The Rise and Fall of Postmodern Pop Culture
“And make no mistake, irony tyrannizes us… the reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit, I don’t really mean what I’m saying. So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe too bad it’s impossible but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.” -David Foster Wallace (Klosterman, pg.208)
“That odd, the blood usually gets off on the second floor.”
-Charles Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons
Native Americans used every part of the buffalo. This is an old story, and certainly not much of a story, as I’ve told it in eight words (I don’t think I’ve captured the sterile majesty of the open plains). Short old stories are useful, however, especially this one, on two levels of interpretation, as I will now explain:
-short, popular, old stories make excellent memes because they’re easy to transfer so that everyone quickly knows them.
-to make the transfer more exciting and relevant (thereby helping it remain in the public consciousness), the short, popular, old stories are twisted and subverted in some form so those experiencing its current incarnation can put their own personal spin on it. In this case, I am using it as analogy as how popular culture is willing to ravenously feed upon and utilize any other form of culture for its own ends.
Memes like this are now transferred in ironic tones. They survive in warped states, with only tenuous connections to their source material. While an entire generation might know that it was a little old lady that asked irritably, ‘where’s the beef?’ in a Wendy’s commercial, the generation after most likely remembers it as something Homer Simpson chuckled over.
It is a mocking of the meme that is appreciated differently if you are familiar with the meme in its unironic form, which is not an extraordinary request, as advertising and popular culture has preyed on such easily understandable and accessible ideas and terms in an accelerated rate for several decades now. On top of that, ‘appreciated differently’ – to get layers of a joke or reference – is not the holy grail of popular culture. The thinnest level of understanding – so you will continue to consume more of it – will do.
Popular Culture – typically abbreviated to ‘pop’ culture – holds a rather odd place in the wider spectrum that is culture, especially since the mid-twentieth century. The most reductive interpretation of the term is simply ‘culture that is popular’. Dustin Kidd breaks its usage down into three forms: associated with folk and local culture, associated with widespread commercial culture, and the first two combined with a value system (Kidd, pg.71-72). Only the second, however, concerns us here, as it, “invoke[s] the idea of fame or widespread enjoyment. Quilts, as folk culture, do not experience this sort of popularity. Under this definition, we would have to look specifically at commercial culture – those cultural products which are produced by industries that, at least in part, seek to generate profit, and which are often produced or distributed through nonhuman technology such as the printing press, the CD manufacturing plant, or television airwaves.” (Kidd, pg.72)
It’s emergence in the wake of the Second World War – when globalization was in its infancy and the transfer of goods, services, and information began to spread across the First, Second, and Third ‘worlds’ – meant that this free exchange of ideas and related products was a chief tool in the West’s face off against Communism. The transfer of cultural goods – from within Western nations or from Western nations to other regions across the globe – was a constant symbolic reminder of the advantages the capitalist system held. It certainly did not hurt that many of these regions finally began to see citizens have enough disposable income to spend on such non-essential products like television, film, and music.
And when one talks of popular culture it is crucial that we keep in mind that it exists within a capitalist system, which means it is expected to have monetary worth and hopefully, for those who invest in the product, turn a profit. With any and every form of culture becoming enmeshed in this system, culture becomes an industry, and with that, “the notion that popular culture furthers a self-legitimating ideology leads Horkheimer and Adorno to claim that the culture industry becomes a filter for all forms of culture. Eventually, popular culture becomes indistinguishable from other forms of culture – all culture becomes popular culture.” (Kidd, pg.73)
The time of this arrival is an important one when we consider the theoretical filter that is going to be placed upon this form of expression, as it also began to take root in the academic world in the nineteen fifties and sixties.
Postmodernism is a nebulous theory that holds a rather complex array of tenets (some contradictory) with the basic ones stating that there are no absolute truths, and that many of the intellectual and social foundations that humanity bases its knowledge upon (whether it be science, religion, or simply common sense civility) are illusory. Rather than anything concrete, there is a series of interdependent metanarratives (which can be any sort of related ideas, ranging from politics to religion to the belief in progress) that hold up society like a house of cards.
Coming to the fore in the nineteen fifties and sixties and becoming haute couture for periods in the following two decades, postmodernism in a way is destined to never fully fall out of fashion because it predicts (nay, demands) its own limitations and position within the larger and unending metanarrative of human understanding.
What this paper will highlight is that pop culture in the early twenty first century is at a dire crossroads, with the postmodern influence of the late nineties to the present the last incarnation of what many have defined as pop culture. While longstanding mediums like the television, film, and music industries controlled most of the content and form of dissemination of popular culture, the rise of the internet over the last two decades has challenged this traditional hierarchy, with the end result being a steady erosion and narrowing of qualities – including postmodernist ones – that can be attributed to popular culture.
The New Spins on “The End”
Postmodernism’s high water mark in term of popularity and influence in academia – measured in part by a spat of publications with the genre’s name in the title – was the nineteen eighties, which was unfortunate, as it would the technological and cultural advances of the next two decades which would bear out the decades-old predictions in extremely explicit and influential ways within mainstream society.
Steve Connor’s Postmodernist Culture – published in 1987, with a second edition coming two years later – welcomes the MTV music video and the superficial championing of the televised image as the prime examples of how postmodernism is seen in popular culture. With a nod to Baudrillard, he states that, “a TV screen or computer monitor cannot be thought of simply as an object to be looked at, with all the old forms of psychic projection and investment; instead, the screen intersects responsively with our desire and representations, and becomes the embodied form of our psychic worlds. What happens ‘on’ the screen is neither on the screen nor in us, but in some complex, always virtual space between the two.” (Connor, pg.192)
One could only imagine what Connor and Baudrillard would make of internet banner ads that are tailored to the user’s previous searches and the promulgation of reality television.
Regarding film he states that, “postmodernist cinema is characterized, for the many writers who approved and extended Jameson’s analysis [that films about the past are meant to offer a nostalgic experience rather than a historically accurate one], by different forms of pastiche and stylistic multiplicity.” (Connor, pg.199) Once again, while citing such films as American Graffiti and Star Wars in the text, it is clear that nineties films such as Pulp Fiction and Fight Club would be much more effective examples of postmodernist pastiche.
The purer cultural offspring of postmodernity came long after the introduction of the theory itself. Something so convoluted and indefinite takes time for it to become palpable not only for the audiences but the creators of films or music that work within a studio system or traditional facet of the entertainment industry whose goal is to reach as wide an audience as possible.
While traditional narrative styles and forms were becoming tired and predictable in the realm of high culture in the early decades of the twentieth century – with modernism being the reactionary movement, and postmodernism reacting against that – the culture manufactured for the masses was able to churn out the same format for much longer with only slight variations on the style. While ‘folk’ culture was slowly being eroded in the sense that it was becoming less locally generated, the content and form changed only slightly. The stories themselves followed patterns of comedy and drama/tragedy that are rooted in myth and folklore, such as the Fisher King narrative (a hero – mainly associated with King Arthur – saving a society from ruin and bringing back prosperity), the journey narrative (popularized by the epic myth of Odysseus) and the Femme Fatale character (based on some degree on the biblical Eve or the Greek Pandora).
Technology played a large roll in accelerating the distribution of the archetypes of popular culture. Both radio and television packaged these familiar stories and format into even more formulaic and unchanging patterns, with act breaks always arriving at the same time in every story. Corporate sponsorship also began at this time, as certain products had their names woven into the programs titles (The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, The Little Orphan Annie Radio Show was presented by Ovaltine, who’s ad agency wrote the episodes to boot).
Beaten over the head with such stories, the public internalized them to the point where the challenge for the creators of such fare was to repackage them in slightly tweaked ways. In the wake of the Second World War, as American culture was packaged both domestically and foreign as a symbol of capitalist power, the Western – Bonanza, Gunsmoke – and nuclear family centered sitcoms – Leave it to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show – were reinventions of adventure and morality plays, respectively.
While one can certainly look back at television programming and films from the postwar period and cringe, it should be noted that much of the same culture is present today, only with more violence and sex (Crime Scene Investigation, Two and a Half Men, NCIS). The changes in format and content are minimal, while the retention of these same archetypes are dominant, and not without a degree of concern: “Baudrillard argued that modern culture and media have effectively destroyed any notion of authenticity, replacing it instead with a succession of images that purport to represent reality while, in fact, masking it from view.” (Footman, pg.251)
This is exactly what postmodernism purports to be the challenge when it come to any level of objective understanding or ultimate truth. The inherent barriers of both language and human expression prevent us from attaining these realms of thought. All we have are representations of these ideas or experiences, and these limitations are also seen in the culture industry, which for the most part propagates them as opposed to a more substantial form of intellectual exchange concerning the reasons behind such propagation.
The finest example of misplaced offerings of reality through traditional forms of media can be found in the deceptively named reality television. Through employing average citizens, they are typically tasked to do either wholly unnatural challenges – like running obstacle courses or eating bugs – or more common activities like cooking or assembling a business plan (albeit in front of a camera and sound crew).
Despite its claim to the title given to this genre, any notion of reality is dispelled simply through the structure of every episode, which by nature shoehorns ‘reality’ into acts complete with commercial breaks with multiple plots that must slowly unravel throughout the episode only to culminate in a climactic scene at show’s end.
‘Reality’ then, has taken on the guise of the traditional dramatic television program, with audiences following the contestants as if they were characters, sometimes – in the case of American Idol – with the opportunity to choose the outcome themselves by voting for participants.
This inauthenticity exists in a medium that mingles such culture with other more important facets of knowledge, namely news programs. Granted, no one will truly mistake an anchor reporting on a natural disaster for a host of a show about competitive dancing, but the overall effect – especially when both claim to exist under the banner of ‘reality’ – is a blurring of entertainment and information. If – as McLuhan famously opined – the medium is the message, the transmission has become compromised to no small degree.
While a troubling development, what in some ways can be considered a fortunate outcome is that the public seems to have properly internalized this difficulty, seeing reality through the television – and now the internet – medium as just another metanarrative. Information as a whole is now transferred in an ironic bubble, with smirking commentary the cytoplasm it floats in.
So if we turn to the quote from David Foster Wallace at the beginning of this article – “I don’t really mean what I’m saying” –we find the writer concerned with the possibility that trying to understand what one truly means – that is, the truth – has become of less importance for contemporary culture and society (Wallace was writing about generation x, but it can certainly be applied to generation y/millennials as well). Right away we are confronted with the realization that this one of the hallmarks of postmodernist thought, but rather than despair, as Wallace seemingly does here, over the loss of truth, we can re-contextualize it as a subjective, personal truth. Although we may state, “I don’t really mean what I’m saying”, it does not mean to imply that we are then lying. We are at least honest about our irony, our detachment from the absolute, and that self-awareness is a good metanarrative to base a form of culture upon. These truths we now deride – whether supposedly objective philosophical statements or old stories and archetypes – retain their content but lose their overall form. It is the practice of mocking the norm/cliché up to the point that the mocking itself becomes the norm/cliché way to interact with original norm/cliché. The now-ironic content becomes its own form.
It is at this moment in popular culture that postmodernism begins to take root. Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties there were many plateaus of reinvention for popular culture, and certainly some of these steps included dipping into sub and counter cultures for refreshing and novel takes on dominant and unchanging narratives and archetypes.
As postmodernism was an aesthetic philosophy as much as it could be applied to other disciplines like history, psychology, and politics, there were already examples of postmodernist culture not long after the theory was introduced in the nineteen fifties and sixties. These were not necessarily born to reflect these newer theories, but came into being as a (un)natural evolution from the modernist period that preceded it. Literature such as Calvino’s t-zero and Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow were examples of extreme and jarring subversions of familiar literary tropes and themes. Experimental film genres like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism did the same with the world of moving image. Yet these were typical labeled forms of ‘high culture’ that never had massive appeal at the time of their unveiling (or now, for that matter). Television, being more tightly controlled for content by media corporations and advertisers, meant there were fewer chances for postmodern tendencies to flourish at this time, but on networks run strictly on government financing – in the English speaking world, most notably the BBC and PBS – certain programming like The Prisoner and the absurdist sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus became cult favourites (the latter, satirizing American 50s sitcoms, one skit offered The Attila the Hun Show, with over the top bad acting, cliché violent jokes, a racist character named Uncle Tom, and a canned laugh track).
