BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 31 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 5

What We Talk About When We Talk About Pop ...

On the different definitions of Pop

J
BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 31 MAY 12

Some people argue about love; we argue about Pop. Instead of uniting us in ebullience, Pop makes us flat and obstinate, like bubble gum stuck to the sole of a shoe. Pop Art is a different matter; we can agree on the works found under this historical label. But the word ‘Pop’ – standing alone or in front of ‘culture’, ‘music’, ‘life’ – overflows with meanings that polarize us.

Our Americanized side – whether American or German – believes that Pop is above all an abbreviation of popular culture: made for everyone. We recall Andy Warhol’s words: ‘A Coke is a Coke, and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.’ With its egalitarian spirit, Pop created a common culture through commodities since the United States never enjoyed a truly public space: first, because of racial segregation and second, because of a mistrust of government. Instead of universal health care, decent housing and afford­able (good) education, everyone gets a Coke. It’s communism through commodities. Despite its bleak origins – or because of them – Pop is tons of fun. Pop had to be irresistible to make up for the racial and economic equality missing in America. British Pop is another story, yet the class system gave it a similar collective calling. Maybe Pop works better than a truly public space. After all, no European social welfare state produced the equivalent of an African-American president, let alone Beyoncé. We do love Serge Gainsbourg, Fred Buscaglione and Abba, but we can’t imagine life without the Beatles and David Bowie.

Our German side – both German and European – believes that Pop doesn’t necessarily have to be popular. Forget the egalitarian spirit of American or British popular culture; forget the national identity and the masses altogether, which National Socialism tarnished forever. Pop is an attitude – a lone bubble, floating between Leibniz and lederhosen, between ‘E’ (Ernsthaftigkeit, seriousness) and ‘U’ (Unterhaltung, diversion), high culture and mass culture. In short, German Pop can never become too popular, too elitist or – God forbid – too German; it must remain critical of all these positions. Instead of Andy Warhol, we recall
the 1963 happening Leben mit Pop – Eine Demonstration für den kapitalistischen Realismus (Life with Pop – A demonstration for capitalist realism). Gerhard Richter, Konrad Lueg and others hung around in a Dusseldorf furniture store among the wonders of West Germany’s economic miracle, jump-started by the American Marshall Plan. Far from an affirmative celebration of mass consumer culture, Leben mit Pop was a sarcastic critique of setting oneself up in a beautiful new world of commodities that seemed to be custom-made to forget history. Capitalist realism suggested a twisted yet critical counterpart to the socialist realism being lived out
in the East Bloc. Perhaps Leben mit Pop insinuated that there was no alternative: no choice but to tolerate cohabitation.

So who’s right? Are we celebrating Pop or living critically with Pop? Are we enjoying or scorning those dancing tables, which Marx first theorized as commodity fetishism and which later danced to American music? As with love, when there are too many disagreements, it’s easier to call the whole thing off. We can only agree that Pop is over in all of its traditional manifestations: from art to culture, from music to life. For American Pop, digitization killed off the traditional mass culture industries – music, movies, media, books, television – and has given rise to the individual customization of culture. In a February 2010 interview with The New York Times, the novelist and Generation-X theorist Douglas Coupland argued that Harry Potter, Taylor Swift and Avatar are not ‘great cultural mega­trends like disco, which involved absolutely everyone in the culture. Now, everyone basically is their own microculture, their own nanoculture, their own generation.’ In short, each iPod is a Top Twenty; an amateur can become a YouTube star. For German Pop, the end came much earlier, namely in 1992, when the theorist Diedrich Diederichsen wrote the article The Kids are not alright in Spex magazine after seeing reports about attacks on asylum seekers living in Rostock. The young, right-wing assailants were not only throwing rocks but also wearing T-shirts with the logos of leftist bands and baseball caps with the X of Malcolm X. Pop lost its critical potential, historical consciousness and capacity to distinguish between good and bad.

Is it possible to restore the collective promise of Pop, whether celebratory or critical? Do distinctions – and conflicts – about American, British and German Pop even make sense today? Hasn’t Facebook provided the sharing experience that Pop once did, albeit without a specific cultural content? Perhaps Pop moved on to new categories – like cooking, high fashion, pornography – closer to the individual body than the mass. Even contemporary art shifted from a specialist realm to a mass phenomenon. But if the most popular element of Pop is individual taste and creativity, it’s hard to speak of a common culture. Pop seems to be more like love: personal, idiosyncratic and a little bit blind.

_Jennifer Allen is editor of frieze d/e.
Dominikus Müller is assistant editor frieze d/e._

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.

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