The End of Mass Culture?

The last few decades have been great for mass culture. Intellectuals used to describe popular music, for instance, as “the sphere that mummifies the vulgarized and decaying remnants of romantic individualism.” They used to claim that consumers “behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served.” Today, we’re more likely to point out that fans use their agency to negotiate with their favorite shows, songs and films, to analyze how, in those negotiations, they resist late capitalism. University syllabi include Star Wars, Harry Potter, and hip-hop, while professors write books about Bob Dylan, film noir, or sci-fi. Television, once exclusively ‘mass,’ is in a golden age: the best realist art of the 21st century, in America at least, is still The Wire; the best political satire, Veep. The most important critical opinions now belong not to New Yorker book reviewers, but to amazon customers. The latest Penguin Classic is Morrissey’s biography.

So there are good reasons for getting rid of the distinction between high and mass culture: it just doesn’t work in practice. Even if it still worked, it would be ethically illegitimate: the distinction is so often used as a tool of political oppression, demeaning the culture of an oppressed group. We’ve learned to analyze a preference for high culture as a preference for belonging to the ruling class; on the other side of the matter, teaching, consuming or preferring mass culture can be a symbolic gesture towards political equality. If we understand culture in this way, arguing for the superiority of Toni Morrison’s Beloved over Tyler Perry’s films is not rational, not objective; it’s a move in the game of presenting yourself as a certain kind of person.

This makes it difficult to accept aesthetic arguments of any kind when it comes to mass culture. But the Obama years have seen a new way of engaging with it: criticizing it for its ethics. The problem, then, is not that mass culture is mass. The problem is that it’s offensive. This is strange; usually, conservatives criticize the offensive in art. While progressives were complaining about the ways that elites dominated institutions, conservatives complained that there was too much sex in Ulysses. Our ‘conservatives,’ though, now complain that elites dominate institutions (particularly the media and universities). Progressives lead moral panics about, e.g., Miley Cyrus and the NFL.

In the kind of dialectical maneuver that usually requires a five hour critical theory lecture, Miley’s videos objectify the objectification of black women’s bodies. This shouldn’t be a surprise: pop music has been debasing hip-hop and soul for decades. It’s literally impossible to be a pop star today without appropriating black culture. If you make a video of this appropriation, you’ll now get a month’s worth of scandal out of it. The same thing goes for women’s bodies: pop music is founded on the exploitation of women’s bodies (either real or imaginary). Anyone who fails to generate a race scandal is sure to give us a gender politics scandal instead. The greatest scandals involve both.

The other great financial success of contemporary mass culture is professional sports. No matter how uncomfortable you find pop artists’ attempts to deal with the politics of race and/or women’s bodies, you must be even more discomforted by a multi-billion dollar industry whose workforce is prone to violence against women; an industry in which a very small number of men make enormous amounts of money from that violence-prone workforce; an industry whose workforce is not only predominantly black (while the money-makers are predominantly white), but also susceptible to brain damage and death resulting from their relatively poorly paid job. In 2014, the NFL went through the most outrageous, offensive three weeks in the history of professional sports. The future of the league, even the sport itself, was in doubt. Of course, its ratings have improved.

There is more criticism of these things than ever before, but how does it sit with the standard intellectual position that consumers of mass culture have agency and don’t need to be protected from it? On the one hand, very well. This is fans negotiating with the stars. We point out that we’d actually prefer a nice mix of bass and treble, and even some mids, rather than being all about that bass; we can suggest that maybe a white woman shouldn’t claim to be bringing booty back. This will contribute to a better, healthier mass culture.

On the other hand, there’s a clear conflict. If consumers have agency, they can decide for themselves to ignore “no treble” and “bringing booty back” and just focus on “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” They don’t need internet commentators telling them about their own reactions to the songs. Most people don’t care if the songs they’re singing along to are offensive to women, or black people, or gay people and so on. And if they don’t care, who are we intellectuals to tell them that they should? Isn’t making this kind of an ethical argument also open to the claim we’re just making ourselves look noticeably upper class, noticeably better than others?

But the politics of the ‘progressive moral panic’ has a bigger problem. These arguments are usually carried out in a way that makes them look like the mass culture that is offending the authors. They’re written for websites that are in the business of enticing readers back day after day by providing new content that is quite literally framed by the previous day’s/week’s/month’s advertisements. (Another dialectical high-wire act: the consumer of mass culture is now the commodity sold to advertisers by websites. Commodified culture is quite explicitly in the business of commodifying us all.)

Moral outrage feeds on mass culture, and vice versa. Every tweet about Lily Allen’s backup dancers is an advertisement for Lily Allen; every post about Meghan Trainor’s curves is free publicity for a song condemning the curve-less.1 The more attention we give them, the less attention real world injustices receive—and the less attention more talented, less commodifiable women get. Miley Cyrus twerk gets over two million google results, including a bunch that came out just this minute. Kim Kashkashian (Armenian-American since before Jenner won the decathalon) gets under 200K.

The politics of outrage and offense is deeply limited. It encourages us to keep watching, waiting for the machine to slip up, to put a black body on the wrong stage or say the wrong thing about thigh thickness. But there is hope in the sheer number of people who are upset about these things. It’s just possible that everyone getting so offended and outraged won’t just stop writing about Miley Cyrus and Adrien Peterson—they might even stop paying attention in the first place. Rather than complain about some white woman’s awful, sexist commodified song, which appropriates an awful, misogynistic, commodified dance that’s supposedly performed by black women, we might shift our attention to Scholastique Mukasonga or Busdriver or any other fascinating black artist.

It’s unlikely to happen right now, because most people receive their culture through standardized channels that are designed only to make money. In other words, most culture is now mass culture, and most of us only hear about that mass culture, because it makes money off us, for someone else. It’s unlikely, because it would mean that the progressive arguments of the last fifty years have become outdated. But perhaps it’s time we re-thought the relationship between mass culture and elitism.


1 Please note how the outrage focuses on female pop musicians doing or saying the wrong thing; even in pop music, women have to be better than men for the sake of other women. That’s not okay.