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Pop Culture History From Ancient Times to Today

By Jay Wertz 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: April 14, 2010 
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Drop the phrase "pop culture" into a conversation, and the people you're talking with will likely conjure images of Hula Hoops, Pet Rocks, Britney Spears or reality shows. Words like "vapid," "transient" and "shallow" may flash through their minds.

Despite its much-maligned image, popular culture, or "pop" culture as it is more commonly known, is a vital component in the story of humanity. For that reason, pop culture history warrants exploration. Besides, it's fun to talk about.

It doesn't cure diseases, topple nations or make technological advances—unless one considers things like Les Paul's development of multi-track music recording a technological advancement, which I, for one, do—but pop culture reveals many facets of human behavior throughout history. It is hard to define the human experience without it.

The Genesis of Popular Culture

Written scores gave musical creations wider audiences. Library of Congress.
Written scores gave musical creations wider audiences. Library of Congress.
Sociologists consider culture as the formation of traditions and trends that link humans in a common group. Therefore, human culture existed even in prehistoric societies; however, those prehistoric societies' tradition and arts (things that are created, such as cave paintings and decorated pottery) are generally considered as folk art and folkways. Popular culture, by definition, requires that the masses—that's us, folks—be engaged in practicing and consuming it, thereby making it popular.

Three early, significant popular-culture mileposts are, in chronological order, wedding ceremonies, music performed from written scores, and the establishment of fashion styles.

Wedding ceremonies, predating even Biblical accounts, began traditions based on religious tenets and quickly became engrained in society.

During the Renaissance composers began committing notes to paper and thus created the opportunity for music to be shared beyond first-person familiarity. For the first time, a piece of music could be performed by someone who had never heard it.

Fashion styles that took clothing beyond mere functionality were initially set by royalty and aristocracy, but societal changes like the emergence of the French bourgeois class and simple technological advances in clothing manufacture such as the sewing machine gave style a broader "popular" appeal. Thus, in a couple hundred years we went from tights and lace cuffs for European aristocracy to modern teenagers wearing their pants around their knees.

Shakespeare the Superstar

William Shakespeare. Library of Congress.
William Shakespeare. Library of Congress.
The Western world's first pop culture "superstar" was probably William Shakespeare. His theater plays are timeless classics, but he wrote them for a mass audience, thus fulfilling pop culture's requirement of art that is meant to be enjoyed by the masses. Shakespeare's art bridged the gap between popular and fine art in 16th century England—and ever since, as it is among the finest literature ever produced in English. Several of his plays were set elsewhere in Europe, which exposed the common Englishman to wedding and courtship traditions of different classes and cultures, potentially influencing those of England.

Popular Culture Becomes Global
Popular culture didn't require satellite television and the Internet to become global. When the first explorers took to the seas or traveled overland routes to distant places, they were influenced by, and returned with, examples of other cultures' popular art, artifacts and customs, such as drinking coffee. If that hadn't caught on, Starbucks would be stuck trying to sell cups of hot, frothy milk for three bucks a pop.

The masses were usually not the first to experience exotic forms of popular culture, but they were exposed to them over time. The mixture of popular elements of different cultures was also one of the factors that began to blur the lines between popular and fine arts. While Kabuki Theater was accessible to all classes of Japanese people, Europe's aristocrats initially regarded it as high art.

The Age of Industrialization: Relax, Enjoy
In the case of popular arts especially (theater, dance, music and more recently movies and television), the masses must have sufficient time and resources to enjoy these arts. Technology is the catalyst that made this possible.

Even though many 19th-century industrial laborers worked long hours, they did not generally work the dawn-to-dusk, seven-day-a-week schedules of agrarian toilers—cows need milking even on the Sabbath—and industrial laborers had more money in their pockets. This enabled them to enjoy entertainment venues and engage in hobbies, crafts and recreation outside their work lives. Life became more than survival, family and religion. The concentration of people in urban areas, attracted by jobs in the factories, also gave rise to more and different kinds of popular art forms by concentrating potential audiences.

Technology and Pop Culture

The sewing machine provided new fashions for everyone. Currier and Ives, Library of Congress.
The sewing machine provided new fashions for everyone. Currier and Ives, Library of Congress.
Technology also created new kinds of arts and items and made them available to everyone, not just the wealthy elite. Obvious examples that changed society significantly enough to alter the course of history are radio, television, motion pictures, amplified music, computers and the Internet. Technology recently erected another significant milepost in the pop culture timeline—the development of tech-based social networking. Other technological advances resulted in such diverse things as silk-screen printing (Express your opinion on your T-shirt!), bowling alleys' automatic pinsetters, and Wii.

