Sunday, April 27, 2008

On the Study of Popular Culture

As a further clarification, where we find value in the study of popular culture, is in the act and intent in it's creation. Our preference is to treat an article of popular culture in terms of the ideas or values that it was intended to convey or reflect. As a secondary area of research, we are interested in how various audiences have expressed their reaction to these items, however, we find that these expressions are all too often limited to mere consumption, and these consumption patterns are of considerable less interest than the acts of creation themselves.

Before advancing further, for us, the study of popular culture is decidedly different than the study of mass culture or commercial culture. Our roots are in the so-called counterculture, based on political dissent and acts of artistic creations. We recognize that any material study of the counterculture in terms of the intellectual development and value-expression is difficult because of how quickly the counter-culture became subsumed in a mass, commercial culture (think especially of "grunge"). However, it must be noted than in going back to the fundamental roots of bohemian, beat, hippie, and punk cultures, the emphasis was on being first, identity and material culture second. A study of punk makes this most dramatic and highlights the problems and confusion. The early drama of punk was about performing, not recording, and this became evident in some of the notable problems that several groups had in translating their performance into the recording studio.

The advent of industrial production methods of objects of art and folk culture, leading to the development of mass objects of consumption (mass culture), devoid of individual craft identity, has led to individual workers looking for emotional and artistic expression outside of their normal work routines. We want to juxtapose these countercultural goods made for private expression, with those goods made for public consumption. In fact, part of the problem with studying a counterculture that has become commodified (as happens to almost all of them) is the blurring that occurs between these public and private roles.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Consumption of Post-Secondary Education

The last few evenings Sean Marchetto has been hanging around our office, clearly agitated (one might say consumed) by an idea that has generated some interesting ideas. They're not completely thought out, or fully developed by any stretch of the imagination, but we simply want to capture them here. This is also cross-posted to Marchetto's own Exploding Beakers blog.

Let us begin by acknowledging that the following rests somewhat on the ideas of Thorstein Veblen, Theodor Adorno, and Max Weber. You would also be correct to guess that the conversation revolves around "class", ie. "working-class", "middle-class", and "upper-class", though such labels bring to mind specific occupations and our talk deals more with social outlooks, values, or beliefs, independent of specific occupation.

To begin with, we believe in the value of studying popular culture. We believe that popular culture is an important vehicle for the exchange of ideas. We subscribe to the Journal of Popular Culture, although we are increasingly disappointed with the approach that the journal is taking to the study of popular culture. For years though, we have been unable to describe just what it is that makes us unsatisfied with it. Perhaps now we are a little closer.

Thorstein Veblen is noted for his ideas about the consumption pattern of social classes, specifically that people tend to follow their social betters. For example, in the nineteenth century, the houses of the rich had large rooms for receiving guest, while middle-class homes developed the parlour. Working class structures attempted to mimic this to the best of their abilities, given their often cramped floor space. Or, take kitchenware. The upper classes, it is assumed, eat meals off of expensive plates, and many families (of middle and working-class status) have special dinnerware (china) that they save for "fancy" occassions, where family members are dressed up, and elaborate, and sometimes expensive, food is served.

There is a crucial difference in the consumption trends between the social classes though, and that is the degree to which each class is able to make their wealth "work", that is, function as capital. For working-class families, much of the wealth is tied up in the family home, and generally not available as ready capital. Middle-class families tend to be to convert some of their wealth into capital in the form of stocks, bonds, etc., while the upper-class is assumed to have ready supplies of capital on hand not just for stocks, bonds, but also for business start-ups and such.

According to Theodor Adorno, there is also a difference in the relationship of these groups to popular culture. If we allow the division of popular culture into so-called "high-brow", tending to carry with it moral messages, or intellectual overtones, and "low-brow", popular culture that tends to satisfy emotional needs, it is generally assumed that the upper-classes favour popular culture that is "high-brow" and working classes favour "low brow", with the middle-classes enjoying a spectrum of both. Adorno was also one of the first to articulate the belief that popular culture (or what we might term "mass commercial culture" as opposed to "folk culture" both of which tend to be wrapped up in "popular culture"), could also function as a method of pacifying the working classes. Later writers on consumption, such as Conquest of Cool author Thomas Frank, and even in his own way, John Leland, author of Hip: The History, have suggested that richess of popular culture's emotional experience and the desire of novelty on the part of the working-classes, are effective ways of bleeding off wealth from that same class.

