Why Is Studying Popular Culture Important?

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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In the following study I will be examining the way that popular culture has affected British public in relation to learning. I will be first examining previous times and the ways in which popular culture has influenced people over time. I will be concentrating on the effects that music and advertising has had and shaped society over time, and the methods these mediums have used to achieve this.

Throughout the last century British culture has been dramatically transformed through popular culture, the development of major corporations, the changing methods of the current governments of the time, and the development of methods that popular culture can reach the public, all contributing to an extreme alteration in the way society as a whole behaves.

Before the industrial revolution, popular culture was based on the agricultural year and around religious festivals for example, harvest, plough Monday, Easter, Christmas etc.) There was no division of the classes. Everyone joined together in recreation and entertainment.

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In the nineteenth century however, there was a considerable change. A sharp rise in urbanisation meant people flocked to the cities away from the agricultural areas to the industrial centres. There was therefore a massive decline in the meaningfulness of the agricultural festivals. In the city there was a physical separation of the classes, the working classes living tightly together in houses built specifically to house workers. There were far fewer public holidays as the agricultural ones were regarded as obsolete. There were fears about the amount of control the rich had over the working classes, as there was in the church. The working classes saw how they were treated by the Church Of England in the city very different to what they were used to.

Many theories arose about the church and how it was corrupt. A man called John Leicester believed the Church to be corrupt and began his own church. The Methodist church, derived from the Czech Maravian Church. Methodist churches have no icons, statues, or grand features such as stained glass. Many working class people became Methodist due to the supposed corruption of the Church of England and its discrimination against the poor. This caused worry among the upper classes that the working classes could rise up against them.

At this time, Irish Catholics were brought over from island to dig the canals. With them they brought the Irish Catholic faith. The Irish were regarded as extreme underclass and were very poor, therefore Catholicism was regarded as a religion for the poor. Yet another new faith for the working classes.

There was increased fear of revolution as the inventions of new non-conformist churches happened. More and more controls and legislation were applied to prevent the uprising of the working classes.

The Age of Interference

The worries that the upper classes had of a possible revolution caused them to impose many rules on popular pursuits such as cricket and football. There was also a move to open parks and museums and other recreational facilities to distract the working classes not only from drinking and riots, but political movements and uprise.

There was also a bought of middle-class pursuits invented such as Thomas Cook Holidays.


Advertising is very easily exposed to the public. Advertising is available in a large variety of mediums, television being a main outlet, radio, posters, billboards, signs, newspapers and more, a more recent method being the internet. All of these things we come into contact with everyday. A very effective medium for advertising is the radio. This reaches people while they are doing other things, like driving or working, unlike television, which people only see when they have specifically sat down to watch it.

Roland Barthes (1950-1980) studied semiotics, which is the study of signs and how we interpret them. He said that we receive subliminal messages through adverts without knowing it, this in turn making us want to buy the product/service.

Roland Barthes dismantled images, the most known example of this being a picture of a black French Cub Scout saluting, and used his three levels of deconstruction to find hidden meaning to the image.

This can be applied to images and advertising we now see today. Phallic symbolism was and still is used today within advertising, especially on television and is found to be extremely effective. The Cadbury's Flake television commercial is a prime example.

But of course, a few hundred years ago, television would not have been about and advertising would have been restricted to other mediums. Before the industrial revolution, posters or leaflets would have not worked because there was mass illiteracy at those times because of the lack of education facilities available to the general public. After the revolution though, there was more education available to both children and adults of the working classes.

But what is 'working class.'?

Karl Marx was the founding father of communism and is referred back to consistently when definitions of social class are made. Born in Germany in 1818, Marx lived in France, Belgium and London. He was an associate of Engels, with whom he devised the Communist/Economic Determinist Theory.

This stated that there are two types of people. The Proletariat (who by efforts produce wealth) and the Bourgeoisie (the owners of factories and profits who exploit the proletariat).

In 1847 Marx attended a meeting in London, the groups aim being 'the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the domination of the proletariat.' In this, Marx was willing the working classes to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Marx had many followers, an important one being Gramsci.

Gramsci was born in 1891. A believer in Marxism, joining the Communist party in 1921, he was an avid supporter of all of Marx's proposals, but he thought that his theories were too focused on economics and take into account the other factors enough, with culture being a crucial example.

The Gramscian model was called the hegemony model. Through this, Gramsci said that the upper classes use a form of propaganda to suppress revolution of the working classes. He claimed the working classes would begin to resent how much power was had over them and revolt. At that point, the powerful people would stop the revolution by giving the rebels a little of what they demanded to curb them. For example, there was a move to encourage people to read more political literature. Communists used this to provoke revolution through leaflets and articles. The Government automatically put a large tax on all forms of literature, resulting in an underground illegal press. Within time though, the government lifted the tax and promoted the reading and publishing of cheap magazines, which distracted people from the political literature, therefore no one read the communists provocations.

