Pop Goes The Culture

Something touched on in the previous post is the notion of cultural relevancy, or if you prefer engaging the culture. A common cry amongst the conservative new media echo chamber… er, realm is the need to actively pursue entry into popular culture via the assorted reigning entertainment mediums — music, television, film. The irony of how this is most often discussed within closed circles is apparently lost on those thus engaged with talking about engagement but never doing anything that can in any fashion be construed as genuine outreach. But I digress.

One of the greatest challenges facing anyone who seeks to influence pop culture is that despite its apparent pervasiveness, even for the biggest names it is surprisingly limited in its at least initial outreach. Take as an example U2, its record label, and Apple’s agreement to make what is easily the biggest band in the world’s new album available for free to everyone with an iTunes account, number of same being some 500 million. How many thus far (the deal was announced this past Tuesday) have taken advantage of the offer, said offer being mentioned and promoted by virtually every media and medium in existence? Around two million. This for a band that has sold over 150 million albums in its career. The days when The Beatles could change the world with the change of a hairstyle are long gone.

Another example of pop culture’s limited appeal is at the movies. The general rule of thumb is that a movie with $100M in box office business is a success, bloated special effects-laden outings that cost more than $200M to make not withstanding. But how many people, as in individual ticket sales, see a blockbuster movie? The biggest movie this year to date is Guardians of the Galaxy, with an as of yesterday estimated domestic box office take of $297.8M. Translated into ticket sales, the best guess is that comes out to 35.7M tickets sold. Figuring there is quite probably a good percentage of repeat viewers… you get the idea. A large number, but not universal. Also, factor in the film’s built-in mass audience appeal from the Marvel Comics/Disney connection, the tens if not hundreds of millions spent promoting the film, and so on. This isn’t a film designed for viewerships at your local art cinema; something to give you cause for reflection and discussion. It is mass market product, designed to sell tickets and merchandise.

Paraphrasing Shakespeare, pop culture is sound and fury; tales told by an idiot, signifying nothing. This is the entirety of pop culture: a soap bubble, momentarily pretty but fatally fragile, inevitably popping to be seen no more and quickly forgotten in favor of the next bubble blown.

Yet despite this, enter into the pop culture fray we must. We have examples of what happens when we withdraw behind our walls; witness the utter failure of the evangelical American church, despite its size, to have any impact on society. Certainly the odds are stacked against us. We do not have multi-multi-million dollar promotional budgets at our disposal, nor will we have industry support no matter how potentially profitable our efforts may be. However, the need to reach people remains paramount. We cannot sit idly by, barking at the caravan as it moves on, then believe we are accomplishing something by barking. At least not if we are being honest. If we reach but a few, we have done far better than if we reach none at all.

We also have to be honest with ourselves. Echo chamber jingoism is great at rallies of like-minded people but utterly useless when presented to the general public. Be they ever so superficial and slick, pop culture successes convey whatever message they offer with sufficient skill to penetrate multiple societal layers. Clumsy cliches need not apply. Lee Greenwood already did “God Bless The USA.” There is neither need nor room for a sequel.

Now, promoting conservative artists in whatever field immediately presents a problem, that being dealing with artists. Most — not all, but most — creative people are fundamentally insane and correspondingly hard to handle. Why this is so is seldom understood by those not similarly gifted, or for that matter many of those who are gifted. To be an artist of any genuine skill means, regardless of whether it is acknowledged, that one has opened him or herself to the creative spirit that is a direct gift from God. When human (that’s us) is touched by divine (that’s the Man Upstairs), simultaneously beautiful and terrible things happen. The beautiful is what is created; the terrible is how such overwhelming intimacy with the Creator can all too easily drive a person mad as in our limited human state we can only handle so much beyond ourselves. There is also the pain factor; Bono was completely accurate when he sang every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief; all kill their inspiration and sing about the grief. Little Miss Sunshine would have been a lousy artist.

So, these are the challenges facing anyone who wishes to engage the culture. It is expensive, it is an insular world that does not take kindly to outsiders with views outside its hedonistic hyper-liberal own, and the people best equipped artistically to enter the fray are often borderline, if not full-fledged, self-destructive lunatics. Yet engage we must, for there is far too much at stake to let things go as they are.