Popular Culture


Kael was the first American writer to champion exhilarating domestic popular films over highbrow European cinema. “There is more energy,” she wrote in 1964, “more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch in Top Hat, Strangers on a Train, His Girl Friday, The Crimson Pirate, Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, To Have and Have Not, The African Queen, Singin’ in the Rain, Sweet Smell of Success, The Manchurian Candidate, The Hustler and Hud than in the presumed ‘High Culture’ of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, La Notte, and The Eclipse.”

No other American critic of any art form, before or since, has had anything like her impact.

5 Buddy Holly

Well, yes, Elvis, of course, but American boys couldn’t realistically hope to grow up to be Elvis, whereas any horn-rimmed-glasses-wearing geek with a couple of friends and a garage to practice in might, in theory, become the next Buddy Holly. Holly and the Crickets were the first three- and four-piece rock band to go into a studio and record as such, and with the possible exception of Chuck Berry, who approached rock ’n’ roll from the other end of the color spectrum, no one did as much to fuse black blues and raucous white country music into the monster that would become rock ’n’ roll. Holly’s death in a plane crash in 1959 set the standard for rock-star denouements and inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie.” About a year after Holly’s death, some English kids in Liverpool got together and began looking for a name for their band that would remind people of the Crickets.

6 Andy Warhol

If we leave aside all debates based on purely aesthetic matters—and who knows whether the basis for such debates even exists today—Warhol’s influence swamps that of any 10 other artists you could name combined . As the art critic Dan Bischoff writes, “Andy Warhol was the most influential artist of the past fifty years … because with Warhol came the retirement of a whole raft of skills that artists had needed to have before in order to create art—the talent for painting, the talent for putting together complex images, arranging a sort of depth in two dimensions.” Warhol was the first artist for whom the subject became culture itself—that is, the popular culture of modern times, and not the way it was represented or rendered.

7 Frank Sinatra

So much has been written about Sinatra’s significance as a cultural icon that it’s easy to forget he was first a great popular artist. Sinatra was the first recording artist—and, arguably, the only one before the Beatles—to grasp the import of the album as the primary artistic and economic unit of pop music. He is the only pop singer of the fifties whose records have remained continuously in print, and no one, not even the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, has yet matched his longevity as an album artist.

8 Ernie Kovacs

Television is both a medium and an art form, and no one used the former to influence the latter like Kovacs, whose mix of video tricks, quick cuts, voice-overs, blackouts, and plain dark humor had a profound effect on everything from Laugh-In back in the sixties to today’s late-night talk shows and cutting-edge cable comedy. Kovacs wrote the grammar for modern television.

9 Norman Mailer

American culture became too fragmented in the second half of the twentieth century for any fiction writer to dominate his age the way Hemingway and Fitzgerald had done theirs, but even though he never wrote the great American novel, Norman Mailer may have had a greater impact on his time than Hemingway and Fitzgerald did on theirs. Who else produced so much vital work over so long a period or kept his finger on the pulse of the American heartbeat for so long? And if Mailer didn’t invent the new journalism, he was its most creative and prolific exponent.

“Literature,” Octavio Paz once said, “is journalism that stays journalism.” Mailer’s journalism has stayed journalism.

10 Francis Ford Coppola

Certainly there are directors with more box-office successes, but no one else in the history of American film has combined commercial success with critical acclaim as Coppola did in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II . No other American films added so many phrases to the lexicon; who among us has not, at one time or another, heard or used “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business,” “We’re bigger than U.S. Steel,” “Badda-bing!,” even “Forgetaboutit” (from a scene deleted from the original and restored by Coppola for the TV version).

The Godfather films made enduring stars of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, and James Caan. Coppola’s great set pieces, the opening wedding scene and closing baptism scene in the first film and the Havana sequence from the second, have been imitated endlessly. Perhaps more than any other American movies, Coppola’s masterpieces have justified the concept of the extended-version DVD.