Written in early 2008 for an undergraduate class on Popular Culture.
Celebrity entertainment channels are often assumed to offer the mainstream flow of material given the nature of their sensationalistic and all-pervasive content, leaving viewers little consumer choice. This paper seeks to discuss if such channels may actually allow room for consumers to choose for themselves, empowering them to craft their own individualities.
Popular culture has been described to be “’well liked by many people’…; ‘work deliberately setting out to win favour with the people’; (and) ‘culture actually made by the people for themselves’” (Storey 2000, p.4). I will use the first two definitions to discuss the allure of celebrity channels to the population, and the tools of profit-making they have evolved into, before employing the third definition to illustrate the significance and worth of such channels in crafting individuals’ identities today.
Consumption in this sense would range a spectrum including mere passive viewing of such channels and purchase of advertised products, to spontaneous participation via internet forum discussions, vote contributions to song list countdowns, and participation in reality television (reality TV) programmes.
Celebrity entertainment channels
The proliferation of celebrity entertainment channels such as Music Television (MTV), E! Entertainment (E!) and Channel V have been rampant in recent years. Among themselves, these channels offer a wide variety of programmes. I broadly classify them into celebrity programmes and non-celeb programmes.
Celebrity content would include the airing of music television videos (MTV videos) recorded by artists, weekly chart count-downs and international concert broadcasts. Channels have also begun to show the making of such MTV videos including the actual recording procedures, detailing the emotional struggles faced by artists and managements alike. The E! series Living with the Kardashians films the everyday life of a famous family of eight, spotlighting on daughter, Kim, who is a rising Hollywood actress-socialite exploring a career in Playboy and singing, and two of her sisters, Khloe and Kourtney, who run their fashion store, Dash, in the high districts of Hollywood.
Such reality TV content also extends to document the lives of ordinary people, bringing us to my second category – non-celeb programmes. These include the grooming of random talented nobodies into popular bands and artists, documenting their rise from being talent-spotted on the street and at small auditions, to the phenomenal popular sensations they eventually become. Making the Band from MTV is one such series having already produced bands in the late nineties like O’town and Bardot, presenting the duality of entertainment and education when viewers are exposed to the technical aspects of song-writing apart from the indulgence in eye-candy. Channel V’s Bad Girls Club is another example of such series, filming the trials and tribulations of ten girls chosen at random from all over the United States to live in the same house for a prolonged period of weeks. The climax of each episode usually centers around the fighting and falling-out over petty mundane things like doing the dishes and bathroom hogging.
The mainstream as a natural choice
I will discuss how content on celebrity entertainment channels have been deemed a mainstream option eliminating individual choice, firstly, by the nature of their medium; secondly, by the nature of the content presented; and lastly, by their import/export trends.
The very nature of celebrity entertainment channels being distributed via the medium of the mass media makes it a substantial power considering its instant impact, entering our lives with the simple flicker on a remote control. Besides being readily available, such programmes are also readily circulated. They reach a far-reaching network of viewership because technological advancements have permitted the instantaneous transmission of material over stretches of physical boundaries within nanoseconds. Perhaps the only exclusivity this activity may behold is that consumers must have access to a TV set to attain these products. The minority kept from such entertainment may include communities in Third World countries.
Strinati writes about how the mass media can easily be “…controlled centrally and broadcast to the population at large” (Strinati 2004, p.4) strengthening my stand that celebrity entertainment channels, as trivial as they may seem, may actually have an all-pervasive effect in reaching audiences. Because the mass media is so much embedded into the routine of our everyday lives, it naturally is a convenient tool for the insidious indoctrination of masses no matter the content or subject. Thus, being so ‘in-the-face’ conveniently eliminates the option of individual choice from viewers, simply because the glaring mainstream option can be so invasive.
Celebrity entertainment channels are also known for their easy-to-absorb material, given their fluffy nature. Such ‘information’ requires little thinking process perfect for couch-bummers who just wish to pass time leisurely. This is as opposed to complex TV dramas and serials with intricate plots and mysteries or hard news and facts on documentaries and news networks. Besides, no prior knowledge or skill is needed for the absorbing of such material, as opposed to some sort of education needed to say, enjoy high art. Such popular culture is inclusive. It is then no surprise that such lighthearted content is widely fashionable among consumers of all ages. The easy-viewing nature of celebrity entertainment channels accounts for its broad popularity luring a large following of (at times) mindless absorbers who submissively take in the easily-digestible without considering the option of individual choice.
Above all, celebrity entertainment channels are also deemed to be mainstream and unidirectional, pushing out individual autonomy because of their lopsided import/export of trends and fads. Distributors at this juncture modify the text to concentrate audience focus on Western-centric culture. E! is one such global energy in mounting Hollywood stars as household names regardless of viewership geography. Even Japanese youngsters today would know of Britney Spears’ current emotional meltdown and career backwater. Most programmes on MTV, such as My Own, Pimp My Ride and Tail Daters also propose Western-centric lifestyles. They seem to portray the dream adolescence as one spent bikini-clad on sunny Californian beaches, with the all-American high school culture of conflicts, embellishing every sentence with the likes of “yo”, “wassup”, “dude” and “cool” among the myriad of interesting exchanges.
