The very first RTE television broadcast was transmitted on New Year’s Eve 1961, and the first speaker was President Eamon De Valera. He expressed considerable foreboding regarding the new medium:
“I must admit that sometimes when I think of television and radio and their immense power I feel somewhat afraid. Like atomic energy, it can be used for incalculable good but it can also do irreparable harm. Never before was there in the hands of men an instrument so powerful to influence the thoughts and actions of the multitude.
“A persistent policy pursued over radio and television, apart from imparting knowledge, can build up the character of a whole people, inducing sturdiness and vigour and confidence. On the other hand, it can lead through demoralisation to decadence and dissolution.”
This address, unlike De Valera’s much-scorned “happy maidens” speech, is virtually unknown today. I only learned of it relatively recently. It seems to me that it should be better known, and that De Valera’s fears have transpired to be entirely justified.
Most conservatives, I believe, would agree with this. Indeed, I suspect a great many liberals would, too. Few people are vocal in praise of the social effects of television.
On the other hand, here is a story from my own life. My father died in May 2019. Almost the last ritual I shared with him was watching the American sit-com Frasier together, almost every night. Most nights, we watched three episodes together. We made our way through all eleven series three times. I’m very grateful for that memory, even though we were both passively glued to a glowing screen.
How should conservatives view pop culture? And what is pop culture? Can we get away from it, and should we even want to? These are questions I have been asking myself almost my entire life. I have arrived at different answers at different times, and I still haven’t arrived at a definite answer.
It’s hard to even settle upon a rough definition of pop culture. It seems to be distinct from high culture on the one hand, and folk culture on the other. Nevertheless, the borders blur into each other. Is Charles Dickens high culture or pop culture? After all, he was the Stephen King or J.K. Rowling of his day, and wrote serialized stories for a mass market. Is Citizen Kane high culture or pop culture? Are The Dubliners folk culture or pop culture? Might we consider tales of Robin Hood or Finn Mac Cumhail, told on winter nights in distant centuries, the pop culture of their day?
It’s impossible to define pop culture exactly, but, pedantry aside, we all understand what it is, and conservatives (especially) recognize what is baneful about it.
Pop culture by its very nature seems to eat away at social norms and conventions. A song like “When I’m Sixty-Four” may celebrate domesticity, but the album from which it is taken — “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — is almost a manifesto of social and cultural revolution, with its psychedelic sounds and barely-veiled celebration of recreational drugs. This is typical of pop culture in general, although there are certainly wholesome and traditional messages to be found within in it, the trajectory is (to quote Status Quo) “down, down, deeper and down” — from the mild raffishness of the Rat Pack to the mindless nihilism of the Sex Pistols, Marilyn Manson, and the dreary procession of similar acts. There may be counter-currents here and there, but the river only ever flows in one direction.
Pop culture is also a passive phenomenon, despite all that professors of Media Studies have argued to the contrary. It is delivered to us through screens and headphones, unlike the folk tale told around the fire, or the ballad sung in the tavern. Audience “participation” at screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and similar phenomena, are doomed attempts to overcome this stark reality. Our cultural dreamlife originates in corporate board-rooms, leaving the audience only the choice to say “yay” or “nea” to a very limited range of options.
Another reason to object to pop culture is that it erodes national culture. Much sport is made of the 1934 “anti-jazz campaign” in Ireland. It is impossible not to smile when we read some of the quotations pertaining to this controversy, most famously the words of the Gaelic League secretary who condemned Minister for Finance Sean McEntee (who had authority over Radio Éireann) thus:
“Our Minister for Finance has a soul buried in jazz and is selling the musical soul of the nation… He is jazzing every night of the week.” We laugh at this today, of course, and yet, was this pure alarmism? After all, jazz may not have undermined Irish morals and culture in itself, but its successors certainly ushered in a social and cultural revolution, one which gave short shrift to previous generations’ dream of a pious and re-Gaelicized nation.
So there are many reasons for a conservative to be hostile to pop culture. And yet, and yet…
Despite all this, I am utterly fascinated by popular culture. And very often it is those very instincts and yearnings which make me a conservative which also fuel my interest in pop culture.
Conservatives tend to celebrate those things which are enduring, rather than those things which are ephemeral. Pop culture is now old enough to include many works which have achieved this aura of timelessness. A movie like Casablanca, for instance, seems to stand outside time in the same way as a fairy tale or a nursery rhyme.
Pop culture has also become such a part of our lives that it seems impossible to avoid pop cultural nostalgia. When Gay Byrne died, everybody in Ireland seemed to be seized by the same “warm fuzzies”, looking back at his years hosting the Late Late Show. I was taken back to my boyhood, falling asleep on the couch or sitting room floor as Gaybo’s velvety voice filled the air, the weekend stretching before me. The Late Late seemed like the fireside of the nation, a ritual of Irishness. The fact that, in many ways, it took a wrecking ball to our culture and morals seemed almost secondary.
The very word “ritual” turns my mind to the cinema, one of the greatest passions of my life. I spent my twenties in the cinema, and I don’t really regret it. Few experiences today are as ceremonial as cinema-going. As Peter Hitchens puts it, in his book The Abolition of Britain: “Cinema is a concentrated experience, available only for two or three hours at a special time and place. It is surrounded by ceremony— even now many theatres use curtains to signal the start of a programme, and there is a ritual to the order of trailers, advertisements, censor’s certificate, sale of food, and so on. Until thirty years ago, performances ended with the national anthem, incredible as this now seems to me… The cinema-goer usually prefers to go with a companion, and is in any case watching with all the other people in the audience. Films, even nowadays, are often applauded. There can also be genuine infectious laughter”.
Indeed, the image of the cinema audience itself is one that fascinates me. It’s the background image of my mobile phone, my laptop, my desktop. There is something sublime in the sight of that crowd of faces, bathed in the magical light coming from the big screen, melting into a sort of collective consciousness— or even a collective unconscious. Indeed, when we are part of a cinema audience, we seem to enter that realm which is invoked by the words “Once upon a time, long long ago…”
The values we encounter in the cinema, on the surface, are usually life-affirming. True love and lifelong fidelity. The victory of the underdog against tremendous odds. The city slicker who reconnects with small town values. And yet, over decades, through a slow dripfeed, the cinema has been every bit as injurious to the spiritual life of society as television or pop music, mostly through the incidental values it transmits and normalises. (My favorite film of all time, Groundhog Day, has such spiritually uplifting themes that it’s a particular favourite with religious viewers. But it also takes premarital sex as a matter of course.)
Perhaps my internal conflict, when it comes to pop culture, can be reduced to this: pop culture is a substitute for everything it erodes. Pop culture is a repository of folklore, of collective memory, of ritual, of social bonding, of national and generational togetherness. True, it is a far inferior substitute. But it is a substitute nonetheless.
The image that comes to my mind, when I think of pop culture, is of an ancient forest ripped down and replaced by millions of saplings. The heart grieves for the death of the old trees: their deep roots, their thick branches, the abundance of wildlife that lived in them. The saplings seem puny in comparison, and resented. And yet… well, they are trees, after all. Life is going on all around them. The heart, despite itself, responds. Is it wrong to do so?