Monday, July 23, 2007

Pop and Culture

I would like to finally deal with the pop/culture question, and perhaps use it to refine my definition of culture a bit. Holly's right that it poses a problem, and actually, I don't know if we can escape it, but I think I can suggest why certain pop culture (which I'd prefer to simply call 'pop') endures as culture.

So, exhibit one will be the film Vanishing Point, an ideal example of pop. The film is extremely well-made, exciting, funny, and even subversive. It's also a perfect historical document. Several aspects of the film strike me as ''of the time'': the soundtrack, the strangely stereotypical ''homosexual characters'' (and why do the stereotypical homosexuals in 70s movies talk in a whisper anyway?), the shocking racial violence, the hippie secondary characters, and the overall message that American society no longer has room for free individuals. So I would definitely accept it as a primary source in a scholarly paper. But I don't see it as culture.

Madonna's video for Express Yourself, in contrast, is culture in the pop mode. The video is a witty send up of the film Metropolis in which the male proletariat figure is somehow liberated by the sexuality of the bored, wealthy woman, who arrives at the factory in male drag and dances provocatively. The rebellion of the beefcake worker basically involves taking the rich woman away from her capitalist husband, and apparently making her submit to him sexually. The video is instantly memorable- I'm guessing that anyone who has seen it remembers Madonna crawling on the floor to lap up milk like a cat from a saucer. It's also an aesthetically-perfect piece of pop.

So, why does the Madonna video strike me as culture while Vanishing Point doesn't? Is it ''high seriousness"? I don't think so. On one hand, Vanishing Point is a dumb car chase movie; but on the other hand, it deals with human freedom and self-destruction, and the increasing reach of the state. Meanwhile, Express Yourself is a dumb pop video that deals with freedom, sexual submission, class, and gender. And clearly the intent behind the two tells us little- Vanishing Point was intended to make money at drive-ins, and Express Yourself was intended to ''shift units''.

It seems to me that a central component of culture is that we return to it; it rewards repeated readings. And what this suggests to me is that it is is complex, or at least ambiguous.

Vanishing Point gets its point across in a relatively unreflective way- the cops are bad, men can no longer live freely without destroying themselves, thanks to those lousy cops. It's a thrilling movie, but there's no ambiguity to it; there's nothing to argue about later. We get the point. We can historicize it, but I don't think we can debate its message.

Express Yourself has a seemingly simple message- men should act with their hearts, or at least their libidos- but it becomes more complex when you reflect upon it. Is Madonna saying that sexual domination is the only 'revolution' possible for the poor? Is she saying that wealthy women fantasize about being dominated by working class men? This seems to be a recurring theme in her art (see also- if you must- the remake of Swept Away), and allegedly in her life. But isn't this sexual tourism? And isn't there something retrograde about the idea that women are liberated by sexual submission? And can someone from the master class every submit to the slave class?

But, of course, Madonna knows all of this, and she's having fun with it. She realizes that the age-old fantasy of the slave taking the master's wife is regressive, but she seems to be saying that this is exactly what gives it the sexual charge of a taboo. Or, at least, I think that's what she's saying.

So I think what makes the Madonna video culture is that it rewards repeated readings- it is intentionally ambiguous- in fact, playful ambiguity is one of its constituent components. It's also important to note that this is intentional- I don't suspect that Madonna and director Mary Lambert were simply confused about what they were trying to say. I think they had a self-awareness that the makers of Vanishing Point either lacked, or simply ignored.

Therefore, let's describe culture as human creations that mediate between civilization and existence/nature. Culture displays unity of form, originality, aesthetic sophistication, a high amount of elaboration, what Arnold describes as ''high seriousness'', and narrative complexity and ambiguity.

Any thoughts?


Holly said...

For me, this comes out much clearer than your previous post about culture, more resolved.

Express Yourself certainly has a transcendent quality about it--the packaging (visual, musically, etc) is clearly a product of the time (late 80's) but the content, in terms of references (Metropolis, slavery, rich vs poor, sexual power struggles) reach beyond 1989. Frankly, I'd be hard pressed to guess a double digit percentage of people who bought that record, who had seen--or even heard of--Metropolis. Plus, there's the eternal symbolism of a wet cat.

I will admit, though, that I had to go watch the video, I'd never seen it. It happened after I'd already quit watching TV. Did I miss an important social message, or just another pop diva shaking it for the camera? Is that what separates Madonna from Britney Spears?

Rufus said...

I think what's always struck me about Madonna is that she has a strong visual sense. Britney Spears thinks that driving a pink Hummer through the clouds is a great image. But Madonna is constantly quoting artists, filmmakers, and photographers, and has created some truly stunning images of her own. She also tends to work with great visualists- most notably Herb Ritts. I do think Madonna has fallen from grace a bit in recent years- Music was her last great video, and that seemed like a mistake somehow.

I don't know if there's a social message to Madonna's art. I think her real skill is a sort of fearlessness in taking everything that she sees and incorporating it into her art. She's able to aestheticize the strangest things and work them into a surprisingly coherent fantasy image. That said, her first great video was Material Girl, and when I say that the video for Music seemed like a fluke, it's really because she's done some shockingly bad videos as of late. Her video for Jump is a travesty. The video for Love Profusion looks like a Tic-tac commercial. It's like she's forgotten what she did well as she's gotten older.