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What happened to pop culture, EU?

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In November 2007 the EU council of ministers endorsed the commission’s plan for a ‘European culture agenda’. Impressive as it is to attempt to gather Europe in majestic visions of cultural diversity, where do the pop music and video games end up?

So-called ‘high culture’ – like opera, classical music and architecture – feature prominently in EU conceptions of cultural action, says New Zealand anthropologist Cris Shore in his book based upon fieldwork in the EU complex in the nineties. But ideas of ‘popular’ culture appear to be alien or anathema to official conceptions of European culture. The EU’s ‘culture agenda in a globalising world’ is no exception.

Big mistake. Pop culture enables a variety of dimensions important to any culture strategy, not least when connected to the core goals of EU - cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, culture as a catalyst for creativity and culture as a key component in international relations. In his 2005 book Populärkultur (‘Popular Culture’), Swedish sociologist Simon Lindgren lists some essential qualities of contemporary pop culture: it is commercialised, easily available, less intellectually demanding than, say, an opera, and linked to recreation and entertainment. Moreover, it is popular in the very strict sense of the word – it gives a lot of people what they want, thus satisfying different culture needs.

Manna from heaven

©Creativity + Timothy K Hamilton/flickrFrom a sociological point of view, such qualities are manna from heaven if EU intentions are to come true. American author George Blecher once wrote that whatever has been successful of American integration politics has evolved on pop cultural arenas. Secondly, pop culture is a barometer of social change. In the aftermath of the French suburb riots in 2005, Alan Riding, a New York Times journalist based in Paris, wrote that ‘art, in the form of movies and rap music, has long been warning that French-born Arab and black youths felt increasingly alienated from French society and that their communities were ripe for explosion.’ Unfortunately, few bothered to listen. What is more, popular culture has always been on the European map, no matter what die-hard defenders of the divide between high-culture and low-culture have to say about it. Just think of French-Quebec pop music like Yé-yé, Swedish band ABBA or (shiver) the Eurovision song contest.

Looking at popular culture from a broader angle, Europe stands out as a hotbed for cultural icons. There are twice as many pizza restaurants outside of Italy as there are McDonald’s restaurants in the entire world (31, 000+). Or take brands. Every year the international consulting firm Interbrand checks out the Billboard Top 100 to see what’s popular, and Mercedes-Benz, Bulgari and Courvoisier regularly hit the top. The premier league rules the global soccer scene, like Finnish rally driver Mikko Hirvonen and Seb Loeb do at the FIA World Rally Championship.

Computer game culture

The EU’s worst step is not to include the computer gaming industry in their culture strategy. There is no area, save Hollywood, which could better comprise cultural creativity, technological proficiency and economic possibilities. ConsiderGrand Theft Auto (GTA). Originally developed by Scottish firm DMA Design in 1997 (in 1999 the firm was purchased by American multinational Take-Two Interactive and later renamed Rockstar North), the GTA game series has become extremely popular. After its release on March 26 2008, the franchise sold over 70 million copies worldwide.


In the latest edition, GTA IV, the eastern European character of Niko Bellic enters New York City, getting involved in a myriad of controversies. ‘It is truly one of the greatest things you can encounter in modern entertainment, regardless of genre or format,’ lauded a Norwegian technology journalist, comparing its narrative greatness with movies like The French Connection (1971). Add improved playability, amazing graphics, cool music and intricate assignments, and it is no wonder people are excited.

Why? Like it or not, cultural value depends on emotional appeal, and games extract emotions. Whether it creates some shared feeling of Europeanness remains an open question. I don’t think so, even if a more focused EU perhaps could have avoided DMA Design being sold to the Americans. But games at least give us the opportunity to have some fun along the way.