Book Review: Lessons Learned from Popular Culture

Lessons Learned from Popular Culture. By Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan. SUNY Press, 2016. 274 pp.

imgresIt’s been 46 years since Ray Browne (1922-2009) founded the Popular Culture Association, and 49 since he launched the Journal of Popular Culture. Yet, as uncomfortable as it might make a lot of scholars, pop culture remains suspect in wide swaths of the academy, the accusation being that those researching and writing about it are just playing rather than engaging in “serious” study. One of the glories of Lessons Learned from Popular Culture is that its authors are willing to play with and against those perceptions. What better way to exact revenge than to turn stereotypes against their creators! SUNY Oswego sociology professor Tim Delaney and St. John Fisher College philosophy professor (and former president of the Northeast Popular Culture Association) Tim Madigan have written a playful, sometimes-irreverent text that’s a mix of hard-hitting analysis and nonchalance.

Theirs is a self-selected sampling of production from an array of pop culture categories: movies, television, social media, music, radio, newspapers, comics, cartoons, books, fashion, technology, fads, celebrity, comedy, sports, and virtual reality. In each chapter, they offer short probes of specific examples from the genre with an eye toward drawing some sort of “lesson” from each–often a whimsical one. The movie chapter, for instance, uses these films: Planet of the Apes, The Simpsons Movie, Apocalypse Now, Pinocchio, The Truman Show, and a smattering of zombie films. If you’re looking for an overall plan, don’t. The authors choose things that intrigue them because their real intention is to spark discussion, not get bogged down in the details of any one production. They mention eight zombie films in just two plus pages to reach the lesson that: “Zombies have no worries, and that’s what worries us humans” (23). If that sounds trite, so it might be, but scholars aren’t the audience and the same two pages touch upon weightier issues: the Problem of Other Minds (cognitive research), Rene Descartes and the nature of individualism, existentialism stripped to its basics, and the ethics of extending the life of vegetative elders. In like fashion, The Truman Show is a vehicle for considering Plato’s allegory of the cave. Any one of these would make for a dynamite undergraduate discussion, and those impressionable minds are this book’s intended audience.

Along the way, Delaney and Madigan also wander onto social problems turf. What new dangers emerge when street gangs become savvy with social media? Do overdone trends like the ice bucket challenge cause more fatigue than change? Do smart phones make us more intelligent, or simply pacify our stupidity? Are fantasy sports the new frontier of gambling addiction? They even engage in reflexive parody. In their look at Amazon as the behemoth that eats the local bookstore and narrows consumer choice, their lesson is: “If we’re not careful, Amazon will refuse to sell this book. Or, they might decide to sell it at a discounted rate–which is great for the reader but not so good for the authors or publisher” (151).

Any book that covers such diverse and idiosyncratic turf is open to nitpicking by reviewers wondering why the authors chose example A instead of B. This one certainly raises such questions. Delaney and Madigan are way too enamored with Seinfeld and sometimes force-fit the narrative so they can quote from the show. Fine–but Seinfeld has been off the air for a whopping 18 years now and, syndication aside, I doubt today’s undergrads share the authors’ obsession with the show. (Studies reveal, by the way, that Seinfeld was beloved in the Northeast and on the West Coast, but not elsewhere.) I have a few conceptual issues, one of which is that I do not conflate mass and popular culture, as do Delaney and Madigan. I suspect that anyone picking up this book will have one of two reactions: they’ll be lost in perceived chaos, or they will find its eclecticism thought provoking. I’m inclined to the second view and am willing to place my quibbles in the meh! category. Meh, by the way, might be a vulgarization of a Yiddish term, it might have come from TV’s Melrose Place, or it might have originated with Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons. Does its current popularity mirror the snarky irony of Millennial culture, or is it a psychological coping mechanism reflective of life in a time of moral relativism? That’s the kind of stuff Delaney and Madigan are talking about! If some academic curmudgeons can’t see that these are valuable lessons to discuss and learn, we shall leave them to their arcane specialties so they can talk quietly among themselves.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst


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