For balance, I need to talk about the good things and what I love, having griped a lot in Why I don’t like bookshops about all the lame TV rip off celebrity rubbish. There are many aspects of popular culture that I do like, but it tends to be a process of picking through to find the good stuff.
In essence, pop culture is of the people for the people, and is classed as ‘low brow’ by the more ‘up market’. Well, I’ve read literature and listened to classical music. Shakespeare is full of sex and death. Much of the ‘up market’ end is wilfully obscure though, self important and mind numbingly dull. There’s good stuff there too, but plenty of it I can live without.
Graphic novels, having evolved out of that most lowly of forms, the comic, are considered more pop culture than not. Yet there’s an incredible array of art styles and storytelling out there once you get past Batman and his friends. Assuming you want to. Some people like that sort of thing and even the most clichéd comic is capable of moments of innovation and vision. I listen to the chart show on Radio 1 most weeks, to see what’s out there, missing the top ten so that I can catch Genevieve Tudor’s folk program. A lot of popular music is, and always has been so bland that you can forget it even while you’re actually listening to it. Music written to sell to a market, music by people who want to be famous, music written by committee to tick as many commercial boxes as possible. Blandsville. But now and then there’s someone who has something to say, or who loves what they do, someone passionate about their thing, or political, or funny. So I’ll confess to liking Rizzlekicks and that Dizzy Rascal’s Filthy Stinking Bass makes me smile, but if I never heard Rhianna again, I’d be entirely happy about that.
I come from a folk background, there’s something from that tradition hardwired into who I am. Plenty of folk music is bland and insipid too – depends a lot on how you do it. I like my folk music raw and dirty. Once it gets too shiny and over produced, I don’t want to know. Music Hall used to be an urban equivalent of folk, again there are gems amongst the piles of mawkish sentimentality. Where pop culture works, it does so by grabbing something so basically human and widely recognisable that we all engage with it. Harry Potter pushed all those buttons. That which is popular can also be good, and that which sets out to be high art can be bloody tedious.
Whether I like the precise content or not, a performer who is driven by a vision, by love of their work, by attitude, a creator who has inspiration, is someone I respect. It doesn’t matter what genre. I’ll take raw enthusiasm and passion over technical skill as well. That which is smooth and shiny, built on assumptions about how to make a commercial success, mostly makes my skin crawl. The manufactured bands, the glossy celebrity stuff where what matters is fame and attention, not the quality of what you do.
Basically what I want is arts industries that are driven by creative people, not by people in suits who are only interested in exactly how many yachts they can afford to buy this year. Yes, arts industries are businesses too, but when the only consideration is the money, and you have no place for soul, you kill the market. Music sales are down. Book sales are down. Bookshops are closing. That says something. HMV closed. What it says to me is that the model is wrong, the product is wrong. You won’t get everyone to fall in love with a creation by trying to make the exact thing that everyone will fall in love with. It doesn’t work. Risk and innovation are the lifeblood of creativity. Try to strip the risk out, and you take way the things that most engage people, and they take their hard earned money somewhere else.
Pop culture, when it works best, is by the people for the people. It comes up from the grass roots, it’s not dripped down upon us from up from above. It has roots, and the people doing it have experience, and dedication, and are not skyrocketed to success in ways that are likely to induce mental health problems. I like that kind of pop culture. I want more of it. I want fewer people in suits, in distant offices trying to imagine what I’ll cough up money for. That’s not pop culture, that’s a cynical industry that is suffocating itself to death and taking everyone else with it.