Pop culture and counter-culture: Mutually antagonistic symbiosis

The Seranaders, looking dapper and popular in Florida (early 1900s)

There is a symbiosis between popular culture and counter-culture. Both camps deride, and seem to feel threatened, by the other but they need each-other and form a dynamic system. That dynamism is vital. Cultural evolution is important whether in the mainstream or not, though perhaps for different reasons, and both camps stimulate evolution in the other.

The genesis of this post was a conversation with a friend about the banal nature of Top 40 music, specifically how similar much of it sounds. The initial gambit was, can the computer that writes these songs be rebooted. Much popular music does sound similar and while it has always been thus, to a degree, perhaps that is becoming a more pronounced trend in our age.

Popular music is to a large degree a commodity. Whether it is produced for a major label or by an independent writer the aim is to be liked. This is a tricky aim to achieve and perhaps the best route to success is to model a song on recent hits. This confers the advantage of association as well as being a sound use of a broad kind of market research. This tactic is not going to produce a fast pace of change. Paths become grooves that become ruts that in turn become canyons and will be followed until a wall is hit, perhaps several times with the head of many artists. Then the next path will be sought out.

This approach is not quite a computer but it is systematic and will tend to produce a homogenous output. What is important to note is that there is a feedback mechanism in the system. Future popular music will tend to follow successful past hits. Consumers have a strong influence on the process but only as a group not as individuals. This can be a frustrating position as influence is so dispersed that the lone music fan is disempowered. It is important to remember that music fans are part of a group too. If you don’t like a song don’t buy it and there’s a chance it will fade away.

This homogeneity is useful socially. It creates a sense of belonging and cultural reference points that we can all refer to even if we don’t like the individual song. I don’t like California Gurls (sic) by Katy Perry Feat. Snoop Dogg, if fact I don’t like it quite a lot, but I know it and can discuss its (lack of) merits easily, even though I am not a fan, knowledge of the song is an experience I share with many others.

This is an area where culture and counter-culture touch. Even the term counter-culture references mainstream culture and often quite deeply. The same friend who’s poor ears were assaulted by the radio pointed to the relationship that visual artists like Gilbert Shelton, the creator of the sublime Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, amongst others, has to Hanna-Barbera cartoons. Culture provokes reactions that become counter-culture.

Counter-culture has a tricky path to navigate. To exist is must garner some attention but to accumulate too much risks traversing over the divide into the mainstream. This has risks and rewards. The most apparent and attractive reward is barrels of cash (potentially). If lots of folks like your work and will pay for it you can make lots of money. The risks are that you loose your credibility. This is beautifully illustrated in Richard Stevens’ Musical Elitism Venn Diagram Shirt (which everyone who thinks they know about music should own).

The boundary between popular and counter cultures is defined on an individual basis, or is at least individually variable. To some Rage Against the Machine are an example of counter-culture while to others they are sell-out frauds. In a kind of quantum model songs and bands can be both at the same time at least until they allow their music to be used in a TV advert for credit cards (like The Pixies). Commercial success within counter-culture is acceptable but there must be limits. Those limits are to do with commoditization. Once a work becomes a product it’s out of the club.

It is interesting to note that the influence works in the other direction too and perhaps with more politeness too. Popular culture often uses counter-culture as a reference point to help itself over the roadblocks it runs into. In the above example Gilbert Shelton takes a spark from Hanna-Barbera and passes it on to Matt Groening. The Simpsons are an interesting case they are mainstream popular culture but the show has an agenda that appeals to counter-cultural sensibilities.

Nowadays the we have nested cultures and counter-cultures too. This pattern can be found within genres such Metal, hip-hop and country. They all have commoditized mainstream strands and counter-cultural strands within them. This iterative process probably extends into sub-genres too.

The idea that one approach is in its nature superior is what I am most worried about. Once hard barriers are put up definitions become set. This impoverishes our culture. The lines need to be porous so that artists can make money from time to time and the computer that writes top 40 hits can at least get some new input when those walls at the bottom of canyons are hit.

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.