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Longreads - April 2019

I didn’t do my homework last weekend. Here was the assignment: Beyoncé’s Homecoming — a concert movie with a live album tie-in — the biggest thing in culture that week, which I knew I was supposed to watch, not just as a critic, but as a human being. But I didn’t. Just like I didn’t watch the premiere of Game of Thrones the week before, or immediately listen to Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You. Instead, I watched something I wanted to: RuPaul’s Drag Race. What worse place is there to hide from the demands of pop culture than a show about drag queens, a set of performance artists whose vocabulary is almost entirely populated by celebrity references? In the third episode of the latest season, Vietnamese contestant Plastique Tiara is dragged for her uneven performance in a skit about Mariah Carey, and her response shocks the judges. “I only found out about pop culture about, like, three years ago,” she says. To a comically sober audience, she then drops the biggest bomb of all: “I found out about Beyoncé legit four years ago.” I think Michelle Visage’s jaw might still be on the floor.

“This is where you all could have worked together as a group to educate each other,” RuPaul explains. It is the perfect framing of popular culture right now — as a rolling curriculum for the general populace which determines whether you make the grade as an informed citizen or not. It is reminiscent of an actual educational philosophy from the 1930s, essentialism, which was later adopted by E.D. Hirsch, the man who coined the term “cultural literacy” as “the network of information that all competent readers possess.” Essentialist education emphasizes standardized common knowledge for the entire population, which privileges the larger culture over individual creativity. Essentialist pop culture does the same thing, flattening our imaginations until we are all tied together by little more than the same vocabulary.

The year 1987 was when Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Simpson family arrived on television (via The Tracey Ullman Show), and Mega Man was released on Nintendo. It was also the year Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. None of those three pieces of history were in it (though People published a list for the pop-culturally literate in response). At the back of Hirsch’s book, hundreds of words and quotes delineated the things Americans need to know — “Mary Had a Little Lamb (text),” for instance — which would be expanded 15 years later into a sort of CliffsNotes version of an encyclopedia for literacy signaling. “Only by piling up specific, communally shared information can children learn to participate in complex cooperative activities with other members of their community,” Hirsch wrote. He believed that allowing kids to bathe in their “ephemeral” and “confined” knowledge about The Simpsons, for instance, would result in some sort of modern Tower of Babel situation in which no one could talk to anyone about anything (other than, I guess, Krusty the Klown). This is where Hirsch becomes a bit of a cultural fascist. “Although nationalism may be regrettable in some of its worldwide political effects, a mastery of national culture is essential to mastery of the standard language in every modern nation,” he explained, later adding, “Although everyone is literate in some local, regional, or ethnic culture, the connection between mainstream culture and the national written language justifies calling mainstream culture the basic culture of the nation.”

Because I am not very well-read, the first thing I thought of when I found Hirsch’s book was that scene in Peter Weir’s 1989 coming-of-age drama Dead Poet’s Society. You know the one I mean,  where the prep school teacher played by Robin Williams instructs his class to tear the entire introduction to Understanding Poetry (by the fictional author J. Evans Pritchard) out of their textbooks. “Excrement,” he calls it. “We’re not laying pipe, we’re talking about poetry.” As an alternative, he expects this class of teenagers to think for themselves. “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life,” he tells them. “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Neither Pritchard nor Hirsch appear to have subscribed to this sort of sentiment. And their approach to high culture has of late seeped into low culture. What was once a privileging of certain aspects of high taste, has expanded into a privileging of certain “low” taste. Pop culture, traditionally maligned, now overcompensates, essentializing certain pieces of popular art as additional indicators of the new cultural literacy.

I’m not saying there are a bunch of professors at lecterns telling us to watch Game of Thrones, but there are a bunch of networks and streaming services that are doing that, and viewers and critics following suit, constantly telling us what we “have to” watch or “must” listen to or “should” read. Some people who are more optimistic than me have framed this prescriptive approach as a last-ditch effort to preserve shared cultural experiences. “Divided by class, politics and identity, we can at least come together to watch Game of Thrones — which averaged 32.8 million legal viewers in season seven,” wrote Judy Berman in Time. “If fantasy buffs, academics, TV critics, proponents of Strong Female Characters, the Gay of Thrones crew, Black Twitter, Barack Obama, J. Lo, Tom Brady and Beyoncé are all losing their minds over the same thing at the same time, the demise of that collective obsession is worth lamenting — or so the argument goes.” That may sound a little extreme, but then presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren blogs aboutGame of Thrones and you wonder. ...
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