So, Marx's ideas had been supported and followed by many, but the revolution they all predicted and encouraged never happened. Why?

The working classes never revolted because the industrial revolution meant increased prosperity to all. Marx expected more solidarity among the working classes than there actually was and this stratification meant that revolution was never fully supported.

Education at this time was limited. Children would attend Sunday schools and learn to read. There were also 'Bell Schools' in which educated pupils would teach each other. These children would then go home to their (probably illiterate) parents and read to them, thus the parents learning as well as the children.

Better education meant new technology was being developed. The printing press was introduced in the late 1860s, this resulting in many forms of writing being freely available. Not only news, but entertaining stories like 'Penny Dreadfuls' that became very popular among the working classes.

The Education Act of 1870 meant that education was available to all people whatever their class all over the country. Mass literacy ensued and more and more reading materials were being produced to entertain and inform.

Literacy has had a massive effect on the way we live and how we learn and the availability of education is so huge compared to those a hundred years ago.

Although mass literacy was an extremely important development in our culture and its effects are colossal, there are other ways in which popular culture affects learning in societytoday.

Advances in education meant more technology was being invented. Music was becoming more and more inventive as time went on because of the new ways of producing it and publicising it.

The advent of music halls was a very important step in social development. Before the industrial revolution, the workers would often drink habitually throughout the days while working the land. When they moved to the cities and worked in the factories, obviously drinking was not tolerated. Urbanisation meant that all had more money to spend because of their pay in the cities, therefore more money to spend on alcohol. This meant that the workers would come home and drink the equal amount they would have over the day while on the farms, in one evening. Drinking created social decline, causing a large spread of violent drunken behaviour, rape, domestic abuse, child negligence etc, prompting the authorities to provide evening entertainment for the working classes, to prevent the boredom and the need to drink.

Thus, the music halls were born. Music halls were popular all over Britain, and drew in both the working classes and the upper classes to shows involving many different types of people singing patriotic songs or amusing acts, often by women. A famous example of performer was Vesta Tilley. Tilley would often impersonate men, mainly 'pencil pushers', the middle-class men who worked in offices and the like. Tilley would dress in drag, and impersonate and ridicule these type of people, much to the amusement of the working class people who often detested these type of people. Tilley's most famous song was 'Burlington Bertie'.

As WW11 began, music changed within society. Patriotic songs like 'Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag' and 'Jerusalem' were very popular as was all uplifting nationalist music at the time.

The Frankfurt School

This was a group set up in 1923 mainly made up of Jewish intellectuals threatened by the Nazis. With beliefs similar to Gramsci's they believed that the working classes had been 'pacified' into accepting capitalism by 'Commodity Fetishism' (the creation of false needs. The most famous three members of the Franfurt school were arguably Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973) and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979). Adorno devised many theories concerning popular culture, many of which are still used today. In Dominic Strinati's work An Introduction To Theories Of Popular Culture, features a quote from Adorno giving his view on popular culture and the way in which it is used.

'In all its branches, products which are tailored for the consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan... This is made possible by contemporary technical capabilities as well as by economic and administrative concentration. The culture industry intentionally integrates its consumers from above. To the detriment of both it forces together the spheres of high and low art, separated for thousands of years. The seriousness of high art is destroyed in speculation about its efficacy; the seriousness of the lower perishes with the civilisational constraints imposed on the rebellious resistance inherent within it as long as social control was not yet total. Thus, although the culture industry undeniably speculates on the conscious and unconscious state of the millions towards which it is directed, the masses are not primary but secondary, they are an object of calculation, an appendage of the machinery. The customer is not king, as the culture industry would have us believe, not its subject but its object'. (Adorno. Strinati D. 2004..)

This indicates the belief that the authorities within the culture industry shape culture in Britain through the search for profit.

Adorno believed that the power lay within the culture industry and its products encouraged compliance and consensus. Adorno was very interested in music. Classically trained, he used is knowledge in the field and compared it with the modern music of the time. Popular music was completely different to the classical style he had be taught. He said that in popular music, 'the beginning of the chorus is replaceable by the beginning of the innumerable other choruses..... every detail is substitutable; it serves its function only as a cog in a machine.' Adorno maintained that this is different to in classical music where the music provides 'a musical sense from the totality of the piece and its place within that totality.'

Adorno believed that popular music was in no way creative or intuitive, merely 'to please the masses.'

At the time of Adorno, dramatic changes in popular music were happening.

The 1950s brought about the uprising of the 'teenager'.

Artists such as Buddy Holly were idolised, American music being a strong upcoming force at this time. Musicians used not only their music to sell their records, but their appearances and attitude also.

The rapidly altering types of music were a big worry to the government of the time. Many complaints were filed against many album covers and performances. Elvis for example was filmed from the waist up so his rotating hips were not broadcast!

There were calls to ban many songs and particular album covers, like the cover of the Mamas and Papas album 'If You Can Believe Your Eyes And ears', in which the band are shown in a bath together fully dressed. Record companies were forced to sign less 'controversial' bands like The Monkees.

