“Uncle Sam may hope someday…to Americanize the world,” proclaimed an early twentieth century edition of the New York Morning Post. While the U.S. has undoubtedly positioned itself as the Western world’s locus of popular culture for decades, the latest piece of news is revealing our even broader influence.
Kim Jong Un, the young leader of North Korea, was recently given a special performance in his country that included scenes from Disney’s “Dumbo” and “Beauty and the Beast” as well as appearances by characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Even more surprising was that the concert was aired on state television.
It comes as no astonishment that America and North Korea lie on opposite ends of the political spectrum, considering that the Economy Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index ranked the communist North Korea as the least democratic country in the world in 2010 and 2011. It is also clear that relations between the two countries are as strained as ever, considering that Congress declined to provide nutritional aid to North Korea last month as it neared a notable food crisis. So, it is quite interesting to think that our popular culture is influential enough to permeate into the affairs of our foe, and it compels me to take another look at the criticism continuously hurled at it.
To be clear, popular culture is a word open to varied interpretations. According to a comprehensive list of terms made by students at St. Joseph College, popular culture is, quite simply, “produced by the people,” and “focuses on what the members of the culture are interested in/desire to see integrated into culture as a whole.” Western Connecticut State University says popular culture is composed of “aspects of a culture that are informal, mainstream, and accessible to a middle-class audience.”
I have formed my own definition. I like to think of our popular culture as a nexus of visions, images, passions, and perspectives all channeled into unique mediums of entertainment.
It is safe to say that America’s impact on the world of popular culture is unparalleled. Ranging from Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins having served as inspiration for England’s Beatles to the Hollywood style of dress influencing attire in India’s Bollywood films, we have long been able to boast about being a stimulator of dreams and creative energy.
But many individuals, and seemingly an ever-increasing number, regularly dismiss American popular culture as something akin to “demoralizing bogus” or “a dangerous indulgence,” and often phrases much harsher. This mindset is most likely formed after seeing how the reality TV shows and the new auto-tuned music industry churn out overnight sensations that appear to severely lack the charm and intellect needed to represent American greatness. And I acknowledge that to some degree.
However, I think it is high time to recognize that popular culture has embedded itself as a central aspect of our lives, and it is unreasonable to simply lament its existence or denounce its need. It is a source of laughs after a strenuous day or source of bonding points to deepen social connections. Popular culture offers people a fresh way to channel their complex desires, sensitivities, and emotions when high, or more dignified, culture can’t begin to embody the full beauty of them. It gives people the opportunity to tap into their witty and imaginative sides and buoy their sense of hope for the future. In essence, then, through popular culture we reenergize, revitalize, and humanize.
It is simply unfeasible to expect many of today’s folks to instantly develop emotional connections with the enigmatic poetry of T. S. Eliot or the dynamic sonatas of Franz Liszt. It is equally absurd to become incensed that most teenagers would prefer to spend their leisure time reading a copy of Sports Illustrated than an edition of the Journal of Sports Economics. There comes a time and place for proper and higher means of expression, but it doesn’t mean our social and emotional need for popular culture should be snubbed.
The open showing of a feature of our popular culture in North Korea only emphasizes the fact that we certainly have a special knack for generating creativity and imaginativeness and influencing individuals with it across the globe. I can only hope that we Americans will begin to look upon our popular culture in a different light and work to enhance it when needed rather than simply criticize it for what it is.