Synopsis: ‘Mass culture’ and ‘Popular culture’ constitute the culture industry and are often perceived to be synonymous for they work in the same context, but differ greatly in function.
Introduction: Mass culture and popular culture are often used interchangeably, but the two terms are actually not synonymous with one another. Their meanings lie at the intersection of cultural production and consumption in today’s society. The two can be argued to constitute ‘The Culture Industry’ as described by Adorno and Horkheimer in their book, ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment.’
The term ‘Culture’ as used in this essay, is the opposite of folk culture (practices that have been popularized by ordinary people and communities), instead, referencing the collection of cultural products including music, art, cinema, and fashion that have been manufactured and marketed by the mass media for mass consumption.
This concept of Culture being manufactured rose after World War II which saw a boom in the scope of mass media, rapid mechanization of industries, and technological advancements. The innovations in mass media catalysed cultural and social change in the west. Simultaneously Capitalism began to utilize technology and mass media to market freshly invented goods to a variety of classes for profit.
The methods which produce mass culture and prompt the consumption of popular culture are constantly adapting. In general terms, the difference between the two lies in the fact that Mass culture is preoccupied with production while pop culture deals with consumption. This feature allows Pop culture to mould itself according to feedback, allowing consumer markets to customize their desires. The overwhelming response to a phenomenon like Coachella, a festival that enlightens the world about the American approach to culture more than the headlining artists and their music, produces feedback which will then help the culture industry tailor the fest according to popular demand. Popular culture can thus be argued to exist within the frame of mass culture.
The relationship between the two lies in the consequent relationship between the ‘commercial interests of mass culture and popular interests.’ John Fiske who wrote extensively about this topic in his book ‘Understanding Popular Culture’ says that popular culture is manufactured by the interests of the people who “scan the repertoire produced by the culture industry to find products that they can use for their own cultural purposes. The industry similarly constantly scans the tastes and interests of the people to discover ones that it can commodify and turn to its own profit”. This relationship is always dynamic and moulding itself according to popular demand.
What exactly is Popular culture?
Popular culture comprises of an entirety of attitudes, ideas, perceptions, and perspectives that have been brought into existence by an informal consensus. More specifically it refers to music, visual and performing arts, literature, festivals, poetry, artistic and designer creations that are promoted through the efforts of the mass media.
A collection of cultural products that have been marketed by the mass media and favoured by the majority, consequently producing profit, can be termed popular culture. Aesthetics such as ‘Cottage-Core’, ‘Dark Academia’ and ‘Insta baddies’ are manufactured by mass culture but make their way into popular culture through majority favour. Once popularised, the cultural products associated with each pre-packaged aesthetic begin to produce profit: customized playlists and music tastes, a very specific sense of fashion, and other decorative products that constitute the aesthetic of that lifestyle. Tik Tok as a means of mass communication acts as a medium for mass culture to reach its wide audience but the popular tropes or addictive momentary trends constitute the pop culture aspect.
Popular culture then becomes “mass culture with a plus sign”. Mass culture provides the wide array of products, some of which are then popularised to constitute pop culture. Media monopolies and tech giants like Spotify, Instagram, tik tok and Pinterest provide unlimited content for consumption, but the popular trends which emerge within each app embody ‘Pop culture.’
What exactly is Mass culture?
Mass culture is then, a culture which is mass-produced, distributed, and marketed. Popular culture is that which emerges from mass culture, according to the majority opinion. Music produced on an industrial scale and made available through a plethora of apps and sites such as Apple Music, Spotify, and sound cloud are indicative of mass culture but the specific artists and songs that rise to the top are indicative of the popular culture.
Mass culture produces unified content, designed to reach as many recipients as possible. It comprises of all forms of culture, encompassing the counter-culture and underground sub-cultures as well. It functions on the ‘Something for everyone’ principle. The difference here is that mass culture is an all-encompassing façade that produces products for both the majority and the minority, whilst pop culture is that which is consumed by a majority of the audience.
An analysis of Mass culture and Popular culture:
Mass culture is a culture that is widely disseminated via mass media, that utilizes technologies for mass production and seeks to maximize profit by using mass forms of communication such as film, tv, and most recently the internet for everyday enculturation. The population is fed cultural and stylistic values by television, radio, advertisement, internet to help us determine what aspects of culture to popularise.
Mass media then manufactures cultural values and ideas which arise from the common exposure of a population to the same cultural activities, music, film, television and art. Popular culture then stems from this bubble, with majority opinion popularising, for example, the Marvel Avengers franchise as opposed to seemingly underground films which are also produced for mass consumption.
Capitalism allows for the monopolization of culture: 90% of all media produced in the US is owned by 6 conglomerates. This is representative of the mechanisms that underpin mass culture. The specific media such as a popular TV series (example: Friends) produced by these conglomerates and the companies they own, is an example of pop culture that has emerged from mass culture.
The internet has also served as one of the most efficient tools to popularize the content produced by Mass culture on an unprecedented scale. The emergence of mass culture has equated products of ‘high culture’ and ‘entertainment’. A pop artist is ranked equally to an opera singer, an Instagram model can be featured in vogue which was exclusive in its choice of supermodels. Thus, ever so recently Pop culture and mass culture have begun to intertwine. In his 1935 essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin criticizes Mass culture for destroying the remnants of personalized artistic touch. Not soon after, Art began to mimic the products of mass production. This is observed most clearly in the work of Andy Warhol, whose pieces infiltrated pop culture for the sole reason that they aesthetically depicted the standardization produced by mass culture, mass consumption and the consequent rise of the ‘commodity’.
Also Read: Theories of Mass Media
The two concepts thus exist within the same contour of the culture industry which has taken root in the 20th and 21st century. Both mass culture and popular culture permeate life today under the global hegemonic influences of capitalism, both doing their part in ensuring the duality of production and consumption. Mass culture enables pop culture to create pseudo individualism through Spotify activities such as the most recent, ‘No one listens like you’ capsule which featured the hashtag #onlyyou and each individual’s absurd combination of songs, streamed one after another. One of the most characteristic features of both pop culture and mass culture in action, pseudo individuality, was touched upon by Adorno and Horkheimer in their critique of the culture industry, “In the culture industry, the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned. Pseudo individuality is rife (143)”. Max Horkheimer adds to this in his book ‘Eclipse of Reason’ saying that, ‘Man’s self-expression has become identical with his function in the prevailing system (97)’. This then substantiates the claim that mass culture and pop culture work mutually to maximize profit while pacifying the masses by satisfying momentary desires to feel unique through projects like Spotify’s aforementioned one.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Routledge, 2011.
Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. Bloomsbury, 2019.
Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Seabury Press, 1972.