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[Chalice] The Highest Lows: [Chalice]
Pop Culture Studies and the Vital Importance of Trivia!

Presented May 4, 2014, by Anna Wiegenstein

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One year ago this month, after two years spent in the flat expanse of Northwestern Ohio, I finished a graduate school program and was awarded a Master’s Degree. For those of you who may have heard me speak at this church before, I imagine that this news must ramp up your already lofty expectations for me this morning “ she used to be a mere twentysomething, and now she’s a master!” But please, let me specify things a bit before you get ahead of yourselves.

A few weeks ago, I followed one of the unspoken guidelines of academic life, and attended a scholastic conference. The program was as thick as one of our hymnals, with thousands of presentations stretched over four days. Like any academic conference, the gathering I went to proudly advertised a keynote speaker for the attendees to listen and learn from. Unlike most academic conferences, the featured speaker is best known for her years spent in a gauzy croptop, granting wishes with a nod of her head. My conference was the national gathering of the Popular Culture Association, and our keynote address was given by Barbara Eden, the former star of “I Dream Of Jeannie.”

So, yes, I have a degree, but it’s in American Culture Studies, and for some people, that renders it rather inexplicable. But I’ve come here this morning not only to validate my education, but to point out that some of the things I love so much about my field of study just happen to be wellaligned with what I, as a Unitarian, value.

On the first day of most cultural studies classes, including ones I’ve taught myself, the primary task is always an unhappy one it’s the day when a class has to first think about how exactly “culture” is determined, and why it’s something to think about critically. Or, if you’re an 18yearold freshman, it’s the day when I deliver the heartbreaking news that the course won’t simply be four months of watching video clips on YouTube. Attempting to define something as vast an idea as “culture” is a headache, but, I will say that one of the working titles for this talk was “the fabric of our lives,” until I became concerned that people would show up expecting me to discuss cotton. Maybe a Star Wars comparison would work better: much like The Force, culture is that which surrounds and binds us together, present everyday, but never mundane.

Now, I could preach for a month of Sundays about why pop culture is important, but luckily for me, that’s probably unnecessary. While it may be quietly sneered at in the circles of higher education, it’s never, ever difficult to convince actual people that the passion they feel towards culture is important. You don’t have to have a degree in anything to love a band so much you plan a summer around their touring schedule, or marathonwatch an entire television series in a weekend.

Or, to put it another way if pop culture wasn’t important, then there would be no reason for society to get as highminded as it does every so often, wringing its hands over video games, or what a certain singer’s popularity (be it Elvis, Prince, or Lady Gaga) means about the world in which we live. Pop culture provides entryways for people to discuss larger sociological issues: trace the path of feminism through Mary Tyler Moore all the way up to Beyoncé, mindless consumerism as illustrated through zombie movies, or, as in the reading for meditation, the community and communion that can be found through a game.

Okay. So, why give a talk like this in a UnitarianUniversalist church (aside from my fondness for this one, in particular)? It’s easy to see how various other religions react and adapt to mass culture the melodic structure of contemporary Christian rock is identical to much of the Top 40, they just capitalize the “You” in their songs of adoration. Pope Francis got as much press from setting up a Twitter account as he did for any of his increasingly liberal declarations. UUs may not have these kinds of concrete examples to point to, but that’s only because I believe our values have more in common with the actual study of culture.

We prize critical thinking and the ability to respectfully question. In academia, once a piece of pop culture is recognized as an important text, we are then free to “read” that text in a number of different ways. This technique was introduced by the late media theorist Stuart Hall, who wrote that every cultural item is created with the intent of being experienced in a preferred, or dominant, way.

To illustrate this, let me pick on someone who’s gotten truckloads of cultural scholarship dedicated to her throughout the years: Barbie. As has been made painfully clear over 50plus years of marketing, Barbie is a toy that’s intended for young girls. The ideal promoted by Mattel is that Barbie is the ideal vehicle for a little girl’s imagination, that the story of Barbie’s life can be dictated entirely by the child who owns her. A brief stroll down the toy aisle shows that Barbie currently works about 500 jobs simultaneously, from schoolteacher to veterinarian and beyond. She’s a role model.

Now, I imagine that more than a few out there began inwardly shaking your heads in disagreement somewhere during the last few sentences. Excellent, because Stuart Hall and I are here to tell you that there’s room for all of our dollrelated opinions in this crazy world. The spectrum goes from my dominant reading of Barbie all the way to the completely oppositional take on her that’s pretty familiar at this point: a horrible example to give to young women, from her impossible body type to her complete reliance on continual buying of more clothes and accessories.

Next, UnitarianUniversalists value being able to draw our own conclusions. The wonderful result of accepting that pop culture can be read in different ways, I’ve found, is beginning to actually do so. Henry Jenkins, a favorite theorist of mine, has described this as “participatory culture,” a model which flies in the face of the traditional, depressing idea that all culture is created in a factory, sent down an assembly line, and is then immediately, unquestioningly absorbed by us, the passive spectators. Not so.

The idea of searching out new and personalized meaning in an alreadyestablished text, often times reading against the grain of the explicit message, is again, nothing new to a Unitarian. It’s a method that allows people to sometimes create representation for themselves in cultural areas that are lacking in diversity. The writer Andy Medhurst tackled this topic when writing about his personal experience as a gay fan of superhero comics, saying that, “the one constant factor through all of the transformations of Batman has been the devotion of his admirers...they carry around in their Batman should really be.” He concludes by simply stating that, “If I want Batman to be gay, then, for me, he is.”

Alternative conclusions can be quietly radical, like Medhurst’s characterization of the Dark Knight. Or, they can be brash and attentiongrabbing, like the stunt a group called the B.L.O. (or Barbie Liberation Organization) pulled just over two decades ago, when they intercepted a shipment of talking dolls, switching around the prerecorded quips between Barbies and G.I. Joes. When the BLO was through, the military men were left proclaiming their love of shopping and exclaiming, “Math is hard!” Barbie’s quote? “Dead men tell no lies.”

Finally and foremost, UnitarianUniversalists are ardent about selfexpression, and in my experience, unabashedly loving the things that you love is as big a way of expressing oneself as possible. We are the sum of the things we are passionate about. Or, as Henry Jenkins puts it in his description of “convergence culture” : “Each of us constructs our own personal mythology from bits and fragments of information extracted from the media flow and transformed into resources through which we make sense of our everyday lives.”

You can become socially awakened through a rock album. Your cherished political views may come from the mouth of a fictional character. All readings, all paths, are legitimate. And today, when we gather together like this, we put into action the cultural studies concept of “collective intelligence,” which basically states that “none of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills.”

To conclude this morning, I’d like to return to the words of Walt Whitman from today’s responsive reading his easy connection between architecture and music awakening from a person’s own experiences, to divine religions having “grown out of you, and may grow out of you still” eloquently summarizes my own thoughts. Culture be it high or low is only ever created out of community, and our UU community is a continually nurturing one. So please, try not to be horrified when I talk about my academic presentations on Justin Bieber, because what I’m usually talking about is a myriad of topics marketing of authenticity, sociological development of teenage girls, and a general trend in music going back to Michael Jackson and David Cassidy. My degree came from Ohio, but the skills I needed to get there came from this place.

©2014 Anna Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Anna 2014. The Highest Lows: Pop Culture Studies and the Vital Importance of Trivia!, /talks/20140504.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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