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The rise and fall of pop culture

It now grows so broad and so fast, it is no longer the great connector

It would be a rather preposterous title today, but just a little over a decade ago, Michael and Jane Stern didn't flinch at publishing a book that purported to be an ''Encyclopedia of Pop Culture."

''We thought that we could, with some authority, name the key elements in late 20th-century pop culture in America," Michael Stern says from his home in West Redding, Conn. ''The thought of even attempting to do something like that today strikes me as impossible."

He's got a point. Popular culture, with its assumptions of a mass audience, once provided at least the illusion of common ground. Its foundation was a large but essentially knowable range of movies, music, TV shows, and fads that most people were assumed to be familiar with. But that foundation is buckling under the sheer weight of all the things that now qualify as pop culture -- and all the new technologies that deliver them to finely calibrated consumer niches. Today the national water cooler bubbles with competing monologues rather than inclusive dialogues.

To be considered conversant with pop culture, your contemporary omnivore must try to find room in his or her consciousness for a nonstop torrent of DVDs, blogs, Game Boys, anime, podcasts, music-playing cellphones, websites devoted to celebrity news, and scores of TV channels. Nor can Mr. and Ms. Omnivore afford to take their eyes off advertising and fashion, which have grown explosively, or food and sports, now the obsessive focus of numerous shows and even entire networks. Comic books don't command just cult followings anymore: They are Hollywood franchises and, in some cases, enjoy literary cachet as ''graphic novels." Even the once-staid profession of politics is now in the mix more than ever: Howard Dean's infamous 2004 ''scream" in Iowa, which once would have occupied a few seconds on the evening news, became a pop-culture event as it whizzed around the Internet.

In short, the proliferation has been so fast and so dizzying that even people who study popular culture for a living find it hard to keep up. ''It's impossible," says Ralph Tribbey, editor of a trade publication called DVD Release Report. ''I'm always behind."

''We look around our pop culture and there's just so much going on that in a way we feel paralyzed by it," adds Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College. ''You experience almost this sense of a kind of ignorance: 'Everyone seems to have seen this show or that show, and where am I going to find the time?' "

Another question might be: What are the social costs of this simultaneous mushrooming of pop-culture products and fragmentation among its consumers? After all, if one measures a country's sense of community partly by its culture, you'd have to say the nation whose motto is ''E pluribus unum" is today a lot more pluribus and a lot less unum.

Consider television, the most democratic medium. Where once variety shows such as ''The Ed Sullivan Show" married popular culture and high culture before the approving gaze of Middle America, the two art forms orbit separate planets today. Where once Johnny Carson's ''Tonight Show" was a common reference point, a guaranteed conversation-starter the next day at work, late-night viewership is now fragmented among half a dozen hosts. Where once broadcast-network hits like ''Seinfeld," ''M*A*S*H," and ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show" enjoyed huge national audiences, the most talked-about TV series in this age of digital cable have an in-group cliquishness about them, such as ''Deadwood" (HBO), ''Monk" (USA), ''Rescue Me" (FX), or ''The Closer" (TNT).

''We are sort of in a multichannel era, not just on TV but all over our culture," says Jason Mittell, author of ''Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture" and a professor of media studies at Middlebury College. ''It's no longer the unifier, or rarely is."

Of course, elected officials from the president on down still prefer to speak of one nation, indivisible. But the advertising industry feels no such compunction. In fact, rather than aim at a mass audience, Madison Avenue prefers to slice the populace into convenient demographic segments (women 18 to 49, men 18 to 34, etc.) that can be marketed to. That is helping drive the segmentation of pop culture, which is increasingly subject to the dictates of the ad industry. As movies and TV shows and music are rigorously slotted into age-specific niches, it can be hard to communicate outside, or even inside, those niches.

''There are very few films, shows, music, or artists who can unify across generations, across race, across taste, across style," observes Mittell. Adds Burke: ''It's really disorienting. This person over there knows music; this person over there knows sci-fi TV; this person over there knows all the ads that ever were. But no one person is in possession of all those things."

So much trivia
If you doubt it, just try to play the recently released Trivial Pursuit DVD: Pop Culture 2. It underscores how difficult it is to consider oneself in tune with pop culture as broadly defined as it is today.

