catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 6 :: 2010.03.19 — 2010.04.01


Popularity contest

“Changing the conversation about popular culture.”   That’s the unofficial motto of the department in which my husband and I work at a Christian liberal arts college.  And in some ways — through our research, events, concert season, biennial festival and educational efforts — we succeed.  Our supervisor has collected hundreds of written, anecdotal and hearsay testimonials over the years about how our department’s approach has dramatically shifted and deepened people’s thinking about the connection between God and pop culture.  In short: God cares, so we care.  We care what stories are being told on primetime television and in the top forty because something makes those stories attractive and worth telling — so how do we tell the good from the bad?

But something’s been bugging me.  Something’s been bugging a lot of people.  Throughout this issue of catapult, you’ll see variations on the definition of “popular culture,” and it’s interesting to note the ways in which a definition belies and shapes an approach.  My question is: if “popular” indicates something that is of the people, which people are we talking about?  We don’t have to dig very deeply to find that the conversation we’re trying to change too often fails to engage anyone outside the dominant culture. 

In 2009, my husband and I helped organize an event called the Festival of Faith & Music.  It was spectacular, if I do say so myself — and I can say so myself, since I only did a small part and then the Spirit took the whole thing way beyond any of the organizers’ efforts.  One of the most breathtaking moments was watching black theologian and cultural critic Cornel West interview Lupe Fiasco, a young Muslim hip hop artist from Chicago.  Following the Festival, the audio recording of the interview was downloaded tens of thousands of times, testifying to an historic moment in American cultural history.

As we attempt to plan the 2011 Festival, we look back on the 2009 interview as a step in the right direction when it comes to planning an intentionally anti-racist event.  And yet, we’re still struck by the brokenness of our premise: when we talk about popular culture, we do so within a society where popular culture is still segregated, separate but not equal.  That which unifies the American population across state, age and gender lines often still fails to do so across color lines.  And even when something or someone does cross color lines — consider the post mortem pop sainting of Michael Jackson as a bridge-building visionary — there’s often little accompaniment in the way of unmasking and dismantling the power structures that reinforce the systemic oppression of marginalized people.  There’s just a spectacle of diversity.

West himself calls out post-modern art critics, who pride themselves on ushering the obscure (read: art by marginalized people) into the mainstream with lots of historic jargon to justify its artistic credibility.  As long as such critics don’t acknowledge how power shapes art and, in fact, their own ideas about what’s worthy of critique, they’re just parading novelties around to validate their own progressiveness.  West quotes Robert Storr:

To be sure, much postmodernist critical inquiry has centered precisely on the issues of “difference” and “otherness.”  On the purely theoretical plane the exploration of these concepts has produced some important results, but in the absence of any sustained research into what artists of color and others outside the mainstream might be up to, such discussions became rootless, instead of radical.

What I take from this, as part of the planning committee for the next festival as well as a leader for a student event exploring the stories of people of color in my community, is the need for more listening and more repenting.  I have to learn to move beyond mere curiosity to surrender, for if I am not my own, my identity is not threatened by acknowledging the reality of, and even my complicity in, unjust structures.  If my identity is in Kingdom citizenship, it is rooted in God’s vision for human flourishing, not in holding onto my own ideas about what is good art or what is a true story by my necessarily limited definitions as a benefactor of the white North American middle class.

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