I took some time off work and had grand plans for catching up on my academic reading and writing, but quickly realised I was on holiday and instead completely immersed myself in highly dramatic and emotive pop culture.
First, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult speculative fiction. I started with Susanne Collins’ epic Hunger Games trilogy (guess where you’ll find me on 23 March ;)), then I blazed through two more wonderful books: Neal Shusterman’s Unwind and Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion, and now I’m working my way into Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy. Despite covering a wide range of content and character types, all these books are examples of incredibly compelling story-telling. (Unwind had one of the most disturbing chapters I’ve ever read.) I’ve also watched a wonderfully cheesy urban fantasy TV series called Lost Girl, which is full of mythical creatures and hott sex, mystery and adventure, good fights and bad jokes, and I’ve started re-watching Joss Whedon’s classic show, Firefly, because I bought a blu-ray copy of Serenity. Like the books above, these stories aren’t focussed on scientific plausibility, but they sure are emotionally resonant.
Second, I’ve become completely obsessed with contemporary country/bluegrass which continues to provide deeply emotional soundtracks for–and poignant stories of–everyday life. For example, I really enjoy Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, whose Chinese folk-music inflected bluegrass could serve as a soundtrack for Firefly. Listen to the beautifully hectic “Tai Yang Chu Lai Xi Yang Yang” for a taste, or “City of Refuge” for Washburn’s most recent work. I also totally dig Gob Iron’s Death Songs for the Living, which brings an almost unbearable sadness to old classics like “Wayside Tavern” and “Hard Times,” and is worth buying just for their devastating cover of “The Little Girl and The Dreadful Snake.” And if you like weird and dark music as much as I do then you also can’t go wrong with Neko Case‘s “Furnace Room Lullaby.” Then there’s the stunning Goat Rodeo Sessions with Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile–check out this half-hour gig they played at Google. Or if you prefer more traditional, and also incredibly moving, Appalachian bluegrass, I’ve fallen in love with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings‘ music, including “Caleb Meyer,” “Orphan Girl,” “The Devil had a Hold of Me,” “Tear My Stillhouse Down” and “Miner’s Refrain.”
Cultural and aesthetic taste is a funny thing: Bourdieu taught us that it is strategic and competitive; we use it to claim or demonstrate our superiority over others.
My own biases in this regard become evident when I say that few things perplex me more than when people completely dismiss popular culture. For example, each time I hear someone say to me that they have no interest in pop culture or that they have nothing in common with people who like it, I feel uncomfortable and maybe, if I detected any pride or smugness in their statement, even offended.
I wonder: What, exactly, do they think pop culture is? Who, exactly, do they think likes it and why?
I also wonder: If they dislike pop culture, what do they think of me? If they want to be distanced from it, how can we ever come together?
I appreciate everyday life.
It’s where I feel the warmth of the sun on my bare skin or the softness of my cat’s fur. Where I hear the voices of the people I love or the sounds a cello makes. Where I smell old books or the grass after a heavy rain. Where I see the infinite shapes that snowflakes take or the curious faces of strangers. Where I taste the sweetness of a ripe mango or the difference between rock, ceramic and bone.
Everyday life has provided the setting for my greatest joys and deepest sorrows, my most rewarding accomplishments and most crushing losses–and all the things that happened in between.
It is everything I have ever been and will ever be.
Everyday life holds my stories. All our stories.
The story-telling capacities of popular culture can be incredibly powerful social binders if they capture some of these aspects of everyday life.
Mass culture doesn’t need to be associated with the lowest common denominator, but it can represent some of the broadest common denominators.
Shared culture doesn’t need to mean agreed-upon culture.
We don’t need to see ourselves in pop culture as much as we need to situate ourselves through pop culture.
“Forget planking. All the cool kids are putting their cats in bread and taking pictures of them looking like little yeasty lions.” – Gawker
“This is why the Internet exists. The long march of human progress has finally ended; we have reached our destination. Rest and rejoice in our accomplishments.” – Neatorama
“The concept is so wonderful it seems shocking that no one thought of cat breading before and many are questioning how they failed to spot the potential of placing their pets head into a slice of bread.” – TNT Magazine
“Some observers believe placing bread around animals is cruel…So far, no cat breaders are replying to allegations of animal cruelty.” – Digital Journal
“The whole thing seemed like an elaborate inside joke, spoofing the nature of short-lived crazes which are more likely to be talked about than actually participated in.” – The Daily Mail