Pop Culture History Portal
Historynet.com offers this Pop Culture mini-page with linked articles to advance the knowledge of the role pop culture history has played in changing human history and how it continues to do so, in order to better understand its effects on the history of human endeavor.

An important aspect in the study of pop culture is opinion. What makes some elements of pop culture forgettable while others become timeless? What do you regard as some of the most important—or maybe just memorable—contributions of pop culture in history? Give us your opinions in the Comments section below.


18 Responses to “Pop Culture History From Ancient Times to Today”


  1. 1
    Sailordude says:

    Pizza!

  2. 2
    Cuddles says:

    The "Tipping Point" addressed how trends spread. "teenagers wearing pants around knees" LOL!

  3. 3
    Jay Wertz says:

    With the passing of Dennis Hopper, American pop culture loses one of its quirkiest icons. When he was cast in a supporting role in "Rebel Without a Cause" in the mid-1950s, it was a perfect melding of personality, character and opportunity; the latter being principally what he learned about acting from James Dean.

    From there Hopper challenged traditional Hollywood methods with the brash young characters he protrayed. Then his imaginative and irreverent mind was given the ultimate chance for expression in "Easy Rider" (1969) a landmark film which he co-wrote directed and co-starred in. The film established his mark as a character actor of brazen, edgey and (from real life experience) drug crazed characters.

    WIth "Easy Rider" he also started a trend of location filmmaking that took Hollywood out of the studies. The gritty realistic look of many films in the 1970s owe much to Hopper, "Easy Rider" editor Donn Cambern, and other filmmakers influenced by the trend. The Cinemobile company and its packaging of complete on location production serivces also came out of the pioneering effort of "Easy Rider" style film making. But beyond directing and an art and photography sideline, Hopper will always be best remembered for his portrayals as an actor of unusual dimension.

  4. 4
    Jay Wertz says:

    Today one of the most prolific producers in motion picture history, Dino De Laurentiis, died at age 91 in his Beverly Hills home. He was born to modest means in Italy and worked his way through film school, determined to join the industry. A few years after serving in the Italian army in World War II he joined with Carlo Ponti in producing the films of Frederico Fellini and King Vidor among others. His grand idea for studios in Rome and later Wilmington, NC never fully succeeded but after emigrating to the U. S. in the 1960s he allied with the major studios, most notably Paramount, to produce such well-known films Serpico, Death Wish, Ragtime, White Buffalo, Dune, King Kong (1976) and The Dead Zone. Some of his films were critical successes, others were panned. That will happen when one produces more than 150 movies. Most made money. He leaves a producing legagy carried on by his daughter and a wealth of cinematic treasures to be enjoyed for decades.

  5. 5
    Jay Wertz says:

    John Barry, the English-born composer who is best known for his work on the "James Bond" films died today at age 77. Although it was disputed, he insists he is the one who wrote the iconic 007 theme for the first Bond film, "Dr. No". Producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli must have agreed with Barry because he continued to employ Barry to score the next eleven Bond films, spanning 25 years. Barry, who was a movie theater-owner's son and who first gained popularity as a jazz musician and composer, won five Oscars; two for "Born Free" (1966), and one each for "The Lion in Winter" (1968), "Out of Africa" (1985) and "Dances with Wolves" (1990). He also composed for a variety of other fascinating films such as "Midnight Cowboy". "Chaplin" and "The Cotton Club".

  6. 6
    Jay Wertz says:

    The Super Bowl is not only a football game; it is a pop culture event of the first magnitude. It has become, over 45 years, a magnet for all kinds of sports and non-sports celebrities rushing to be a part of the festivities in the NFL city selected to host the bowl (in what has become a fierce competition to gain this coveted prize). The game has also attracted an audience that is building steadily worldwide. American military forces in faraway places not only watch the game if off-duty, they organize Super Bowl parties, something they share with many other bowl spectators not fortunate enough to obtain a very costly ticket to see the game in person. Personally I prefer the NFL as a televised spectator sport, a view that even some NFL pundits share.

    Besides the game and surrounding hoopla, the Super Bowl has become a media and marketing spectacle. New national commercials are premiered during the pricey network and local ad breaks that run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for a 30 second spot. The 1984 Super Bowl premiere of the Apple Macintosh computer, using a George Orwell theme, still stands as one of the best. Other marketers rush to hook into the Super Bowl craze with any number of food, beverage and apparel products.

