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Pop Culture Is Still Popular

Why the niche will never triumph, and mass culture will always march on.

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Was Michael Jackson’s death really also a funeral for mass culture? Somehow, our shared national nostalgia for "Thriller" (and all his many other wonderful, weird, beautiful songs) became fodder for the current orthodoxy of Fractured American Taste: There are no true pop heroes left now. You know the drill: niche audiences and “cultural tribes” instead of Walter Cronkite, Life magazine, and Seinfeld. We’re endlessly told how we’ve become a culture of inside-baseball message boards and genre cliques. “As the music industry spirals into financial oblivion and audiences continue to fragment,” wrote Harry Burson on PopMatters, “Michael Jackson will prove to be the final universally beloved pop star, the last vestige of the now antediluvian notion of the monoculture.”

The only problem with this elegant, omnipresent analysis? It doesn’t account for the fact that, actually, the mainstream is doing just fine, thank you very much. The second you step off the island of Manhattan, everyone dresses pretty much the same (Old Navy, JCPenney, Target), buys their groceries at the same place (Wal-Mart), and listens to the same music (Top 100, or one of several other nationally mandated formats with strict playlists).

We’re all on Facebook and use Craigslist; thanks to the Internet, anyone and everyone can get their news from nytimes.com. Most Americans have the following most-convenient choices for eating out: Chili’s, McDonald’s, the Olive Garden. There’s Harry Potter and Jay Leno (now at 10 p.m.!) and Dan Brown. We all watch American Idol. We all follow the same handful of celebrities and their adopted children. Just because you can now also satisfy obscure interests online (cake pops, cougar porn, anime fan fiction) doesn’t mean the mainstream has ceased to exist.

Yes, niche-trumpeters, it’s good news that we can find obscure Silver Jews singles on file-sharing sites and one-of-a-kind purses on Etsy; it’s nice that hyper-local sites (those few that haven’t folded yet) like Outside.in are offering block-by-block news (although, dude, I already knew Bonita closed; no one who lives around the corner like I do in Williamsburg needs to be told that by a website).

Mass culture is doing better than fine. In fact, all those sites like Amazon that supposedly cater to niche interests? They may do just the opposite. According to researchers at the Wharton School of Business, “If you liked X you may also like Y” programs like Amazon’s actually decrease the diversity of sales and harm the niche market. We’re buying the same downloads and books more than ever before.

In other words, when Amazon or YouTube or iTunes or Pandora tells us “You may like …,” they mean all of us, and they’re usually right. And what’s wrong with that? We should revel in our common ground. Pop culture is poppier and better than ever. Drake’s “Best I Ever Had,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” and Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” are great. They could certainly go toe-to-toe with the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie.” There’s a reason it’s called “pop”—it’s chronically likable, and we could actually be getting better at making it.

Big music companies may be in trouble, but big music is thriving. This fall, the dream-team concert with Kanye West and Lady Gaga stands to sell a gazillion tickets and to be both a great spectacle and real art. In its first week, 636,000 people downloaded “Right Round” by Flo Rida. This summer, the video for Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” has racked up more than 7 million views on YouTube. (I swear only a couple hundred were me.)

The recession is creating a demand for escapism, cheapness, and ease in every category. Fussy consumerism is out. That means fewer boutiques, more chain stores; less maudlin indie rock, more Beyoncé flying through the air on a harness at Madison Square Garden clad in Thierry Mugler.

Something is lost, perhaps, but let’s not underestimate what is gained. For one: Beyoncé in Thierry Mugler. But also, a uniquely American culture that includes songs ten out of twelve people you’re on jury duty with can (and will) sing along to.


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