Abstract

This article argues that the transformations of the popular, which began in Europe around 1800 and introduced the powerful distinction between low culture and high culture, have established a competitive distinction between the popular and the non-popular that has become dominant over the course of the 20th century. As a result, the popular is no longer either the culture of the ‘lower classes’ or the inclusion of the ‘people’ in the service of higher goals. The popular today is hardly the object of desired transgressions (Leslie Fiedler’s “cross the border, close the gap”) or an expression of felt or feared “massification” or “flattening”. Rather, being popular now means getting noticed by many. Popularity is measured as well as staged, as rankings and charts provide information on what is popular while vying for popularity themselves. These quantifying formats do not speak to the quality or originality of the popular, only to its evident success across different scales of evaluation. People do not buy good products, they buy popular ones; they do not listen to the best music, but to popular music; they do not share, like, or retweet important, but popular news. Even the ‘unpopular’ can be popular: a despised politician, a hated jingle, an unpopular measure. The popular modifies whatever it affords with attention. Its quantitatively and hierarchically comparative terms (‘bestseller,’ ‘outperformer,’ ‘high score,’ ‘viral’) generate valences that do not inhere in the objects themselves. Conversely, the non-popular, which does not find any measurable resonance in these terms, risks being dismissed as irrelevant or worthless simply because it does not appear in any rankings or ratings. This can be observed particularly with artefacts whose relevance as part of high culture may be taken for granted even when they do not achieve mass resonance. The purpose of this article is to outline a theory of the popular that does justice to these developments by identifying two decisive transformations: 1. the popularization of quantifying methods to measure attention in popular culture around 1950; 2. the popularization of the internet around 2000, whereby the question of what can and cannot become popular is partially removed from the gatekeepers of the established mass media, educational institutions, and cultural elites and is increasingly decided via social media.

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Citation

Werber, Niels, Daniel Stein, Jörg Döring, Veronika Albrecht-Birkner, Carolin Gerlitz, Thomas Hecken, Johannes Paßmann, Jörgen Schäfer, Cornelius Schubert and Jochen Venus (2023): “Getting Noticed by Many: On the Transformations of the Popular”, in: Daniel Stein and Niels Werber (Hg.): New Perspectives on Pop Culture (Special Issue Arts). DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12010039.