Popular Culture

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Author: Marcel Danesi
Editor: J. Britt Holbrook
Date: 2015
Ethics, Science, Technology, and Engineering: A Global Resource
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Popular Culture

The term popular culture, often shortened to pop culture, surfaced around the middle of the twentieth century in recognition of the definitive emergence in European and especially North American society of mass-produced and mass-consumed cultural goods (including novels, recorded music, radio programs, motion pictures, and advertisements). Popular culture products are usually created by people who do not classify themselves as artists, and they are accepted by people who do not think of themselves as exercising aesthetic judgments. Other, more pejorative terms that have been used to refer to this phenomenon are mass culture (Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset [1883–1955] and others) and the culture industry (German philosopher and music critic Theodor W. Adorno [1903–1969]). The term was fashioned after the pop art (popular art) movement that emerged in the late 1950s—a movement that saw artists appropriate images and commodities from consumerist culture as their subject matter. One of the most famous pop artists was the American Andy Warhol (1928–1987), who created paintings and silk-screen prints of commonplace objects, such as soup cans, and pictures of celebrities, such as the actress Marilyn Monroe. Pop culture involves the representation of any aspect of consumerist society, not just visual, emphasizing the powerful impact of consumerism and materialism on contemporary life. Pop culture rejects both the supremacy of the “high art” of the past and the pretensions of avant-garde intellectualist trends of the present. It is highly appealing for this very reason. It bestows on common people the assurance that artistic texts are for mass consumption, not just for an elite class of cognoscenti. It is thus populist, popular, and public.

The term pop culture alludes, essentially, to a form of culture that makes little, if any, categorical distinctions between “high art” and “entertainment art,” making it a nontraditional form of culture. In the history of human cultures, pop culture stands out as atypical. In contrast to historical (traditional) culture, it rejects not only the supremacy of tradition and of established cultural norms but also the pretensions of intellectualist tendencies within contemporary artistic cultures. Pop culture has always been highly appealing for this very reason, bestowing on common people the assurance that cultural trends are for everyone, not just for an elite class of artists and cognoscenti. It is thus populist, unpredictable, and highly ephemeral, reflecting the ever-changing tastes of one generation after another. This might give the impression that pop culture is a commodity culture, producing trendy works in music, writing, visual art, and so on that have the same kind of market-value function as do manufactured material goods and commodities and that satisfy momentary and fleeting entertainment and recreational needs. The French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915–1980) saw it, in fact, as a “bastard form of mass culture” beset by “humiliated repetition” and thus by “new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning” (Barthes 1957 , 12)

There is little doubt that pop culture trends and products largely have entertainment and recreational value. But people have always sought the means for obtaining recreation and incorporating it into cultural structures linguistically (such as in jokes and witticisms), theatrically (such as in satirical and parodic works), musically (through dance and other bodily forms), ritualistically, and so on, long before the advent of contemporary pop culture. Most of the world’s traditional folk cultures are recreational and ritualistic (repetitive in Barthesian terms), exemplifying an unconscious need to engage in such forms of culture. This is why carnival traditions exist throughout the world and across time alongside religious feasts—comedy and tragedy, as the Greeks certainly understood, are two sides of the same psychic coin. Pop culture has a two-sided character—it is basically recreational, designed to appeal to people’s profane (fun-loving) side, as do traditional recreational and folk cultures, but it also provides the forms and structures that creative individuals (artists, musicians, and writers) are able to turn into what becomes known as lasting and enduring art.

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“High,” “Low,” and “Pop” Culture

Culture is a system of shared meanings. The Estonian semiotician Yuri M. Lotman (1922–1993) used the term semiosphere to encapsulate that very fact and to emphasize that the ways in which people come to understand the world is through the semiotic filters of the language, music, myths, rituals, and other codes that they acquire in cultural context (Lotman 1990 ).

The adjectives high, low, and popular have been used with culture to differentiate between levels of representation within the semiosphere. “High” culture implies a level considered to have a superior value, socially and aesthetically, than other levels, which are said to have a “lower” value. Traditionally, the high and low levels were associated with class distinctions—high culture was associated with the church and the aristocracy in western Europe; low culture with “common folk.” “Pop culture” emerged in the twentieth century, obliterating this distinction. As John Storey (2003 ) argues, the idea of pop culture replaced that of “folk” culture, becoming a target of autonomous academic study in the late 1950s when Barthes showed the importance of studying such things as wrestling and blockbuster movies in terms of how they generate cultural meanings. By the early twenty-first century, the study of pop culture had become a flourishing interdisciplinary area of investigation that had several important journals, including the Journal of Popular Culture (founded in 1967).