Postmodernist may now be the main academic term applied to the Monty Python comedy troupe, but at the time it could have just as easily been summed up with the word – used frequently by character in the show to describe itself – ‘silly’. Not surprisingly, labels of all sorts when discussing postmodernism and pop culture can be particularly problematic. The near tongue twister ‘cult culture’ is a fine case in point, as it attempts to measure the popularity and influence of certain fringe entertainment. In 1975, the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released – with probably one of the most postmodern endings to a possibly-mainstream audience ever offered – making a respectable $1.6 million at the box office that year. At the same time, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released that same year and grossed $470 million. While the former’s profit is considered excellent for a comedy film it retains the designation of cult classic. The other – expected to be a dismal failure – is considered one of the first blockbusters. When dealing with the ‘popular’ sometimes it is possible to turn it into a numbers game.
This does not mean that all prefixes with the word Pop were successful, easily understood or embraced, especially in the early going. Andy Warhol’s Pop Art meant taking popular images (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, a Campbell’s Soup can) and presenting them in either a unique fashion (multicoloured screen prints) or as an exact replica (painting the wrapper of a soup can onto a cylinder). Subversion of pop, then, was such an easy activity for high culture, that in many circles it was meet with indifference or criticism. And while even at the time Warhol and other artists that satirized or offered homage to low culture in unique ways – Roy Lichtenstein’s comic strips, for example – were financially successful, at this point none of this was pop culture. Appealing to small niches of the modern art community and literary urban filmgoers – to rely on a stereotype – suggested that the material would never – to rely on another – play in Peoria.
As Thomas Kuhn observed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, immense, culture-altering ideas take time to grow and spread into the public consciousness. He was referring to a paradigm shift where a new scientific theory is introduced but only embraced by a small segment of academics, as only through a period – sometimes lengthy – of repeated testing and debate is it accepted by the scientific community as a whole. Similarly, offering unique forms of storytelling and turning predictable setting or character clichés on its head takes time for them to be accepted by the general public. Oddly enough, perhaps the best allegorical example of how this transfer from high to pop culture works comes from the comedy film The Devil Wears Prada, where the fashion editor of what is supposed to be Vogue dismissively lectures an intern on how an outfit worn on a Paris runaway is altered, debased, and cheapened to eventually land on a discount store’s rack.
It should be noted at this point, however, that this process is not unilateral. By no means is all postmodern popular culture a cardboard derivative of postmodern high culture. Without question the influence can move both ways, with pockets of underground counter culture influencing popular culture, which in turns influences high culture (the popularity of grunge in the early nineties went from a niche music scene to a widespread youth rebellion to a fashion style on the runways of Paris). Additionally, underground counter culture can first affect high culture that in time affects popular culture as a whole. As these hierarchies are becoming less stabilized in a postmodernist period, it once again reinforces that these labels of certain types of culture – will not wholly illusory – are not absolute and are useful only as temporary markers for differentiation. Postmodernism eschews fixed positions, even if Seattle – the ground zero of grunge – always remains in the same place.
Counterculture – briefly mentioned above – warrants explanation. Movements like Dadaism, the Beat Generation and Punk were ‘counter’ insomuch as they were reactionary. As pop culture became a more dominant force as the century progressed, it effortlessly began to absorb those niche societies, which in many cases existed solely to show their opposition to popular culture. Jameson acknowledges and laments this process:
“Just as in the cultural sphere, the forms of abstraction which in the modern period seemed ugly, dissonant, scandalous, indecent or repulsive, have also entered the mainstream of cultural consumption (in the largest sense, from advertising to commodity styling, from visual decoration to artistic production) and no longer shock anyone; rather, our entire system of commodity production is based on these older, once anti-social modernist, forms. Nor does the conventional notion of abstraction seem very appropriate for the postmodern context” (Jameson, pg.149).
Jameson then goes on to offer an example of how the quick cuts and editing sequences in American film that were refreshing and wholly original when introduced in the first half of the twentieth century has been appropriated most powerfully by television commercials. It is this form of condensed culture that has become the most familiar and powerful first in Western and now in global society. The selling of the simple idea – ‘buy this’ – by any means possible. Jameson concludes: “So a process and logic of extreme fragmentation still seems to obtain here, but without any of its earlier effects” (Jameson, pg.149-150). Our ability to adapt to our surroundings – which includes all aspects of culture – means it is that much easier to become accustomed and perhaps even complacent towards what we experience. In postindustrial Western society, this self-inoculation is of great concern and interest to the many corporations that push a materialist-centered economy via forms of entertainment. Pop Culture is by nature supposed to be simplistic and straightforward, as broad appeal demands it to be (pop, after all, stands for ‘popular’). It must walk that line of being familiar while at the same time offering something different and novel so it is deemed worth of paying attention to.
This contradiction dovetails nicely with postmodernism, a theory that can be linguistically dense and inherently paradoxical, but holding conclusions about knowledge and the transfer of information that is seen in many of pop culture’s own traits and goals: Reducing information to singular factoids, its importance and unalterable connection to a greater, more intricate and detailed system is denied. Jameson summarizes the connection thusly: “The languages of postmodernity are universal, in the sense that they are media languages.” (Jameson, pg.150)
Jameson asserts then that media outlets are the harbingers and fashioners of language, having the power to alter the meaning of words for whatever agenda is being pushed. And while when it comes to politics and other disciplines with large scale social ramifications there can be quite a tangled web necessary to sort through to discover true goals, in the world pop culture the objective is refreshingly simple: profit, via reaching as many people as possible.
The embracing of postmodern tenets in the nineties by pop culture was incidental. The culture industry had little interest in whether the two intellectual structures had anything in common on a superficial or deeper level. Rather, it just happened that some of the postmodernist material being created on the artistic fringes was earning an unexpectedly large amount of money (in relative terms), which made it worthwhile to pursue. It also helped that while unusual, much of postmodernism made reference – sometimes in oblique ways – to past cultural epochs and movements, which immediately gave those that absorbed the material some level of familiarity to base their expectations upon.
Wheeler states that, “This form of postmodernism is not ashamed of its relationship to popular culture and the vernacular. George Lipsitz is quite right in commenting that pop music leads high art in the use of postmodern forms: ‘It is on the level of commodified mass culture that the most popular, and often the most profound, acts of cultural bricolage take place. The destruction of established canons and the juxtaposition of seemingly inappropriate forms that characterize the self-conscious postmodernism of ‘high culture’ have long been staples of commodified popular culture’ (161).” (Wheeler, pg.219)
Despite originating in ‘high culture’ due to its initially unorthodox and unwieldy styles, postmodernism eventually found favour in popular culture due to it finally being understood – in an admittedly reductionist form – as a process that embraced the cross-pollination of disparate and older ideas to create something new. And as far as commodified popular culture is concerned, novelty is a trait that practically sells itself.
For the larger cultural industry, the simplest way to capitalize on the sudden popularity of the novel is to alter the original intention of the work in an extremely simple fashion – with much of its original traits in tact – for the masses intended to consume it (this would be where the critics might use the term ‘clones’ or ‘rip-offs’). This is a form of industry destabilization – or detournement, to use Guy DeBord’s term for altering existing culture to give new context as well as make it more personal – is championed because it allow for a sort of blanket brand awareness, where the difference between the original and the copies are meant to be negligible. With reproductions of the authentic, we come up against yet another paradox.
While initially DeBord’s detournement was meant to be done by individuals as a sort of subconscious rejection of the typical and in some ways manipulative culture that is pushed upon them (or a way to assert one’s own creative individuality), this is typically a temporary phenomena. If a certain form of destabilization is successful in its own right, creating a subculture based upon it, the culture industry typically wastes little time in absorbing the style and even the practitioners of the detournement. The explosion of punk rock is a classic example, with strains of the rejection of the dominant and popular musical styles of the 1960 and 70s largely remaining in the shadows for years, followed only by a small amount of youths on the fringes of acceptable society. Musical groups that embraced this aesthetic to varying degrees (The Velvet Underground, The Stooges) found little commercial success during their brief and tumultuous existence, but upon their innovations came future movements that would deploy their ideas and experiments into the mainstream.
In 1977 punk music made its commercial breakthrough in England when The Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the Bollocks hit number one on the charts. Today critics note that while much of punk’s influences came from America, it would take another fifteen years – when ‘alternative rock/grunge’ band Nirvana hit the big time with their album with a suspiciously similar title, Nevermind – before similar success crossed the Atlantic. Punk and Grunge’s inherent nihilism and a fashion based on the altering and debasement of previous styles (The Sex Pistols’ singer Johnny Rotten was first noticed by the band’s manager while wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the marker-written words ‘I hate’ above the band’s name) make ripe for connections to the most basic tenets of postmodernist thought.
Problem soon develop, however, when one becomes keenly aware of the danger of postmodernism becoming just another one of its own conceptual victims when it becomes an entrenched theory absorbed and assimilated by society – and the culture industry – at large. Some of the unintended leaders of the movement were extremely careful when addressing these developments:
“Indeed, even the most rarefied academic discussions of postmodernism, such as Jameson’s Postmodernism, have often argued the usefulness of the concept of postmodernism for anyone who would attempt to come to grips with the complexities of day-to-day life in the contemporary world… he insists that postmodernism is now a cultural dominant and that even the most mundane products of popular culture are heavily conditioned by a postmodernist paradigm.” (Booker, pg.xvii)
In other words, part of Jameson’s solution is straightforwardness and clarity (obviously how successful postmodernism has been in embracing this recommendation can be hotly debated), and it just so happens that popular culture embraces such axioms. Connected to this, the clearest and most simplistic form of mass destabilization is satire. In this, one has to recognize the figure or concept being mocked, otherwise the satire doesn’t necessarily work. One of the finest pop culture examples of satire that – as coincidence would have it – became prevalent during postmodernism rise was Mad Magazine. Initially spoofing comic book stories in the mid fifties, it eventually morphed into a magazine with mock articles lampooning politics, culture, religion, people and magazines like Mad (in typical self-deprecating fashion, the writers and artists are credited on the masthead as ‘the usual gang of idiots’). Through the sixties and seventies it was a blueprint for this form of humour.
Roger Ebert claimed he learned to write movie reviews thanks in part to Mad’s movie satires, a series of panels mimicking key events in the movie in question, with dialogue mocking the plot holes and absurdities of the actual film, many frequently made with full self-awareness that this was a satire of the film (with the characters referencing the film’s director, or previous roles they or other actors within the film have played).
While there have been cracks in what is typically referred to as the fourth wall (that is, the awareness of the audience watching the film or play) throughout the twentieth century – notably in absurdist comedies made by the Marx Brothers or Bob Hope (the latter hoping in one of his films that his overacting might earn his an Oscar) – Mad Magazine made this an inherent feature in practically all of its mock articles.
Niedzviecki acknowledges that part of what made this destabilization unique and revolutionary was the truncation of time between certain events:
“So much has happened so quickly. In less than a hundred years, almost every possible rule pertaining to aesthetic culture has been broken. The notion of the specialist, the professional artist, the genius creator has been irrevocably challenged. Suddenly, we are all artists, filmmakers, musicians, thinkers. As a result, we must all take on the responsibility the artist has – of accepting nothing, relying on nothing, questioning everything.” (Niedzviecki, pg.12)
Mad Magazine was ‘making’ films by satirizing already existing and popular movies, doing it in such a way that it became its own separate form of entertainment.
And because it was a financial success it was no long before the film industry itself used these initially subversive blueprints to make a financially successful ‘satire’ of its own, completely in the vein of Mad.
Perhaps one of the best examples is the 1980 film Airplane!, a comedy that mocks intense movie dialogue (“Surely you can’t be serious” “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley”), 70s blockbuster films (the opening is a spoof of Jaws), popular commercials, with Marx Brothers-like vaudeville jokes to boot. This onslaught of jokes can co-exist peacefully with the paper-thin plot because it is paper-thin. By the latest 1970s, the ‘disaster film’ archetype had been embedded into the popular consciousness (Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Airport ’75), which meant in a movie like Airplane! there could be a greater focus on the constantly destabilizing humour. The $3.5 million film made $83 million, and begat a long line of comedy films that were primarily based on turning more familiar stories on its head. With the pop culture embrace of the mocking pop culture, however, this mockery became another facet of pop culture, hostage to much of its capitalist, profit-driven initiatives. While Airplane! was a novel idea upon its release, subsequent films replicated its formula until this parody-based style became yet another archetype. With the simplicity of satire and the simplicity of making satire just another money-making, manipulative facet of the culture industry, it should come as no surprise that some postmodernist theorists decry its usefulness outright:
“While realism is the dominant style of commercial media, the media do not have the deep stake in reality – effects both Lyotard and Baudrillard attribute to them. Television eats up postmodernism along with any other style available to it. Therefore parody is not intrinsically subversive, as Baudrillard would claim.” (Wheeler, pg.213)
Perhaps a more accurate take on Wheeler’s explanation is that television (or film, for that matter) is not subversive for very long, as any successful postmodernist trait in this popular medium quickly becomes a standard that blunts any edge or novelty the subversive/postmodernist program originally had.