The impact of this American appeal has certainly been drastic. Asian-American teens going under the knife to physically resemble the artists of their dreams in the MTV series I wanna be… have also revealed a desire for shaper noses, thicker lips and wider eyes, all of which are bodily traits more common to Westerners. It seems as though even the perfect body image has come to be the American mold as propagated on MTV or E!. The expression of individuality in this is but a delusion because all choices are eventually a mere variation of ‘the American standard.’
We see especially in Asia, this apparent phenomenon of a hierarchy of pop icons where Western music and actors are almost always judged to be superior and better than the local ones we have back home. This is without doubt reflected in the dismal album sales of local bands such as Peepshow or Cardinal Avenue, in stark contrast to the millions of sold-out albums by foreign artists like Muse and Linkin Park imported into Singapore. Besides lacking the financial capacity to market themselves, media-sponsored exposure of local bands is also very much minimized. Channel V’s My Amp, which features local bands from around the Asian region every month allocates these performers a small platform to reach an international audience via short five-minute introductions and interviews. This effort, however, is barely impactful compared to the hours and hours of Western music coverage.
Through media networks’ buying and sharing of popular shows (largely American) for local consumption, such as MediaCorp’s purchase of the America’s Next Top Model series for Singapore’s Channel Five, celebrity entertainment channels are today a cult embodying all things American. This is an echo of Marshall McLuhan’s initial prediction seeing the world as a global village taken over by American culture.
MacDonald in Strinati’s An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture states that “…mass culture is a threat because it is a homogenous culture which levels down or debases all culture… breaking down the old barriers… and dissolving all cultural distinctions…” (Strinati 2004, p.14). In this, he aptly captures how public appeal no longer latches onto a particular product or celebrity or type music per se, but instead, a much sought-after ‘culture’ becomes the consumers’ object of desire. This ‘culture’, produced and packaged by profit-driven media networks is eventually purchased by all who wish to taste the American dream. Consumers at this juncture are believed to do minimal decoding of their own to interpret meanings behind text, but instead, absorb wholesale the inserted meanings as inserted by producers into the text.
Here, we see how all choices are but an illusion because ultimately, every preference consumers make have already first been pre-selected and hand-chosen by media companies. All consumers have are but the minimal freedom of choice from a small array of options.
The herd syndrome
Assuming individuals did have some liberty in the selection of their consumption, I wish now to discuss how their inclinations may be influenced by peer or social groups.
The kind of celebrity entertainment programmes one watches also acts as a social marker distinguishing consumers from one another, sorting them into categories and subcultures of sorts. For instance, those who have a penchant for the posh and luxurious may devotedly subscribe to E!’s Kimora – Life in the Fab Lane documenting the lavish lifestyle of a fashion designer. A faction of actor-wannabes may be cult followers of E!’s True Hollywood Stories which narrates the rags-to-riches life accounts of today’s biggest idols.
Such symbolic labeling may encourage some individuals to intentionally subscribe to certain subcultures in order to be accepted and absorbed into a social group. This is in line with Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz’s view that audiences are interpretive communities whose understanding of a certain text will coincide with the values of his social group. An Anglo-American youth in his own community, for example, may start watching Nick Cannon’s Yo Mama on MTV and “naturally” find African-American slang distasteful, because none of his more influential peers (opinion leaders) accept such colloquial speech.
Indeed Ian Condry is clever to identify that “…consumption is not only about securing a personal identity but, perhaps more important, about having things to talk about with one’s friends.” (Condry 2006, p.128). Clearly, this monkey-see-monkey-do mimic is in a warped way, individual choice pressured by external peer groups. The individuality in this is but a group identity.
Reviving individuality via creation of culture
Despite the infringement of production companies in viewer selection of products, and potential for the herd syndrome to champion over personal choice, individuals at the ground level may occasionally craft and fashion cultures of their own. Here, it is the people, and not the media networks, who decide what is popular. Like Elihu Katz’s resistance theory, such consumers may selectively internalize or reject whatever the media presents to them. In other words, they are not passive. If a large following of like-minded persons grow, the mainstream culture may eventually absorb this subculture resulting in a bottom-up approach of culture absorption.
An eminent assimilation would be that of Hip Hop, the initial street culture of African-Americans. Among the core elements of Hip Hop were wall graffiti and break dancing. These expressions were originally anti-establishment and part of the passive challenge against authority. They served to spread messages and change the opinions of people where the state could not, gathering silent support. Eventually the appeal of this underground culture grew to be an accepted trend and even among the people at the ground level, and formed a segment of mainstream culture.
From this, we observe how the previously marginalized deemed deviant and anti-social can slowly negotiate its way into the mainstream if widely accepted by the masses. This is a clever way for new beliefs and ideologies to penetrate the conventional because popular culture as a medium appears to be so trivial and subtle, yet its accessibility and proliferation makes it so quietly invasive.
The creation of culture here proves that popular consumption today is no longer a unidirectional top-down approach, but also, a growing two-way dialogue between producers and consumers. Individuals may play the dual role of producer and consumer, oscillating between the two.
