Friday, 1 February 2013

Weaselly Pop

David Hepworth recently asked: "When did pop become the dominant culture?" This begs the question by assuming that "pop" is a historically specific development that has displaced an earlier form. Presumably he means the musical styles that first came to prominence between the end of the Chatterley ban and you know what. The word dominant implies hegemony, the idea that pop is now the cultural orthodoxy, not merely the form that shifts the most units. As becomes clear in his piece, pop has expanded beyond music to encompass other forms as well: "Pop is now culture's default position. It's unimaginable that a new arts programme or supplement could be launched today without an interview with Damon Albarn or a think piece about Scandinavian detectives. It wasn't always like this." Indeed. Once upon a time we'd have had interviews with Charles Dickens, banging on about his latest release, or some smartarse like George Orwell trying to decode the social meaning of seaside postcards.

Hepworth seems strangely oblivious to the class dimension of culture (Albarn and Scandi crime are middle class identifiers) even as he quotes the claim by Liz Forgan, outgoing chair of The Arts Council, that politicians prefer to be seen at rock festivals rather than the opera in order to avoid the charge of elitism. This is just self-serving propaganda by someone whose job it was to persuade politicians to spend more money on opera. The cultural products that are dominant (in the sense of most visible) in a capitalist society are always going to be the ones where the largest amount of money can be made through their production and exchange. Opera is a luxury item: low volume, high price. In a world where exclusivity (aka "excellence") is seen as the antithesis of "dumbing down", you can bet there are plenty of politicians happy to be associated with it. Pop may be dominant in terms of sales, but it is not hegemonic in terms of culture.

When Hepworth draws a distinction between "serious" and "pop" he is guilty of categorising culture into rigid and competing blocs. This leads to the trope of conflict: "About fifteen years ago I realised there had been a war between serious culture and pop culture. It had ended and Pop had won. Clearly. Trouble is I have no memory of that war taking place." Such categorisation inevitably reflects existing social divisions, hence the ready identification of culture and class. Snobbery, masked as aesthetic judgement, is not far behind (consider how Miranda is indulged by TV critics while Mrs. Brown's Boys is sneered at). Hepworth's bemusement is the perspective of a former editor of Smash Hits realising that the counter culture of his youth is the mainstream of his middle age.

The artificiality of these boundaries is highlighted by the way that certain cultural products cross them. Thus football, which was once a working class identifier, is now seen (and criticised) as increasingly middle class. In practice, most mass spectator sports have always been cross-class. Just as some brickies have always loved Beethoven, so doctors and lawyers have watched Arsenal since the Plumstead days. What has changed is the media treatment, from the demonisation of football fans as representatives of the violent labouring class to the idolisation of them as a vanishing tribe being priced out of the game. The Liverpool fans who unveiled a banner at the Emirates this week, querying whether football was still a working class sport, were complicit in this sentimentalisation. They are entirely right to question the price of a ticket, but to imply that football is categorically working class is weaselly.

David Hepworth's fundamental error is to assume that there is a definable entity called "pop", with clear boundaries and characteristics, and that this is mutually exclusive to "serious culture". In reality, there is stuff that sells. All the rest is ideology.

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