Letter to the Editor: Finding fault in pop culture misses the point

Feb. 16, 2016

It has recently come to my attention that the Gender and Equality Center at the University of Oklahoma has launched an ad campaign decrying popular songs for “normalizing” sexual harassment. Topping the list are Adele’s –yes, Adele’s – hit song “Hello” and Maroon 5’s “Animals.”

This is a striking change of heart for an establishment that has prided itself on live-and-let-live and left popular culture alone while angling for causes of sundry social ills. Nevertheless, the cultural conservatives at OU’s Gender and Equality Center might be on to something, even if the campaign misses a larger point.

I made a similar one in these pages some time ago and was dismissed for engaging in an intergenerational war that was so last century. Kids will be kids, and curmudgeonly scolds like me are best left to ponder our nagging prejudices and our own complicity in propping up a crumbling patriarchy.

But popular culture’s role in shaping public opinion is something we might consider, since grandparents complaining about earsplitting rock & roll in the 60s is not quite the same as popular art that glamorizes – or “normalizes” – the very anti-social behaviors we now have to rein back in.

I do not wish to overstate the influence of mass media in contributing to civilizational decline. Popular art forms have always provided an alternative to the mainstream and have often provoked meaningful dialogue and influenced salutary reform. However, today popular culture is culture, since we have made the collective decision to relativize barbarism and level distinctions between high and low. When nothing is sacred, there is nothing against which to rebel. Anti-establishment dogma is meaningless when our only closely held moral value is indignation.

All that is left is ideology, and it is gratuitously and transparently deployed in myriad popular venues. To what degree are our perceptions of gun owners shaped by their noxious stereotypes on the hit comedy “Black-ish?” Or of policy debates by the unscrupulous editing techniques of Jon Stewart? How might we view with rational detachment the lead character in the drama “Scandal” terminating a pregnancy while “Silent Night” plays hauntingly in the background? (We have not yet popularized a word for “fear of Christianity,” so I’m not sure how to classify this last one.)

These are all drive-by attempts to shape public mood and opinion, since the creators of these shows are keenly aware of our antipathy for the labor-intensive acquisition of knowledge. Political agendas have precluded any claims to artistic license or to the mantle of speaking truth to power. Since when was shilling for a particular political party in any way an act of genuine rebellion?

I do not agree with OU’s assessment of Adele, and I think its Title IX-induced ad campaign is stupid. I also do not in the grand scheme take issue with popular noise in whatever form it may come. I just wish it remained an alternative to higher, more permanent things. Maybe then the time-honored tradition of protest would not seem so hollow.

Dr. Mark Zunac

Assoc. English Professor, UW-W