Researching popular culture is a fascinating activity. It requires looking at a range of sources to gain a “taste” of the cultural perceptions inherent in the work. This two part post will be looking at the key factors that need to be considered as an author when beginning to research a popular culture article.
When looking at a Hollywood blockbuster film there are a range of areas to consider:
Those involved in the creative process are important. Many consumers are engaged due to a preference of not only genre, but of some appreciation for a particular creator’s work. For a film the creators can include: the director, the producer, the writer, the actors, the animators. Each of these groupings are worth exploring in more depth. For instance staring at the top: if the director has a particular portfolio of work, what is it? What filmography techniques do they bring to this film? What is their previous work like and is this a continuation or a departure? For the producer: why are they involved in this particular film? Did they bring the rights to the story to the studio? How are they framing the production of the film? Then there are animators, if they were involved, what were their previous works and did they contribute significantly to the style of the film (more often this relates to television)?
The writer of course is an interesting one to explore. In film there is seldom a single writer. Who is credited as writing the film? Is the director also the writer? Who originally produced the story, for instance is it based on a previous film, book, play, short story? Who were the other writers that worked on the script? How many writers worked on the script? What were their experiences? A great source for hearing the stories of individual writers for film and television is the Nerdist Writer’s Panel: https://nerdist.com/tag/nerdist-writers-panel/
Then finally the actors need to be discussed. Who were the main actors, the secondaries, the cameo appearances? Is this a common or new role? What did they bring to the interpretation of the characters? Also because popular culture is influenced by more than the single text, it is important to also examine the public persona of the particular actors. What is their “image”? How do they portray themselves in the media? Does this enhance or detract from their portrayal in the film? Have they engaged in sensational or questionable behaviours that impact/influence the interpretation of their role by the consumer? Why were they cast? Again a great source of interviews is the Nerdist: https://nerdist.com/podcasts/ where they actual offer a few different podcasts on films and popular culture.
However, above all else remember these are real people. Meaning they will have given interviews themselves or even have their own websites that include all the information needed, but not filtered through another author. Go back to the original interviews, find the recording or the transcript and use this to develop your discussion.
It is naïve to believe that an author of popular culture is stumbling across new concepts that have not already been discussed ad nauseum by academics. Popular culture is merely a branch off Film and Television Studies or Literary Studies. As such it is important to understand the relevant theory in the area under discussion. This will vary hugely depending on the actual topic being undertaken. For instance if wanting to engage in a conversation on the particular choice of filmography in a recent fringe horror film there will need to be some discussion of the technical choices made in the filming, the genre theory of the film as a horror film, the thematic concerns of horror as a genre and the tradition of horror film motifs, etc. and an engagement with current film theory that may connect to this particular style of filmmaking. Theory can be a slog, however, having a strong theoretical underpinning to the discussion is what makes some popular culture discussions so exponentially more respected than others. Theory can be accessed in a myriad of ways – go to the university library nearest, or access journal articles on Google Scholar - https://scholar.google.com.au/ - or read chapters of books through Google Books - https://books.google.com.au/.
There are also a number of websites that are dedicated to particular theoretical points of view, genres or types of popular culture. If concerned about the validity of a site always use the same critical lens that should be applied to online news articles – Authority, Accuracy and Purpose.
Authority – who is the author or the governing body of the website? When you google them what do you learn about their qualifications? Do they have bias, for example a site about anti-veganism run by the American Beef Company is not an unbiased authority.
Accuracy – fact check some of the information. This doesn’t need to be done with everything. Simply select out a few pieces of key information and compare them against other sites (not just against Wikipedia) to see how reliable their fact checking systems are.
Purpose – what is the website for? If it is covered in advertising and every title is a hook title then the quality of the work is perhaps a little too general and not academically focused. If the website is used by academics to share their own work, such as http://academia.edu/, or if it is by other writers who want to share source material, then this is exactly what is needed.
Media: Finally consider the wider mainstream media. What stories are they discussing about the film – is it controversial or progressive? Or is the film just another film to make money? How is it being discussed in the wider public forum? This will often allow an author to test the waters of the socio-cultural context the film is located in. A hundred years ago this would be the equivalent to reading the opinion sections in newspapers or sitting in salons listing to the discussion about the most recent literary work. It provides a “temperature” to how the film is being received and perceived. The study of popular culture is about the culture a text is produced in and received by. How is the wider culture being influenced by the text?
This is the final of the two part post on how to engage in research on popular culture. I hope it was useful. Next will be a series the takes one of my Artifice articles and replicates the research process undertaken to produce it.