Review — “Discrimination And Popular Culture” — Denys Thompson (ed.)

Discrimination And Popular CultureDiscrimination And Popular Culture by Denys Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an early entry in the study of popular culture, so is not beset by theory or post-modernism, and thus, is an easy-enough read. It is a collection of relatively non-academic essays, published in 1964. Given the publication date, the essays reflect the popular culture of the early 1960s or even the late 1950s. Even The Beatles are so new they are only mentioned in a footnote. The essays have, therefore, little connection with the cultural topics that would fascinate subsequent studies.

Youth culture is mentioned in a few of the the essays, yet it isn’t given the prominence it would later have, and I felt there was a groping for a structure or framework for criticism of that culture. Youth culture pops up, unsurprisingly, mostly in reference to popular music and magazines. The swinging sixties, rock music, 60s film, and fashion are notably absent. No David Bailey or Mary Quant here. For modern readers, the absence of photography and fashion as topics would be the most obvious omissions.

As the title suggests, the essays seek to address how consumers should discriminate between what is good and bad in popular culture, or between what is true or false. So, we have essays on advertising, film, radio and television, the press, magazines, recorded music, and design. The last essay in the book, on design, seems an odd-man-out–it doesn’t have the same emphasis on discrimination. In the other essays, the solution to developing discrimination tends toward education. Discrimination between the “bad” and the “good” in newspapers, television, cinema, and so on, can be taught at school, it is suggested. And there’s a sense in which this indeed would be helpful, and the teaching of critical thinking at school is a topic for educationalists even today.

Critical thinking or good judgement as tools for discrimination can be useful for approaching newspapers, news magazines, or news and comment on television or radio. However, for more subjective areas, such as popular music, articles in say, teenage and music magazines, responses to moves, and so on, discrimination becomes a tougher nut to crack, and in some of the essays begins to sail perilously close to the rocks of high and low culture. For example, the essay on film discusses at length what is wrong with the movies “The Guns of Navarone” and “Summer Holiday”, while extolling the virtues of “L’Atalante” and “L’Age d’Or” — and while I’m sure the last two films are fine films, they are most certainly not “popular culture”. The medium might be popular, but the medium must be distinguished from artefacts of that medium. There are artefacts of the medium that are popular–“Summer Holiday”–and artefacts that are assuredly not, and are, indeed “high culture”.

Despite its age, the book can sometimes feel contemporary. This is partly because it talks about discrimination and education. Often, nothing seems to have changed. Newspapers mislead, or are more entertainment than news; television is banal; to make money, movies appeal to a wide audience rather than being the best art they can be; magazines for teenage girls concentrate on fashion and sexualise their readers too early; and so on. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. Replace some of the media discussed instead with the Web, phones and streaming, and the plaints sound familiar even now.

So – the two star review is not because the book is tedious or unreadable. It is, indeed, in Goodreads’ terms, okay. And because of the time at which it was written, you might find yourself gently smiling at such quaint turns of phrase as:

… this very same music, played at maximum volume in a youth club, would encourage a lively jiving session and a general atmosphere of exuberant vitality.

The essays are, however, unlikely to cause you to reappraise your views on popular culture, and for many readers with an interest in popular culture, will appear theoretically outmoded. Still, it is books like this that provide the underpinnings of cultural studies in the Britain, and so has historical interest.

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