So…What is Pop Culture?


So what is Pop Culture? That’s an interesting question. There are few theoretical concepts that are as value-laden as popular culture. There are multiple definitions, and even after exploring them there is little clarity. John Story, in his book Cultural Theory and Popular Culture, explores several definitions. A favorite of mine is that popular culture is the culture that is “left over” once we’ve decided what high culture is.  As an arts educator I often wonder who the “we” is.

In 2011, I was a nominee for the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award in Arts Education. No, I didn’t win but thank you anyway. I bring it up because I want to share a conversation I had at the reception prior to the award ceremony. Bear in mind this was a celebration of “high culture” from our definition. To understand this effectively you must know that I believe in meeting today’s youth where they are. In my view, if we are going to foster the next generation of artists and patrons we need to encourage positive experiences and not alienate them with boring experiences. So programs like Video Games Live that introduces youth to the symphony using music from their favorite video games is right up my alley. When I shared this view with a colleague, he sighed dramatically and said, “Anyone can paint a picture and sell it, that doesn’t make him an artist.” Obviously he doesn’t share my viewpoint and I’m guessing he must be part of the “we”. I don’t think I am.

The introduction to Post World War II American Literature and Culture Database sponsored by the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley ( uses this definition:

Popular culture has been defined as everything from “common culture,” to “folk culture,” to “mass culture.” While it has been all of these things at various points in history, in Post-War America, popular culture is undeniably associated with commercial culture and all its trappings: movies, television, radio, cyberspace, advertising, toys, nearly any commodity available for purchase, many forms of art, photography, games, and even group “experiences” like collective comet-watching or rave dancing on ecstasy. While humanities and social science departments before the 1950s would rarely have imagined including anything from the previous list in their curricula, it is now widely acknowledged that popular culture can and must be analyzed as an important part of US material, economic and political culture.

I’ll let you decide which definition you like best. For the purposes of Pop Goes the Classroom we look at the following genres of contemporary popular culture: Graphic Novels and Comic Books, Films, Television, Contemporary Music, Table and Computer Games, Web 2.0, etc.

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