Music has developed dramatically since. Bands such as The Clash promoted rebellious attitudes towards authority, as did the Sex Pistols, whose song God Save The Queen was banned by Radio One upon its release. A recent band who follow this theme are Anti-Flag who's most famous song 'Fuck Police Brutality', is a blatant attack at the authorities of the country. Bands such as these are now very popular, their songs and attitudes being imitated by its listeners. These attitudes have spawned a variety of fashions, often involving the wearing of black hoodies, piercings and coloured hair. This is seen as a statement against society, a rebellion against conformity. Artists such as Eminem have come under serious criticism, charged with endorsing drug use and bad language. Emiem alone has been blamed on numerous occasions for behavioural problems children have allegedly developed after to listening to his records.

One child committed suicide in the early nineties, his death blamed on Eminem's music. An alternative fashion trend has been born from black music, specifically rap. This involves the wearing of tracksuits, trainers, large gold chains and caps. Although this is merely a way of dressing, this type of outfit is often perceived by the general public as disruptive, indicating the person is a troublemaker, often being turned away from particular institutions for example clubs on account of their dress. Snoop Dogg, an American rap artist at the Live8 concert recently swore repeatedly both during his songs and between them, all at about lunchtime in front of millions of people both at the gig and watching on television around the world. Criticised heavily for this, he received a massive fine from the organisers of the event and forced to publicly apologise.

Some claim that music such as his is very damaging to children and should not be released, let alone promoted.

The governments of today are more lenient when allowing records from such bands to be released, but parental advisory stickers are put on if there is but one expletive within the record, and this means the record can not be sold to persons under the age of fifteen. With the invention of music videos, there have been many complaints concerning the content. A lot of modern music, especially music of black origin like r'n'b releases videos involving sexual scenes. This has caused outrage and has forced many videos to be scrapped completely, edited or blurred when shown. For example, the punk band Blink 182's video for the song 'I Miss You' released in 2001 involved scenes of lesbianism and voyeur.

These scenes were edited out, then the video was eventually taken off the television because of the amounts of complaints received about it. A very famous and recent example of prohibition by the government involving music videos is the infamous 'Crazy Frog' song by Axel F. The video showed an animation of a frog dancing. The frog was naked and, although no distinctive genitalia were present, the Advertising Standards Committee received thousands of complaints from parents stating it was too explicit to be shown before watershed. The video was then edited, the aforesaid area blurred and allowed to be broadcast only after watershed (9pm.)

The actions of governments when looking at the way they manipulate the music industry can be clarified when looking at Gramsci's hegemony model. The definition of hegemony by Gramsci:

'A cultural and ideological means whereby the dominant groups in society, including fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class, maintain their dominance by securing the 'spontaneous consent' of subordinate groups, including the working class. This is achieved by the negotiated construction of a political and ideological consensus which incorporates both dominant and dominated groups'. (Strinati, D 2004).

This definition indicates to us that the authorities according to Gramsci, prohibit the uprising of the lower classes through bowdlerization, restrictions and censorship.

This is apparent when looking at popular music, and the radio.

Radio Caroline was a pirate radio station set up in the 1960s by a group of people who rebelling against the strict control the government had over the music broadcast on the radio. To stop prosecution, Radio Caroline was broadcast from the sea off the shores of Britain so as to avoid breaking the law. Radio Caroline broadcast rock'n'roll, and music genres that the younger audiences would appreciate, music which was censored and restricted by the government, receiving little airtime. The government retorted by making the listening to Radio Caroline illegal, but this was ineffective, so they produced a new radio station called Radio One. This was obviously still controlled by the government, but played the popular music that Radio Caroline did. This is a strong example of hegemony, showing how the government changes its policies to give the impression that the public have got what they wanted, but still having that underpinning control.

I conclude that popular music has had and continues to have massive influence on society today. Music such as 'Jerusalem' around the time of the world wars was uplifting and gave people hope in the terrible times they lived through while the war was happening. In the 1950s, music changed dramatically and brought about certain fashion trends, some seen as damaging, but overall just another cultural change. Nowadays, music is less regulated, but we are still prevented from listening to particular types of music at certain ages, indicating the continuation of censorship enforced by the government.

Hegemony in music is very apparent, a prime example being the banning of Radio Caroline and the censorship involved in the music industry today.

I feel society has developed through music, as new music is born; new technology to improve it follows and so on. Music brings joy and entertainment, a medium through which thoughts are expressed and ideas are publicised. I feel that the censorship of music is meaningless, because as we develop as people, we can learn to accept maybe aggressive lyrics or offensive videos and tolerate them as just another part of someone's culture. Through music we learn and to censor our music is to stifle our growth as human beings.

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Why Is Studying Popular Culture Important?. (2017, Aug 14). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/critical-analysis-role-popular-culture-creating-maintaining-learning-across-british-society/

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