Due to film and television’s massive audience, it makes sense that few pop culture endeavours push any boundaries or subvert well-worn formulas. For mediums on the periphery of popular, however, there are more opportunities for such ideas to foster and continue, appealing to a niche audience that is appreciative of such detournement. In this regard, what should also be noted concerning Mad – as well as such exception-proves-the-rule type films like Airplane! – is the age group it was targeted for, which ranged from teenagers to those well into their twenties. For those reading in their formative years in the nineteen sixties and seventies – when Mad was at its zenith, having roughly one million subscribers – the magazine was actively mocking and tearing down the archetypes that television and most of the films at that time were building up. The result of this was a generation tempered in satire and anti-establishment thinking (although not for overt political purposes). It was also likely that many political references may have at first gone over the heads of this group of readers, which introduced this group of people to the notion of the esoteric. Where one was not properly equipped at that time to understand the joke, that additional information was required. Following formulaic television programs at a young age takes little effort, but one wouldn’t get a particular political joke if they did not know who Spiro Agnew was.
Granted, Mad Magazine, despite its popularity in terms of a printed periodical, did not reach the same sized audience as television or film, but those that read during this period were sufficiently influenced to ensure that these qualities in the destabilization of typical pop culture would continue on a larger scale when they became the ones to write and produce culture of the nineties and beyond. The writers of The Simpsons were so enamoured with the magazine in their youth that the show frequently included nods to the magazine with the utmost reverence.
Which is what we turn to now. Television was by far the most powerful distributor of concentrated pop culture in the twenty century, and at present it looks like nothing will equal it. The internet – despite its indomitable present in the Western world and rapidly growing availability in developing nations – has played a bigger role in fragmenting culture into niche rather than uniting it under a more streamlined and concentrated banner that would make it easily classifiable as ‘pop culture’. While unquestionably postmodern – due largely in the ease for individual users to personally destabilize and augment the culture offered through the medium – the internet’s diverse content and ability to subvert laws concerning copyright – which has not yet pit telecommunications corporations against media corporations – supports underground and counterculture movements to a much greater degree than ‘pop’ culture itself.
The quote opening this essay is from a Halloween-themed episode of the animated program The Simpsons, a weekly television series following the exploits of a dysfunctional family in the fictional American town of Springfield. This is a fine example of pop culture, as it is most likely unnecessary for me to bother with such a basic explanation of the show, as it is a global phenomenon that practically everyone – it is broadcast in over sixty nations, after all – is familiar with.
But here it is, anyway. The Simpsons debuted as a series in 1990 – after three years of being shorts for the sketch comedy program, The Tracy Ullman Show and a Christmas special – as a show that was markedly different from what passed for sitcom programming at the time. It was contrasted with the most popular show in the late eighties and early nineties, The Cosby Show, which depicted a supportive, warm, upper middle class family in New York. The Simpsons, meanwhile had a mute baby, disaffected daughter, blue haired, slightly neurotic mother, and a wiseass son named Bart who was frequently being choked by the brutish, hard drinking patriarch, Homer.
The first two seasons of The Simpsons played the anti-Cosby card rather heavily, tweaking traditional storylines and relationships within the family and the greater community within the show’s universe. Homer attempts suicide after losing his job, Bart becomes a daredevil skateboarder, Marge almost has an affair with her bowling instructor, and the whole family is subject to electroshock therapy.
With an ever expanding supporting cast – well beyond the six to eight characters that would appear on any other sitcoms with regularity – the entire town was fleshed out, as Homer’s wizened and evil boss ran for governor, the sidekick of a children’s entertainer framed his boss for armed robbery, and Principal Skinner almost joins the family as he dates Marge’s sister, Patty.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg, comparable to the early twentieth century modernist take on the rigidity of Victorian/classical narrative that came before.
Whereas such a program might have met resistance from audiences at other times, by the early nineties, much of comedy programming had copied either The Cosby Show’s or Cheers’ to such formulaic ends, that The Simpsons was heralded as both iconoclastic and accessible. Consequently, it was an early top twenty hit for the then-fledgling Fox Network, a status that has not wavered – although its current quality can be debated – for two decades. While the initial seasons ran on faddish popularity – Bart made the cover of Rolling Stone before the end of the first season, and had a radio hit with the novelty single, ‘Do the Bartman’ – by the third season the writers and producers were tweaking character attributes and plot pacing to such a degree that recognizable scenes of exposition and obvious joke setups were being put on the operating table and twisted into bizarre shapes.
The end of the first act would sweep away all the narrative that came before and proceed with an entirely new storyline in acts two and three (‘Dog of Death’, ‘Brother Can You Spare Two Dimes?’). In some instances, dialogue delicately toed the line as to whether the entire show was self-aware of itself:
Homer: Well, we didn’t get any money, but at least Mr. Burns got what he wanted. Marge, I’m confused. Is this happy ending or a sad ending?
Marge: It’s an ending. And that’s enough.
For a show that, despite being animated, was meant to have a more realistic portrayal of the average American/western family dynamic, it began to delve into a sense of playful absurdity, becoming less concerned with accuracy on a character-identification level, aiming for an almost paradoxical connection with its audience. One only needs to watch a handful of episodes before it becomes clear that the town of Springfield is one of the worst cities in America, despite being by critics and fans laud as a note-perfect caricature of Anytown, USA. In ‘Marge in Chains’, the town ends up rioting on two separate occasions, once over a misplaced search for a cure for the Osaka flu, which was making the rounds (Doctor Hibbert notes that, “the only cure is bed rest, as anything else I give you would be a mere placebo”, prompting the crowd to say, “Where can we get these placebos?” “Maybe there’s some in this truck!”), and the second time over their displeasure of the unveiling of a Jimmy Carter statue (one onlooker cries, “he’s history’s greatest monster!”).
Homer falls off the cliff of Springfield gorge twice back-to-back, once failing to cross it on a skateboard, the second after the ambulance – come to rescue him from the initial fall – smashes into a nearby tree, forcing the back doors to open and allow the stretcher carrying Homer to roll back over the edge (in both instances we are given a lengthy and graphic shot of the fall). On a later occasion, family nemesis (although specifically Bart’s) Sideshow Bob steps onto the teeth of a seemingly endless supply of rakes for a good thirty seconds, each one rising up violently to strike him in the face. A wider shot reveals that for some reason two-dozen of them are littered on the ground in front of him. Either a punishment by the humour gods, or the fact that the episode was running short (the latter is true, which lends credence to the cliché that necessity is the mother of invention).
As the show progressed, Homer Simpson became mindbogglingly stupid (misspelling ‘Smart’ as he lights his high school diploma on fire), charmingly ignorant (observing that, “it’s like David and Goliath, only this time, David won!”), and borderline psychotic (deciding to take part in army medical experiments rather than spend an evening with his sisters-in-law), and by doing so only became more endearing to viewers.
While formulaic sitcom rules and television framing are easily broken in the cartoon universe The Simpsons dwells within, the connection it has to the traditional family sitcom keeps from being seen solely in this light. It is able to straddle pop culture familiarity and postmodern experimentation – while remaining a popular and profitable program – like no other television offering ever has.
It’s universality and continued production (it will be starting it’s twenty third season in September) means that it has become a primary meme generator, with phrases like, “D’oh!”, “Excellent”, “Ay Carumba!”, “Haw-Haw!”, “Hiddily-ho!”, “Mmm…Donuts”, “And I for one welcome our insect overlords”, and “Thank you, come again”, entering the cultural lexicon. Even beyond ideas reducible to catchphrases, many characters grew into and also redefined the classic archetypes of whatever they portrayed. When planning the entertainment for an upcoming evening, the evil and senile Mr. Burns at first considers ‘digging up’ Al Jolson, only to be reminded by his assistant Smithers that it didn’t work out last time, prompting Burns to remark that, “the rest of that evening was something I’d rather forget” (they eventually settle on kidnapping Tom Jones).
Lionel Hutz went from the show’s ambulance chasing lawyer to become the ambulance chasing lawyer. When introduced in the second season, Hutz was simply a shyster attorney attempting to sue Mr. Burns for running over Bart by having him exaggerate his injuries and bringing in a phony doctor (Dr. Nick Riviera, who would go on to become the phony doctor). His initial appearance, was still a standard stock character for a sitcom or any familiar archetype. In postmodernism, however, a character’s traits are pushed into the red, as far as it can go, typically into complete, near-unbelievable caricature. In the fourth season, there is the following dialogue between Hutz and Marge Simpson, about to go to trial for inadvertently stealing a bottle of Colonel Kwik-E-Mart’s Kentucky Bourbon:
Hutz: Now don’t you worry, Marge, I- (looks down at paper in front of him) uh-oh. We’ve drawn Judge Schneider.
Marge: Is that bad?
Hutz: He’s kinda had it in for me ever since I kind of ran over his dog.
Marge: You did?
Hutz: Well, replace the word ‘kind of’ with ‘repeatedly’, and the word ‘dog’ with ‘son’.
We see here a level of unreality – a lawyer not liking his chances in court due to the fact that he intentionally ran over the offspring of the judge – mingled with just a bit more work than usual for a typical joke. Hutz even tells us how to ‘get’ the gag, as the viewer, like Marge, is expected to replace the words of his previous utterance with clearer and more shocking terms (the shock being the source of comedy, as the extreme boundary push – the repeatedly running over a person in a car – has become the standard in postmodernist culture). It is leaps and bound over Hutz’s first appearance as a lawyer who bent the rules to win a case. Now he ignores them completely, trying to kill people for reasons undisclosed (and the result of this unexpected extreme is humour). Later in the episode, once we arrive in court, Hutz approaches the bench for the following exchange with the Judge:
Hutz: I move for a bad court thingy.
Judge: You mean a mistrial.
Hutz: Yeah. That’s why you’re the judge and I’m the…law… talking…guy.
Judge: The lawyer.
Now he’s barely a lawyer in name only. This extreme cognitive dissonance is played for the joke, but it doesn’t confuse the audience. We accept the portrayal of Hutz as paradoxical: while these characters became more unbelievable, they became more essential and iconic in regards to initial qualities we’ve given them.
They inform a large swath of the population of how society might actually be run, and in an era when corporate influence and government inefficiency is at an all time high, the useless lawyer, corrupt mayor, and greedy boss seems less a stretch for comedic purposes than a not-too-far-off-the-mark depiction of how the world truly works. The best caricature is rooted in some kernel of truth, and when such kernels become familiar enough in pop culture, it can be shrunk to smaller and smaller until only a single term – in Lionel Hutz’s case, ‘lawyer’ – remains.
This is not to say that the writers of the show had any intention of creating the cartoon equivalent of the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. Put simply, postmodern pop culture put much of its stock in layers of identifiable memes, only so it can subvert them. While the purpose of this is entertainment, the result is creating an audience that is passively educated in the exposure of metanarratives, and the malleability of supposed unchanging archetypes.
To wit, the Simpsons quote opening this paper needs a healthy dollop of contextual explanation, while within the episode itself the viewer could piece the reference and humour without much assistance. The Halloween-themed episodes (numerically designated as Treehouse of Horror I, II, III, etc…) of the program are broken into three separate vignettes between the ad breaks. In Treehouse of Horror V, the first is a satire of the Kubrick film The Shining (itself a creative take on the radically different Stephen King novel of the same name), where the characters in the Simpsons universe take on the roles of those from the film. Mr. Burns here is reinvented as the owner of the haunted hotel, and while giving the family – led by Homer, charged with the task of being the winter caretaker – an introductory tour a terrifying reenactment from the film of a slowly opening elevator door ushering out a cascade of blood is diffused by the offhand remark printed above. Through the displacement of familiar characters within The Simpsons universe and the subversion of the original content (the film itself), a new epistemological triad is created, not unlike Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis equation.
