Popular Culture


by Groucho Marx and Richard J. Anobile (1974; Perennial Library; out of print). Popular culture could be enlightening and educational, but it was also just plain fun. The Marx Brothers trespassed through dozens of different popular-culture forms and marked every one with their particular brand of New York ethnic humor. From vaudeville and burlesque to musical comedy, Broadway theater, film, radio, and television, they made bad taste and bawdy humor a high art form. The Scrapbook, besides being a thoroughly entertaining documentary history, provides an invaluable compendium of interviews, photographs, scenes from the films, sheet-music covers, correspondence, newspaper articles, and advertisements.

The 7 Lively Arts

by Gilbert Seldes (1957; Dover). Seldes wrote this book in 1923 and 1924 and added an introduction and slightly revised it in 1956 and 1957. The first edition was the contribution of a young man to “the assault against ‘the genteel tradition’”; the revised edition added the commentary of a more mature critic slightly abashed at his younger, more enthusiastic self. Seldes was among the first critics to take the “popular arts” seriously. This is a chatty, informative, opinionated book about Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett; ragtime and Irving Berlin; Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids; Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. It provides a fine introduction to popular culture before it was known as popular culture.

Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin

by Alice Echols (1999; Henry Holt). There are dozens of terrific books on popular music and rock ’n’ roll. One of my favorites is Alice Echols’s biography of Janis Joplin. There is a demonic quality to popular culture that is too often submerged in our analyses of its forms and contents. Echols situates Joplin within the sixties counterculture that made her music possible and her premature death all too inevitable.

Why Sinatra Matters

by Pete Hamill (1998; Little, Brown). Hamill’s is a short book but an important one. It is a study of style, of grace, of sexuality, and of longing, all hallmarks of popular culture. Like so many of the critically important artists and performers who invented twentieth-century American popular culture, Sinatra was an outsider who refashioned himself into the ultimate insider. In asking why Sinatra matters, Hamill answers the larger question: Why does popular culture matter?

Blues People: Negro Music in White America

by Amiri Baraka (1963; HarperTrade). First published more than 40 years ago, before LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka, Blues People is one of the best and most readable social histories of jazz and the blues. Jones is generous in his judgments of white as well as black musicians, but he makes it abundantly clear that American popular musical forms are rooted in the black experience.

Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America

by Tricia Rose (1994; Wesleyan). Hip-hop has now dominated the American cultural scene for almost two decades and the global arena for nearly as long. Tricia Rose’s book brilliantly describes rap as “an outgrowth of black cultural traditions, the postindustrial transformation of urban life, and the contemporary technological terrain.” Her multilayered reading of rap music—and the large hip-hop culture to which it belongs—uncovers some of the reasons for the music’s vitality, longevity as a cultural force, and widespread appeal. As the “culture wars” make clear, popular culture is not just a form of entertainment but an arena of political debate that speaks to our values and identity as a society. Nowhere are these conflicts and contests clearer than in rap; nowhere are they more forcefully chronicled than in Rose’s work.