Within your breakout room, describe your interpretation of the quote from Lipsitz’s essay. Assign someone in your room to discuss the interpretation when we rejoin the full class session.
George Lipsitz, “Popular Culture: This Is Ain’t No Sideshow,” in Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 3–20.
For some populations at some times, commercialized leisure is a history — a repository of collective memory that places immediate experience in the context of change over time. The very same media that trivialize and distort culture, that turn art into commodities, and that obscure the origins and intentions of artists also provide meaningful connection to our own pasts and to the past of others (5).
In nineteenth-century America, theater, medicine shows, circuses, taverns, dance halls, amusement parks, and vaudeville-variety houses intervened in culture and society in especially important ways. They helped Americans make a decisive break with Victorian restraints, while at the same time blending an ethnically diverse working class into an “audience” with a unified language and sign system (7).
Yet it is also clear that what we call popular culture differs markedly in its aims and intentions from the Enlightenment culture of “beauty and truth” idealized in the nineteenth century by Matthew Arnold, as well as from the isolated ‘folk’ cultures studied by anthropologist and folklorists (13).
Unlike "high culture" where a dogmatic formalism privileges abstraction over experience, the effectiveness of popular culture depends on its ability to engage audiences in active and familiar processes. Tania Modleski has demonstrated how television soap operas and game shows win credibility with viewers by turning into play the everyday work of nurturing families and making purchases, much as rodeo events and car customizing do for cowboy and mechanics (14).
Like many popular music critics, television's detractors condemn the medium because they feel it debases an otherwise successfully functioning society. Without discounting the shallow vulgarity of the medium, it is important to note that television also reflects an already ongoing unraveling of social relations in society; its needy narcissism serves as a salve for the wounds of everyday life (19).
For all of their triviality and frivolity, the messages of popular culture circulate in a network of production and reception that is quite serious. At their worst, they perform the dirty work of the economy and the state. At their best, they retain memories of the past and contain hopes for the future that rebuke the injustices and inequities of the present (20).
Since Lipsitz opens his essay with discussing his performance style and how it reflects the history of a black man living in a white-dominated world, I thought you might appreciate him performing on an American television network program, The Ed Sullivan Show, with an all-star lineup of black musicians. This is why he opens the performance by declaring, "True black music will be heard tonight." Enjoy.