The Power of Popular Culture

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
American circus tent

“Popular culture represents a common denominator, something that cuts across most economic, social and educational barriers.”- Edward Jay Whetmore

When people hear the words popular culture, they may instinctively think of their favorite band- the Beatles, their favorite TV show- The Walking Dead, their favorite movie – Forrest Gump and any other number of pop culture references that have become a part of our national identity. Pop culture is important in American society because it provides us with a unique national culture; it helps to bridge our many differences and provides us with some commonality in a society that is so diverse.
Part of the broad appeal of popular culture is that it is a shared experience with other members of society and sharing these experiences connect us. When a popular television show nears its conclusion, there is a collective sense of anticipation and suspense that something so entertaining and enjoyable will come to an end.  On February 28th, 1983 over 105 million people were tuned in for the series finale of M*A*S*H. As Leroy Ashby states in, With amusement for all: a history of American popular culture since 1830, when M*A*S*H first went on the air it was a social commentary on the Vietnam War, a war encircled in controversy, even though the show was set in a different time and place. The popularity of this show and the vast audience it drew for its finale demonstrate how for a brief moment pop culture united an entire country.
Even though no other television broadcast has ever matched the popularity of the M*A*S*H finale, Americans are still fascinated with popular television shows that often spark debate or conversation the next day. However, television has now seen a rise in the antihero. Characters who were once on the fringe of morality have now taken center stage with shows such as Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Dexter and Orange is the New Black.  One such show that features an antihero is Breaking Bad.  This show has sparked conversations about a number of different topics, including morality, devotion to a family and the prevalence of drugs in our society. In Chuck Klosterman’s, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), the author discusses the complex main character of the show Walter White. And although this show is very entertaining, many viewers have debated how this show draws parallels to different social issues relevant in contemporary society.
Much of popular culture, especially television, is inherently entertaining because it draws in our attention and captivates us. Often times when the laughter and amusement fades, we can still be left with our ongoing curiosities and self-reflection. We may find ourselves asking questions such as, “What are we becoming as a society,” and possibly and more importantly, “Why am I rooting for a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer?” If you’re interested in reading more authors that discuss different aspects of American pop culture, check out some of the following books available through the Los Angeles Public library.