The difficulty of measuring a splintered pop culture

What are common pop culture products or experiences in today’s world? It is hard to tell:

Does Eilish, for instance, enjoy the same level of celebrity someone of equal accomplishment would have had 15 years ago? I don’t know. There are Soundcloud stars, Instagram stars, YouTube stars, Twitter stars, TikTok stars. Some artists, like Eilish and Lil Nas X, transition from success on a platform like Soundcloud to broader reach. But like Vine, TikTok has its own celebrities. So do YouTube and Instagram. We’ll always have George Clooneys and Lady Gagas, but it almost feels like we might be lurching towards a future with fewer superstars and more stars.

We can still read the market a little more clearly in music, and on social media, but the enigma of streaming services illustrates these challenges well. The problem is this: At a time when we’re both more able and more willing to concentrate in niches, we also have fewer metrics to understand what’s actually happening in our culture…

We have absolutely no idea. People could be watching “Santa Clarita Diet” in similar numbers to something like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” or they could be completely ignoring it. The same goes for every show on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix. We can see what people are chattering about on social media (hardly a representative sample), and where the companies are putting their money. But that’s it. Not only do true “cultural touchstones” seem to be fewer and farther in between in the streaming era, we also have fewer tools to determine what they actually are…

But it also means there’s more incentive for the creators of pop culture to carve us up by our differences rather than find ways to bring us together. It means we’re sharing fewer cultural experiences beyond the process of logging onto Netflix or Spotify, after which the home screen is already customized. On top of all this, it means we’re more and more in the dark about what’s entertaining us, and why that matters. What does cultural impact look like in an era of proliferating niches, where the metrics are murky?

I wonder if this could open up possibilities for new kinds of measurement beyond the producers of such products. For example, if Netflix is unwilling to report their numbers or does so only in certain circumstances, what is stopping new firms or researchers from broadly surveying Americans about their cultural consumption?

There may be additional unique opportunities and challenges for researchers. There are so many niche cultural products that could be considered hits that there is almost an endless supply of phenomena to study and analyze. On the other hand, this will make it more difficult to talk about “popular culture” or “American culture” as a whole. What unites all of these niches of different sizes and tastes?

It will also be interesting to see in 10-20 years what is actually remembered from this era of splintered cultural consumption. What cultural phenomena cross enough boundaries or niches to register with a large portion of the American population? Will the primary touchstones be viral Internet videos or stories rather than songs, movies, TV shows, books, etc.?

 

The cultural bubbles of popular TV shows tell us what exactly?

This is a cool set of maps of the popularity of 50 different TV shows across zip codes in the United States. But, what is the data and what exactly can it tell us? Here is the brief explanation:

When we looked at how many active Facebook users in a given ZIP code “liked” certain TV shows, we found that the 50 most-liked shows clustered into three groups with distinct geographic distributions. Together they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations.

Some quick thoughts:

  1. Can we assume that Facebook likes are an accurate measure? How many people are represented per zip code? Who tends to report their TV show preferences on Facebook? Why not use Nielsen data which likely has a much smaller sample but could be considered more reliable and valid?
  2. How exactly does television watching influence everyday beliefs and actions? Or, does it work the other way: people have certain beliefs and behaviors and they watch what confirms what they already like? Sociologists and others that study the effects of television don’t always have data on the direct connections between viewing and other parts of life. (I’m not suggesting television has no influence. Given that the average American still watches several hours a day, it is still a powerful medium even with the rise of
  3. The opening to the article both suggests TV viewing and the related cultures fall along an urban/rural divide but then also split across three groups. The maps display three main groups – metro areas, rural areas, and areas with higher concentrations of African Americans. I would want to know more about two areas. First, political data – and this article wants to make the link between TV watching and the 2016 election – suggests the final divide is really in the suburbs between areas further out from the big city and those closer. Can we get finer grained data between exurbs and inner-ring suburbs? Second, does this mean that Latinos and Asian Americans aren’t differentiated enough to be their own TV watching cultures?
  4. The introduction to this article also repeats a common line among those that study television:

In the 1960s and ’70s, even if you didn’t watch a show, you at least probably would have heard of it. Now television, once the great unifier, amplifies our divisions.

We certainly are way into the cable era of television (and probably beyond with all of the options now available through the Internet and streaming) but could we argue instead that the earlier era of fewer channels and viewing options simply papered over differences? As numerous historians and other scholars have argued, the 1950s might have appeared to be a golden era but most of the benefits went to white, middle class, suburban families.

