How Pop Culture Takes Over Our Brains
Remember Abed From Community? We’re All Turning Into Him
By Eman Ahmed
The biggest drag I faced as an undergrad was day-long sessions in the chemistry lab, carrying out tediously detailed experiments. We all tried to pass the time with bland conversation, but even that was a challenge. A bond with one classmate I frequently partnered with was dependent on the weekly drip-feed of new Gossip Girl episodes that we’d discuss. Its low ratings, especially in its final year, meant we were lucky to share the same interest.
Cut to recent times and the continuing evolution of social media, and it seems we’re all making a point of showing the rest of the world our interests. Since the pandemic, I’ve noticed this even more on the hell scape that is dating apps. Besides the usual declarations of love for Friends and The Office series, many profiles also make niche references to other forms of pop culture, like specific memes and old Vine videos.
It reminded me of the character Abed from NBC’s sitcom Community. Although socially challenged in many ways, he’s the avenue through which the series scatters pop culture references in every other scene in a way no other series could ever come close to, evidence of the writers’ deep knowledge of TV and film. I wondered if there was something more to this ‘Abedification’ of our minds, and reached out to Dr. Nicole Lannone, a psychology professor at Jacksonville University, who has studied the effects of pop culture, friendships, and para social relationships.
“We use pop culture to connect with others, probably more so now than pre-covid,” she said. It has affected her too in regards to the need to keep up with the latest happenings. “Yeah,” she laughed, “especially because I've developed this identity with people from grad school who know I do this research.”
However, it should be noted there’s nuance to this topic of being out of the loop on pop culture. “What we showed in these studies is that if we asked how important pop culture is to people as individuals, and even if they said they didn't think it was important to them, they still felt badly when they didn't recognise the pop culture elements we present them with,” she said. It seems those of us who brag about our ignorance of the latest trends can fall foul to these feelings of disconnection. “This idea is that, even if you don't view pop culture as important, you still feel badly when you don't recognize what others do. So it's a signal of your connection with others.”
Of course, there is a problem that can stem from deep, overly-zealous connections with celebrities and public figures when we consume pop culture, in the form of para social relationships. This happens when someone develops an illusion of friendship and intimacy with public strangers, which can include newscasters, musicians, actors, and many other professionals.
My interview with Dr. Lannone took place soon after Taylor Swift’s recent Nashville concert. As a relatively mild Swift fan, I was quite confused by the adulation from folks I follow on social media who were praising her courage for putting on a show during lightning storms and heavy rainfall. But I was ignorant of just how much more star power the musician currently has.
“I think she has catapulted quickly to a bigger level,” Dr. Lannone explained, particularly the way Swift selectively chooses what to reveal about her personal life to her fans. “Maybe it was [because] during covid she released these albums, and others weren’t. And she just found this connection with others and expanded her base even more.”
I wasn’t surprised by much of what I’d learnt from researching the effects and growing prevalence of pop culture. With the millennial (and younger) generation being perpetually stuck in low-wage jobs, corporate profits skyrocketing, housing and parenthood being out of sight, of course we’re going to spend our time indulging in pop culture and have it mean much more to us than previous generations. And with so much more cultural content out there, even minor musical and TV hits can be funded for another album or season with a small but dedicated audience. We just have to learn to add more context when referring to different parts of pop culture with others, I guess. Being too niche can leave some of us out of the loop.