What is Pop Culture?
Speculative fiction is literature about possibilities. Pop culture is about what people like. How do they intersect?
When we speak of pop culture (short for popular culture), we speak about entertainment, music, comic books, video games, sports, politics, fashion, technology, literature, film, and slang.
No, do not confuse pop culture with “what is popular with the kids”, although they are the main drivers of change within it.
Pop culture is what the masses like. In rare times, it matches what the elite likes. But, it is quite rare.
In short, pop culture means dominant, prevalent, and fashionable. And yes, commercial.
For example, Britney, Apple, WWE, Taylor Swift, Mario, Halo, Spiderman, GoT, CoD, GTA, Instagram, Nike, Gucci, the Kardashians. Notice how we refer to most by one name or one acronym.
Pop culture does not need an introduction.
When we speak of speculative fiction, we mean science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction, alternate history, heroic fiction, magical realism/slipstream, etc.
Sometimes, they intercept. But not always.
But when they do, it is like finding the mythical chicken with the golden eggs.
Indeed, people say nerd culture is going mainstream, for example, Marvel films are dominating the box office, Game of Thrones and The Expanse are hit TV shows, and Harry Potter theme parks are big. Yet, they forget something else.
Not all speculative fiction is big business. Not everything resonates with the masses.
In effect, I have noticed that the winners of the Hugo for best novel and the Goodreads Readers Choice awards are not only different, but each one never makes the other one’s ballot.
Why? Because despite both being awards nominated and voted by fans, the audiences are different. The Goodreads voters are average people, with different tastes.
We shouldn’t assume that because Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Andy Weir, and George R. R. Martin are mega-popular, that every single work of speculative fiction is.
In fairness, before The Martian became a hit film, nobody thought hard science fiction could be popular.
We previously debated if speculative fiction has a cultural value. Today, we will explore what happens when that value is linked to “lowbrow” or pop culture.
Therefore, how do these two different spheres intersect and collide?
Mass Marketed for Consumption
Pop culture in the West is about popularity, and yes, we are also including fads. Once in a while, something will become big, and lose its appeal as quickly as it came. (I am looking at you Beanie Babies.)
Pop culture ultimately is about buzz and excitement. After all, word of mouth is the best publicity.
It was John Storey, professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland (UK) who famously said, “pop culture is the culture that is leftover when we have decided what high culture is.”
Without resuscitating the old high/low culture debate, he is mostly correct. Pop culture is the culture of the masses, the working class, the poor.
But, is it dictated from above? Because some pop-culture brands are perceived as social class and status symbols. Incorrectly perhaps, but try telling so to the person buying the latest iPhone.
Likewise, despite all the arguments about pop culture being an instrument of oppression and exploitation, in the end, it is the consumer’s choice. No one puts a gun to someone’s head and tells them “watch, buy, or read this”.
Conversely, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard is one of pop culture’s biggest critics.
He sees it as the training of the individual to seek maximum pleasure at the risk of becoming asocial. (Read his book, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures, 1970).
In plain language, we consume pop culture because of FOMO (fear of missing out).
Ironically, speculative fiction fandom started at the margins. We were the unpopular kids. However, we had moved from the margins to the mainstream. And current pop culture shows it.
Whether the current popularity and mass appeal of speculative fiction is due to our desire for escapism, or nostalgia, especially 1980s nostalgia, or both, it is hard to say.
But to clarify, some speculative fiction is now mainstream. And that also invites analysis and critique.
Speculative Fiction is Current Culture
Once again, pop culture is a popularity game fueled by word of mouth. And it is hard to predict what will resonate with readers and viewers.
Let’s face it, for every X-Files, there is a Mutant X (2001-2004). For every Star Trek, there is a Nightflyers (2018). And Terry Pratchett must be spinning in his grave every time they air The Watch on TV.
Thus, not everything is good and not everything is popular. Even my beloved Doctor Who‘s popularity rises and falls often.
Also, let’s remember, just because the USA and the UK are both cultural superpowers does not mean what is popular in the USA is also popular around the world. Not everything gets translated or dubbed into Spanish.
For example, Latin America did not care for Seinfeld, Cheers, or Roseanne. However, Friends, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and The Simpsons were, and still are, huge.
Similarly, those arguments that pop culture, even the science fictional and fantasy ones, are nothing more than propaganda, consumerism, and even imperialism are valid.
Indeed, a way to make people buy stuff, to accept the status quo, to control them (keep them entertained so they don’t revolt).
I blame George Lucas. Star Wars was the first franchise to commercialize itself.
Nevertheless, speculative fiction can also be transgressive. An instrument of resistance.
I have already argued science fiction works best as an allegory. A metaphor for our times. Cyberpunk itself is about fighting back big corporations and big government.
However, we cannot deny that the internet and social media have changed how we interact and consume pop culture. What used to be personal taste now is shared with millions with one simple Tweet or like button.
Furthermore, since technology has caught up with science fiction, our literature has become a guide of sorts to navigate this new high-tech, always-connected world.
It was not that long ago when cellphones, mini-computers, robots, cloning, nanobots, cyberspace, metaverse, and self-driving cars were not real except in sci-fi novels.
In conclusion, there is an interception between speculative fiction and pop culture. However, what resonates with the masses is not always what resonates with fandom. It is an ongoing conversation, and it is still evolving.
Reader, do you agree or disagree? Is the intersection of pop culture and speculative fiction a good or bad thing? Share in the comments.