This coupling of form-content intricacy within such a popular television program has not gone unnoticed in the academic community, as The Simpsons are a popular topic for analysis. In Hugo Dobson’s article on how the show depicts Japanese culture – published in ‘The Journal of Popular Culture’ – he reminds us that, “the producers of The Simpsons are highly educated and are familiar with the object of derision, Matheson states that, ‘its humor works by putting forward positions only in order to undercut them. Furthermore, this process of undercutting runs so deeply that we cannot regard the show as merely cynical; it manages to undercut its cynicism too’ (Matheson 118). This is the hyper-ironic quality of The Simpsons’ comedy that allows us to regard the show as a more simplistic mockery or vulgar racism.” (Dobson, pg.61)
Dobson here notes the episode where Homer says if he wanted to see a Japanese person he would go to the zoo, only to reveal moments later that it is because he has a Japanese friend that works there. A classy bit of comedic sleight-of-hand, twisted in a postmodern sense by having the by now lovable Homer temporarily portrayed as a racist. But while the individual jokes or obscure references can appreciated immediately or clarified with a simple Google search, Dobson insists that there a much more complex functions at work here:
“The sands upon which the carnival of the family’s visit to Japan is based are constantly shifting so that for a moment Japan may be regarded as a humorous target, and the next moment American views of the world, the next moment the genre of animated cartoons, the next moment the audience’s preconceptions. Ultimately, no single position is deemed to be correct but all worthy of ridicule.” (Dobson, pg.60)
Which encapsulates much of postmodernism’s most basic principles. There should be no position – political, social, or cultural – that is objectively superior to all others, or at the very least, not immune to criticism, analysis, or mockery. It is a take no prisoners approach to a system in which we are all – to some degree – prisoners. And while it at first seems that egalitarianism is at the heart of postmodernist theory, it does not take much time to see that it doesn’t get far in practice, as postmodern pop culture offers great examples of this. The obscurity of certain cultural references within The Simpsons immediately create a (admittedly harmless) boundary between people who get the joke and those that do not. Not unlike other subcultures like punk before being absorbed by the mainstream, for the moment a joke goes over a large portion of the audience’s head, stratification is created. Dobson points this out while describing a joke simple in execution, but willfully esoteric:
“On board the plane, Marge tries to encourage Homer about the trip to Japan by referring to the multi-viewpoint style of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – a film that tells the tale of rape and murder from four characters’ testimonies of the same event that differ considerably:
Marge: Come on, Homer! Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.
Homer: That’s not how I remember it.”
Homer’s stubbornness at not even letting Marge be right about him liking a movie is humourous enough (there is a long line of jokes based on this seemingly-dysfunctional relationship), but buried within Homer’s retort is a direct reference to the theme of the film. The line suddenly becomes more clever than funny, appealing to people who have not only seen Rashomon, but to the few that can quickly connect Homer’s seemingly unrelated line to the alluding of the plot. It succeeds in a multitude of contexts.
For those that get these references, Dobson has given offered up a rather lofty designation: “Through its use of hyper-irony and the cult of knowingness, The Simpsons hammers home Lawson and Matheson’s point that there is no arena of certainty, moral agenda, or ultimate truth.” (Dobson, pg.63)
Postmodernism’s solution to this lack of certainty is to make do with the best information we have at the time and base decisions upon that. But the best information is typically having the most information. This can be seen whether its contemporary politics or popular culture. One is able to withstand the variables of modern life when they have a wider range of understanding and experience.
In respect to The Simpsons, a large reservoir of knowledge is required to maximize the value of these jokes, but a very specific form of knowledge. And even that form of slowly accumulated knowledge through personal experience is dying out (in 1968, one would have to see the film 2001 to understand much of the Mad Magazine spoof of it), as the internet makes it possible to access such pools of information in record time. So much so that retaining the information – whether for personal pleasure or the intention of transferring it to another inquiring mind when the opportunity arises – is not nearly as important as having the ability to call it up at a moments notice. A knowledge of particular messageboards, Wikipedia articles, and the best word combinations for a Google search has superseded the knowledge these databases contain in importance.
What is remarkable is how tenuous this form of knowledge is. It require a constant and unbroken connection to the internet – a sort of shared memory we all can participate in – which itself relies on a vast network of energy resources, satellites, servers, and monitoring by hundreds of corporations and agencies. While large steps have been taken to ensure that a wireless network in one’s neighbourhood is as reliable as electricity and clean water, other threats outside of infrastructure – hacking, computer viruses, a lack of standardization in certain respects – is a reminder of how our contemporary information sources are impermanent and not absolute.
This awareness is one of the most the difficult to properly embrace, as it acknowledges the fragility of the foundation human understanding is built upon. And good postmodern pop culture has no qualms with turning this awareness upon itself, as The Simpsons have frequently shown. At one point Bart complaining about all the old cartoon character balloons during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Homer reminds him they can’t make a balloon out of every ‘flash-in-the-pan cartoon character’ without ruining the parade, just as a Bart Simpson balloon floats by: “Thus Bart watches himself as popular phenomenon on television. The Simpsons television program thereby acknowledges its own characters’ status as popular icons whose circulation and reception are worked back into the ‘text’ itself.” (Collins, pg.197)
This feedback loop, of understanding one’s role in the cultural experience – as either creator or audience – has become a hallmark of pop culture that, like pop culture itself, demands constant novelty, constant revision and reassessment. To look at oneself in a mirror and tune your observations to take into consideration that you are making them while looking in a mirror. This context – this distance – is seen in the Wallace quote that opens this essay. With information unmoored, floating around for anyone to grab hold of it, the connections between subject and information become more important than the two things being connected. But the lack of permanence and objectivity in this connection means there is an eternal and now-acknowledged gap between people’s experiences and their interpretation of them. That all is unique, with both good and bad consequences, with Wallace’s observation of this lamenting the inherent ironic distance in (post)modern communication being classified as the latter.
Fredric Jameson takes a more positive spin on this destabilizing:
“What happens here is that each former fragment of a narrative, that was once incomprehensible without the narrative context as a whole, has now become capable of emitting a complete narrative message in its own right. It has become autonomous, but not in the formal sense I attributed to modernist process, and rather in its newly acquired capacity to soak up content and to project it in a kind of instant reflex. Whence the vanishing away of affect in the postmodern: the situation of contingency or meaninglessness, of alienation, has been superseded by this cultural renarrativization of the broken pieces of the image world.” (Jameson, pg.160)
The Simpsons’ parody of The Shining – pronounced ‘The Shinning’ – becomes a pop culture event of its own, absorbed in a myriad of ways depending on how familiar the viewer is with the original, but this connection isn’t meant to suggest a hierarchy of value based on that familiarity (Dobson’s ‘cult of knowingness’ stresses difference, not better or worse). Regardless of this awareness, each viewer participates in genuine renarrativization. Once again, contemporary technology plays a great role in defining this relationship between culture and consumer. The speed and fragmentation of how culture is absorbed is reflected in both the style and format of the popular culture itself. Comparatively, in Bradbury’s 1951 novel Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist – a government employee who is ordered to burn books – finds himself confronted with an underground reactionary group who together has memorized several books and other forms of literature they believed are culturally significant.
Paradoxically, while television coupled with the internet can be said in many ways to eradicate this form of remembrance, once the references themselves are connected to the dialogue from the cultural epoch (in this case, a Simpsons episode), it is this meme that lives on in the individual’s memory banks. Even an occasional viewer of the show could recite a favourite line or two, while certain aficionados could certainly rattle off all the best lines from an particular episode (in the interest of full disclosure, many of the quotes in this paper came right out of the author’s memory, with only quick internet searches to double-check the phrasing).
The Simpsons are a particularly useful example for postmodern pop culture, as compared to most television programs or other examples of popular entertainment in general, it spans the globe in numbers that no others match.
McDonaldization has been the derogatory blanket term for American cultural dominance, and while going to a Golden Arches restaurant anywhere in the world can perhaps be considered a postmodernist phenomenon – an immediate and disposable meal void of any local cultural value or history – an intelligent, thought-provoking, self-critical television program makes for a far better ambassador of the same culture.
Among one of The Simpsons inherent advantages as a tool for pop culture detournement is its ‘inhumanness’, that is, the fact that it is a bunch of drawings representing people makes it easier for all viewers to recognize sitcom-like allusions while being more prepared for a challenge to these archetypes. Animation is a particularly successful art form for the infusion of postmodernist ideals as there is already a level of unreality to it. Whether the program follows a four-fingered yellow family, one from the Stone Age, or anthropomorphic fast food (Aqua Teen Hunger Force features a container of French fries, a milkshake, and a meatball among its lead characters), the viewer is now better acclimatized to contextualizing a tire fire burning since 1989, cynical talking dinosaurs, and lead characters being created for the sole purpose of being shot into a wall.
This is not restricted to entertainment primarily aimed at young adults and above (with The Simpsons being classified as a program meant to appeal to teens and adults). Entertainment for children has long used such destabilizing practices to amuse. What began with Looney Tunes in the 1940s – animator/director Chuck Jones acknowledged they tried to find what the makers of the cartoons found funny, not necessarily tailoring the animated shorts to any one age group –continued with such programs as Rocky & Bullwinkle, Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and at present provides us with Spongebob Squarepants and Adventure Time with Finn and Jake.
A great majority of children’s programming is akin to typical pop culture fare, in that it follows traditional storytelling themes (the distinction between good and evil, the pacing of the narrative, the clear and uplifting resolution), so it becomes the responsibility of a few key television series like those listed above to tear down these archetypes just as they are being built up in contemporary youth (frequently with amusing results).
Through this process, within the historical context of the late twentieth century, generation x and (to a greater extent) generation y have grown up with the notion that almost all pop culture is carefully manufactured and superficial, and is most comfortable with it when it is mocking its own ability or self importance. Or, as two disaffected teenagers say on The Simpsons:
Teen #1: Oh, here’s that cannonball guy. He’s cool.
Teen #2: Dude, are you being sarcastic?
Teen #1: I don’t even know anymore.
Almost fifty years earlier, the equivalent was almost indistinguishable, with Daffy Duck turning to audience in the middle of a rant and asking, “What’s Humphrey Bogart got that I ain’t got?” The irascible mallard is also the protagonist in what is probably the most famous and accessible postmodernist cartoon, Duck Amuck.
Chuck Jones said of the cartoon that it was engaging with the audience to question just what is a ‘character’? What are their defining traits, and how recognizable are they without them? Throughout it’s six and half minutes run time, an off-screen animator – with godlike powers thanks to a constantly interfering pencil or paintbrush – tortures poor Daffy by erasing parts of his body and replacing them pieces from other animals, turns him mute, duplicates him, and takes him from a snow to beach to blank screen settings in mere seconds. Throughout all this, the ‘idea’ of Daffy persists.
While perhaps destabilizing for Daffy and the viewer, Jones deserves much credit for making such an experience entertaining. In fact, that really has to be the only ironclad rule for successful popular culture. It has to entertain. Whether academics recognize certain symbolic challenges to established preconceived epistemological structures, or whether the gag was a thought up an exhausted comedy writer at three in the morning. It just so happens that what a considerable portion of what entertains the masses in the early twenty first century has postmodern fingerprints all over it:
Carl (noticing the new and unusual décor in Moe’s bar): I don't get all this eyeball stuff. Uh, what are they supposed to represent? Uh, eyeballs?
Moe: It’s po-mo.
[blank stares from Carl, Lenny, and Homer]
[continued blank stares]
Moe (somewhat dejected): Yeah, all right, weird for the sake of weird.
[all three nod in understanding]
The Swan Song of The Great Leveler
The Simpsons’ ‘human’ counterpart was the other surprisingly popular (considering its humble beginnings) show of the nineties – the show about nothing – Seinfeld (which debuted only sixth months earlier). “No hugging, no learning” was the show’s unofficial mantra, with the four central characters typically void of emotional connections found in other popular sitcoms at the time. Interacting with a bevy of other characters with disastrous results (people get fired, arrested, deported, bankrupted, and even killed due to their meddling), there is typically no punishment doled out upon them (breaking perhaps one of the most basic morals of storytelling). They are unscrupulous enough to even plot against each other at times, but still remain a cohesive, perplexing, and fascinating cast for all nine seasons.
While The Simpsons pushed traditional sitcom archetypes to the absurdist extremes, Seinfeld went the other way, examining in fine detail the minutiae of everyday life (episodes revolved around waiting for a table in a Chinese restaurant, getting lost in parking garage, or lying in job interviews).
