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A stagnant and meaningless popular culture is a big problem for society

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 26 November 2003


Part of the process of social, political and technological integration we call globalisation is the construction of an increasingly global popular culture. Mostly American in origin, it means that more and more people watch the same the television programs, videos and movies, listen to the same music, read the same magazines and books, and play the same video games. Even the Internet, that supposed new hope for socio-cultural diversity, seems to heading along the same road.

As if the obvious loss in diversity was not bad enough, it is clear that the content of this global popular culture is increasingly banal and vacuous, even as it more and more sells only a simplistic message of individualistic consumerism as the only meaningful value system.

The rise in the number of so-called reality TV shows exemplifies the decline of television. Reality TV shows, like Big Brother, Australian Idol and the rest, are lowest-quality television. Dealing with mostly media tragics - people with no real lives - they are banal in the extreme but they also totally lack the educational value of traditional documentary. In fact, reality TV reflects the growing failure of more traditional narrative forms, which is occurring both because the old stories no longer work – they are too well known – and because alternative stories cannot be shown because they go against the commercial grain.

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There was a view that the problem was the structure of the industry, specifically the stranglehold of the big networks but cable TV, which was supposed to revitalise television, has largely turned out to be reruns of old TV shows or sports, so there’s little real change there.

The film industry is suffering from both too much Hollywood and the infantilism of content. Hollywood now swamps alternative films with its glitzy, vacuous product, making independent production and a specifically national film industry increasingly difficult to maintain. The problem is best indicated by the situation of the French, who are desperately trying to keep going a Francophone film industry in the face of a growing wave of American films.

As for Hollywood, the reduction of content to special effects, violence and a little sex to cater to the average 16-year-old is a well-known phenomenon. The major forerunners of this trend were George Lucas’s Star Wars and Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws but although they set the big-movie pattern, the quality of these productions has not been maintained. Indeed, intelligent movies out of Hollywood have become as rare as hens’ teeth.

Book and magazine publishing generally is afflicted with two trends – dumbing down and concentration of ownership. A few huge global publishers now control almost all publishing and distribution, and they concentrate on the big sellers at the expense of new and marginal authors (a problem known as the "disappearing mid-list"). Increasingly it’s either the latest Harry Potter or nothing.

Video games are in some ways the only vibrant popular culture genre, because of the massive amount of technological expertise it attracts. It is precisely because video games have very little content (a characteristic transmitted directly to film in such derivatives as Tomb Raider) that it so vibrant. Video games are mostly about more realistic interactivity through greater computing power.

The basic cause of most of the problem is the interconnected process of constantly developing technology and concentration of ownership. New technology means producers can substitute special effects for narrative and character, as long as the CGI can generate ever more realistic fights, chases and blood-letting. The growing concentration of ownership, formal and informal, in search of "synergy" (so well described in Naomi Klein’s No Logo) means that producers increasingly see content as at best a vehicle for brand exposure, and certainly nothing to upset the expectations of the average 16-year-old. And it must definitely not offend "family values" if it is to be sold in places like Wal-Mart or promoted at McDonalds.

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The result of all this is that our popular culture is increasingly devoid of meaningful content. And this matters.

It matters because our traditional means of inculcating social values – the church, education, and civic culture – are all in radical decline. If people, and especially inexperienced children and adolescents, do not get their values from such socio-cultural experiences, they must pick them up from somewhere else. We are all exposed to many hours each day of TV, Internet, film, radio and some people still read magazines and books. These are full of content that is the product of decades of experience by advertising companies who know exactly which psychological buttons to push so we will buy things.

Popular culture provides the common social context. If it is bad, it poisons a whole range of social processes, and vice versa. Previously, the mix between social meaning and commercial interests was more even. For instance, the classic movie Casablanca told us that sometimes duty must override personal happiness, and that character matters. The most salient message of much popular culture now is, take it all, and just lie if you have to to get it.

The US is, without doubt, further along this road than Australia. That’s why the Terminator was elected governor of California, why the US has already had an actor as President, and why elections are bought and sold on the mass media like so much soap powder. If the desire for a bilateral trade agreement between Australia and the US is met, real pressure will go on the last bastion against this American/global popular culture, local content.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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