Engrained in the very notion of ‘popular culture’ is an implication that it is a base derivative of ‘high culture’ – but does this opinion remain valid, or, important, in contemporary society?
The early 21st Century has seen the popularisation of dance dramas, with exemplars including the Step Up (2006) American movie series and BBC Film’s release of StreetDance 3D in 2010, offering storylines centred around the physical space where students attending prestigious ballet schools interact with those of the same generation whose dancing was cultivated in the alleyways of deprived suburban districts. In both films, it is not merely the street dancers who must conform to the disciplines of ballet, but the ballet dancers must also accommodate the contrasting rhythms of Hip-Hop music.
During his headlining act at Glastonbury last year, Stormzy devoted approximately two minutes of his set to a pair of impeccable ballet dancers. In the backdrop was a projection of statements highlighting the significant development in the industry: ballet shoes are now made to match different skin tones. It celebrated the ballet world for its progression. It is a world which is, no matter how slowly, gradually moving away from the exclusivity so resonant of ‘high’ culture. In all of these aforementioned instances, ‘popular’ culture and ‘high’ culture are explored through their amalgamation rather than their dichotomy.
Equally, musicians are increasingly experimenting with the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘high’ culture. In 2017, music composer Tokio Myers gained critically acclaimed fame when he won Britain’s Got Talent. He stunned both the judges and audience from his very first audition through his captivating rendition of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” which was followed by a piano and dubstep composition of Ed Sheeran’s “Bloodstream”. Interestingly, the composition did not elevate to a climax culminating in Debussy’s piece, but rather, Debussy’s piece was used to introduce the familiarity of one of Britain’s most famous pop music icons. This is not to suppose that Tokio Myers presented the French composer’s piece as inferior, but that he actively acknowledged how music from classical (‘high’) genres, could be complimented by music from pop (‘popular’) genres. Tokio Myers put Claude Debussy and Ed Sheeran on one stage, in one piece.
However, it is not just different genres which interact: popular music is also engrossed in the subject matter associated with high culture. In the same year as Tokio Myers’ debut, award-winning, Grime artist Dave appropriated BBC’s live studio debate Question Time and used it as the title for his politically driven single released in 2017. Within the single, Dave imitates the discourse characteristic of the BBC political debates, opening with the refrain “A question for the new Prime Minister”. In approximately seven minutes, Dave questions the opposing political leaders, the crippled NHS, and the response to Grenfell. Dave inherits a political register, taking it from the formality of a BBC televised debate to the accessible platform of Spotify which, in turn, ignited a whirlwind of responses through inspired listeners’ Twitter threads. Indeed, the content conventional to mediums of high culture are now increasingly informed by their discussion in more accessible forums – a discussion which a large proportion of the general public are now invited to participate in, rather than being shunned for a lack of understanding.
In terms of literature, we have seen how a modern and popular adaptation of classical mythology can bring an author global success. Typically, the subjects of Classics, Latin and Greek do not make much of an appearance on the comprehensive state school syllabus, but Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise means that children are given the opportunity to experience the riveting tales of Classical periods through other forms.
In no way am I suggesting the distinction between ‘popular’ and ‘high’ culture no longer exists, but what I do intend to show, is that the notion of popular culture as a base derivative seems outdated and reductive. You can look to any medium of art and see how the popular holds great influence over the high. Its platforms mean that art forms and subject matter which were once confined to the exclusive bracketing of high culture are now increasingly accessible. The relationship between the two cultures is less hierarchical and more symbiotic. One thing is for sure, the high aspect of culture is no longer so out of reach.