“The times, they are a changin’”. A wise man made that bold claim in 1964, and if you know who and what I’m referring to then you’ve likely had the honour of watching significant changes occur in our media environment over the past few decades, or you simply understand the importance of rock’s roots. Either way, there is no denying that the technology available to our youth today has significantly altered the media landscape in so many ways. Fewer and fewer students “write” notes in class anymore, they “type” them on their laptops. They all have cell phones but many choose to text rather than talk. While the term social networking is a mystery or an inconvenience to many older members in our society, it is simply the way of life for our younger generation. They are so in tune with their MP3′s, iPods, YouTubes, Facebooks, Flickrs, Blu-Rays and Wi-Fi’s that words that are Greek to many of us or too new to even be on the radar of others are the terms and catchwords that they have grown up with. Simply put, they know no other way.

When I mention Record Albums or 8-Track cassettes during some of my lectures, I expect to see blank faces as these are cultural artefacts that were gone long before most of my student’s time. I am amazed though when that applies to VCR’s, the once ubiquitous home electronic device that has since given way to the DVD which will soon step aside for another format, another medium. “Almost” everyone has a TV. It has been the central component in most North American homes since its introduction. We essentially redefined our living spaces around its presence and spent many, many hours basking in its warm and numbing glow. Many of us grew up in front of the television waiting to see if Gilligan would ever get rescued, to find out who shot J. R., or simply to laugh uproariously at that show about nothing. We went from 2 channels to 200 and it continues to increase but, for how long? Teens watch the least amount of television, significantly less than we did at that age. So where are they?

Convergence is an industry term that refers to an economic strategy where large media conglomerates digitize content and then by taking advantage of increasing government deregulation across the communications sectors are able to reduce operating costs while simultaneously expanding their market share. And breathe. But what does that mean for us as media consumers? We can read the news from Canwest Global via the National Post or the Vancouver Sun or Province newspapers; we can also read the same news from them at canada.com or theprovince.com or vancouversun.com; we can watch the news from Canwest on Global BC their television station; or we can partake of their other newspapers, specialty channels as all of this media content, due to its easy malleability in digital form, can be cobbled together online. And Canwest is far from the only company with this model or reach.

It is this fragmentation of the “mass” audience that is indicative of the media environment that we live in today. Gone are those days when “almost” everybody was watching their TV at the same time (perhaps with the exception of Olympic hockey?) and we shared a mediated sense of connection with each other through the programming we consumed. This same audience is now spread over a couple of hundred channels or they’re online or they’re texting or PVR’ing…our choices are seemingly endless. Canada provides additional challenges to this landscape as well.

Beyond our vast geographic makeup and the scattered population, globalization and the easy transfer of information and people worldwide, our population is becoming increasingly diverse. There are more than 200 ethnic groups represented in Canada and approximately 15% of our population is a visible minority. We see this reflected in our media with channels dedicated to serving the needs of these groups although most mainstream media tends to marginalize or stereotype these groups. So while our world is indeed changing, and there is clearly no going back, we need to remain acutely aware of some of the potential impacts that this multi-media environment can have on us as a nation and as individuals. As Canadians, the media has traditionally had the role of creating a sense of community, of uniting seemingly disparate peoples from coast to coast, from south to north and this is in fact ensconced in federal policy. We need to ensure that our infrastructure remains inclusive and recognizes Canada’s changing face. Then we can see the world the way our children do now.

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

OK, I’m busy. Real busy. So sue me. Regardless, I feel the need to catch up and post some of my thoughts on the pop world around me so here goes.

