When I began writing this column, way back in the second Reagan term, I held a certain spirit of optimism about the possibilities of American popular culture–mainly meaning pop music, television, and Hollywood movies. That attitude was grounded main- ly in a populist's respect for ordinary people and the possibilities that reside in them. Electronic and commercial though it may be, popular culture is still, by default, the culture of the people, the populist argument goes. The people use it to express themselves in a variety of ways and, when the time is right, even to protest and resist their disenfranchisement.
Well, I've just spent a few hours surfing a typical 57-channel cable TV system, as I do from time to time. I'm ready to rethink that optimism, at least a little. My theory of popular culture held that the proliferation of cable outlets for cultural product would lead to a flowering of popular expression. Instead, the product is akin to a cultural landfill, where the old garbage of the past (from TV Land to the History Channel) is spread thinner and thinner to cover a bigger field. And when a shortage of old stuff occurs, endless commercials for investment schemes and exercise machines abound. Occasionally something good is on, but try finding it amid the noise and waste.
All criticism is autobiography, and I'm no exception. My positive vision of popular culture was formed by my own positive experience of it. I'm just one of the lucky millions whose "lives were saved by rock and roll,"to quote that PBS-certified American Master, Lou Reed.