Op-ed: Pop culture versus alternative culture
Op-ed by Nkululeko Nkosi
The collective ideas, schools of thought, social behavior and customs of a generation or a group of people can be regarded as culture. Culture is an unusually complex area to study because people sit at the core of the studies and humans are just generally complex. To make assessments on culture a bit more intellectually digestible, it is often easier to look at popular culture and alternative culture. Firstly, you would need to define what popular culture is and what alternative culture is in the bigger context of trying to understand culture.
So with that being said, what is popular culture? Popular culture, or pop culture for short, can be described as the collective ideas, customs and social behaviors that are transmitted through mass media and are aimed at a particularly younger group of the population. Language, fashion, art and music can be worthy indicators of what pop culture is and its hold on the majority of the population. Pop culture enjoys a form of hegemonic power to dictate where the masses move, how they speak, how they dress and to some extent how they think. It is a school of thought of note that is made accessible to everyone. It proposes a one-size fits all approach to dealing with matters of people, identity and people relations. Now with all that being said, pop culture is not the be all and end all of culture, as there are communities that exist on the fringes of popular culture, some by intention and some by opposition, which we can say are part of alternative culture. It is important to look at alternative culture as something that stands on its own and is organic rather than something that is oppositional to pop culture. What constitutes alternative culture borders on difference and uniqueness and being completely cut off from pop culture’s hegemony.
Alternative culture is often, or somewhat unfortunately, seen as taking an inherent antagonist stance in relation to pop culture. In spaces where different aspects of culture are discussed, talks of the fear of hegemonic cultures absorbing alternative cultures are common and the eventuality of commercialisation. These discussions happen quite often in the music industry as the independent scene and the mainstream scene are often at war with each other, with proponents of the independent scene rallying behind the fall of majors and the complete disintermediation of the music industry — which is not going to happen anytime soon.
We can even stretch this conversation by diving deeper into the culture discussion, where we look at alternative culture as a form of high culture and popular culture as a form of low culture. Viewing alternative culture as a form of high culture also opens up a huge debate because of the contradictions that arise. Alternative culture is often characterized as having an innate desire for anti-elitism, authenticity and anti-professionalism whereas high culture is the opposite of that as high culture is culture packaged in way that depicts high esteem where a certain form of elitism forms. It is clear that when certain cultural practices our outside of the norm, which in this case are the conventions of popular culture, a certain cultural value is created out the evident difference of alternative culture.
Then we will have to look at the assertion that pop culture is low culture because of its nature of mass appeal, so it is often seen as a form high culture that has been dumbed down or so it can be stomached easily by the masses. In all areas of art, such discussions are prevalent, but where do we draw the line and enjoy what we like because that’s simply what we like.