Popular Culture – Does it Truly Evolve?

T-shirts say the darnedest things. One day I saw a t-shirt that said: “Destroy Popular Culture. Rebuild. Repeat.”

Being a musician who has struggled to keep up with the ever-changing, fickle whims of popular music, it was a like a light bulb going on over my head! Does something evolve if it is continually being destroyed?

To keep making money, the popular culture industry does some spiteful things to the art forms they supposedly embrace, whether you’re talking music, fashion or whatever.

Let’s take 1970s disco music as an example. Stay with me on this. In the 70s, everyone loved disco music. Well, most everybody. Me included. And I still do. So there.

But just 6 months before the 1980s began, the music of the 70s was ridiculed en masse by the media, and made to look passe, pointless and worthless. Somehow we were convinced that anyone that listened to disco at that point was somehow really weird and a bit of a loser. Phase one of the t-shirt now completed. Destroy Popular Culture.

Now move on to 1980. Alongside the synth-dominated pop of the 80s (which still had a strong disco and funk influence, if you ask me), there was also a resurgence in the popularity of 1960s music.

We were hearing songs like “Stand By Me”, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, and “Soul Man” right alongside songs like “Jungle Love”, “Billie Jean” and “I Feel For You”.

Phase Two completed. Rebuild.

In the 1990s, the same thing happened. Far be it for the fresh new teens of the 90s to be caught dead listening to anything from the 80s. Ewww! Not cool!

Yet, alongside the rap and alternative music of the 90s that was dominating the mainstream airwaves, disco music was making a comeback. Lo and behold!

Let’s face it, the categorization of music has become ridiculous, and even though arguably 70s disco music had now morphed into “house music” or “dance-pop music”, the influence of disco was still strongly evident. Songs like Madonna’s “Vogue” were topping the charts. Phase 3 completed. Repeat.

The reasoning behind all of this is simple. Money!

And Popular Culture industries knows how to manipulate people. How? By appealing to, and manipulating the collective and individual egos.

So it goes like this. In the 70s, disco was the pop music of the times, and was naturally directed at the teenage ego. Of course, people of all ages enjoyed disco, but I’m talking about the basic premise on the t-shirt, remember.

Then we skip a decade (in this example, the 1980s), and basically ignore those former teenagers of the 1970s, who are now out of high school, and in their 20s-going to or dropping out of college or university, getting their first serious job, struggling to make a paycheck, perhaps starting a family, and have little income to spare. And wondering what the hell happened to good music.

But in the 1990s, those same people are now the successful breadwinners, the new homeowners, the ones running businesses and the ones with disposable income, and still young enough to think being cool somehow matters. And they want to hear the music they loved as teens, but they want to hear it as if it’s still popular in the current mainstream society. This lets them feel relevant.

So, hoping to once again capitalize on the music they so wrongfully dismissed in the 1980s (namely, the music of the 1970s), the popular culture industry starts bringing that music back into the spotlight. All of a sudden, it’s a renaissance, a revival, a rebirth, even!

Only now, perhaps they call it “classic”, or unfortunately, “old school” and “retro”.

Frankly, I find terms like “retro” and “old school” very insulting, as they are only used to bring something down in order to build something else up. This is done to make the egoistic feel that the current-day music is cool, relevant and superior.

In this case, I think the egos targeted belong to the current crop of teenagers, but also to the current crop of artists, who have also become much younger, less talented, and less musically literate. In any case, it’s just more ego stroking.

In referring to pop culture, the terms “retro” and “old school” really only came into common usage at the beginning of the 21st century. And once again, the truth of the slogan rears its head:

Destroy Popular Culture. Rebuild. Repeat.

Now of course, the Internet and the technology explosion have changed everything. Now people can listen to whatever they want, whenever they want, without being subject to the ever-changing whims of the fickle (but shrewd) popular music industries. We are no longer subject to what the radio DJ’s tell us is cool. We program our mp3 players with the music WE want to hear, and that’s that.

The Pop Culture industries keep trying, though. And though the superficial surface of it seems to change, in terms of musical styles, fashions, fads, etc., underneath it all, in my opinion, no, it does not really evolve, it just keeps going around in circles, fulfilling a very human need. The need to feel relevant, and the need to feel like we matter; to feel special; to feel “cool”.