As Jean Baudrillard (1998 ) has emphasized, pop culture engages the masses, rather than the cognoscenti, because it takes the material of everyday life and gives it expression and meaning. Everything from comic books to fashion shows have mass appeal because they emanate from within the culture, not from sponsors or authority figures. As such, the makers of pop culture make little or no distinction between art and recreation, distraction and engagement. Baudrillard also claims, however, that pop culture has blurred the distinction between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction. Calling it a simulacrum, the blurring is a result of people’s constant engagement with popular forms of entertainment through the filters of media such as television and the Internet. While this is purely conjecture, it nevertheless underlines the power of media in the delivery of cultural products.

Tracing the origins and spread of contemporary pop culture is not an easy thing because diverse forms of folk and recreational culture have existed since time immemorial—that is to say, common folk have always produced music, stories, and other forms of expression that they used for their own recreation and ritualistic purposes. So, in a way, pop culture has always existed. Modern-day pop culture differs in that it is a mass culture, spread widely through the mass media and mass communications technologies. Pop culture would not have become so widespread without the partnership that it has always had with the mass media.

The spread of pop culture as a kind of mainstream culture has been brought about by developments in cheap technology. The rise of music as a mass art, for instance, was made possible by the advent of recording and radio broadcasting technologies in the first decades of the twentieth century. Records and radio made music available to large audiences, regardless of social class or musical background. Similarly, the spread and appeal of pop culture throughout the globe today is attributable to the Internet, which has had profound social, political, and cultural repercussions. Satellite television is often cited as bringing about the disintegration of the former Soviet system in eastern Europe, as people became attracted to images of consumerist delights and entertaining spectacles by simply tuning into American television programs. The Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980) went so far as to claim that the diffusion of pop culture images through electronic media has brought about a type of “global culture” that strangely unites people in a kind of “global village” (McLuhan 1964 ). Clearly, the pop culture distraction factory has had an impact on the world far greater than that of the material it communicates.

Pop Culture as a Mythological System

Barthes (1957 ) claimed that a large part of the emotional allure of pop culture is attributable to it being based on the recycling of deeply entrenched mythical meanings. To distinguish between the original myths and their pop culture versions, Barthes designated the latter mythologies. In early Hollywood westerns, for instance, the mythic struggle of good versus evil manifested itself in various symbolic and representational forms—heroes wore white hats and villains black ones; heroes were honest and truthful, villains dishonest and cowardly; and so on. The Superman character of comic book and cinematic fame, to cite another case, is a perfect example of a recycled hero, possessing all the characteristics of his mythic predecessors but in modern guise—he comes from another world (the planet Krypton) in order to help humanity overcome its weaknesses; he has superhuman powers; but he has a tragic flaw (exposure to the fictitious substance known as kryptonite takes away his power). Barthes claimed that pop culture is an overarching “mythological system.” And because of this it imbues its own representations and spectacles with an unconsciously felt cogency.

As a consequence, Barthes argued, pop culture has had a profound impact on modern-day ethics. In the historical development of ethics, three principal standards of conduct have been proposed as the highest good: happiness or pleasure; duty, virtue, or obligation; and perfection, the fullest harmonious development of human potential. In traditional cultures, these standards were established through religious and philosophical traditions. In pop culture, they are shaped by spectacles, performances, and especially media representations. Ethical issues that are showcased on television, for example, are felt as being more significant and historically meaningful to society than those that are not. Television imbues them with significance and salience.

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The power of the media to affect the interpretation of ethical behavior has inevitably led people to stage events for the cameras. The social critic Walter Truett Anderson (1990 ) appropriately calls these “pseudoevents” because they are never spontaneous but are planned for the sole purpose of playing to pop culture’s huge audiences. Most pseudoevents are intended to be self-fulfilling prophecies. The media are thus the vehicles through which people come to grips with issues of lifestyle, ethics, and morality. The understanding of them, however, is fragmentary and ephemeral because the images of media are constantly in flux. The only constant in pop culture is, in fact, constant change. With few exceptions, most pop culture products and styles come and go quickly. Thus, while it has great appeal, pop culture has also had a powerful negative impact on traditional approaches to ethics.

A Japanese postage stamp featuring Snoopy, the A Japanese postage stamp featuring Snoopy, the Peanuts comic strip dog, c. 2000. The diffusion of pop culture into a kind of global culture has been brought about by developments in electronic media and other technologies. NEFTALI/SHUTTERSTOCK.

