Let me begin with a disclaimer: when I expressed interest in reviewing this book, I wasn’t aware just how young were the “Young Artists” for whom this book is evidently intended. Niedzviecki, founder of the art zine Broken Pencil, is something of an indie guru, and I’d assumed this would be a book for the art college crowd about zines, blogs, websites, and other ventures in self-publishing, along the lines of Ellen Lupton’s fantastic D.I.Y: Design-It-Yourself (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). In fact, however, it’s actually a book for young teens. Now, I don’t know any young teens, and it’s a long time since I’ve been one, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway, so please bear with me.
The Big Book of Pop Culture
by Hal Niedzviecki
April 2007, 176 pages, $14.95
The Big Book of Pop Culture may not be as glossy, as big (or as pricey) as similar books aimed at this age-group, and the examples might date pretty quickly (which is always the case with pop culture), but it’s packed full with projects, ideas, plans, and inspiring sidebar interviews with young people who did it themselves: the producers of zines, blogs, self-published books, magazines.
In fact, I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid. Not only is it handy sized, appealing to the eye, and neatly produced, but it’s also full of projects that look like they’d be great fun to try. Quick and easy ideas, like keeping a family journal or writing fictional stories about your problems, are designed to help emerging artists get ready to tackle more ambitious works, and Niedzviecki is full of encouraging advice about what to expect, how to get things done, and how to avoid feeling disheartened when your ideas don’t work out as planned. Once these easy projects have been mastered, there are lots of suggestions about how young artists can use the tools of modern media to make popular culture of their own, in the form of print (self-publishing zines, comics, and books), video (making movies and shows), CDs (creating original music), or online (blogs and webzines).
Significantly, The Big Book of Pop Culture isn’t just about how kids can make culture of their own, it’s about teaching them to recognize mainstream pop culture, and to understand where it comes from and how it circulates. Niedzviecki has a strong and clear message here, and it’s a message about the corporate system and how it works to limit the kind of narratives kids tell about themselves and their experiences. By explaining to young adults how power works, how popular culture emerges, and how it has a tendency to co-opt independent ventures, Niedzviecki suggests ways for kids to think about models of success and self-expression that are different from those espoused by the mainstream media. This, ideally, will help them to create new communities and more personal kinds of grassroots-level cultural expression, which really do have the potential to transform our future, whatever age we might be.