Review by C.J. Bunce
University of Toronto professor Marcel Danesi has been updating Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives since its first edition in 2008, and 15 years of changing times means addressing digital media and streaming services for movies, TV, and music, among other things. His fifth edition of the book, available now here at Amazon, provides a framework for anyone who enjoys entertainment to see the forest for the trees, take a step back and understand why you enjoy what you enjoy, and how you’re like pretty much every human that came before you in that regard. In part borrowing a frame of reference from fellow Toronto-ite Marshall McLuhan, Danesi pulls in every subject, concept, fad, medium, trope, meme, and even word–like “cool”–to get to the bottom of what pop culture means, and why it is everywhere.
Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives is just that–an overview, although not a comprehensive one–for students of any niche, whether media studies, mythology, psychology, cultural anthropology, literary studies, or communications. For experts in those or any field, it’s an interesting update for what was taught in 20th century college courses. Pop culture begins with what a society views as… you guessed it… popular.
Danesi discusses the impact of technologies and the history of communications on what people enjoy by way of books and music, and later radio, television, and computers, even video games and texting, all the way to the use of emojis.
Despite the updates some of the author’s examples are dated. He also focuses on the 20th century from the 1920s onward, remarking about influences and examples going back to ancient Greece only secondarily. But ultimately he gets his points across. He reaches beyond the expected to areas that make sense for the discussion, but may not be readily apparent. Like fads, genres of music, sports, and word choice. Most interesting is his discussion of use of the word “cool,” coupled with why deciding what is cool is also helpful in identifying what is pop culture at any given time.
Pop culture does not occur in a vacuum, and the author identifies communications models for the transmission of culture between time periods as well as the distributors and barriers to the messages, again going back to the writings of McLuhan and other 20th century writers on speech and communication.
Danesi folds in examples and checklists of genres, advertising strategies (yes, marketing itself can both create and become pop culture), and pop culture icons by decade. The expansion pages new to this volume include a study of post-pandemic societies and cultural impacts reflecting them, trends and trending things, “likes” and the Internet ease at promulgating (primarily) low culture, superheroes and superhero movies, neofuturism, and recent streaming, podcast, and virtual reality influences. He includes thousands of examples of pop culture, from the flapper girls to (sadly) PewDiePie.
My only disappointment is the absence of any discussion on the two biggest 21st century celebrations of pop culture: pop culture conventions and cosplayers. A mention of cyborgs uses a poor definition of the subject. I do appreciate his inclusion of podcasts and much of online social media as merely an extension of the history of radio. Would I use entirely different examples of trends and iconic moments? Absolutely. He relies much on bland mainstream moments. He also mentions Amadeus–the movie–as a pop culture moment, without using the music of Mozart as an early example of popular entertainment. It’s also difficult for me to think about the history of popular entertainment without a discussion of Shakespeare’s plays. Still, what Danesi includes, and what he doesn’t, will make for good conversation and thought.
Each chapter includes reading comprehension questions, ideal for college 100 level coursework (the book began as the author’s own self-prepared text for his culture classes).