What the Heck is Pop Culture?

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I’ve begun to do extensive research on nineties pop culture. Why? Something inside of me has always had this driving passion for all things pop culture from the 90s. I would think the culprit is that I spent my adolescence and teenage years in the 90s, and remember them fondly.

While there are enthusiasts of every decade, I am obsessed with the 90s, partly because I grew up during that decade and partly because I believe it is the most influential decade in pop culture history. Many would scoff at that assumption but looking deeper, it is not farfetched.

Before one indulges in a conversation about the 90s as the most impactful decade in pop culture, it is important to observer the definition of pop culture. While the definition of pop culture can vary, I believe the closest definition comes from the Cambridge English Dictionary: music, TV, cinema, books, etc. that are popular and enjoyed by ordinary people, rather than experts or very educated people. 

What I don’t agree with in this definition is the implication that popular culture is only enjoyed by “ordinary people” and not “experts” or “very educated people.” This is, quite frankly, incorrect. Just because someone is a professor at an Ivy League school does not mean they won’t like the newest single by Beyonce. Nor does it mean that a microbiologist won’t buy a ticket to see the latest Marvel Universe movie.

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In broad terms, pop culture is all that is popular to the masses. It can be music, film, video games, slang, toys, technology, the list goes on and on. Bill Gates being the former owner of Microsoft and the wealthiest man on the planet puts his name into pop culture. The same goes for Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs who, before his passing, was perhaps the most popular name in technology.

On a more grim note, crime has its place in American popular culture too. The Black Dahlia remains one of the most popular and intriguing unsolved cases in American crime. Charles Manson’s name still haunts us almost 50 years after his cult committed numerous murders. Events such as the Columbine Massacre and 9/11 are part of the darker side of pop culture as well. And no one can argue the OJ Simpson trial not being part of pop culture as its enormous popularity in the nineties nearly took over American television sets every night.

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Because popular culture does not have a singular definition, it remains a vast subject, almost never-ending. On the surface, one could point to the wildly popular and successful Star Wars franchise as a staple of American pop culture. Just as important for American pop culture are the things that experienced a short burst of great popularity such as the Pet Rock or Tickle Me Elmo Dolls.

Commercials such as Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef” to the Partnership for a Drug Free America’s, “This your brain on drugs” have made their way into pop culture as well and are still remembered. Could theme parks such as Disneyland, Six Flags and Legoland be part of pop culture as well? You bet. So too can pagers, smart phones, tablets, and certain computers. How about slang? There was a time when words such as “rad” and “dope” were part of a teenager’s everyday vocabulary.

With pop culture embodying so many elements, it’s impossible to corral it into one subject or genre. Then again, that’s what makes it so interesting: pop culture can technically involve anything that becomes popular. For that reason, it can’t be stopped. American pop culture will continue to thrive as long as a large number of Americans remain fascinated in what is popular at any given moment. It lures in men and women of all ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic status. In America, it seems the only things in life that are certain are death and taxes…and pop culture.

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