Popular culture and social decay

Despite Slavoj Zizek’s attempts to show the intellectual qualities of popular culture, be that the Marxian fervour in Hitchcock’s The Birds or the demonstrably Kantian bent in Antz, there is still much ill-feeling towards it.

Other Marxists, more in tune with early Frederic Jameson or Stuart Hall may even think of cultural oppression or something akin to the hyperdermic syringe model to explain how popular culture is a way in which the hegemons of society transmit the dominant ideology to an audience at its beck and call.

For those batting in the Tipper Gore court may see popular culture as a form which has increased social decay by being too sexualised and violent – the reason Gore set up the Parents Music Resource Center, taking exception to a Prince lyric which mused on the following:

I knew a girl named Nikki/I guess you could say she was a sex fiend/I met her in a hotel lobby/Masturbating with a magazine

I remember very well the product of Gore’s campaign – that being the parental guidance sticker – and being denied a lot of good music on the grounds that it was deemed uncouth for a parent to buy such filth (though I learnt to unpeel the stickers before presenting the tape to an unsuspecting Mum – that was before they started to print them on the sleeve themselves. Rats!).

There is the even more extreme, and utterly disgusting position of asserting that MTV is black propaganda, made by those on the very far right, particularly a record label called Resistance Records whose warehouse manager once claimed to purchase the mailing lists of teenagers who subscribed to skateboard and heavy metal magazines, in order to send them out neo-nazi sampler tapes, with the intention of having:

a big impact on these kids who would otherwise get into rap

Idealistic, at best.

A less nutty view is that running through certain elements of pop culture today is misogyny, homophobia, and violence. Though with the help of intellectuals such as Cornel West and W.E.B Du Bois, if we dig a little deeper we find that at the heart of this is a reaction, a black masculinity in crisis.

Of course this by no means justifies it, and is even questionable today, certainly many principled feminists will have no truck with trying to accept it on this basis.

Others see MTV’s so-called black culture as not so much the reason for a problematic gang culture, but more futile than that, a culture of gangster wannabes, frustrated and obsessed by a type of image imagined to be that of a gang member (undoubtedly tribal, like football fans can be).

Yes, pop culture gets it in the neck from many different angles. In fact, Rob White, the editor of Film Quarterly, in his recent review of Living in the End Times for The Philosophers’ Magazine, even criticises Zizek for being “too magisterial, too fond of the grandly philosophical and high-cultural”.

But all is not lost. In the same edition of The Philosophers’ Magazine Jean Kazez, who teaches philosophy at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and blogs here, recalls concern she had at listening to the music her 13-year-old son listens to.

In an article, which is a more developed than the one she has here, Kazez she confesses to listening to the lyrics of Rhianna and realising the depths of the lyrics, and the strong message it has about love:

that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts

– all the while remembering that only in 2009, Rhianna was famously assaulted by singer Chris Brown.

The realisation that popular culture might be a good medium with which life lessons can be drawn, and not an assault on the consumer subject, nor a product of societal decay.

I recalled an example that I was reminded of when reading Kazez’ piece, where pop music was not merely trash but contained a sound message. I recalled Sugababes’ soung Ugly, the chorus of which is as follows:

People are all the same
And we only get judged by what we do
Personality reflects name
And if I’m ugly then
So are you
So are you

If the hyperdermic syringe is a force for good, then why not utilise it for nice purposes, not commodification. Perhaps Sugababes are an exemplar of this sea change. Or perhaps not, since their wikipedia page informs me that:

Mattel teamed up with the Sugababes to create a new themed Barbie doll collection, which hit stores in May 2007.

And of course, the perfume will be out by christmas too.

Like a suit, perhaps capitalism will remain the lining inside, while on the outside, what counts as popular culture can be more than what its critics have written off as before. Maybe. Hopefully Zizek will keep his watchful eye.