What started as a fun mini-project has quickly become work. I have come across some fascinating research and found a ton of nostalgic websites and wikis. But with so much information, I’ve started to have difficulty even defining how to score my list. After all, what is pop culture? What’s just a fad? Can something be both?
Although I don’t consider Wikipedia a valid citing for most research because of its ability to be edited by unqualified critics; however, considering the topic, I think this is the perfect source this time. Wikipedia defines pop culture as “the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid-20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century.”
This is good, but it still leaves some questions. One struggle is the phenomena’s longevity. If a pop culture incident become part of our everyday life that has been around for forty years or longer is it still “pop culture?” Or does that mean it is undeniably a “pop culture” item?
Although predating my 50-year window, let me use “television” itself as an example. From 1950 to 1960, the number of households with a television set went from 9% to 87% defining a hot item and a new method of getting news and entertainment. Everyone was getting into this television thing in the 50s, making a shift in societal norms and by definition a “pop culture” event. However, because of its total pervasiveness and normalcy, I’m not sure is something most we call “pop culture” today.
By contrast, a fad is usually something that doesn’t remain in the culture and doesn’t “live” very long. Pagers are a good example. In the 80s, only doctors or emergency professionals had pagers and only used them for work-related purposes. However, in the 90s, the personal pager industry was born. The Wall Street journal estimated in 1994 that 7% of the American population had a pager for personal use, which peaked in 1998 at roughly one in four people carrying a beeper. Of course, over the next few years, the pager was replaced by more efficient cell phones and smart phones.
Nonetheless, I would classify both of these items “television” and “pagers” as pop culture phenomena. Thus, I am concluding that longevity is not nearly as important in my ranking system as popularity.
Another problem I have is one of granularity. What I mean is when one pop-culture item is dependent on another or several could be grouped together into a general trend. Fashion is typically an example of this. While “popped collars” of the 80s does qualify for my list, it makes more sense to group it together into “the preppy look.”
That said, it isn’t so easy in all cases. The “pagers” example above could be grouped into “digital communication devices” which would encompass the rise of people carrying gadgets of all sorts to make them near-instantly available for personal interaction. I think that group is a valid phenomenon of pop culture too, but the rise and fall of the beeper may be significant to qualify as its own event as well.
Hopefully, this has given some insight on my thinking and how I will be ranking the list of items. I currently have over 200 listed entries. I will be categorizing, grouping, splitting and working through this list to produce my Top 50 in the next few days.