How to Take Popular Culture Seriously
There are many pitfalls in writing about popular culture. One is being glib by avoiding critical analysis or indulging in easy snark. Another is being turgid by grinding out prose so sodden with arcane jargon that it verges on parody. A third is being sanctimonious by asserting that the subject is somehow both utterly trivial and morally dangerous.
Ideally, a work about popular culture should be thoughtful and engaging enough that it makes you want to read or watch or listen to what the author is discussing, if only to convince yourself that the author is wrong. Moreover, it should show how pop culture illuminates broader questions of who we are and what we aspire to be. In short, it should take popular culture seriously.
Greil Marcus’s 1975 book Mystery Train passes the test. He writes that it is nominally about American rock music, but it is more than that: “an attempt to broaden the context in which the music is heard; to deal with rock ‘n’ roll not as youth culture, or counterculture, but simply as American culture.”
I first came across the book as an undergraduate, having been mildly interested in some of the artists Marcus discusses (Robert Johnson, Sly and the Family Stone, Elvis Presley) and not at all in others (The Band, Randy Newman). What hooked me back then was Marcus’s obvious love for the music tempered with critical distance and edge—he observes of the 1970s jumpsuited-and-karate-kicking Elvis that the singer “prostrates himself before songs of awesome ickiness.”
What keeps me returning to Mystery Train is how Marcus uses artists like Elvis to think about bigger issues: the intractable divisions of race and class, the hazy distinctions between myth and history, the tensions between nature and nurture in explaining how a seemingly unremarkable young man from Mississippi could change popular music forever and then succumb to the sheer enormity of his success. Marcus issues a credo of sorts that can apply not only to rock ‘n’ roll but also to popular culture generally: It “must provoke as well as delight, disturb as well as comfort, create as well as sustain. If it doesn’t, it lies, and there is only so much comfort you can take in a lie before it all falls apart.”
My own writing has addressed how popular culture depicts journalism—not just how movies, TV shows, novels, and other media portray reporters and editors and publishers, but also how they speak to questions about journalism’s professional ethics, its role in the political and economic system, its triumphant and checkered past, its uncertain future. I’ve looked at the ways in which pop culture shows a free press sustaining democracy and an unfree press perverting it.
Only in retrospect have I realized that to a degree, I’ve been trying to produce my own Mystery Train. I can’t claim always to have avoided the pitfalls that I’ve said that pop culture analysts should avoid. But I’ve always had a good role model to emulate.
Matthew Ehrlich is a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His latest book is Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Kevin Dooley.