Rethinking Mass Culture

We’re consumed by the idea of mass culture. Since television (and before it, radio) brought the immediacy of produced culture into our living rooms, we’ve treated the power of a massive aggregated audience with awe. That something is popular enough to attain common currency means it has power. Mass culture pervades everything. Writers place a character or location by dropping pop culture references. Advertisers trade on the familiarity of mass culture icons to sell us things. The so-called “traditional arts” try to justify their contemporary relevance in relationship to the “mass” taste.
Our base definition of success is the mass culture definition. If something finds a mass audience then it is successful. Mass culture is expected to make money, even obscene amounts of money. Success is defined not by achievement of excellence but by the size of audience and how much money that audience makes for you.
I’m not, by the way, dumping on mass culture. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent, and I’m an enthusiastic consumer of mass culture myself. This isn’t another high/low culture debate. Not at all.
But I do think that some of the assumptions we make about the intrinsic power of mass culture no longer hold true. Much has been written about pop culture breaking down into niches. But even as we acknowledge the fragmenting of audience, we have been reluctant to re-examine our assumptions about the power of mass culture and how it works. The very strategies that make something successful in a mass culture model may work against that success in a niche market model.
To take newspapers as an example: If the average reading level is eighth grade, in a mass-culture model you want to write to that level and hope you capture the largest demographic segment. And you hope that those below the level will give you a chance. In fact, you aggressively court this group by trying to prove your accessibility. As for the group reading above the level: your strategy for success is “where else are they going to go?” Your paper is probably the only/best/major source of news in your community.
Newspapers have not traditionally been mass market. In fact they were the classic niche subsidy model. The genius of newspapers was that they aggregated lots of mini-content – comics, bridge columns, stock tables, crossword puzzles, the arts, business, sports – and built enough of a combined audience to subsidize the content that otherwise would not have paid for itself.
I don’t know a single journalist who got in the business because they wanted to make sure Garfield or Dear Abby got delivered every day, but the fact is that the content that journalists think counts most – coverage of city hall, foreign reporting, investigations – does not have a big enough audience to pay for itself on its own.
Yet somewhere along the way, this idea of niche aggregation slipped away from the local paper and was replaced by the sense that every story ought to be comprehensible by every reader. The problem: in a culture that increasingly offers more and more choice and allows people to get more precisely what they want, when they want, and how they want it, a generalized product that doesn’t specifically satisfy anyone finds its audience erode away. The more general, the more broad, the more “mass culture” a newspaper tries to become, the faster its readers look elsewhere.
The very things you see newspapers doing to try to bring in new readers – Britney Spears on the cover, pandering to pop culture trends, sensationalist news stories that offer more heat than light – are the things that while they might have worked 20 years ago, don’t today. That’s because the celebutantes get better dish at TMZ and the Live at 5 guys do better fire and missing kids.
On websites, the celeb stuff gets more traffic, true, but these are “drive-by” clicks that don’t build a readership. Not that there shouldn’t be celebs in a newspaper, but they’re not the solution to building a bigger audience.
Tomorrow: Just how big is that audience for celebrities?

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  1. says

    Here are two WGA strike Blogs. One from the the east coast, one from the west.
    There’s a lot of crossover [at this point: thanks to youtube] but the voices are still distinct. One is self-regarding and self-pitying. The other tries to reach out and amuse a larger audience while keeping the issues front and center.
    Self-conscious intellectualism is not a value unto itself. And in case you hadn’t noticed, along with all the lows -and there are plenty- the culture of popular narrative in this country has rarely been as sophisticated as it is now. But it’s the sophistication mostly of those who didn’t start out thinking they were all that sophisticated. They just seem to have ended up that way.
    What used to be intellectuals’ condescending fascination with the mechanics of pop vulgarity has become academicians desperate attempt to avoid the obvious: that there’s more intelligent discussion of the ambiguities of contemporary life on cable than there is in their classrooms.

  2. Alex says

    I think that your argument has some implications that go beyond questions of market success. Mass culture developed out of heavily segmented cultures–elite culture and localized folk cultures.
    In these environments, both cultural producers and cultural consumers work within a relatively circumscribed set of cultural symbols with a common understanding as to what they signify. Elite culture in the West had a specific literary and musical canon from which artists and writers drew to enliven their works and invest them with meaning.
    The new fragmented culture, on the other hand, is incredibly liquid. The niches that develop are not localized, and are not circumscribed. Therefore, the possibility of employing any sorts of universal symbols to enliven a work with specific and comprehensible subtexts is diminishing.
    People who enjoy the writings of Haruki Marukami or the music of The Bad Plus may have little in common beyond the fact that they enjoy this person’s work, and this will become even more true as mass culture is replaced by consumer-selected content from infinite catalogs.
    Forget about how to make a cultural product profitable. How do you make a cultural product MEANINGFUL in this environment? The semiotics of a work will be almost undefinable beyond the specific context of the artist’s relationship to the symbols she employs.
    How will there be any way to ensure that there be any unified, meaningful reception of a cultural product? Aesthetic meaning has always been contentious, but as fragmentation divorces completely the relationship between signifier and signified, how will art come to be understood and, under these conditions, created?

  3. JoAnn says

    Writing to the 6th grade level? Because of this and the celebrity trend, I have found refuge and happiness in the very top British newspapers and publications where they do NOT write to the sixth grade level.

  4. says

    The British press is still not fully professionalized and therefore not yet as “logically” directed towards the twin goals of “objectivity” and “reason” that the Americans claim to have achieved.
    The American press sucks for the same reason the American academy sucks: self-regard trumps self-awareness.
    Is it the rational choice to give the people what they want?
    I always thought it was rational to have one’s own opinion. But now opinions aren’t allowed [opinions are “subjective”] which means the definition of opinion is “whatever the majority seems not to think”
    In the name of objectivity and neutrality: stay with the crowd.
    You follow the logic?

  5. Frances Ashton says

    Does size matter?
    I very much agree with the argument on the definition of success within the arts. In the UK government arts policy and its limiting performance indicators or (PIs) prinicipally recognise the quantative not qualitative value of the arts, signposting the dangers of evaluating art based on government policy goals.
    In the UK size really does matter. And the success of art or the arts is measured by how many people crammed through the door of the museum, bought tickets to a show and even what race they were. The current government’s notion of ‘access’ refers to actual rather than intellectual access to the arts.
    The assumption of increased physical access equating to increased understanding, appreciation or engagement must be challenged. This does however leave the question wide open – by which criteria should government evaluate the arts?

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