I finally got caught up on The Killing and i admit, I was scared to. When the season finale happened I still had 5 episodes to watch but my twitter feed went crazy with people bemoaning the ending. I avoided the actual spoilers for a few weeks while I struggled to catch up. That BTW is my biggest problem with my cultural consumption right now. Time to participate. I find more and more shows that I really like, both the damned good (for example Bored to Death on HBO), the used to be good (my current view on Sons of Anarchy season 3 which I “think” I’ve abandoned) and the bad good (Master Chef or Big Brother) are sitting longer and longer on my PVR. I have entire seasons of some shows sitting unwatched, I want to but…hey, life right? All I can say is I’m glad that PVRs allow for external storage. But I digress (I do that a lot). Ah yes, the Killing. So, I avoided knowing why people were hating so hard. I think I’m paraphrasing here but one tweet ont he finale night simply said “Killing, fuck you”! So with trepidation, i continued watching and even more importantly, continued enjoying. As I started the final episode of the season I literally prepped myself for disappointment and/or disgust. The show ended and you know what, I LIKED IT!!!!

I don’t know how I can truly dissect this without spoilers but I reckon that if you’re still reading you’ve seen it already or the show just isn’t on your radar and you’re here for the witty banter and promises of canapes. They are in the oven. So spoil I will.

Is Darren Richmond actually Rosie’s killer? Is he Orpheus? You see, in recent years I think we’ve become accustomed to having our serial dramas wrapped up by season’s end with at best a new thread appearing, but always as long as the season’s primary narrative is wrapped. Think Dexter and the Ice Truck Killer (or any Dexter season for that matter) or Breaking Bad or …you get the picture. I’m not sure if this is due to the tenuous nature of most cable TV contracts and never really knowing when a cancellation is coming and thus unable to plan too far ahead but we used to operate on this model all the time. Season enders were cliffhangers used to draw you back next season, or at their best to talk about the show ALL summer and drive September viewership through the roof. Perhaps no better example exists for this than Dallas and the Who Shot JR arc. The downside to that is that the payoff often falls below our built up expectations, like the other Dallas season that was apparently a dream as Bobby showered and returned or the similar use to explain in Roseanne’s final episode to retract the entire season of lottery wealth (albeit with a twist) but then return to blue-collar fictional roots. The bottom line is new TV operates different from old TV and maybe that is why I like the Killing, it hearkens back to past genres and techniques.

I can get why some felt betrayed and frustrated by the twist. Richmond was served up on a silver platter for our consumption as the killer but seemingly snatched away in the final moments but honestly, I’m not so sure. Sure he could have been framed. If so, by whom? his opponent? Someone else? I have no idea how they will explain the emails if he’s not the Killer and frankly, I think he still is the one. There are excellent characters on this show and an interestingly paced narrative that keeps me captivated each week, or when I finally get to sit down and catch up, and I have become invested in certain outcomes or at least the journeys to them.  But at the end of the day, I really just can’t wait to watch and see what is going to happen next and isn’t that really the point?

Now if you’ll forgive me I’ve got to see who was eliminated on Big Brother and whether the veterans can win another HoH.

Slacktivism!!!

Posted: December 7, 2010 in Uncategorized

There is no denying the impact that our social media rich environment has on us, or can have on us, but I’ve noticed something recently that I find quite intriguing. Apparent adult males that I know grew some of the most horrific looking moustaches that I’ve ever seen (and yes, I get the irony in that statement) outside of the police force or 70s porn. It was after all Movember and time to raise awareness for prostate something or other. Over the past few weeks on Facebook, our friends have been advising us to “Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood and invite your friends to do the same. Until Monday (Dec.6) there should be no human faces on Facebook, but an invasion of memories. This is for violence against children‌ ” or some other reasonable facsimile. As such, slowly at first but then rapidly gaining momentum, almost all of the profile pictures on your news feed are Popeye, or He-man, or Darkwing Duck or My Little Pony. In the case of a few very adventurous (or twisted) individuals, the occasional picture of Homer choking Bart, Family Guy’s Herbert or famed Internet meme Pedobear (it is supposed to be about violence against children after all. Google them if you’re unsure). So what of all this? Does it make a difference? Does it raise awareness?

I suppose in the strictest sense, it makes you think for a brief second about the topic while you read the original request to change your photo, but I really don’t think it is given more than a passing thought and would be surprised if many took it further than changing their profile pic. Still though, no harm no foul, right?

