Dear idle critics of popular culture

23 October 2014
23 Oct 2014
West Lafayette, IN
5 mins

The popular culture in the twenty-first century is ridiculously focused on what can be called “empty entertainment”: entertainment seemingly with nothing of true value to offer besides the laughs of the moment, like empty calories. Of course, there are somewhat frequently those that do offer an eye-opening insight or a truly heartfelt message, but I think that’s catering to the severe minority. The entertainment scenery is littered with so-called works of art that only exist to make us laugh occasionally, then lead us to come back for some more of the same. And that’s led some people* to conclude that pop culture has nothing of value to offer in our lives. But I don’t exactly agree with that stance. Sure, the majority of popular culture could have quite a bit more substance an be less R-rated, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer any value to our lives. I think it does, albeit in a way different from, say, classical literature or music.

But before we can ask, “What’s so wrong about empty entertainment?” it’s also important – and rather interesting, honestly – to look at why in the world the popular culture became synonymous with crappy media. I think it has much to do with how the nature of consuming media has changed completely in the past few decades. Prior to the wide adoption of digital media, when television and personal computing were still not prevalent and smartphones and global mobile internet was a thing of science fiction, media was almost entirely one-directional. The providers – the authors, journalists, broadcasters, and performers – produced content, and the consumers were at the opposite end of the media chain, consuming whatever content reached them. But time passed, and the line between producer and consumer of media blurred. People began to have an explosion in the choice of content they could consume. Instead of having to choose between the dozens of channels on TV, we can watch any of the years an years’ worth of video uploaded to the web every second. And with that choice, producers suddenly had to prioritize between the size of their audience and the quality of the media. While some reputable outlets managed to keep both, most content producers chose to capture the audience not through consistent quality, but attention-grabbing headlines and emotion-provoking figments of creativity. As these became more and more common, the “popular” culture – those that people view and click on the most – naturally became not content of consistently quality, but sudden and temporary appeal to emotion and attention. In other words, the capitalism of the entertainment industry didn’t mix well with the true democracy offered by the internet, and human impulse took over.

There is value in pure entertainment.

So the quality of this generation’s popular media lags behind the previous in some pretty big ways. But does that mean they have inherently less value to offer its consumers than the traditional media? If you only consider the value consumers get from the information itself, then the answer is a resounding yes. But when I read the TIME magazine or watch the Vlogbrothers on YouTube, I don’t choose those outlets over others because they offer more accurate or more relevant content; there’s a factor of delivery in our choice as well. It’s not just about the information getting delivered, we also care how they’re presented, and how much we enjoy them. If websites A and B offer nearly the same information to its readers, but website B does so with more flair, incorporating videos, photos, and audience participation, even if A has a slight advantage in accuracy, I’d choose website B, simply because it’s more fun. So there’s value in the information and messages behind content, but there’s an equally important value placed on how much we enjoy the content, and that fact doesn’t change because the message changes. Even if the content is a song, a piece of popular fiction, a sporting event, or a TV series, the fact that they don’t offer philosophical insights as Hamlet does has no effect on the fact that we enjoy them nonetheless. If we have fun consuming such content and if we enjoy the content with other people and grow our human connections – as music, popular fiction, and sports all do – I think “empty entertainment” still has a lot of value to offer to our lives. I don’t think it should be as easily dismissed as some make it out to be.

Do I approve of the state of popular culture as it is? No, not really. There is a lot of room for improvement in how people and the society is portrayed in our fictitious universes in books, movies, and music. But do I think they are inherently worthless compare to works of classical art? No. I think the value is independent from the message being sent. I do think there are things we can do to improve the quality of content that we see in the world, starting with choosing to read better content over the attention-grabbing ones with shallow thoughts. However, I also think the idle critics of the modern society who despise and insult the popular culture for no other reason than for the way in which it provides value have no grounds to do so. To me, that sounds dangerously close to the kind of hate a culture harbors against another when their traditions differ. I, for one, find a tremendous amount of value both in the classical genres of music, literature, and the performing arts and the modern one. I enjoy Walden just as much as I love Harry Potter, and I don’t think “Say Something” is somehow less heartfelt than Beethoven’s piano sonatas. I want to enjoy them both, for different reasons, because they both improve my life in different ways. Honestly, I think we need to cut pop culture some slack.

Who grants us the rights?

Nothing fits in cages!

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