Friday, January 4, 2008

On the margins of pop culture

I know that, in many ways, I'm shaped by my culture. I participate in its rituals. I embrace many of the core cultural values. I eat the native foods. But somehow, in the last few years, I've noticed that I live outside of mainstream popular culture -- or at least, on its margins. Every couple of weeks, something happens that reminds me of this fact: My students make some reference I don't understand, or I see the cover of a magazine at the checkout and don't recognize the names being bandied about. Of course, I interact with pop culture, but I do so very selectively, which means that I miss many of the widespread trends.

I've never seen an episode of American Idol, Project Runway, or the Sopranos. Heck, we don't even get cable, which is surely an anomaly in the U.S. at this point, and now I don't even watch regular broadcast TV except through DVDs.

I don't read "women's" magazines (except in waiting rooms, when I've forgotten a book). When I do flip through them, I feel as though I'm reading about a foreign culture -- who are these people who are supposedly famous? Do people really care about the latest fashions? And while we're on the subject of fashion, why do the models all look so unhappy? Is there some rule that fashion models are forbidden to smile? They all look serious, or empty, or angry -- what is the deal? Is it just that they're hungry?

I see relatively few movies. I joke with people when they ask me whether I've seen this or that movie that they should just assume I haven't seen it, since that is the most common answer. I do see movies, but just few of them, and often years after they were in theaters.

I don't follow the gossip news about celebrities, so unless the news hits NPR or the front page of the Washington Post, I'm usually clueless. It seems like many people have a better sense of what is going on in the life of celebrities than I do -- I did hear about what's-her-name's recent teen pregnancy, but I would have totally missed the story about Ellen Degeneres' dog except that it was on the NPR quiz show (and don't ask me the details, because I've already forgotten them).

And so on . . .

So does this make me an alien in my own land? How much of American culture is represented by this mainstream popular culture? Are most people participating in the pop culture, or is that just an over-generalization perpetuated by the media hype?

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