I think there is the potential for something negative to emerge from this, and other like appeals. It is here that I wish I could lay claim to this term but I confess, I can’t. I read it on twitter yesterday but it seemingly encapsulates the ideals I am talking about: Slacktivism! Think of it as slacker activism. While we generally conceive of activists as people who get out and protest, who get out and, whether we agree with their agendas or not, try to disrupt in order to question or change the status quo, slacktivists have no such requirement and therein lies the problem.

Is violence against children a social problem? Of course, I can’t imagine anyone that would argue against that notion. Should we be doing something about it? If we want it to get better then we have to. This can range from writing a letter (or email) to your MLA or MP questioning current policy or funding of anti-child violence campaigns, or donating money to groups or projects that fight this at the ground level by providing safe havens or other assistance when needed. The problem as I see it as that we give ourselves a false sense of accomplishment when we change our Facebook profile. We grow a stache, laugh with our friends and family at how stupid we look and pride ourselves on our awareness to issues. We’ve done absolutely nothing to truly help the problem at hand but have created a smug sense of “I’m a socially conscious person”. Since we already feel like we’ve met the requirement for activism by telling ourselves we’ve raised awareness to an evil, evil thing, our work here is done and we dust off our not too dusty hands. Since we’re done, we can now concentrate on the things that really matter like hockey and Dexter (and don’t get me wrong at all, those two things do matter) but have we really done anything at all other than tell everyone else what our cartoon era was? Slacktivism provides a false sense of accomplishment that obfuscates the continued existence of the problem while relieving our guilt about it. Grow your moustache and change your profile picture, but don’t leave it there. Get out of your computer chair and hit the streets. Slacktivism is quaint and entertaining but activism can change the world.

 

Is it worthy?

Posted: November 13, 2010 in Uncategorized

(as published in the University of the Fraser Valley magazine Skookum, November 2010)

 

“How can you study something like the Simpsons?”

“You’re researching pro wrestling?? “

I get that a lot. A lot! I had a student the other day say to me: “my dad thinks he would do well in this class because he knows a lot of Simpsons trivia. He thinks all we do is watch TV and… ” I missed the last part over the loud rolling of my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that people can (and do) feel this way. We have a federal government that is pulling research grants from arts and humanities programs in favour of business-oriented programs, which seemingly demonstrates an institutionalized bias against the social sciences. The suggestion implied is that economics is the root of our social system and as such is the only element worth researching, worth finding out more about, worth spending money on. Perhaps this in and of itself is exactly why cultural studies in general, and popular culture studies in particular, are so important in today’s increasingly politically polarized climate.

We live in an era and culture often  referred to as the Information or Network Society, where our social being is essentially defined by networks. The predominant network is still the media network. It is totally pervasive to our lives. It is everywhere and it is everything. It is the prime component in how most individuals create an identity whether through music or through fashion or through things that they’ve seen on television or in film or maybe had specifically directed at them by Tyra Banks. I mean, who doesn’t want to be fierce? So the media network is the primary way that we communicate messages in our society. By virtue of that alone I think it is crucially important that we don’t then just sit on our couches with our brains turned halfway off and allow everything to overtake us without questioning it, without engaging it in some manner. Now, this is not to suggest that everything that we see hear or read is necessarily evil or that we need to start making picket signs and protesting, but I also don’t mean to suggest that we might not need to do that sometimes; at the very least we need to engage media in such a way as to understand or question the power that it does have (or can have) over us, as well as who has the power over it. It is an important part of our world and should be scrutinized.

Who are we as individuals? Who are we as communities? What are our values, beliefs and ideals? How do we represent ourselves?  Perhaps even more poignantly, how do we represent others? It is in this eclectic media milieu that we can interrogate our media for, at the very least, some insight into questions like these.