At it's heart, this kind of argument rests on the same sort of self-denial premise that Max Weber put forth. The so-called middle-class thrives under capitalism because capitalism reward self-denial in favour of disciplined investment. The working-class on the otherhand, fails to "get ahead" because it is too interested in self-pleasure. This is also typically the premise behind many of our rags-to-riches stories.

So, our question becomes, do these two social groups have different viewpoints on the purpose of post-secondary education? We would argue that there are (at least) two different social groups present in post-secondary institutions, those who view it in terms of self-denial and self-investment, and those who do not. To reference Veblen, for this second group, post-secondary education is not seen as a utility, but as a social goal attained by higher social classes. The proliferation of courses dealing with topics of popular culture, that treat it as an area of relativistic meanings and interpretations (a sort of atomizing of the audience) and not as the basis of praxis, enable post-secondary education to be consumed as novelty items and effectively bleeding off the wealth of students and student families.

Thus, the attainment of post-secondary education has generally been seen as one of the most effectives of social mobility, but we are increasinly wondering whether or not this remains the case, and whether more and more courses about popular culture are in fact undermining this effectiveness?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Salt Spring Island Coffee Company

When is a coffee company more than just about the coffee? Typically when it's a megabrand like Starbucks or Tim Horton's where it's as much about the image as the coffee. However, for the past week or so we've been enjoying British Columbia's Salt Spring Island Coffee - Sumatra Dark Roast. Like many micro-roasters, Salt Spring is trading as much on their coffee as they are information about their coffee - 100% Organic, 100% Fair Trade, and they claim, Carbon Neutral. However, what has really intrigued us (almost as much as their coffee), is the company's website and the range of interactive spaces it provides, from an official blog to a carbon neutral quiz.

The coffee itself has proven to be surprising mellow. We've talked about the distinctive flavour of certain other brands that we've enjoyed, such as Moak, Kimbo, and particularly Illy. The Salt Spring though was by far one of the most subtle beans we've experienced. As an espresso shot, it had none of the aggressiveness that we typically look for, much more suited to lattes and cappuccinos (which tend to be much more muted by the presence of milk). A refreshing and welcome change of pace.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What to tell them at your next intervention

Courtesy of Life Hack - but why would anyone want to give up the world's favourite, legal psychotropic drug is beyond us.

Put that gun back in that holster, bub

So we have disagreement on yeaterday's encounter with the Michael Jackson fan. Some of us feel that it is a mistake to equate the two listening experiences. The first counter-argument runs as follows:

1. We do not know for sure that the listener of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was experiencing it as nostalgia, nor specifically as nostalgia for life in the 1980s.
2. Feelings of nostalgia for the feelings of a particular time and placed evoked by a piece of music, is not the same as an appreciation of a particular piece of music's ability to evoke those images and feelings. Granted, there is an undertone here that engaging in criticism is more valid than engaging in nostalgia.

This might seem a bit like a hair-splitting endeavour to save face, as if listening to the Descendents and Michael Jackson are of different aesthetic value, but (enter the second argument):

1. The casual listener's appreciation of music rests on either an enjoyment of well-crafted pop elements, such as melody (Michael Jackson's not called the King of Pop for nothing you know), or else because the initial listening of a song is linked in memory to specific episodes of personal or shared cultural experiences. A "hit" occurs when many, many people find resonance in the same song at the same time. Some theorists explain the rise and fall of hits as being related to the songs larger cultural resonance, while a few see it more in terms of the capitalist underpinnings of radio and other media.

2. Songs that never become hits are trickier, because a listener's first encounter with them may be well after their initial release. While they undergo the same sort of experiences as noted above, the emphasis is often on the personal as opposed to group experiences (unless the song is re-released, think "Unchained Melody" from the Ghost soundtrack). Furthermore, these experiences may be linked to more contemporary events, and not those surrounding it's initial release (thus, "Unchained Melody" evokes Jr. High, the age most of us were when Ghost came out, and not so much 1955 when it was first performed, nor 1965 when the Rightous Brothers recorded its' most famous version, and certainly not 1977 when Elvis sang it weeks before his death).

If one is to suggest an aesthetic superiority to a piece of music, then the "superior" listening experience is to be had by the song with the ability to engage in novel pop constructions, evoke personal as well as group nostalgia, and reveal insights into the larger cultural moment in which it was constructed.

