Why Pop Culture Matters

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This past week I felt a little like an Avenger.

You know, Iron Man. Captain America. Thor. Those guys.

They’ve got a big movie coming out. Probably going to end up being the biggest moneymaking movie since they started making movies. In the next couple weeks you won’t be able to throw an Infinity Stone without hitting an Avenger. They’re going to be everywhere from your TV commercials to your movie screens, from your toy shelves to your grocery shelves, from your Happy Meals to your razor blades.

They’re going to be on covers of magazines like the current issue of Entertainment Weekly.

That magazine is going to be in your doctors and dentists offices for the next two years.

And just a mere four pages away from the Avengers, there I’ll be.

A couple weeks ago I got an e-mail from an EW senior editor asking if we could talk. My suspicions were raised as if a Nigerian Prince was maybe getting ready to ask me to launder some money, it was close to April Fool’s Day, but I still couldn’t resist the urge to see if something legitimately out of the ordinary might happen.

On the phone, the EW senior editor said I’d been a subscriber since the magazine started, and though I could not confirm that, I agreed it was possible. She asked about where I live and who I am. When I told her I was a writer, she seemed genuinely interested, and asked me about my books. She asked me what my upcoming novel Bloody Point 1976 was about, and said “That sounds really cool,” when I told her.

EW has a regular column called The Must List – hot off the presses pop-culture stuff that Entertainment Weekly endorses for their readers. The editor asked if I could provide my own Must-List for the magazine.

And a portion of my list was published in Entertainment Weekly.

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With a nice little mention that I’ve published books.

Right there in close proximity to a little group of superheroes you may have heard of for like your whole entire life.

But enough about me, on to the point at hand.

Popular culture matters.

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One of the reasons pop culture matters is personal.

Some folks pooh-pooh television, or summertime popcorn movies, or the current state of the music charts, but there are very few of those people who don’t have a hit show, film, or song that has touched their lives in some way.

The nature of popular culture is that it changes with the times. Somebody’s Sinatra is somebody’s Elvis, is somebody’s Beatles, is somebody’s Michael Jackson, is somebody’s Nirvana, is somebody’s Kanye West.

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Popular culture is generally not for older people, and that’s why we sometimes have so much trouble understanding it once our prime has passed. There’s nothing we can do about getting stuck in the ruts alongside the pop cultural highway as the traffic flies by us faster and faster in ways we can’t, or don’t want to, keep up with anymore.

I once interviewed an old Eastern Shoreman. Tough old guy. Grew up a waterman and made his mark in the national commercial seafood and restaurant businesses. He’d been through much in his long life, which, by the time we talked, was nearing its end. Saddled with many of the physical aches and emotional pains collected by any octogenarian, this Eastern Shoreman told me of things he’d experienced that would test anyone’s heart, soul, strength, and emotional fortitude.

And he laughed about them. Showed no emotion except a can-you-imagine chuckle.

Until he talked about being a little boy growing up in his grandfather’s general store.

He was pretty sure his grandfather owned the first radio around their parts.

It took him a few minutes, but when he remembered the name of his favorite childhood radio program, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, the hard eyes of that grizzled old waterman filled with tears.

He’d told me of his wife, the love of his life, and his children and grandchildren, and of the scary hard times of the independent businessman. He told me of war, and of violence, and he told me of loss.

But he didn’t become emotional until he remembered something from pop culture that had touched him.

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Another reason pop culture is important is in the context of our civilization.

In an increasingly split world, popular culture is the one thing that still binds us.

A kid growing up today in a place where he or she can get his or her hands on a Taylor Swift CD, a Guardians of the Galaxy DVD, or a copy of the graphic series Saga, has more in common with a kid on the other side of the world than all the divides presented by religion, politics, and mileage.

Study the history of the 20th century, and it won’t take long to see that Hollywood and our popular culture probably did more to spread the American gospel of freedom and individualism, than all the wars we fought and all the blood and treasure we spilled over that American Century.

The rest of the world hasn’t always liked us, but they damned sure have wanted to be as funny and smart as Will Rogers, as brave as Charles Lindbergh, as cool as Clark Gable, as sexy as Marilyn Monroe, as poetic as Bob Dylan, as creative as Stan Lee, as musically gifted as Prince.

Or at least as rich as Bill Gates.

Our culture proceeds us, and yes, that can be bad. In 2007, when I was in Ireland, the big news there was that Paris Hilton was going to jail in California.

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Our pop culture is what we, and others, love and hate most about us.

Popular culture in America is an often imperfect mix of art and capitalism.

But it matters because it defines us as individuals.

And it defines us as a people.

Popular culture is who we really are.

Like it or not.

Take it from a sorta-kinda-almost Avenger.

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