From a storytelling standpoint, the most important change Seinfeld offered was the accelerated pacing of the plot(s). Sometimes this was done as a narrative necessity, as many of the episodes focused on individual plotlines for the four main characters that were to intertwine somehow at the episode’s climax. The result – to meet time requirements – meant more scenes, with most of them much shorter than the traditional sitcoms. Four six minutes stories were chopped up over the half hour, some segments shorter than the advertisements that interrupted the show.
When the show did adhere to the more traditional pacing of a situation comedy (an episode with a single plotline), they dragged it out at a glacier-like pace. ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ episode took place in one location for the full thirty (twenty three) minutes: a waiting room of a restaurant, as Jerry, George, and Elaine wait for their reservation to be called.
Without question the most postmodernist aspect of Seinfeld was its story-arc concerning the character Jerry Seinfeld being approached by NBC executives to create a show about his life, essentially recreating the real-life genesis of Seinfeld itself. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created Seinfeld, and in the show Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza (an acknowledged Larry David-surrogate character) created ‘Jerry’, with the latter being a carbon copy of Seinfeld itself, right down to the personalities of the four leads. This level of self-reflexivity was executed to perfection, rewarding both hardcore and casual fans of the series with a wholly unique but believable narrative concerning the daily life of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, real or televised. Viewers were reminded constantly that what they were watching was a television program because these series of episodes concerned the creation of such a program within the show’s universe.
Seinfeld ended in the spring of 1998 as the most popular show on television. Nothing would replace it – whether in terms of comedy or drama – in terms of combining groundbreaking style and form and commercial success. This was due to a series of technological advances that changed the medium forever.
The early years of the internet acted as a promoter and almanac of television programming, as bandwidth was not yet powerful enough to support downloading or streaming of audiovisual files. Early personal webpages or newsgroups would devote pages of text concerning television, film, and music that were still mainly experienced through other mediums. The internet provided a virtual location to post opinions on the popular culture witnessed by millions at more or less the same time, thereby strengthening the connection between aficionados, physical distance no longer a barrier for socialization.
Focusing on popular culture that was released with postmodern facets in the late 1990s and early 2000s means that it dovetailed with the high-water mark of television as a traditional, communal experience. While postmodern fare was finally reaching larger audiences during this period, changes in technology that were distinctly postmodern – giving the audience more freedom, old absolutes falling by the wayside – were on the horizon.
A combination of speed and accessibility had improved to the point where downloading larger and larger files – or streaming live video – over the internet was becoming possible. While initially this sharing of documents was mainly reserved for music files – as audio files were still smaller than audiovisual files – it was not long into the new millennium that the size of the normally resilient television audience began to plummet, as other forms of entertainment was luring people away (sometimes to watch the exact same program, only this time at their own convenience without ads, and not when regularly scheduled).
The other advances were the two devices that allowed for the TV watcher to better tune their TV watching to their own whims. DVDs (Digital Video Discs) meant concentrating the information on several videotapes onto a single disc, which meant that a television series’ entire season could be placed in a relatively small package and consumed at the viewer’s leisure. The need to be in front of one’s television, same bat time, same bat channel, had dissipated. If one was patient, they could avoid the television program – and the ads that paid for it – during the television season and instead buy the DVD set and watch all the episodes in a marathon viewing session if they so chose (a popular choice for more episodic fare like 24 and Lost, the latter having some of the most unusual narrative subversions of the last decade).
On top of this, the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) was able to do away with the DVD entirely. Essentially a hard drive plugged into a television offered by one’s cable provider, the device allowed one to record television shows simply by specifying the starting or ending times – or highlighting the program from a menu – where it will remain stored until one wishes to view it.
What was considered ‘popular’ in pop culture was becoming harder and harder to find. While the study of ratings was never an exact science – with methods ranging from people simply writing what they watched at certain times in a logbook to a small device that tracked what channel you were currently on – viewership has unquestionably declined. While the immediate consequence is a loss of a uniform and collective experience across various communities, the loss of advertisers (or lower of advertising rates) is one of the most devastating blows to postmodern pop culture, as it meant that each television series had a shorter period of time to make an impact in the ratings and connect with audiences (with Seinfeld being the classic example of an unusual program requiring a few seasons of middling ratings before becoming popular). Few networks are willing to lose money over several months to allow a challenging program to find a steady demographic of patrons. Middle-of-the-road dramas, unoriginal sitcoms and inexpensive reality shows have become the norm on network television, which for decades has been (along with the media coverage of its programming) the de facto source for an instantaneous litmus test for pop culture.
Cable television – where subscription fees replace advertising dollars – is a better place for more unusual and complex series to flourish, but it still must face (illegal) internet downloading. Additionally, its smaller audience means it might not be able to considered ‘popular’ at all (the exception could be considered HBO’s The Sopranos, but even that was soon placed on more basic cable network schedules to help diffusion). Programs like Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show pushed boundaries in terms of form and content, the former and absurdist sketch program in Monty Python vein (helping launch the careers of David Cross, Jack Black and Sarah Silverman), the latter helping introduce a no frills, documentary style of filming way of capturing a more traditional sitcom-type set up (behind the scenes of a late night talk show).
Postmodernism is known for its pastiche-like quality, that is, bringing various styles and ideas together to create a new work. As the two 1990s programs listed above – from the slightly higher cultured premium cable channels – poached from british humour and cinema verite respectively, so to do the more egalitarian traditional networks borrow from them.
The documentary format has yielded both The Office and Modern Family, which eschews the much-maligned laugh track – a staple of pre-postmodernist comedy programming – and has characters addressing the camera directly from time to time, mean that there is an awareness that this is a program of sorts, meant for entertainment or (in the character’s world) education.
In some respects this is taken even further by adding a narrator, the most successful (in terms of critical and cult attention, certainly not ratings) being Arrested Development, airing for three seasons – each one shorter than the previous – before being cancelled. Following a dysfunctional family’s slide from riches-to-rags, creator Mitch Hurwitz and the writers created what might be considered a live-action Springfield, an expansive universe within the show full of quick, barely noticeable gags foreshadowing future events and catchphrases that – rather than becoming property of a single character – is passed around like the church collection plate. On several bizarre levels, Arrested Development harkens back to the 70s sitcom Happy Days, which romanticized the 1950s. The narrator of the show – Ron Howard – played protagonist Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. The family lawyer on Arrested Development is played by Henry Winkler, who played ‘the Fonz’ on the former. Scott Baio’s character Chachi later replaced ‘the Fonz’ on Happy Days when the producers though he was getting too old, and Scott Baio played a lawyer who replaced Winkler’s character on Arrested Development. To top it off, the Fonz’s waterskiing over a shark on Happy Days was seen as the moment when the show became more ridiculous than relevant, spawning the catchphrase decades later, ‘jumping the shark’, to describe any show that is no longer embraced the way it was. On Arrested Development, Winkler’s character hops over a recently caught shark on a dock.
Much like The Simpsons sign gags that are only onscreen for a second (outside the Cathedral of the Downtown: “Archbishop carries less than $20”), these minute bits of humour create a new form of viewer. One who lives for this fragmented exclusivity, who can imagine that there is a private club or form of understanding for those who are willing to work just a bit harder to see where these other like-minded people creating these pieces of culture are coming from. And essential to postmodernism’s openness, anyone can join these groups if they pursue these information channels. Ideally, the greater the knowledge on behalf of the viewer, will offer up a unique, nuanced viewing experience for them.
At the same time, these optional practices of the viewer are in some ways anathema to the inherent disposability to pop culture itself. Despite the fact that postmodernist pop culture will poach from previous incarnations of pop culture does not guarantee its immediate and runaway success, currently demanded by the television industry. While these programs may exist on a medium that still attempts to appeal to both broad and narrow viewer demographics (30 Rock – a sillier take on The Larry Sanders Show conceit – is an example a program with plenty of postmodernist hallmarks that doesn’t do well in the ratings, but attracts a key youthful demographic), the challenges that television faces in the second decade of the twentieth century has, overall, meant appealing to the least discriminating audience comes first, and at the expense of more challenging and unique programming.
In the cases of The Simpsons and Seinfeld, time was granted for their postmodernist leanings to be accepted by a wider audience. The former, a ratings hit immediately, slowly ushered them in over several season, while the latter introduced such ideas right away, and took several years to let the audience become familiar with the playing of the form. These two programs made such an indelible mark on the shaping of contemporary pop culture, however that even watered down versions of their ideas and subversiveness can still be found. The mere fact that reality TV mimics the sitcom/drama formula over the course of its hour or half hour – while mocking the formula within the show itself – shows how self-awareness has become an archetype unto itself.
There are many advantages to this process, regardless of the form of culture in question. To know the rules (to create a believable universe, when there is an exterior shot of a public building there is a typically a sign out front, just like in real life) and then subvert them (have the sign in question say something completely silly or absurd, like ‘God welcomes his victims’ outside a church after a hurricane in Springfield), means you have control over them. By allowing the viewers to make these connections themselves – not leading them to water, but hinting where the well might be – you are giving them agency in an activity that for a long time has been a relatively passive one.
DeCerteau maintains that this constant tweaking of rules and archetypes in the world of culture is in part an opportunity for those lacking true power (political or financial) to participate in some small way to making their voice or position heard. Not necessarily for political or social gain, but simply to have some level of acknowledgement that they do indeed have a singular identity with unique interpretative powers.
Despite the incredible amount of technological and social advances through the 1900s Niedzviecki finds that little regarding the perception of mass culture and its connection to the commercial-industrial economic complex has changed by the end of the twentieth century, in fact, the desire for it has been amplified. Discussing a local underground music group named Braino, he notes that, “the band is, effectively, doing what we are all doing in our lives: reordering mass culture, interpreting it to have a meaning that allows us to stand defiant in the face of generic anonymity we are otherwise doomed to.” (Niedzviecki, pg.14)
In an increasingly fragmented society where bureaucracy is perhaps the most oppressive and unwieldy opponent for the individual and their own pursuits, taking solace in a small niche of culture is a small but personally significant gesture. Television with obscures references was a first step in the realm of popular culture – and the few shows that masterfully balanced these qualities with widespread appeal were key postmodern pop culture specimens – and while the diffusion of the amount of programming was a first nail in the coffin for the mediums concentrated power, it was the internet that not only replaced the idiot box, but destroyed much of its precepts as well.
This fragmenting of culture – popular and non, postmodern and non – results in less community and more autonomy, for better and for worse:
“We lifestyle culture adherents reject those who long for the days when there was a central moral authority that could authorize art and rein in our slavish devotion to entertainment culture; we reject the cultural capitalists who see us as nothing more than numbers, consumers tricked into buying what we supposedly don’t need, and adopting viewpoints that often run counter to our interests and our experiences. Through lifestyle culture, we reject all of them by attempting to reshape the cultural forces swirling around us.” (Niedzviecki, pg.27-28)
In many respects this has become the norm, where programming or culture that does not offer this layer of detail is derided as cheap and superficial; the ‘true’ pieces of pop culture that many critics like to deride as poor quality fare for the lowest common denominator. For a little over a decade television’s biggest shows were distinctly postmodern, but postmodern technological advances complicated how the medium that for many years exemplified popular culture reaches the masses.
The Two Minute Movie
Brevity is a welcome format for postmodern pop culture. Only the basic archetypal story structures are required for them to be adequately subverted, and a twenty-two minute, three-act television program is well-suited for such a presentation. With film – especially those of feature length, which is typically a minimum of eighty minutes – many more challenges arises, typically with the handling of the narrative.
Postmodernism is immediately suspicious of narratives. The narrative of history is a classic example of how interpretive and multifaceted complex structures can be, and the danger that exists of making contemporary decisions based on limited knowledge or particular goals in mind
While film might not be as pressing as history, it is a form that supports the notion of a clear and concise progression of events and thereby reinforces the belief in contemporary culture that certain events and situations can be linked casually with limited discussion or insubstantial research being applied to them.
Consequently, postmodern film would be of the sort that questions these narratives and certain contemporary values. While many films have successfully challenged the more traditional narratives and styles these narratives took, more often than not they were meet with derision or criticism upon their release, with commercial success often elusive, thereby not falling under the banner of postmodern pop culture.
Much of the work of Stanley Kubrick comes immediately to mind, as do the films of David Lynch. Both of these writer-directors are regarded as auteurs, with their idiosyncratic styles of filmmaking challenging how the audience engages with film structure itself. In the initial years of postmodernism, Kubrick offered up Dr. Strangelove, a black comedy concerning the threat of nuclear annihilation with actor Peter Sellers playing three lead roles, following it up 2001: A Space Odyssey, a two-and-half hour science fiction film with only twenty three minutes of dialogue, remarkable special effects, and only the insinuation of extraterrestrials.
