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What are the links between popular culture and market forces?

This essay will explore the assumption of popular culture as a commodity subject to the dictates of market forces, where it is 'produced to be consumed' (Strinati 1995:242; Harrington and Bielby 2001:2). I shall use specific examples from 'pop culture' to illustrate the interplay between the production and consumption, exploring these threads against a contemporary backdrop of 'mediated globalisation' (Rantanen 2005) and the 'postmodern' era of mass media.

According to Harrington and Bielby (2001:2), attempting to define 'popular culture' is a necessary first step in any academic writing on the subject.  They use the work of Raymond Williams (1983), to alight upon contrasting meanings of the word 'popular.' It can be 'objects or practices' that are either 'well-liked by a lot of people' or those 'deemed inferior and unworthy.' (Harrington and Bielby 2001:2). Within this simple binary the music of Goldie Looking Chain is placed in opposition to the likes of Mendelssohn. As a generality, the latter is characterised as a form of 'high' art, whilst the former is derogatorily viewed as the listening of homogenous 'masses.'  Not only are the 'artists' of high culture juxtaposed with the capitalist producers of the culture industry, but these distinctions are seen as a matter of consumer taste, with Kantian philosophy establishing a binary between the ways art and mass culture are consumed. Art or 'high' culture is said to require learned thought: the 'taste of reflection', whilst popular culture is more immediate and bodily: 'the taste of sense.'(McKee 2007:206).  In comparison Pierre Bourdieu (1984) effectively deconstructs how dominant groups establish and use taste hierarchies as cultural capital to renew their social and economic power.

All this moves us away from Marxist ideology and structuralist representation towards a more 'postmodern' analysis of the 'surface' value of popular culture. The notion of any underlying cultural 'truth' collapses, with texts instead becoming open to a plethora of polysemic interpretations. As well as opening an extensive debate on the merits of relativism (See McKee 2007:204-223), this underlines the importance of theorising production and consumption within a more fluid, Foucauldian notion of power, that enables us to question the very existence of the 'popular' as an episteme.

In conclusion, we see that in an era of increasingly global media flows, our original assumption that popular culture 'is produced to be consumed', needs to be accounted for in a rather more dynamic sense than the Marxist model of ideology and base/superstructure. Yet, as the boundary between producers and consumers becomes fuzzied, and popular culture becomes increasingly fragmented into more and more 'subcultures', the only thing that remains fetishized in the interplay between culture and economy is the value of the commodity; an ideology in itself.

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