Chen: Pop culture not just an industry

Cathaleen Chen and Cathaleen Chen

Every year, there comes a time when bipartisan politics, stock market rates, final papers and chemistry lab reports alike are all temporarily halted – the humdrum everyday routines of postmen, theater majors and even the homeless guy in front of CVS are deferred and replaced by a nationwide celebration of a mass-produced culture.

In this time, cinematic grandeur is revered above everything else but fashion statements; Sacha Baron Cohen is at the center of attention, as he will have mastered both by Sunday night. This time is glamorous and wonderful but is unfortunately plagued by Joan Rivers.

With no further obvious references, I’m talking about the end of the Oscar season. In an ideal world, today – the day after the Academy Awards – would be a universal holiday and classes would be cancelled for us to reflect upon last night, the pinnacle of pop culture. In fact, pop culture as a whole deserves a lot more recognition as an indispensable part of social life.

I’m what people call a pop culture fanatic – the obnoxious kind. Last year I hosted an Oscars live-blogging party, during which I tweeted, Tumbled and Facebooked every notable happening of the 2011 Academy Awards, including all of Anne Hathaway’s wardrobe changes. Needless to say, it wasn’t exactly a well-received gesture. The party consisted of only myself and my best friend, and by the end of the night, after 50 status updates in two hours, I had lost at least 12 Facebook friends.

I admit that I take “Oscar fever” to the next level, or maybe just an unnecessary one. But despite my excessive enthusiasm, I’ll argue the importance of the Oscars as a highlight of pop culture ­- and, more importantly, of pop culture as a crucial aspect of life.

A lot of people write off pop culture as a petty distraction from what really matters in America – politics, education, economy and the like.

Sure, it has its annoying ubiquities, like when I heard Jersey Shore impressions 17 times a day in high school. But politics can also be a distraction; if you’re not sick of reading about Romney and Santorum chastising each other over religious piety and remedies for unemployment, then you probably don’t read the news. In that case, you probably don’t know much about pop culture, either, because, believe it or not, The New York Times reports the arts just as frequently as it does politics and foreign relations.

I would venture to say that pop culture is on the same level as politics, education and the economy in terms of social influence.

Think about how many times you’ve laughed at an O.J. joke, considering it’s been almost 20 years since the trial took place. Think about how many times you’ve quoted Charlie Sheen or hummed along to a Beyonce song at the grocery store. Think about the end of the Harry Potter saga, and how you tried but failed to surreptitiously wipe your tears in the movie theater when you saw Dobby dying. It was more real onscreen than on the page, wasn’t it?

Pop culture is everywhere, and sometimes, it’s a bit too prevalent. Exploiting the omnipresence of pop culture, critics argue that mainstream material such as the Billboard 100 and blockbuster movies is the dimebag version of true art that the mindless majority is not capable of appreciating, as if “true art” were a matter of tangible standards.

Though I hate the fact that the Kardashians are more recognized in pop culture than Quentin Tarantino, what’s even more important is that talented filmmakers like Tarantino are a vital part of pop culture. The Kardashians might be more famous, but Tarantino is a lot more critically acclaimed.

Pop culture critics also criticize the Grammys for only regarding mainstream musicians. But the thing is, the Grammys is not the end-all, be-all of music.

There shouldn’t be an end-all, be-all of music or film or anything as subjective as the arts. But in defense of the Grammys, let’s all recall that Bon Iver won Best New Artist a few weeks ago – in spite of the fact that their debut album came out in 2008 – over Nicki Minaj. And last year Arcade Fire took home a Grammy; Justin Bieber and Eminem didn’t. The national music industry’s acclamation of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, neither of which are “mainstream” enough for radio, just serves to prove that the pop culture ultimately praises quality over fame.

At the end of the day, pop culture is fun. All the things we love – the badly written pop songs we sing karaoke to, Sporcle, Internet memes – can be credited to a collective discourse of popular culture in the media.

Whether you like it or not, there’s no way to evade Kim Kardashian’s excessively Photoshopped derriere or the overabundance of horse movies.

Cathaleen Chen is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]

All opinions expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the columnist and do not reflect the views of The Daily Northwestern. If you would like to respond to the column, you may comment below, email the columnist or submit a 300-word letter to the editor to [email protected].