This guest post comes compliments of Alex Beene. Alex is an Ole Miss grad and a former section editor of The Daily Mississippian. He is an admitted cinephile and we’re thrilled that he took the time to join us for this guest post!
Ah, Fourth of July. It’s truly the summer version of Christmas. Big fireworks tents are propped up along the highway, farmers have their truck beds full of watermelons to sell and traffic in most areas will be as unbearable as another Taylor Swift awards acceptance speech.
Now I know most people these days would like to harp on all the complications this country is going through at the moment. You know, the lousy economy, the high unemployment numbers and the decade-long conflicts in the Middle East. One particular annoyance of mine has been the often harsh critique of American pop culture in recent years and its supposed decline.
I use the term “recent years” loosely, because the new age culture – the hipsters, generation Y or whatever the hell you want to call them – like to blast most of America’s pop culture past. They laugh at prior generations of tough guys and badass fine females and label them as crude and unsophisticated. No, they’re too hip for America’s John Wayne past or its Kim Kardashian future. Give them some small indie foreign film that features a clown, a winter with no snow, two abortions and wrap it up in black and white cinematography, and then you’ve got “culture.”
It’s time to draw the line. The fact of the matter is America has a stellar history of pop culture. In fact, we pretty much invented the term! And often forgotten is the brain behind the brawn of many of our most popular stories and figures.
Sure, we developed the tough guy. The earliest film genre out of Hollywood was the Western, a type of film that remains highly popular till this day and has included such cinematic legends as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Some would like to trash their larger-than-life personas, but few give these guys credit for giving us gripping stories behind their action. John Wayne’s “The Searchers” deals heavily with the cowboy coming to grips with racism in the Old West, and Eastwood’s “The Man with No Name” Trilogy dives into greed, bigotry and nobility in a dusty – and dare I say Biblical – kind of way.
We also created the gangster, another character made fun of by modern audiences for the deep northeastern accents and heavy-handed wisecracks. In reality, though, no other type of media tells a better story of poverty and the will to still make it in America during the Great Depression better than the gangster film. Popular for nearly 80 years now, these films put America on a psychologist’s cinematic couch and force them to look at the dark side of the often-hyped American dream.
America’s the home to the modern superhero. One of pop culture’s most dynamic literary inventions, the comic book, first became an overnight success here in the United States. It was in the early 1940s and 1960s that Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Wonder Woman would swing into Americans’ homes and eventually the world. During the often hard times of the last decade, they’ve been one of the bright spots, providing memorable films and a great export from revenue-stricken Hollywood.
And perhaps best of all about America’s pop culture past is the idea that anyone – yes, anyone – can become just as big of a figure in the culture as John Wayne, Al Capone or Superman. Baseball cards made the idolization of sports stars in different markets a reality, and soon, Joe Nobody who grew up on a farm and made it to the big leagues was seen as a star by countless people.
The same could be said of many politicians who sprung out of small towns and into the national conscious with the spread of radio and television. Then, there were the countless movie stars that pulled themselves out of extreme poverty and became the most beloved figures in the world. It’s a goal originated in the U.S. that still draws thousands of people out to Hollywood each year hoping to become the next big thing.
And we keep reinventing ourselves. No Fidel Castro 60-year-runs going on here. Americans have always understood the need to shake things up and keep them fresh. We’ve watched the tough guy get reworked many times, as characters like Rocky, Rambo and Hulk Hogan became the big cinematic and athletic attractions of the 1980s. We watched as a small town dreamer in the 1990s Michael Jordan became the biggest celebrity in the world. Hell, we even took over the music scene from the U.K. in the second half of the decade. The popularity of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones globally gave way to the Michael Jackson’s and Madonna’s that would bring a new era of pop to our ears.
This is another reinvention stage. Social networking like Facebook and Twitter, both American born and raised, and reality TV – yes, I said reality TV – are again playing on the idea that everyone can be a star and having their individual time in the spotlight. For all the talk of the “top 1 percent” having all the fame, we’ve never had a period in the history of the world where people could be this connected with each other and share in the comedy and tragedy of our daily lives.
So what if we have to deal with the occasional Kardashian divorce or Tiger Woods scandal? The fact is these aren’t new developments; we’ve always had to work around that stuff. Each decade has had its fair share of pop culture trash; it’s just something that will always be there. And regardless of what you may have heard, other cultures have went through the same thing.
However, I think when you look back at the history of America’s pop culture as a whole, you’ll see one of the richest, most diverse and most intellectual in our planet’s history. It keeps changing, making improvements and occasionally falling into some pitfalls, but that journey is what makes it so great.