Given how much of this is dependent on the listener's ability to develop a context for listening to a piece of music, one cannot truly state a universal merit to a particular musical piece, only a personal one.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sometimes the glittered glove is one the other hand

The carefree weather in Calgary today, we found ourslves spending a fair amount of time outside. As mentioned in our twitter post this morning, some of us gathered at the office to watch the light-hearted Cole Porter adaptation of Taming of The Shrew, Kiss Me Kate, as an antidote to a late night viewing of the autobiographical and somewhat gritty A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. Dito Montiel's recounting of growing up in a dead-end New York neighbourhood in the 1980s, raised some eerie similarities for some of us, who grew up in NE Calgary during the same time frame and virtually all of the cultural reference points came from New York.

Later, while leaving our office, a passing car was overheard playing Michael Jackson's "Thriller". A smile crossed our lips as we initially began to think about the anachronism of the 1983 hit song, how out-of-touch the driver of the car was - but before we could say anything to each other, we stopped. Not only had we just been furiously rehashing our own lives during the 1980s, but had followed this up with an extended discussion on the merits of the Descendents 1985 album I Don't Want to Grow Up, as being indicative of West Coast adolescent suburban life (and also, however good the band and the album were, perhaps guilty of creating much of what is wrong in contemporary "pop punk" - but more on that in other post).

So really, crank the Thriller, 'cuz we're no better.

Friday, April 11, 2008

I Drank Your Milkshake. I Drank It Up!

Know what we're saying? 

Techcrunch has perhaps the first (to us at least) manifestation of the cultural impact of There Will Be Blood and it's made us chuckle. Especially the image at the end.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Brand City?

This weekend we had the delightful opportunity to have a cup of coffee with local musician Aaron Booth and his family. Booth has a new CD, available here, but ours was a social visit, and in the course of our conversation, Booth mentioned that he felt Calgary, as a city, was more brand conscious than others. This comment resonated with us.

Surely, everyone feels that their city is somehow unique, and we are no exception in our belief that there is an aspect to Calgary missing from other cities. At least, an aspect that we feel is worth investigating. In terms of demographics, Calgary exists in an intriguing location as a magnet for migration. One of the factors "pulling" newcomers to the city for the past thirty years has been the allure of riches. Literally. The promise of Calgary has been the promise of employment, supposedly higher wages, and the opportunity to create a better life (largely in terms of material prosperity). If you can hear a voice whispering "What happens in Calgary, stays in Calgary", you might not be too far off the mark. Very little has been done in terms of reflecting on who such a promise attracts.

Booth's comments led us to wonder how much the promise of personal re-invention plays in the decision to move to Calgary. We feel it is easy to believe that someone to whom personal re-invention rests at least partially on the promise of increased wealth, would be very eager to demonstrate this new identity through the display of wealth. As corporations move increasinly to branding consumer goods as part of a lifestyle, the consumption of brands can be seen as an integral part to communicating this new social identity. Just think about the battle of coffee consumption, Starbucks and Tim Horton's conjure up very different customer images.

The risk here is that it would be easy to divide the city's population into native-born (or naturalized) citizens and newcomers. Supposedly, one could suspect that the native-born citizens would not feel the allure of personal re-invention based on increased wealth as much as the newcomers, otherwise the native-borns would leave for parts unknown but of greater promise. This would help to explain the partial successes on local, non-chain brands, such as Higher Ground, one of Calgary's longest-running independent coffee houses, standing two doors down as it does, from a typically packed Starbucks.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Earth Hour in Calgary

Lucy, from Good Grief Lucy, was the first to share the results from Canada's participation in Earth Hour with us, and frankly we are a little surprised and disappointed by the whole thing. has published an article here, with firmer numbers. With one critical exception, power consumption during Earth Hour last week dipped in a range of 2 - 7 %, depending on the community. Not necessarily significant results, but definately something to build on and indicative of grassroots support for conservation movements.

In Calgary however, energy consumption rose - as if people wandered around their houses actually turning lights and appliances on.

What is extremely disturbing about this is not so much that energy use increased, suggesting that perhaps few people participated in the event. Calgary does have a sizable environmentally aware community, one that actually translates into fairly strong Green Party results. So the question becomes, if we assume that this small minority actively worked to lower energy consumption during Earth Hour, then how much energy does the average Calgarian use? Remember, Calgarians have the highest carbon footprint in Canada, and one of the highest in North America.

Good grief indeed.