In other words, I would be hesitant to state that these TV patterns are strong evidence of three clearly different cultures in the United States. Could these television viewing patterns fit in with other cultural tastes differentiating various groups based on class and race and ethnicity? Yes, though I’d much rather see serious academic work on this developing Bourdieu’s ideas and encompassing all sorts of consumption items treasured by Americans (homes, vehicles, sports fandom, making those hard choices like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King or Walmart and Target). Also, limiting ourselves to geography may not work as well – this approach has been tried by many including in books like The Big Sort or Our Patchwork Nation – as it did in the past.

No “musical ensemble that was more sociological” than the Beatles

Looking back at the Beatles playing Shea Stadium in 1965, one radio personality the group was a sociological phenomena:

Fifty years ago, the Beatles changed the way America witnessed live music by performing the first stadium show of its size and scope. On Aug. 15, 1965, the boys from Liverpool played a record-shattering concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which would be televised on BBC and ABC, immortalized in a documentary, and further the massive reach of Beatlemania in the ’60s. Legendary radio personality Cousin Brucie served as the announcer, and now, 50 years later, he says it still stands as the tipping point for turning concerts into must-see live spectacles…

The Shea Stadium show broke records in terms of profits and attendance; promoter Sid Bernstein said the event made $304,000, and 55,000 fans were at the stadium. Ed Sullivan’s iconic documentary about the event, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, culled footage from 12 cameras that documented the day, and captures the band at their peak of fame…

1965 was a pivotal year in both music history and American history, and Brucie remembers the Shea Stadium performance being one of biggest events that brought young people together for something that was pure enjoyment. “At that time in our nation, we needed something desperately to get our minds off some of the tragedy that was happening, the assassinations, racial strife and political problems,” he said. “Anybody who was at Shea Stadium, it’s like someone who was at Woodstock. You have to have been there.”

Experiencing live music has changed nearly completely since the Beatles took over Shea Stadium, and Brucie attests today’s music festivals and arena tours would not have existed without that one day in New York. “The [show] was really the beginning of major events that we we have today at stadiums. It was a precursor of everything. It was an experiment that worked very, very well. Today when people go to concerts, they go to listen to the music. There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological and garnered the emotion than this particular group, the Beatles,” he said.

Similar arguments have been made by many: the Beatles came about at the right time, the group was more than the sum of their parts and was able to amplify the hoopla (which also burned them out as they stopped touring one summer after the Shea Stadium concerts), and concerts in the 1960s were the place to be (from Shea Stadium to Woodstock).

But, the statement that “There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological” is interesting. What exactly does it mean? That they shaped broader society more than any other group? They are more fascinating to study and ponder than other groups? Everywhere they went was an interesting social scene? Their innovations were way ahead of other artists? Not too many groups could claim similar things and perhaps the time is past when a single music act or musical/social experience could truly get the attention of the world.

Listen to the full Shea Stadium concert here.

College courses tackle The Simpsons

Continuing the trend of the media showing interest in college students getting credit for classes involving pop culture, here is a brief overview of college courses tackling The Simpsons:

He currently teaches a course about the Broadway theater and how “The Simpsons” have embraced various musicals and plays. Next semester, he shifts to an online literature course titled “The D’oh of Homer” that includes readings from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — all referenced in “Simpsons” episodes…

According to the SUNY Oswego website, “Sociology of ‘The Simpsons'” is still an accredited course at the Central New York school. Sociology professor Dr. Tim Delaney published a book in 2008, “Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us.”…

Jean acknowledges a theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C. Montgomery Burns character — the miserly owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant — to the lead character in the movie “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane…

“They need to reach students however they can. And using ‘The Simpsons’ to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant,” she says. “Fighting against pop culture isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

For those skeptical of such classes, here is my brief defense of using The Simpsons:

1. It is the longest-running American sitcom. That alone means it has a unique place among television shows. It has never been the most popular show but it clearly has staying power.

2. Television may seem irrelevant to the college classroom but given that the average American adult watches 5 or so hours a day (the figures do vary by age), it is a powerful force.

3. The Simpsons has a particular way of critiquing many aspects of American society. Perhaps it is the writers, perhaps it is the animated format that allows for a different kind of humor. I recently used the episode “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 Episode 8) in class to illustrate the debate between religion and science. This episode lays out the two sides and then in the end skewers both by suggesting the real issue is rampant consumerism.

Can “everyone win” in the culture wars now fought in a fragmented pop culture landscape?

One writer suggests the fragmented pop culture of today allows opportunities for culture warriors of all sides to find their niche:

Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.

