Have you ever felt embarrassed to share who your favourite singer is? Or what TV show you’re currently obsessed with?
We’ve all been there – you reference something that’s trending with the vaguest hint of enthusiasm, to find that your words are met with an eyeroll, and sighs of “Oh, not that thing again.”
Why is it that liking something popular is so often deemed embarrassing or less than entirely intelligent?
We have an odd relationship with the concept of popularity, and hence, with popular culture. Popularity is, on the one hand, the cornerstone of success.
In business, the more people like your product or service, the more profitable you are.
In art, literature, music and even humanitarian leadership, the route to success is to get the masses behind you.
So why then, do we so often frown at young people expressing their interest in a well-liked pop star, social media platform, or TV show?
Is it cool to be different or not?
The word “popular” comes from the Latin “popularis”, meaning belonging to the people, or common. And while as humans, we crave popularity in many ways, we also crave the opportunity to stand out. “Common” is rarely used in a complimentary sense. It seems we all exist on spectrum with this issue.
On one end, there are those of us who long to blend in with the crowd, to be liked, and on the other, those who desire to be different, to be better than the crowd – most of us are somewhere in the middle. Whether we believe being liked or disliked is more desirable, seems to play a big role in our place on this spectrum, and a big role in the extent to which we enjoy popular culture.
Pop culture is easy to dismiss as "lowbrow"
If we’re to argue the value of popular culture (and we will, we’re getting there…) we must first acknowledge the belief that often accompanies that eyerolling and sighing mentioned above. This is the belief that pop culture dumbs us down, distracts us from more meaningful endeavours, and is essentially, whether or not the term is actually used “lowbrow”.
The term “lowbrow” came from phrenology, an area of study (now written off as pseudoscience) that involved measuring the skull to predict intelligence. In phrenology, a “high” forehead indicated intelligence, and “low” one indicated stupidity. This outdated and now firmly debunked notion was an extremely attractive concept to racist groups and movements against equality during the nineteenth century, including the Nazis. So, dismissing something as “lowbrow” is not just superior and snooty, it’s also steeped in some of the darkest parts of our history. Yuck.
The truth is pop culture brings us together
When something is popular, it creates common ground, and that is something we need more of in this world. Can anything bond two new friends faster than a shared love of Mean Girls or Cardi B? What a relief, during an awkward social interaction, to suddenly discover that the person across from you, who only moments ago you were struggling to make conversation with, can also sing every word of Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass at speed and with gusto. Phew! Now we’re talking…and rapping.
Shared experiences are what make us human
The allure of being different, and somehow better than everyone else, has appealed to us all at least subconsciously at some moment in our lives. Perhaps it’s a myth bred from the many movies where the lead character notices how “different” their love interest is from everyone else (it’s usually just that they’re a vampire), or perhaps it’s the outrageous and unusual outfits worn by pop stars that have taught us it’s best to stand out. Wherever we got these notions, the fact is, in real life the people we’re most drawn to are often the ones who feel somehow “the same us”. While this pattern has its own problems (again racism…), knowing how to find common ground with others can open up a world of new friendships, work opportunities, and who knows what else. So, go ahead and gossip about the season finale of Selling Sunset. It’s human. It’s welcoming. It’s a shared experience.
When pop culture does societal commentary, it can be powerful
While this writer clearly sees no need to justify the existence of popular entertainment, it feels wrong not to point out that pop culture can also do more than offer us a conversation starter with a new acquaintance. Iconic movies, TV shows, and music also offer us a mirror of society, a chance to reflect on where we’re going wrong, and what we need to improve.
When we watch old episodes of Friends in 2020, we see a lack of diversity in the cast and a lack of awareness in some of the jokes. Writers, actors, and musicians are artists, and art, no matter how popular or unpopular it is, will always make you think.
Lady Gaga is perhaps the epitome of pop culture. She is so individual, so different, so unafraid of new ideas, and yet so popular at the same time. Lady Gaga gets us thinking. Lady Gaga gets us dancing. Lady Gaga gets us talking about her beliefs as much as about her outfits. Lady Gaga is why society needs pop culture.