I am in a relatively unique position to do just that. Rather than affecting some “critical distance” and studying these phenomena from afar like some ancient anthropologist trying to understand a tribal culture, I am personally immersed within the popular culture that I research. My PVR has over 50 shows on auto record. I have close to 2,000 CDs and over 22,000 song files on my computer. I go to movies and rent DVDs. I play guitar and hockey. I can sit and watch old Monty Python on TV before taking in the day’s news and then watching professional wrestling or mixed martial arts. I can follow that up with a new episode of Mad Men or Dexter or Glee or Sons of Anarchy or…. The point here is that I make no excuses and recognize where I stand with regards to all of these cultural forms. I can report as an insider or an outsider and not spend my time denying or distorting or even trying to justify. I can talk about the pleasure that can come from watching a great movie in the same way I can talk about how a great work of art or a great TV commercial encapsulate a particular moment in time and can make us feel. Bottom line, popular culture is just that, culture. It is our culture, it is our world and we use it to see and to be seen. But what exactly is culture?

Cultural theorist Raymond Williams said that culture is one of the most difficult words to define. It has been construed of as “a particular way of life” or as “works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity” but can certainly be imagined more broadly as well. Culture is the “complex web of meanings, beliefs, and ways of living that characterize any society”. This is an important point when discussing ideas of identity, be it personal, regional or national, as this distinction in the definition of culture recognizes the link between culture and social identity. It also posits the constructed nature of this relationship is not natural or unchanging as it is continually shaped and reshaped during social action.

We often hear it lamented that Canada has no unique or inherent identity or that we are constantly under cultural attack from our American neighbours. In fact, Canada has a long and storied history in which we constantly question our identity. Historically, policy initiatives have focused on attempting to address this question.  Canadian culture in this respect is approached by scholars in two distinct manners. One approach looks to cultural policy as indicative of how government has attempted to foster ideas of nation and identity through policy related to culture and/or media. We can label the other the popular culture approach.  This approach investigates varieties of popular culture in Canada. We watch it, read it, listen to it, and talk with each other about it in meaningfully engaging ways in an effort to continually negotiate our way through a constantly changing and demanding landscape.

How we, as Canadians, make meaning through our interaction with media allows an interrogation of how we construct our sense of Canada — our sense of ourselves. The centre of most all approaches to envisioning Canada as a nation is through the articulation of “space”. Whether as a geographic space that is represented on a map, as a political space to be governed, a space conceived of as an “other” space, or as a space comprised of a culturally produced audience, space remains at the fore of differing Canadian interrogations into nation throughout Canada’s  history. It is a space to be linked, a space that is not American, a space containing often invisible media producers, and a space of diverse media consuming agents that we study, deconstruct, and investigate.

While certain Canadian nationalists decry American popular culture as something that Canadians need to be protected from, Stuart Hall has demonstrated how a subversive or oppositional reading of the dominant ideology imbued within these artefacts is possible. As users of popular culture we make our own meanings according to our cultural contexts and as Canadians, we can utilize objects ranging from The Simpsons, baseball, indie music, or even wrestling as an opportunity to express our unique vision of our identity, taking an American product and transforming it into a vehicle for Canadian expression. There is no reason to suggest that these are the only vehicles through which Canadians are able to articulate their own understandings of what it means to be a Canadian in the face of the American cultural behemoth. Rather than being ignorant masses that are duped by American commodities, we actively negotiate with these artefacts as a means to mould our own identities, as individuals and as Canadians. Popular culture is culture and created through an active process of generating and circulating meanings and pleasures. As we produce little “Canadian popular culture” of our own (it has been suggested in fact that is a bit of an oxymoron) appropriating American texts such as professional wrestling for a uniquely Canadian reading allows an assertion of identity in the face of the American other and through a lens that is uniquely diverse and uniquely Canadian.

Thus, it is because of ideas like this that I watch, critique, and teach about topics like The Simpsons and wrestling, and appropriately so I think.

Hello world!

Posted: November 12, 2010 in Uncategorized

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