Aimed at adults, the game includes both a board game (1,800 questions) and a DVD (576 questions) based on six categories: TV, fads, ''buzz," music, movies, and sports and games.

A card plucked at random contains questions that are skull-imploding in their variety: ''What show got in gear with the theme song lyrics 'We're goin' hoppin', we're going hoppin' today, where things are poppin' the Philadelphia way?' " ''What classic dessert was originally hyped for being 'Delicate, Delightful, Dainty'?" ''What part-time tennis player was sued by her parents in 2004, for their part of the $5 million Florida home they all shared?" ''What two four-letter words did Tupac Shakur have tattooed on his tummy?" ''Which star of 'The Breakfast Club' was originally slated to play the role Judd Nelson ended up with?" ''What baseball manager coughed up $4,000 for George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, despite being fired by 'Dubya' in 1992?"

To answer all those questions, a contestant would need to be both retro and cutting-edge. Who else would be familiar with: the television show that originated in the 1950s called ''American Bandstand"; an old Jell-O slogan; the family spat involving Anna Kournikova; slain hip-hip idol Tupac Shakur's ''Thug Life" tattoo; the movie career of Emilio Estevez; and the campaign-finance endeavors of former Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine.

''The assumption with Trivial Pursuit is never that one person would know all the answers, because it would be a very short game," says Rob Daviau, a senior game designer for East Longmeadow-based Hasbro Games, which manufactures and markets Trivial Pursuit under the Parker Brothers brand name. ''The assumption is that one person should know half the answers."

Yet even that is more challenging than ever, because the factoids just keep on coming, courtesy of ever-expanding media outlets. ''The Academy Awards is a TV show that gives awards to movies," notes Daviau. ''Now there are magazines that talk about the TV show that gives awards to movies."

Such saturation may be responding to the fact that pop culture has seldom been a greater preoccupation than it is today. ''Pop culture knowledge is kind of like the new social currency for America," says Daviau. ''If you ask most people who the mayor of San Francisco is, they won't know. But if you ask them what the 'San Francisco treat' is, 99 percent of them will know it. We are a culture that loves things that are unimportant."

Generations apart
If baby boomers and seniors feel adrift in the sea of pop culture, it has been ever thus, for one group or another. The arrival of the Beatles in the early 1960s, for instance, dismayed many parents even as it enthralled many teenagers. But analysts agree that when it comes to pop culture, tastes have seldom diverged as starkly along generational lines as they do today, partly due to the disappearance of genres that served as common reference points. For instance, on the literary front, Burke says he is struck by the absence of the kind of ''middlebrow epic" by the likes of James Michener that once anchored many a beach towel. ''Michener was a good representative of that kind of mass culture that doesn't exist anymore," he says. On the cinematic front, Hollywood has made clear that its definition of a hit is whatever teenagers flock to -- and a dismal parade of sequels has been the result.

Within pop culture, there are exceptions that have transgenerational appeal, such as Fox's ''American Idol." But niches are the norm, along with a fragmentation that will make it increasingly rare for the nation to be galvanized around a single pop-culture event like the ''Who shot J.R.?" cliffhanger posed by the TV show ''Dallas" in March 1980.

According to Burke, one upside to the explosion of pop culture categories and the outlets that distribute them is that consumers now have more choices and more control over those choices. Another, more debatable claim was put forward by Steven Johnson, in his recent book ''Everything Bad Is Good for You." Johnson argues that popular culture has grown ''more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years," and consequently demands ''more cognitive engagement with each passing year."

Some critics question that. But what almost no one would dispute is the overwhelming size of pop culture today.

''The pop culture machine is so huge and so omnivorous," says Michael Stern. ''And I'm not sure all that much of it is worth knowing. I pity the person who 20 or 30 years ago became a professor of pop culture somewhere. My God, how can you do that? A guy's under a mountain of stuff, with dumpsters dumping more of it every day."

Don Aucoin can be reached at

Message Board  What are your thoughts on the current state of pop culture? Is it too watered down, with too much to take in? What does pop culture say about our society as a whole? Share your thoughts. More:  Pop goes the world  Pop quiz
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