    There is one threat to the Super Bowl’s storied tradition and that is a pending labor standoff between NFL owners and the unionized NFL players. A threatened lock-out could potentially cancel the 2012 Super Bowl and that could do severe damage to the most popular American sport, as it did to baseball with the cancellation of the 1994 World Series in a year where that league faced a similar labor issue. While most of us can’t understand what “millionaires versus billionaires” have to fight about, one issue is understandable. The long-term health of players is on the table and one proposal is to increase money to former NFL players who have suffered debilitating injuries before they were fully understood and treated appropriately. Now that’s something to think about long after the outcome of the game is determined. Enjoy the game!

  7. 7
    Jay Wertz says:

    One of the iconic annual events in pop culture is the Academy Awards. Although there has been a steady increase in entertainment awards and broadcast programs featuring them since the first Academy Awards in 1929, Oscar still commands the lead in interest and audience share. It was great to see a film with a historical theme, “The King’s Speech”, win several top Oscars this year including Best Picture. There’s an old adage in Hollywood that says to avoid making period films, but they continue to be produced and win awards. Maybe life was really more interesting in the past and we are curious to see why. If the panacea over Facebook and its movie incarnation “The Social Network” are any indication, this idea may have merit. The program was supposed to be better this year under the leadership of veteran television direction and I suppose in some ways it was. However, the wide-eyed and youthful co-hosts seemed uncomfortable and out of place even though they gave it a valiant try. Most of the time they appeared to be acting out goofy “Friends” skits. Perhaps to cover their bet, the producers threw out a lifeline midway through the program and were rescued by Billy Crystal. Things seemed to return to some sense of familiarity. To top it off, Billy introduced the only Oscar host to overshadow him, Bob Hope who, with the help of technology, took part in this year’s presentations. Now that’s entertainment.

  8. 8
    Raymond E.O.Ella says:

    The Founder of the Musical Union (London) in 1845:

    The musician John Ella (1802-1888) was a pop-trend-setter in making Classical Chamber Music popular amongst all classes of people including the gentry and their ladies and his Musical Union (not a workers union) helped other musicians and singers "more pop" (more popular), some who were pop-contemporary in the 19th century being well-known and famous today.

    To read an article on John Ella and his family roots, go to:

    THE HECTOR BERLIOZ WEBSITE:
    http://www.hberlioz.com/others/RElla.htm

    Also further pictures:
    http://www.leicestershirevillages.com/leicester/gallery.html?user=11653&scope=leicestershire

  9. 9
    Clare Newston says:

    Great sites on the musician John Ella (1802-88) and pics.

    Clare.

  10. 10
    Jay Wertz says:

    Pop music has lost some iconic figures this year, including two of disco music's most influential performers and innovators, Donna Summer and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. Another pop icon has passed this week, composer-performer Marvin Hamlish. Like Summer and to a certain extent Gibb, Hamlish was still active in music at the time of his death; guest conducting and planning a new musical. It took me many years to appreciate Hamlish because I felt he took too much credit for adapting the music of others in two of his early scores of great films – a well-known canon of Johann Pachelbel for "Ordinary People" and a piano rag of Scott Joplin ( a pop music force between John Ella – see above – and Hamlish) for "The Sting." But later works, including the musical "A Chorus Line" which seemed very much a work derived from Hamlish's own influences groing up, and other Broadway and film scores, established his musical contributions. For these he was well-lauded – and he would say himself, deservingly so. His overbearance can be mostly forgiven because he was a performer who knew who to entertain – and in doing so, much like Ella, he expanded the breadth of the musical landscape for wider audiences. For his music and his personna, he will be missed.

  11. 11
    Janet Denning says:

    Denning with two n's, !.

  12. 12
  13. 13
    Janet Denning says:

    Sorry, !, the second Link should be:

    http://www.visitleicester.info/famous-people-from-leicester-shire/

    Best of all,
    Janet.

  14. 14
    computer says:

    I passed the Human Verification test!! Im not a computer!! :)

  15. 15
    Charlotte says:

    We all hope that we are much better than a computer, because a computer can only give-out what is fed into it by we humans; be it a deliberate falsehood, a fact or a human non-intentional error.

    Charlotte.

  16. 16
    Sandra Westfield says:

    I noticed that Wikipedia get the musician John Ella's birthplace wrong, i.e., Thirsk. However, Mr.R.E.O.Ella's very good precise article quotes Leicester and correct.
    All Wikipedia do is "take the thunder" from other people and often repeat their mistakes from old out-dated publications and make money from it,!.

    Sandra.

  17. 17
    Martha says:

    This site also mentions the musician John Ella born in 1802:

    http://www.leicestertravel.co.uk/john-ella-musician-born-leicester-1802-family-history/



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