Creativity is the new black
Inspired by anthropologist Daniel Miller, Condry argues that “…people’s desire to consume creatively is not about a choice, but rather a desire to overcome a “potential state of rupture”, that is, an existential uneasiness caused by the recognition that “one is living through objects and images not of one’s own creation”.” (Condry 2006, p.113)
I wish to use this as a diving board to suggest that the concept of originality is beginning to weigh more than group-acceptance in the modern day context. It is no longer the identity of the group that matters but the distinctness of every individual.
With the wide availability of recording equipment today, commonly built into compact cell phones, everyone is beginning to be an amateur photographer, song-writer and movie-maker. Youths of today seem to enjoy this fresh autonomy of a new-found individuality which equates to an inimitable and dissimilar image and personality. Youths create their own selves and no longer wish to fashion after the given buffet of styles and fads provided for by mainstream popular culture.
Celebrity entertainment channels are keeping up with the times too. Both MTV and Channel V encourage viewers to post online, motifs of their respective famous ‘MTV’ and ‘V’ logos specially customized and personalized with innovation as the hinging concept. A selected lot are then aired on TV as advertisements promoting the two music channels. MTV also holds contests requiring participants to send in outrageously whacky video-clips of random people injecting creativity and fun into the most dull and mundane of routines. One clip even showed an American man’s endless struggle to pick table-tennis balls with Chinese chopsticks! To sum it up beautifully in the words of Condry: “…people admire authenticity through creation: if you make it, it is yours.” (Condry 2006, p.113.
Indie over mainstream
I wish to introduce a budding trend in which individual choice is exercised against the popular and commercial. This is the rise of indie culture, the retrograde of ‘brand-consciousness’. Here, people shun being slotted into easy categories of fandom, wishing to distinguish themselves from the supposedly mindless crowd that follows the hustle of glitz and glamour. Indie music, for example, is an alternative subculture in which no major music producers are involved. The focus is shifted from profit-garnering back to music-making. The obscure and unknown are prized over tunes and bands that are all-the-rage. The more underground and original, the higher up the hierarchy the artist climbs. This is perhaps a reaction to the over-commercializing of musicians and products via various mass media mediums like the television, radio, magazines, tabloids as well as billboards.
Fiest, a singer-songwriter from Canada created some controversy in the indie world after she sold her remix “1234” to Apple for their iPod Nano commercial that aired internationally. Mixed reactions from fans were received. While some expressed joy that she had finally found her big break to become an overnight international sensation, others felt she sold herself to the commercial world and begun boycotting her albums and records. Other less controversial indie music artists include Kings of Convenience, a duo from Norway and British band, Arctic Monkeys.
Artists with a cause
Consumers of today may also choose to express their individualities via association with certain bands and music groups that market themselves alongside certain visions and values. Individuals here choose to support artists not plainly for their singing abilities, but also because they wish to be a part of these icons’ campaigns. Irish band U2, headed by front man Bono, for instance regularly participates in charity concerts for famine and poverty relief. Alternative rock band Coldplay, from London, donates 10% of its concert proceeds to charities around the world. Their front man, Chris Martin, is also an advocate supporting fair-trade. Such artists with a cause, using their popularity to propel their genuine activism, appeal to segments of the music-loving population who want to relate to these bands to express their own individualities and concerns.
Celebrity entertainment channels have been deemed a mainstream option eliminating individual choice in three ways. Firstly, by being distributed by the mass media, it becomes readily available and all-pervasive. Secondly, by requiring no forehand knowledge for consumption, it becomes popular and readily absorbed by the masses. Thirdly, by being Western-centric in import/exports, it becomes profit-driven in monolithically selling a singular culture.
Individual choice is also jeopardized when consumers adhere to the pressures of social groups, altering their likes and dislikes according to the symbolic status and group identities they wish to be associated with.
However, I have also shown that assimilation of culture from the masses to the mainstream is a trend encouraging producer-consumer dialogue where individual choice is greatly valued. As such, creativity is the new focus of youths today as they strive to be distinct from the plain crowd. Authenticity in personal ownership is the highest form of individuality. The mainstream media no longer dictates, insidious or otherwise, the choices and lifestyles of its previously passive viewers.
The rise of indie music resisting the over-commercialized, and prizing the obscure and underground further shows how individuality is upheld today. Artists with a cause are sought-after as consumers wish to associate with bands that market themselves alongside positive visions and values. Clearly, popular culture still is the vibrant ground for the exercise of free choice, and expression of individuality. (Word count: 2,953)
Condry, I 2006, ‘Rap fans and consumer culture’, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the paths of cultural globalization, in Duke University Press, Durham
MacDonald, D 1957, ‘A theory of mass culture’, Mass Culture, quoted in Strinati, D 2004, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London and New York, p.14
Strinati, D 2004, ‘Mass culture and popular culture’, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, in Routledge, London and New York
Storey, J 2000, ‘A theory of mass culture’, Cultural Theory and Popular Culture – An Introduction, in Pearson Education, London