The fierce arguments of today often center on whether culture is changing fast enough, and whether change means chucking out old ideas, storytelling tropes and character types...

Many of the flash points in the new culture wars are the same issues of identity politics that roiled universities in earlier decades. But rather than slugging it out in academic presses through works like Martin Bernal’s “Black Athena,” which situated classical civilization’s roots in Africa, or polemics like Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” the battlefields are low culture and the combatants are consumers, mass media critics and creators…

But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter…

As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them. The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.

As noted, fragmentation is good if the goal is a lot of options and everyone getting a chance to present their perspectives. Yet, if the goal is one side or the other “winning” or even some measure of moral consensus, fragmentation is not so good.

At the same time, the idea that the culture wars are now playing out in pop culture also suggests that the average consumer is paying attention to these issues. Maybe they are moreso than in the past. However, I would guess there are still a lot of media consumers who aren’t thinking about these flashpoints as they consume. With an average consumption of 11 hours of media a day, layering the culture wars on top of that is a whole new ballgame.

How hot is the sociology of zombies?

An unemployed sociologist discusses his difficulties in securing a tenure track job with papers in the growing area of the sociology of zombies:

My job market struggles are made all more the inexplicable by the fact that I maintain an active publication track in a hot field of study – zombies. In the past year alone I have published three articles, and I have an additional three under review, and numerous projects in the pipeline.

While my research on zombies may be an odd topic for sociologists to tackle, my scholarship garners much interest. My first sole-authored article “Locating Zombies in the Sociology of Popular Culture,” for instance, can net 100+ downloads in a day on my academia.edu webpage. The same piece has been quoted in numerous press outlets, elicits interview requests, and even gets me open invitations to present at professional conferences that, ironically, I cannot afford to attend.

One of my “under review” articles “The New Horror Movie” is required reading for a graduate seminar taught by a friend at Aarhus University in Denmark. While some in sociology may be turned off to my research on zombies (something they do without reading it), I have also published and received grant money in the sociology of race – a topic of perennial sociological interest.

Zombies are a hot area in popular culture so it makes sense that academics would address this and think about what it says about or means for American society. At the same time, I wonder how many people within the larger discipline of sociology are thinking about zombies. Traditional markers of the status of a topic within the discipline include things like papers about the topic at professional meetings of sociologists (conferences involving other disciplines may not matter as much), respected faculty tackling the subject, important programs/departments teaching the course/having a concentration of faculty teaching about it/attracting graduate students interested in the topic, numerous articles/book chapters/books published and in the pipeline, citations of said publications, and perhaps a research network or ASA section or some sort of permanent sociology group addressing the topic. All of this takes quite a bit of time to develop and for the benefits to trickle down to those who study the subject.

I wonder if there is some easy way to track trends in sociological subjects over time to see which hot topics of past decades made it and which did not.

Sociologist explains how the Beatles really did change the world

In a new book, a female sociologist argues that the Beatles “actually did change everything…It’s not just hyperbole.”

In addition to the fan voice being missing from 50 years of Beatles scholarship, Leonard said, the female voice is absent. Most of the books about The Beatles are written by men.“As a lifelong female fan and sociologist, I knew I had a fresh perspective that would be an important contribution to the conversation.”

The intense six-year Beatles immersion created a fan-performer relationship that had never existed before, she said: “Demographics, technology, marketing, the political moment and of course quality of the music, all converged to make it a historically unique event.”

From the very beginning, fans had a sense that The Beatles were talking to them directly…

Young people, she said, had the sense all along that The Beatles “were on their side, encouraging and empowering them. Looking at it in this way, fans’ strong emotional attachment, 50 years later, makes perfect sense.”

Add these generational changes (could the Beatles emerged in the same way without the Baby Boomers?) to a band that came right at the peak of mass media (by the end of the 1960s, more narratives and media outlets were emerging), was able to do everything themselves as a cohesive group (write, sing, and play) compared to single performers (like Elvis) or made bands (like the Monkees), had a personality that was both somewhat traditional (see the clear contrast The Rolling Stones made with them) as well as cheeky and somewhat rebellious, pushed the boundaries of pop music as well as recording techniques, and sold a ridiculous number of albums. Is all of this on the scale of the Cold War or landing on the moon or the ongoing struggles in the Middle East? Probably not but it helped develop and ingrain the importance of popular culture for American society…

It is interesting that most of the major Beatles books have been written by men. Come to think of it, rock music still is dominated by men whether it comes to performers, behind the scenes operators (producers, record label executives, etc.), and journalists.