Pop culture is also the medium that produces most of modern-day society’s celebrities. Like the heroes of ancient myths, the celebrities of pop culture are both exalted and condemned. Many celebrities are portrayed as having fallen from their pedestals, highlighting their faults and fantasies, strengths and weaknesses.


Pop culture has virtually become mainstream culture, having obliterated the distinctions between high, low, and folk culture. It has become a powerful force in modern-day society because it has great emotional appeal and because of its built-in tendency for constant change. The comic-book art of Charles M. Schulz (1922–2000) is a case in point. His comic strip Peanuts, which was originally titled Lil Folks, debuted in 1950, appealing to mass audiences. Through the strip Schulz dealt with some of the most profound religious and philosophical themes of human history in a way that was unique and aesthetically powerful.

The movie Amadeus provides another case in point. This 1984 work directed by Milo š Forman (b. 1932) became a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s. It is based on the 1979 play by the British playwright Peter Shaffer (b. 1926) about the eighteenth-century rivalry between the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The play plumbs the meaning of art, genius, and the important role of music in the spiritual life of human beings. The film captures these themes visually and acoustically by juxtaposing the emotionally powerful music of Mozart against the backdrop of dramatized events in his life and the truly splendid commentaries of Salieri, who guides the audience through the musical repertoire with remarkable insight and perspicacity. Forman’s camera shots, close-ups, angle shots, tracking shots (which capture horizontal movement), and zooming actions allow the viewer to literally see Mozart’s moods (his passions, his tragedies, and so forth) on his face as he conducts or plays his music, as well as those of his commentator Salieri (his envy, his deep understanding of Mozart’s art) as he speaks to his confessor. In effect, Mozart became a pop culture hero, so to speak, through the power of cinema.

That a cartoon strip can exist alongside a work of cinematic art is what makes pop culture so appealing—it is an eclectic culture with an admixture of forms being its central feature. Three words of French origin—collage, bricolage, and pastiche—are thus often used to describe pop culture. Collage, a term describing a picture or design made by gluing pieces of paper or other materials onto a canvas or another surface in order to create strange or witty effects not possible with traditional painting techniques, is applied to pop culture because many spectacles, from early vaudeville to The Simpsons television show, are created by a collage technique. Vaudeville consisted of a collage of acts, ranging from skits to acrobatic acts; The Simpsons cuts and pastes diverse elements from different levels of culture in the same episode to create a satirical collage.

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Bricolage is a type of collage that emphasizes disproportion and ironic admixture. The appeal of pop culture is that its products and trends are perceived as having a unifying structure, whether or not this is the case. Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966 ) used the term bricolage in the field of anthropology to designate the style used in many early myths and tribal rituals that in themselves are meaningless but that, when assembled into performed rites, evoke magical feelings or at least feelings of purpose. The disparate elements become unified in the act of bricolage itself, each contributing a part of the meaning to the whole.

Finally, pastiche refers to an admixture of elements in a work or spectacle intended to imitate or satirize another work or style. Many aspects of pop culture display a pastiche pattern. A daily television newscast, for example, amalgamates news about crime and tragic eventswith those referring to achievements of individuals and stories about goodwill, creating a veritable pastiche of emotions and meanings.


Anderson, Walter Truett. 1990. Reality Isnt What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Barthes, Roland. 1957. Mythologies. Paris: Seuil.

A critical analysis of the mythological structure of pop culture performances, from wrestling matches to blockbuster movies.

Baudrillard, Jean. 1998. The Consumer Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

An acerbic critique of the image-making techniques of consumerist culture and their effect on human cultural development.

Danesi, Marcel. 2012. Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives. 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

This introduction discusses the main theories of popular culture and gives historical overviews of the various media stages on which popular culture is performed, from print and radio to the Internet.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This book, originally published in French in 1962, introduces the notion of culture as a system of signs and meanings that are based on tribal tendencies, such as bricolage. As such, it provides an overview of what culture is all about.

Lotman, Yuri M. 1990. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Translated by Ann Shukman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

A groundbreaking study of the semiosphere, showing that human psychic life is governed by sign-making tendencies that are tied to social context in the same way that human biological life is governed by organic tendencies that are tied to physical context.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

The classic study of the effects of technology and media on cultural evolution. The basic idea presented here is that media are extensions of sensory processes and thus felt to be emotionally powerful.

Ortega y Gasset, José. 1932. The Revolt of the Masses. New York: Norton. Originally published in Spanish, 1929.

Storey, John. 2003. Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

In-depth analysis of the ideological structure of pop culture and its manifestations in the political and social spheres.

Marcel Danesi
Revised by Danesi

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3727600578