A few weeks before April this year, the world was abuzz with talk of Game of Thrones. The long-running blockbuster HBO drama series was entering its grand finale in mid-April. Millions of GoT fans talked about it.
Who among the stars would survive the battle of the Army of the Dead? Who between John Snow, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister would take over the Seven Kingdoms post-war? In slightly over five weeks, the eighth season came and ended. With it went the razzmatazz and thrill.
No one talks about GoT anymore.
Human beings are inclined to pounce on trendy idioms, catchy words and moving lines from movies, music, books, politicians and cultural icons, and infuse them into their daily chatter.
“Bindu bichenjanga” rings a bell in the minds of many Kenyans. Drawn from Amos Barasa’s Luhya song of the same title, the phrase means circumstances change.
This hilarious phrase was widely used as a campaign slogan in the 2017 general election to warn greedy politicians that they would be voted out.
Politics aside, you will not fail to hear “utaaambia watu nini?” when Kenyans engage in chatter. Loosely translated, it means “what will you tell people?” and is used to chide people who fail to make critical decisions when circumstances are inviting, only to end up with egg on their face. Comedian DJ Shiti of the TV show Housewives of Kawangware is credited with coining the phrase.
Aspects of attitude, behaviour, beliefs, customs and tastes that define people in any society are all components of pop culture, according to American scholar of popular culture Ray Browne, now deceased.
Tim Delaney, an American professor of sociology, defines popular (pop) culture as the products and forms of expression and identity that are frequently encountered or widely accepted, commonly liked or approved, and characteristic of a particular society at a given time.
In a nutshell, popular culture is encompassed in how we consume different genres of art — music, film and literature — and how these influence our behaviour. It enhances an individual’s prestige in their peer group, with language and behaviour as the accurate markers of this identity. Take Kenyans on Twitter, popularly known as KOT, for instance. Members of this group identify each other with remarkable ease online.
It is not uncommon for them to dismiss some users as “belonging to Facebook”, because of their mannerisms “and lack of sophistication”. KOT has now become a community, with even regular outdoor group activities and parties.
Dr Jim Taylor, a psychology expert, argues that popular culture is grounded on expressions that are fundamental to the society.
He further posits that while human beings may draw entertainment from big industry names and blockbuster films, music, paintings and literature, humans “are unwittingly influenced by the messages that underlie this popular entertainment”.
But is popular culture what it used to be two or three decades ago?
Scholars argue pop culture today is as vague as it is fluid. No habit sticks around for any meaningful period to fit the bill of popular culture, they say. Instead, practices come, get peddled around for months before fading away from popular use.
Granted, Michael Jackson is one of the world’s most celebrated cultural icons. His music has transcended generations. In recent years, though, his songs have slithered into the dim crevice of obviously unforgettable but not-so-trendy jams called “classics”, listened to almost exclusively by generations who grew up in the 1990s, 1980s or earlier.
Beyoncé, Rihanna and Usher, all of whom thrived in the mid-2000s, are also becoming less popular by the day. Their place is fast being taken over by robust youthful artistes like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Khalid and Dua Lipa.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the volatility of pop culture better than music. Songs are produced and shoot to global fame and, within weeks, they break all thinkable records.
The video for Sheeran’s song “Shape of You”, for instance, has amassed a stunning 4.2 billion views on YouTube since it was published in January 2017. Despite its legendary status, this song hardly excites the highly impressionable young generation of music lovers such as Priscilla Wanja anymore.
“Why would I listen to ‘Shape of You’ when I have a much fresher song, ‘Dancing with a Stranger’ by Sam Smith, released only five months ago?” says Wanja, a first-year student at Karatina University.
Scholars argue that evolution in technology, which has resulted in an overload of entertainment content, advertisements, TV production and film, is partly to blame. The ability to consume content in multiple formats from a variety of gadgets puts audiences at a crossroads, and limit the time they spend with a product.
Some scholars liken “popular culture” to unwholesome, inorganic and unhealthy food that people binge on before complications set in. Dr Taylor says that it is through pop culture that greed, the win-at-any-cost mentality, misogyny and other vices are perpetuated.
On the flip side, pop culture allows the masses to create and shape it through their own experiences. It is from this sense of ownership, the shared identity, its authenticity, meaning and purpose that it draws its immense power.
Whether art shapes culture or culture shapes artistic expressions is debatable. An attempt to understand the interdependent relationship between art and popular culture is like trying to unravel a giant puzzle, experts note.
Whatever the case, use of Facebook, the cultic global following of Game of Thrones and some computer games have garnered mass acceptability around the world and are now part of our lives.