Initial reviews were initially mixed for both films (the former being accused of mocking an extremely serious subjective, the latter for being pretentious and incomprehensible), although each found some level of commercial success, with 2001 becoming especially popular with the counterculture demographics of the late nineteen-sixties.
While the mid sixties to late seventies was seen as a great time for the merging of experimental and mainstream films in the West, thanks to profitable blockbusters like Jaws and Stars Wars – although it should be mentioned that both films are masterpieces of the adventure genre – the movie studios quickly re-appropriated control of how movies could be properly marketed to the public, which include involving themselves in the filmmaking process. The fight between filmmaker and movie studio could best be seen over the final cut of Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi noir film, Brazil, with the director butting heads for many months over his vision of a dystopian industrial future and the studio wishing for an upbeat ending and pop-infused soundtrack.
Risk taking independent cinema only became of interest to the major film companies when it seemed possible that it might turn a healthy profit. While a handful critically lauded films seeped into theatres – soon to be almost wholly replaced by multiplexes – in the eighties and early nineties, it was not until Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Palm D’or winner Pulp Fiction grossed 200 million dollars worldwide – on a budget of $8 million from the then still blossoming independent movie company Miramax, run by the Weinstein Brothers – that the opened the floodgates for postmodern influence to be injected into Hollywood.
Pulp Fiction was seen as one of the first financially successful pastiche films of the postmodern pop culture era. Many of its themes, narratives and characters are familiar to B-movie aficionados, but clever roundabout dialogue and a non-chronological storyline gave it both character depth and a destabilizing allure (we watch certain characters die midway through, only to return later on). Booker states that Pulp Fiction, “did more than any single film to popularize the hyperlink narrative form in film” (Booker, pg.13). That is, its connection to other film genres and styles are both on the surface (having John Travolta – star of the disco film Saturday Night Fever – dance now as a sleazy hit man) and embedded within its framework (referencing 70s British gangster films, French New Wave, and Japanese samurai films).
The timeline for this reference to an internet term is extremely beneficial for this argument, and for those viewers at the time who wished to put together these varying homages and references within the film. Initially the internet became a not necessarily well-organized warehouse for such information, leaving early users to cobble together a series of ideas and theories from various websites to create their own personal assessment of the film. As Polan adds, “like a computer hypertext, where one can jump from one screen to another, Pulp Fiction offers a shifting universe based on disjunction, substitution, fragmentation.” (Polan, pg.35) The search for meaning in the film then mirrors the construction and narrative of the film itself. But like the unseen contents of the film’s light shining briefcase, there is not necessarily a resolution to this search. Pulp Fiction doesn’t have to be an exercise in anything in particular. It can exist solely as an exercise in itself. The result is a film with no clear morals, leaving the audience to make its own conclusions. But with this responsibility, comes the opportunity to defer from making it indefinitely, as Tarantino and the characters have seemingly done:
“Those who like this film do so because it doesn’t seem to have anything to say and renders cinematic experience as pure play. Those who dislike it dislike it for the very same reasons, seeing the deliberate cool superficiality of Pulp Fiction as a symptom of the empty post-modernity of our age. Or they see the film as hiding some real political issues – for example, around masculinity and race – behind a seductive veneer of spectacle that it claims is beyond politics.” (Polan, pg.7)
A film concerning war or other real-life issues can certainly offer an ambiguous conclusion that audiences can accept, reflecting the complexity of the matter, but it is unusual to get this effect in a film that is half noir, half black comedy. Resolution has been hammered into audiences as an unquestionable given that not having one has almost become a sign of failure.
A solution to this then is finding satisfaction in other aspects of the film, which might have earlier been considered less essential or extraneous components. Polan – echoing what was mentioned earlier regarding The Simpsons – later concludes, “getting the reference allows entry into a private club, this being one of the functions of cult culture” (Polan, pg.18). Once again, how extensive this connection to the litany of references can differ from viewer to viewer, further fragmenting the possibility of a uniform experience from the audience as a whole. While Polan considers this an aspect of cult culture, the film’s unanticipated popularity – measured in part by the stylistic homage of proceeding noir films and the numerous parodies of scenes from Pulp Fiction itself (including The Simpsons) – help ensure that this pastiche style of filmmaking became a norm, rather than an exception.
As a ‘raising of the bar’, 1995’s Natural Born Killers was penned by Tarantino, but heavily revised by director Oliver Stone. While he was known for tackling controversial historical topics – Vietnam in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, the assassination of Kennedy in JFK – this film tells the completely fictional exploits of two married serial killers and the media circus that followed them, was an exercise in cinematic deconstruction unheard of in a major Hollywood film. The sex and violence notwithstanding, Stone’s inclusion of a wide variety of filming styles and techniques – standard 35mm, grainy 16mm, black & white, animated, video – forced the audience to acclimatize itself to jarring and unnerving shifts in perspective, almost equivalent to the rapid flipping of channels for the medium the film constantly criticizes. In the film, the structures of information and order - the media and the law – are corrupt and self-serving. The titular characters Mickey and Mallory Knox understand this, representing the amoral Nietzsche-like supermen (and women) that succeed – in their respective profession – due to this advanced knowledge. As flawed but familiar representations/archetypes/metanarratives, these anti-heroes immediately destabilize them. In fact, the Natural Born Killers protagonists’ understanding of the diffusion of information is such that at the end of their disparate killing sprees, they always leave one person left alive ‘to tell the tale’ – including, at one point, the most objective observer of all, a video camera – as an essential component for any action to be considered is not only the awareness that it has occurred, but that society is given as much information as possible concerning the event. Leaving everyone dead in a dinner is classicist, leaving one alive so they can they tell the public and various institutions – and perhaps become famous in their own right – is postmodern.
Just as some viewers and critics roundly criticized Kubrick’s sixties (and seventies and eighties and nineties) work, both Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers were taken to task and accused of glorifying violence, despite the fact that in the former those that some who adhere to it are punished and those that swear off it are redeemed, and that in the latter it can easily be seen as critique of the media’s obsession with brutality.
Polan concludes that its can be a lack of agreement over the film’s worth and merits is what truly makes it a postmodernist work (Polan, pg.85). What is augmented then, is not only earlier styles of filmmaking, but earlier debates concerning certain thematic components of film – namely sex and violence – as well.
But the incorporation of postmodernist tenets in mainstream film in the 1990s was not simply a reimaging of older conceits, as plenty of movies also dealt with contemporary issues, such as technological and materialist alienation. In David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club – based on Chuck Palahniuk 1996 novel of the same name – we are told that we have been fooled into believing certain social and commercial metanarratives concerning our lives, while being constantly aware that we are being told this through a medium that is a typical social and commercial metanarrative (the film itself). During a period when many mainstream Hollywood films began to flirt with product placement – a trend that has become commonplace today – Fight Club turns this practice on its head by running down a grocery list of hip, upscale condominium must-haves, only to soon lambaste the entire materialist culture. Soap-salesman-turned-burgeoning-anarchist Tyler Durden tells his rapidly growing army of disciples thusly:
“I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables – slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”
The happy endings that we have been taught since childhood are finally running out of steam. In addition, the line that contains, “you are not your job…you’re the all singing, all dancing crap of the world”, is spoken several times in the film as revised mantra.
But it is not only the unorthodox message of the film that gives this film its power, as other postmodern elements are found in its presentation style as well. Ed Norton’s nameless character (allowing for an immediate destabilization in terms of labeling, in addition to increasing the ability for the viewer to project themselves upon him) frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, explaining at one point the ‘cigarette burns’ at the ends of individual film reels that indicates when it’s time for the projector operator to switch them.
Such qualities were rife in experimental film genres decades earlier, but it was a huge leap to see them in a sixty-five million dollar film. The attention by the press, however, was once again focused on the violence in the film, rather than on the debate of its themes and possibly dubious conclusions concerning how an individual can make their mark on the contemporary world (DeCerteau might feel that the film takes his ideas to startlingly illogical extremes).
While barely making back its budget – despite starring well-known actors Brad Pitt and Ed Norton – and receiving a mostly hostile reaction from critics, Fight Club has since become an established member of the cult film canon, having sprouted a wide spectrum of critical analysis and its own set of memes (certainly one of the best measures of whether it has permeated the public’s mass consciousness, as you do not talk about fight club).
Since the release of this movie, there have been more frequent challenges within the standard fare of mainstream cinema. Several other films have overturned traditional metanarratives that for so long were inherent and unspoken. Christopher Nolan’s Memento is told in reverse, which, “by placing these scenes in reverse chronological order… calls attention to the way all films are constructed, although this foregrounding of the inherent fragmentation of film also helps to create a sense of the disjointed nature of [protagonist] Shelby’s experience” (Booker, pg.36). While earlier experimental films (400 Blows, Breathless) would use jarring techniques to alter the realistic and mundane, contemporary takes on postmodernism have little problem with dealing in the fantastical, even the impossible, within the film’s own universe. In Memento the narrative loophole comes at the expense of the believability of the film, as somehow Shelby never forgets that he has a two-minute memory, even though this occurred after the attack that created his state.
Many of Charlie Kauffman’s films, like Being John Malkovitch, Adaption (both of which he wrote) and Synecdoche, New York (which he wrote and directed), deal with a conflicted protagonist (in Adaptation, a fictional representation of Kauffman himself) suddenly faced with challenges that warp any conventional reality. In Being John Malkovitch a puppeteer finds a portal into the mind of the titular actor, in Adaptation, the narrative style of the film changes as many writers try to construct their image of a single story, and in Synecdoche, New York a local theatre director builds a massive set with actors playing various roles of people in his life (some eventually replacing the actual people, resulting in chaos for all involved, including the audience). This layering of reality can be seen as a reminder for how certain concepts and systems operate in real life, even though none of the films above specify a particular institution of thought (politics, religion, science, social interaction) for criticism and analysis. What is key is that there is a reminder of destabilization in the first place.
This is not an easy task, and while major Hollywood studios support the projects, commercial success is by no means guaranteed, which certainly make it difficult to properly ascribe the term postmodern popular culture upon it.
The films mentioned above make some oblique attempt at social or cultural commentary (even if the only commentary is, ‘this is social/cultural commentary open for interpretation’), and while ‘message’ films are as old as motion picture history, the simplified form of destabilization is still available in the previously mentioned satire/parody film, which has been taken to money-making extremes, as franchises like the Naked Gun and Scary Movie have trotted out the same style of destabilization until it becomes traditional fare.
With pop culture being controlled by profit-driven industries, however, this level of experimentation was only embraced so long as success could be measured in box office returns. Symbolically, when Disney slowly ran its independent film subsidiary Miramax (which bankrolled Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Sex, Lies and Videotape and other independent postmodern-inspired films) into the ground in part by ousting its founder Harvey Weinstein, it seemed like the era of films being made without studio interference once again came to a close.
Once again, it must be stressed that there are handful of producers and directors with a proven – read: profitable – track record that can choose their projects and can infuse as many abstract or unusual styles or concepts as they wish, but these artists are few and far between.
Additionally, film is finding itself in the same boat as music and television when it comes to the internet, with illegal downloading taking considerable bites out of the bottom line, leaving studios dependent on proven box office success and reluctant to invest in more risky and challenging projects.
Despite these challenges to feature film, Frederic Jameson notes that with the overall experience of going to a movie theatre for the evening, one is exposed to the very essence of postmodernist pop culture, and it occurs before the feature presentation itself begins:
“Everyone who still visits movie theatres has become aware of the way in which intensified competition by the film industry for now inveterate television viewers has led to a transformation in the very structure of the preview. The latter has had to be developed and expanded, becoming a far more comprehensive teaser for the film in store for us. Now the preview is obliged, not merely to exhibit a few images of the stars and a few samples of the high points, but virtually to recapitulate all the plot’s twists and turns, and to preview the entire plot in advance.” (Jameson, pg.155)
Apparently more concerned that the audience would somehow be confused after the showing of a trailer than unexcited – having being shown the plot and best scenes in about two and half rapid-fire minutes – the film industry has unknowingly taken a wholly postmodern approach in the presentation of movies.
