Pop Strife: The Reinvention of Mass Culture

Pop Strife: The Reinvention of Mass Culture
I can sing the theme song to early '80s sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati. So can most people approximately my age. At the time, it stuck in my head with thousands of other catchy jingles, and now, I consider it just a glitch in my memory banks — a file I can¡|t seem to erase, and don¡|t feel the need to. But perhaps, as Hal Niedzviecki argues in his new book We Want Some Too: Underground Desire and the Reinvention of Mass Culture, pop culture has colonised my mind to the point where its language has become my own, where I am unable (and unwilling) to separate a collective experience of mass culture from my own individual experience of it — a mere cog in a swirling wheel of commercial ditties, product placements and episodes of The Simpsons.

Niedzviecki is seeking to recast the language of popular culture for a new generation of "lifestyle" culturalists, people of a certain age and generation (under 30, I suppose), who have come to define themselves by their pop culture desires and memories, like Star Trek fans without the community and the conventions. But what¡|s most interesting about We Want Some Too is its participatory aspects — this is no Orwellian vision of conformity, and lifestyle culturalists are not mere receptacles for mass produced "product" but are actively shaping and directing their interests, reclaiming the means of creation even while they succumb to the underlying ethic of consumption.

For Niedzviecki, zine culture is the greatest example of this trend (no surprise, considering his background as editor of Canadian zine bible Broken Pencil), where the act of creation, of commentary on everything from PEZ dispensers to Tarzan memorabilia, is prime. The fact that most of these zines will never be read is irrelevant; just like the pirate radio broadcaster in Merritt, BC whose signal barely extended beyond his driveway, we may not have the platform for mass media commentary — a platform we are all told we deserve, that is our birthright — but we are all in constant "training" for the moment that such an opportunity presents itself.

"We must believe in the capacity of pop culture to provide us with meaning" the author writes. "To do anything else would be to challenge everything we grew up with, bought into, dreamed of ... We might as well get jobs." We Want Some Too is trying to walk a difficult high wire, and to his credit, Niedzviecki steps lightly. He acknowledges that the primacy of popular culture is largely corporate — a series of image manipulations designed to make us buy stuff we didn¡|t know we needed until this instant, and that will only satisfy us, if at all, until the next instant — but has unerring faith in the ability of individuals to recast that message, to appropriate it for our own means.

Of course, our creations are quite often not in opposition to the purposes of the corporation (this is no revolutionary manifesto, after all) but the act of creation itself makes the zine creator, the Barbie collector, the Bionic Woman obsessive an authority. Like Nick Hornby¡|s record store employees in High Fidelity, lifestyle culturists feel that their potential is going untapped — that they (we) know more and deserve acknowledgement for it. Like the head of the geek class, Harry Knowles, founder of the Ain¡|t It Cool News web site, they dream of having their expertise acknowledged, of sitting across from Roger Ebert and having their postulations on the effluvium of pop taken seriously.

Niedzviecki portrays these creators as the opposite of "high" culture, distant from the high-minded, liberal-educated "culture theorists" whose commentary on "low" culture consists largely of dismissive, upturned noses. Yet he is also a part of that academic world, as likely to quote McLuhan and philosopher Mark Kingwell as he is to quote People magazine. He's recasting the underground culture of his youth and using it as his own pass through the pearly gates of academe; such a move seems oddly appropriate, given his thesis and subject matter.

Perhaps I'm romanticising a potential revolution that previous generations let slip through their fingers, but by the end of We Want Some Too, I am disappointed by the lack of any real potential for change. Niedzviecki provides incisive, often cutting commentary on this particular social niche, but I remain slightly sickened that lifestyle culture's goal, for all its bluster, is merely grabbing another piece of rotting pie, when the greatest act of personal rebellion is where you're gonna put your swoosh tattoo.