We are going to close out our unit on culture by looking at folk culture, which encourages diversity and popular culture, which encourages uniformity. Today, the emphasis will be on defining and identifying elements of popular culture in the United States.

Urbanization and industrialization helped destroy American folk culture beginning in the late 19th Century. Recall that American folk culture was rural and intimately connected to the environment of the original folk culture hearth. As cities grew and rural populations shrank, so did the influence of folk culture, Cheap, mass produced goods also replaced the material folk culture items that were usually handmade.

Industrialization results in mass production and mass production results in uniform, homogeneous products. Industrialization requires everything to be standardized. Industrialization and transportation networks allowed for media outlets, like newspapers to mass produce and distribute their products.

From the 1930’s until the 1980’s there were only 3 or 4 major, nationwide TV (or radio) networks. Their products were instantly transmitted into the homes of millions of Americans. This was a huge factor in breaking down the folk culture traits centered around specific geographical hearths. Imagine 100 million Americans seeing a new clothing style on TV – and then being able to go out to the nearest department store and buy that exact new style.

One negative associated with popular culture is the sense of “placelessness” that comes with every city looking like every other city. This is simply not possible with the folk cultural hearts. But homogenized popular culture smooths out regional differences. The Outback in Des Moines is exactly the same as the Outback in Seattle. When people loose their sense of connection to their culture and their environment, they are subject to a condition known as “anomie” – feeling disconnected or adrift. Feelings of anomie can cause people to feel depressed or even suicidal.

The rise of sports is first connected with an increase in leisure time for the working classes in the early 20th Century and then with the rise of mass media in the mid-20th Century. Notice the image indicates an example of syncretism – Mickey Mouse overlaid on the Mexican national soccer team.

The Sears story is the first chain store success. Sears used the railroads both to transport their mass-produced catalogs and then deliver their mass-produced goods. The Sears catalog was a steampunk version of Amazon. Now I the 21st Century, Amazon may use the internet to instantly transmit orders that are nearly instantly delivered by drones!

The arrow of causality here is interesting. Does popular culture drive the media? Or does the media shape popular culture? The ever-increasing acceptance of homosexual lifestyles may be an example of media driving cultural norms. The 1990’s saw a dramatic increase in TV and movies that dealt realistically with gay characters. This culminated in 1997 with comedian Ellen coming out on her TV sitcom. And in 1998, the first network TV show with openly gay characters, Will and Grace, premiered to ratings success.

Regional distinctions exist, embedded within the matrix of popular culture. Ice tea is sweet by default in the South and unsweet by default in the North. Grits are a menu staple in the South and virtually unknown in the North or West. Some communities go out of their way to distinguish themselves from the uniform, popular culture. The city of Asheville in North Carolina is a good example of this “neolocal” phenomenon in which cities consciously try to distinguish themselves from the norm, often incorporating older, folk culture elements into their neolocal efforts.

These perceptual regions demonstrate the regional differences in the otherwise uniform American popular culture. Most of the regional differences involve food and language (and music, to a lesser extent). Note that some of the original folk culture hearths still persist, including the Cajun hearth of Acadia in Louisiana.

Mass media and networks of distribution allow new culture traits to spread rapidly and penetrate deeply. We distinguish fads which are temporary, whimsical and emotional from trends which are long-lasting and reflect deeper movements within the culture. “Silly Bandz” are an excellent example of a fad while the trend of men going hatless, beginning in the early 60’s and continuing on today is a good example of a trend.

Were men persuaded to go hatless because of the example set for JFK or… was JFK just reflecting a general hatless trend among men?

A quick list of famous fads from the last 90 years, designed to show how the older the fad, the sillier it seems. And to emphasize how once these fads fade away, they never come back.

Differences in technology in the 80’s kept videotapes of anime from making its way to the US. Once the tape difference was resolved, increasing popularity of anime led US publishers to seek out Japanese manga titles. Once the mass distribution networks were in place, anime and manga were able to diffuse and become part of American popular culture.


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Folk and Popular Culture Day 2: Resources

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