Even the pacing of the trailer matches that of the feature film, with a slow build up of long shots, exposition, and quickly raising stakes of concern thanks to brooding faces and foreboding dialogue. Nearing the end – perhaps after a well-timed catchphrase, all hell breaks loose and we race towards the end with rapid jump cuts and scenes of action mingled with anguish. Even the quick, three seconds flash of the credits is a mockery of the typically slow crawl that properly ends the actual film.
In this respect, film has raised the bar when compared to television (when for a long time in the middle of the century, it was feared that the small screen would be the death of the silver one); with twenty-two minutes (at its shortest) practically a death-like march compared to the one-hundred-and-fifty seconds that is a trailer.
What should be a disoriented onslaught of a ninety minute story condensed to about 2.2 percent of its total length comes as no surprise as we have been conditioned not only for the speed but of the obvious audio and visual cues to create the story around the proverbial bullet points the trailer offers.
We make the movie by filling in the gaps, and depending on the quality of the trailer we get excited for the upcoming film or regard it is just another paint-by-numbers Hollywood/independent pablum.
How do you make postmodernist pop music?
Music – as opposed to television and film – has a genre that is simply known as ‘pop’. It is not an easy genre to pin down, however. While traditionally assumed to be composed of accessible, simple melodies with superficial lyrics traditionally about love, if we accept ‘pop’ to mean popular, a host of different genres of music from time to time have come to sell millions of records across the globe. Artists like Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Fugees, Neil Young, Public Enemy, Radiohead, and Nine Inch Nails, are just a handful of whom wouldn’t easily fall under the initial definition of pop music, will certainly being labeled ‘popular’.
Many of these artists subverted not only what could be considered ‘popular’ music, but also heavily augmented the genres they were mainly associated with.
Archetypes in music (that is, the ‘narrative’ of the artist or genre) are much more individualistic than the story archetypes that would be more prevalent in film and television. While every new artist has in some way the possibility to challenge the accepted formats of what is considered a necessary formula to achieve a level of public awareness to be classified as a part of popular culture (certainly the marketing and support of the record industry make a big difference), a band initially offering work with postmodern tendencies to the masses is not the best example. Rather, once a fan base is properly acquired, the artist is now in a position to subvert their own narrative and with that audience’s expectations, which is the proper comparison to a television program parodying clichéd storylines from the present or past. The preconceived image of the artist, then, becomes just as important as the music when it comes to engaging with the audience with new work.
Connor’s Postmodernist Culture and Wheeler’s essay ‘Bulldozing the Subject’ looks at the nineteen eighties and attempts to find a place for rock music within a postmodern context, while having a bit more luck with looking at the emerging hip hop scene from a postcolonial perspective:
“A rap song by the African-American group Salt ‘n’ Pepa is postmodern in form – a montage of cuts from past musics – and very New York in feeling. When the same beat occurs in a candy commercial on TV, there is nothing black or local about it. In the age of cannibalization, ‘to cut free from the words of the tribe’ is to cut the tube free of its own words.” (Wheeler, pg.214)
If Wheeler had waited another decade before publishing her book – although certainly releasing it in the late eighties, when postmodernism was still a novel theory, made sense from a marketing standpoint – she would have a much richer and complex field of examples to choose from.
Nonetheless, the most explicit form of musical collage and pastiche is sampling, that is, using edited snippets of earlier songs to create new rhythms on top of one another. In hip-hop, new vocals are typically added, although certain artists like J Dilla and Madlib have eschewed this practice, creating destabilizing albums that have familiar beats but lack the expected rapping.
Unlike film and television, music is perhaps the popular art form that can be created and today disseminated by an extremely small group of people, with chance playing a much larger role as to whether it becomes more popular or not.
And certainly immediate and imposing postmodernist facets do not necessarily engender popularity. John Cage’s 4’33” was perhaps the ultimate commentary on music in the postmodernist sense – approximately four and a half minutes of silence, guaranteeing no radio play – if only because a possibly conceivable follow-up could be a recording that emits such a high frequency that the listener immediately goes deaf. It is interesting to note that The Beatles, artists for whom it would be a understatement to call ‘popular’ – a label John Cage never received, but then could never be accused of pursuing – did this sort of thing at the end of their postmodern concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, including a sound that only dogs could hear. As mentioned above, however, The Beatles became a global phenomenon first by writing catchy, accessible love songs, only to turn away from this format in part by releasing an album – Sgt. Pepper’s – that was in the guise of another band, with each track meant to ‘not’ be The Beatles (although John Lennon admits they gave up on this plan early on).
The Beatles had plenty of non-mainstream music to choose from when it came to eclectic influences. Classical music embraced the atonal and arrhythmic as early as the first decade of the twentieth century, coinciding with the rise of postmodernism’s precursor of sorts, modernism. But just as it was met with initial derision in the high culture circles, many established popular acts that attempted to include such detourned elements– to borrow a DeBord phrase – from the 1960s to the present found the reaction from critics or fans hard going (The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa). While postmodernist qualities have slowly entered into popular music in various forms, perhaps crystallizing most strongly in the 1990s with hip-hop becoming a dominant commercial force and punk nihilism inspiring grunge, the term ‘popular music’ itself has recently entered into a crisis period in the early twentieth century.
While it has already been mentioned how the internet has altered how the actual popularity of television and film can be evaluated, no aesthetic format has been affected as strongly as music has. The ease of downloading music illegally has contracted the market to such a degree that record corporations have shrunk to a fraction of their size – frequently being bought out by other media corporation or investment groups – and many music store chains have closed or moved into the sales of other forms of culture to compensate for the loss. Even the much vaunted iTunes Music Store, which sells digital copies of the music, cannot compete with a simple Google search of the artist or album, which offers up a multitude of links to download the music without paying.
What must be noted here then is that music has, if anything, become more popular than ever before, as it is more accessible than ever before, since one’s finances is no longer a barrier to procuring it. What has disappeared is the infrastructure that measures and promotes the music and in many ways, kept it a communal experience. This is the record industry – much like the film and television industries – and while it has been sensibly criticized for treating artists as a moneymaking commodity, it has been both the creator and overseer of the popularization of this aspect of culture. The immediacy and disposability of music occurs at much higher frequency than for film and television. A forty-five minute album can be several years of work for an artist, while that’s only a single episode of television or a half or third of a film. A listener can be assaulted with a smattering of musical offerings while they are engaged in a separate activity. More so than film and television, music can become background much easier.
In such an environment, it should come as little surprises that the purveyors of popular music attempt to narrow their risks as much as possible by promoting familiar and unchallenging fare, as it increases the chances of that someone will actually purchase it.
Market research being what it is, the recording industry has found that middle-aged people with disposable incomes are least likely to steal music, so it should come as little surprise that this is a highly sought after demographic, hence the promotion of ‘remastered’ albums of popular music from the past.
As we are seeing for television programming and film, artists on mainstream record labels were quietly dropped throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century if they did not find success quickly, regardless of whether they were pushing experimental boundaries or not. Novelty then, as far as pop culture is concerned, is only a useful quality if it sells in great quantities, which, as past examples have shown, needs to have some connection to the formulaic and familiar.
Like in film and television, a mixing of disparate genres and concepts were at the heart of postmodernist music for the masses, but done in a subtle enough way that it achieves a what-remains-indefinable (a postmodernist trait if there ever was one) Top 40 chart sound.
Kanye West has been one of the more successful artist/producers of late to not only offer sample-heavy hip-hop but hold up a rather disconcerting and honest mirror to his personal life. While sampling particular drum beats or bass rhythms was part of hip-hop music’s creation, most of these poached sonic excerpts were not recognized by the public, as much of the focus quickly became the rapping overtop of it (not to say the beat was not important, but that its origins were irrelevant to the average listener as long as it was a good one). One of West’s innovations – though not the first, but certainly one of the to succeed in doing so on a mainstream level – was incorporating much more than one or two bars of – typically instrumental – music. Two of his hits – “Gold Digger” and “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” – sample the choruses of Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman” and Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds are Forever” respectively. Add a strong backbeat and his above average skills on the mic, and you have postmodern masterpieces, with West ostensibly giving the audience a chance to listen to two songs at once. These explicit references to other musical styles decades old destroy the differences and truncate the elapsed time between them and these hits from the early twenty first century. If hip hop for decades was simply sampling shorts bits and pieces from the past, then West and host of other producer/artists like Madlib, DJ Shadow, the Neptunes, Diplo, and Dan the Automator, are turning the process into more of a sound collage. No more are the building blocks of the new pieces of art hidden or kept low in the mix. They are integral part to this recycled sound. Kanye West however, is to be singled out here for making this successful on a commercial level, thereby consecrating this practice as an example of postmodern pop culture.
While rock music has, in its many guises, been strongly connected with popular music with the two terms being almost interchangeable for most of the last five decades, some of the most extreme experimentations and tweaking of form has remained on its fringes. In many cases, any chance of a crossover of postmodern tenets came when an established artist became influenced by those in the periphery and added some of these effects into their music. Some of these notable creations would be Stockhausen and Varese influence on The Beatles (seen on Tomorrow Never Knows and Revolution 9), Brian Eno’s work with David Bowie in the late seventies, and the many artists and genres heavily affected by the work of the obscure (during their existence) New York band, the Velvet Underground.
It has been the last two decades, however, that many of these challenging and orthodox qualities have had an opportunity to become a more integral part to a band’s aesthetic.
Radiohead is perhaps one of the best known and critically lauded bands to include a wealth of little known – at least as far as contemporary pop culture is concerned – genres such as jazz, ambient, and electronica in much of their work after becoming popular the world over for predominantly rock oriented music in their early years. With the autumn 2000 release of Kid A, many critics and fans were disappointed with a lack of guitars and intricate melodic hooks that were found on earlier albums like The Bends and OK Computer. While initially a band known for a single hit – ‘Creep’ – during the height of grunge in 1993, Radiohead slowly built up a steady and ardent fan base by constant touring, even as every subsequent album was a bigger experimental risk than the last. Upon first hearing the band’s now acknowledged 1997 masterpiece, OK Computer, the record company slashed initial orders from two million to five hundred thousand. It ended up selling over five million units worldwide.
Giving a unique insight to the recording process, the band posted diary entries on its website during the recording of 2007’s In Rainbows, and continue to upload playlists of many lesser known artists that band members are listening to and influencing them. The latter is a rather ingenious method – whether intentional or not – of training fans to broaden their own musical expectations.
The music of the aforementioned album was overshadowed by the release method, which the band offered as a digital download where people could pay what they wanted for it (including nothing at all). While the band denied it was an attempt to destroy the music industry, it was generally acknowledged that it did force the audience to ask the question of what music – or in the greater scheme of things, art in general – is worth. Aware of the role that the internet can play in the diffusion of new music, the brief ten day window from announcement to release was meant to subvert to possibility of any leaks.
Not content with challenging their fans’ ears and bank accounts, the band is known for its relationship with the English artist Stanley Donwood, who, along with frontman Thom Yorke under a bevy of pseudonyms, designed all the band’s album, website, and poster art. The music is meant to accentuate the visual and vice versa.
With such artistic and postmodernist leanings – while still having albums that reach the top of the billboard charts – academics are keen to place the band on the dissection table and see what exactly makes them tick.
In his article, “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop”, Mark Greif holds the position that despite its perceived disposability, certain forms of popular culture – in this case, much of Radiohead oblique and multi-interpretative lyrics – enable those that consume to make a unique and revelatory connection not only to the work, but to themselves as well:
“There is a characteristic effect that follows from a medium that allows you to retain and reactivate forms of knowledge and experience which you are ‘supposed to’ forget or which are ‘supposed to’ disappear by themselves – and ‘supposed to’ here isn’t nefarious, it simply means that social forms, convention, conformity and just plain intelligent speech don’t allow you to speak of these things. Pop encourages you to hold on to and reactivate hints of personal feelings that society should have extinguished.” (Greif, pg.29)
Greif stresses, however, that it is very difficult to express these forms of knowledge or experience, because they are wrapped up in such personal connections between the material and the observer. Instead he finds merit in the act of simply having these moments of awareness in the first place, which he associates with defiance, but a very specific postmodern form of it:
“This is not a doctrine the band advances, but an effect of the aesthetic. It doesn’t name a single enemy. It doesn’t propose revolution. It doesn’t call you to overthrow an order that you couldn’t take hold of anyway at any single point, not without scapegoating a portion and missing the whole. This defiance – it might be the one thing we can manage, and better than sinking beneath the waves. It requires the retention of a private voice.” (Greif,pg.31)
Like an obscure reference in an episode of The Simpsons, lyrics like, “This is what you get when you mess with us” (‘Karma Police’) and “While you make pretty speeches I’m being torn to shreds” (‘Like Spinning Plates’) become memes that can mean different things depending on the person receiving them. Klosterman notes that one of the qualities of Thom Yorke’s lyrics is, “if phrases have no clarity and no hard reality, people can turn them into whatever they need. If you need the words on [2003 album] Hail to the Thief to be political, they certainly have that potential; if you need Hail to the Thief to explain why your girlfriend doesn't love you, it can do that, too.” (Klosterman, 2003).
