of ways, that’s the point. But it also means that pop culture can’t be taken too seriously. I mean, I love pop culture and all, but it doesn’t impact my life a whole lot. Is it part of my life, yes. An occasional influence? Sure, maybe, I suppose. Significant? Definitely not.
I think this is why I started Song on the Page, the Tumblr where I write short stories and flash fiction based on pop songs. Because pop culture matters, but doesn’t deserve to be treated as holy. Because songs can be great and still have a ridiculous message. Because taking a brief moment to dive more deeply into something is almost never wasted. And because pop culture’s most valuable trait is that people respond to it. In a vacuum, it’s just Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke. In context, it’s a conversation about image and gender roles and slut shaming and racism.
And also, it’s been a lazy summer for me with a lot of listening to the radio and not a lot of work to do. But all the other stuff is true, too.
In the end, pop culture will go on and evolve and change no matter what we do. And there will always be some cringe-worthy “WTF?” moments. There will always be new preteen sensations, and child stars who don’t age gracefully, and people with a greater capacity for shock value than talent, and scandalous relationships, and movies that just make you wonder how on earth anyone thought they were a good idea, and TV shows that just get cancelled too soon, interview gaffs that will live in infamy for all time, and songs that everyone seems to hate but no one seems to stop listening to, and the list goes on. So in some ways it never changes, but in other ways, it never stops changing. And that’s good, because it means we are also growing and changing, becoming something new and thereby allowing the pop culture world to reinvent itself, too. So really, there’s nothing else to do but buckle up and come along for the ride.