Another transcript of one of the Idea Channel’s best videos so far.
Here’s an idea: popular culture isn’t made up solely of stuff that’s “popular”. My sense my sense is always been that popularity in culture is simultaneously referring to three things: 1. something that a huge number of people like, 2. something that seems like a huge number of people like it, and 3. something made on the purpose to resemble other things that huge numbers of people like.
The first [on screen: numerically popular] is pretty straightforward. Harry Potter, Beyoncé, The Big Bang Theory… all numerically popular. The second two [on screen: seems like a huge number of people like it] are a little bit less straightforward. Breaking Bad and Mad Men are popular TV shows except also sort of not. The final season finale of Breaking Bad had fewer broadcast viewers than most reruns of The Big Bang Theory. Fish, Jeff Buckley, King Crimson, Tom Waits… 0 hit singles. These things are popular in that they are talked about. Though they might not have been experienced by gargantuan audiences, they are critical successes. They are important. And finally lots of stuff is just designed to seem popular, [on screen: pop aesthetic] it has a pop aesthetic. It’s meant to look and sound a certain way, to be familiar. Usually – though not always – this is in the hopes of becoming numerically and/or influentially popular. Sometimes it works. Katy Perry, The Da Vinci Code, Guardians of the Galaxy… But mostly, it doesn’t. For examples, go look at the two dollar singles bin or bookshelf at your local record shop or gas station.
Now, as it turns out, my three concept of what the “popular” in popular culture means are really only a very small part the story. When you combine “popular” and “culture” into “popularculture” you can really change the meaning of both words. Suddenly, we’re no longer just talking about culture that is popular, but about more and less than both those ideas separately. In his introduction to Cultural Theory in Popular Culture, John Storey lays out six – count them – six concepts of a popular culture. Here they are in not exactly his order. [on screen: achieved popularity, not high culture, postmodern culture, mass commercial culture, culture of the people, hegemonic struggle]
 The first is that which is “widely favored or well liked by many people”. It has achieved popularity with numbers.  The second is culture that “is not difficult or scarce”. If high culture is the opera, a modern art museum or the stuff they talk about The New Yorker, than everything else – TV, radio, comic books – that is popular culture.  Mass culture casts popular culture as a wholly commercial endeavor. Like mass produced products, mass culture is mass produced culture. You just churned it out.  Postmodern culture stands in opposition to the second concept. It “no longer recognizes the distinction between high culture and popular culture”. Hey, Andy Warhol!  There’s popular culture as culture made by the people, not by some corporation or institution. Popular culture as folk culture essentially.  And last but not least, from the perspective of Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony theory, popular culture as “a site a struggle between the resistance of subordinate groups and the forces of incorporation operating in the interests of dominant groups”. What does that mean. Basically, popular culture isn’t just a set of media objects like novels, movies or music, but a process that takes place between an audience and the culture industry. A set of organizations, businesses and institutions that produce culture as industry. Media always communicate ideas about the way its creator thinks the world works. That creator is in a position of authority, but the audience might resist some of those ideas. Or it might incorporate some of them. This negotiation – a tension between creator, audience and media itself – is in this view popular culture. I find these last two concepts “folk” and “hegemony” compelling because, well because of Internet, actually. Maybe because of YouTube specifically.
YouTube is home to all these ideas of popular culture. Crass, over-commercialized, high/low culture viewed an infinity of times. But it feels particularly – to me at least – like the place to do something with the texts and practices of the culture industry. Acoustic, glitched, mash up, remix, this-and-that YouTube. That’s YouTube. And in addition to the texts which, you know, can mean basically anything, produced by the culture industries, we are able and, I think, in certain cases expected to make use of the text produced by each other, by the folks.
Now, painting YouTube as a true folk culture is complicated. It’s true. YouTube isn’t available to nearly all of the folks. The people with access don’t live in a media vacuum, and Google is very much a dominant feature of the culture industry. So YouTube’s folkitude is tainted, it’s true. But so too I think is the strict audience//culture industry binary. Maybe it’s naively optimistic me to see YouTube and the communities on it as something other than exploitative condoling with a pre-existing culture industry, but I do. Or, at least, I see it as the start of something or other.
And I think in the gears that something’s process, the meaning of the word “popular” in “popular culture” has become mangled. Cultural popularity isn’t, or maybe, is no longer just a number, like Billboard charts, bestsellers and box office sales. It’s a process. One that doesn’t have to involve mass culture. Popular culture and mass culture are no longer married, they’re just very good friends. The upshot? Popular culture doesn’t have to be, strictly speaking, “popular” or “populous”. Are ASMR videos popular culture then or what about the YouTube scything media complex. …
But really, the media landscape is so complicated and so crowded. Sure, more stuff is always being handed down from on high, but more is also being made within communities and passed around laterally and semi-laterally. The media fueling the pop culture process doesn’t have to come from Warner Brothers or Fox or Disney. And when it does, it suddenly becomes more likely that while it might be five million people favorite thing ever it remains relatively unknown in the world at large. It is amazing when, at vid con let’s say, to see dozens or hundreds of people so so so excited about glimpsing a particular YouTuber that I do not recognize, even a little… and I make the YouTube videos are for a living. …
But then, okay, here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When you make things, especially things that are popular it’s easy to turn inward. To ignore that pop culture process or take it for granted. To not test it. Or worst of all, as ZeFrank says “to let your FIDLI gorge itself on ego and arrogance”. I think it’s fair to say that Idea Channel is popular, by some measure. And maybe it’s because of comfort FILDI with a poor diet, but I feel like we could give you more to do something with. So we’re gonna try and I’m really, really excited about. Which, I guess, is a way of saying we’re gonna try a bunch of new things.