The reliance on the audience to create meaning ensures a bilateral relationship with the material. While this is not an easy task for any form of postmodern culture, it is incredibly difficult for postmodernist culture that can also successfully appeal to millions of people across the globe. Seeing what does typically sell – whether it be in terms of television programming, film, music, or even books – it is amazing to think that such anomalies like those discussed in this paper succeed on such a large scale. Kaye contextualizes the challenge by noting that, “Lyotard says, ‘Postmodern (or pagan) would be the condition of the literature and arts that have no assigned addressee and no regulating ideal, yet in which value is regularly measured on the stock of experimentation.’ Kid A is precisely this – an album whose value lies in its experimentation.” (Kaye, pg.242)
The reaction to this album – from angry critics accusing the band of being willfully difficult to one anecdote of a young man returning the album to a record store stating, ‘I’m not smart enough to get it’ – took the band by surprise, as they maintained it was just a logical progression of experimentation that had always existed. When Kaye looks at the title track, however, he suggests that there is perhaps some unconscious or subtle gesture by the group that suggests otherwise: “In a sense, these lyrics from ‘Kid A’ [the rats and children follow me out of town’] can also be seen as an attempt to lure the listener out of the safety and security of modern mainstream music, a moment that rightly stands as an expression of Lyotard’s conception of the differend as an idiom for what cannot be put into precise terms just yet, but which still must be articulated.” (Kaye, pg.244)
Radiohead continue to deny that they are being intentionally obscure in either the music they make or the music they cite as clear influences on their work. With album sales that still sell in the millions, one would find it difficult to say that what they do is not popular, although not on the same level currently as pop stars such as Justin Bieber or Katy Perry. More so than in television and film, the degrees between postmodern pop culture and straightforward pop culture can be quite wide.
Some artists found popularity thrust upon them despite making few attempts to appeal to an as wide base as possible. In rare cases – despite postmodernist tendencies outweighing pop cultures ones – an artist moves from an intentionally niche audience to a large one. The dance-punk (or electropop, as genre blurring has become the norm) New York band LCD Soundsystem begin by offering a playful deconstruction of itself right off the bat, with its contradictory name. As far as an aesthetic approach, take whatever dance music is, strip it to its barest requirements – a four-on-the-floor beat – and fill the rest in with ironic smirks.
Their initial single, ‘Losing My Edge’ offered that dance-able quality, but for all of its eight minutes had front man – and at that point, sole member – James Murphy lament the fact that he was indeed no longer as cool as he once was, that younger people knew more about music than he does. His credentials defy time and space (seeing all the hip underground bands before anyone else, from the late sixties onward, no matter where it took place across the globe). Two minutes of the monologue was a rapid-fire listing of obscure bands from the sixties, seventies, and eighties, as if being familiar with them was a badge of honour into a secret society. The line that sums it all is: “I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know”. Music as a status symbol, art for the sake of everything other than art. What makes this statement so much more inherently poignant and ridiculous is that it is said in the middle of an orgy of electronic drum machines and synthesizer sounds. Context becomes everything when analyzing such blanket statements, and Murphy has placed this commentary on hierarchy and connections within a dance music track. Nullifying its commentary on art while it exists within a piece of art, making it a meme.
It falls to Girl Talk, however, the electronic mash up artist, to perfectly exemplify postmodernist music beyond the experimental works of John Cage. Taking snippets of popular, radio-friendly songs and overlapping them on top of one another (to a greater degree that normal sampling, and adding entire rap verses atop them), Girl Talk challenges the listener by seeing just how many of the tracks they can recognize while at the same time appealing to their most basic expectation of pop music: a steady, danceable beat. A single five-minute track could have dozens of snippets from popular songs. While early sample-based music might utilize certain drum breaks or bass lines (James Brown singles were quite popular), Girl Talk – like Kanye West, but to a greater extreme – would include entire song melodies and choruses. Additionally, Girl Talk unabashedly included extremely popular songs in his work, while certain circles in the sampling community prided itself on the obscurity of some of its choices (lesser known jazz works, contemporary classical, and spoken word albums). The result then is the contemporary listener’s constant familiarity of the material that is presented to them, simply in an unusually packaged form, while still adhering to anchored and simplistic rhythms.
If popular music itself is finding itself in a state of decline due to a shrinking market size, then Girl Talk’s postmodern combination of its not-quite-wide breadth might be the future. He has made listening to three or four radio stations at once palatable, perhaps the exact opposite of John Cage’s 4’33. Which should be noted, however, is that what he does is highly illegal, as he does not seek any clearance for his sizable collection of musical segments. Not that record companies could get much money from him if they sued, as Girl Talk offers all of his music free of charge, acknowledging the role (post)modern technology plays in the creation and diffusion of contemporary music.
What we become familiar with in our pastimes unquestionably influence our perception of the serious contemporary matters of society. In We Want Some Too, Niedzviecki claims outright that mass culture is too entrenched in Western society to excise or reject it (Niedzviecki, pg.31). It has become an essential component not only for how we are entertained, but how we are presented with all forms of information concerning our world. What postmodernism allows, when it concepts are infused into mass/popular culture, is a questioning of familiar intellectual structures and foundations (which range from sociopolitical institutions to storytelling and other forms of entertainment) that allows us to better understand our culture and society.
Culture is becoming a more essential aspect of Western political discourse, as it has already swallowed identity politics. In the United States, certain groups divide the country between ‘real’ America and the nebulous and eternal ‘other’. Clearly it is false distinction, an oversimplified method of understanding extremely complex problems. Postmodernism eschews easy answers from the get go, and takes it a step further, admitting that any answers offered may be temporary and of limited use.
This discourse is in part framed from the structure of our media outlets, which are merging to a much greater extent with the structures of our arts and culture.
“Infotainment” has entered our cultural lexicon, and while at first a troubling notion, if we can somehow understand how to maneuver through this chaotic and fragmented form of knowledge accumulation – separating out the essential from the extraneous – then it can become just another accepted and understandable paradigm, with advantages and disadvantages.
Postmodernism persists, while the traditional culture industry is collapsing due to its inability to turn a profit as easy it could in the past. With the success of aforementioned examples (The Simpsons, Fight Club, Radiohead), popular culture does not have the opportunity to enter the public consciousness without a large swath of the public being aware of the machinations and planning behind its creation. This is no small feat, as understanding such things allows one to have greater control over how it affects them.
The challenge however is how to organize this information, first because there is so much of it, and second because the underlying messages of postmodernism effectively denies a singular and final conclusion from ever being made. While we might be reminded of such destabilizing in an episode of The Simpsons, what to do with this reminder in a more structured analysis can remain vexing. Jameson notes that this has always been a difficult task for postmodernist theory:
“Yet, even in the modern, the practice of the fragment resulted in two distinct and antithetical tendencies or strategies: the minimalism of a Webern or a Beckett on the one hand, as opposed to the infinite temporal expansion of Mahler or Proust. Here, in what some people call the postmodern, we might want to juxtapose the brevity of the Russell conception of MTV with the epic temptations of a Jarman or the literal interminability of a text like Gravity’s Rainbow.” (Jameson, pg.158)
But by the early twenty-first century, high and low culture divisions have dissolved – the animated show Family Guy sports a talking dog that subscribes to the Utne Reader and claims that New York is “Prague sans the whimsy” – with the same program, song, or film having an assortment of different meanings depending on the audience. And this difference is not necessarily a difference of social or cultural class. The ability to access information to better understand and appreciate the material presented requires only an internet connection. And the information superhighway – a name used less frequently these days but just as true and relevant when it was first coined – is becoming a part of a youth’s life at younger and younger age, no matter where they are on the globe.
This combination of technological immediacy and empowerment for a wider global audience has given rise to a wealth of material being created as pastiche of earlier postmodern cultural materials. This has become a process of constant recycling: “Postmodern artistic creativity then, resides not in the production of unique individual styles but in the clever appropriation and assembly of the styles of others.” (Booker, pg.188)
The Simpsons and recent mockumentary series like The Office and Modern Family are built out of past familiarities, and while this has been a key process of the evolution of cultural practices since the beginning of civilization, postmodernism holds that the destabilizing of such past archetypes and metanarratives are to be found at this present form of culture’s core, and that the connections to the past should not be accepted without question, but rather constantly analyzed and reoriented. Just as democracy demands constant attention from all its citizens to ensure that the leaders are not abusing the power they have been given, postmodernism demands the same sort of intellectual vigilance, to prevent a particular theory or cultural property from eventually becoming obsolete and harmful. With such a position, it does not take much for rhetoric surrounding the postmodern from becoming rather alarmist: “Postmodernism participates in a general crisis of belief, of the kind indicated perhaps most famously by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s influential suggestion that postmodernism is informed by a radical suspicion towards ‘totalizing metnarratives’. This suspicion grows from, among other things, the fact that virtually all aspects of life in the postmodern era have experienced a dizzying and accelerating rate of change. This facet of postmodernism involves fundamental challenges to the Western philosophical tradition, but it often results in cultural products that are playful and lighthearted.” (Booker, pg.xiv)
Booker – echoing Lyotard here – finds then what postmodern pop culture has been doing for the last two decades, even as the term ‘popular’ is becoming a more difficult one to ascertain, is to expose the malaise and confusion of a quickly changing world in a palatable fashion. In the 1990s – a decade of prosperous self-reflection as the Cold War had ended and a host of many alternative global concerns began to permeate the public’s consciousness – the culture industry quickly adapted to this revamped landscape, selling a fragmented, accelerating world back to consumers as a novel form of entertainment and for a profit. Ironically, the acceleration of technology soon made profit – the initial engine for much of this culture – much harder to come by, jeopardizing popular culture as a whole.
Yet postmodernism has no qualms with such ramifications, as it does not embody a solution or final goal, and instead questions those that claim one is possible. What is unique about the theory is how malleable it is to incorporating and critiquing a host of other philosophical and political concepts: “Postmodern film thus contains glimmers of utopian possibility even as it largely embodies and ratifies the anti-utopian orientation of late capitalist thought.” (Booker, pg.189)
What’s to be done? At the very least, we can be sure that we’re all in the same state of mildly amused uncertainty.
Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood. Westport, CN: Praeger, 2007.
Collins, Jim. “Television and Postmodernism.” Postmodern After-Images. Brooker, Peter and Brooker, Will, eds. New York: Arnold, 1997. Page 192-207.
Connor, Steve. Postmodernist Culture. Blackwell: Cambridge, MA, 1989.
Dobson, Hugo. “Mister Sparkle Meets the Yakuza: Depictions of Japan in The Simpsons.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.30, No.1, 2006. Journal Compilation: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2006. Pg.44-68.
Footman, Tim. “Hyperreally Saying Something.” Radiohead and Philosophy. Forbes, Brandon W., Reisch, George A., eds. Peru, IL: Open Court Press, 2009. Pg.251-262.
Greif, Mark. “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop.” Radiohead and Philosophy. Forbes, Brandon W., Reisch, George A., eds. Peru, IL: Open Court Press, 2009. Pg.15-32.
Jameson, Frederic. The Cultural Turn. Verso: New York, 1998.
Kaye, Bradley. “Kid A and the Postmodern Condition.” Radiohead and Philosophy. Forbes, Brandon W., Reisch, George A., eds. Peru, IL: Open Court Press, 2009. Pg.241-250.
Kidd, Dustin. “Harry Potter and the Functions of Popular Culture”. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.40, No.1, 2007. Journal Compilation: Blackwell Publishing Inc., 2007. Pg.
Niedzviecki, Hal. We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture. Penguin Books: Toronto, 2000.
Polan, Dana. Pulp Fiction. London: BFI Publishing, 2000.
Rotten Library. “The Simpsons”
Wheeler, Elizabeth A. “Bulldozing the Subject”. Essays in Postmodern Culture. Amiran, Eyal & Unsworth, John, eds. Oxford University Press: New York, 1993. Pg.199-227.
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