Why Does PopMatters Matter?

It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed. Ten years is, in Internet time at least, a pretty long time. It’s certainly enough to give pause, to make one stop and evaluate where you’ve been and where you’re going next. And if a magazine taking the time to gaze in the mirror and examine itself seems narcissistic, well, sometimes a little self-reflection is healthy.

Looking into the mirror now, I see signs of age that weren’t there ten years ago. Gray hairs fleck my head and have found permanent encampments in my beard. Lines and creases and scars indicate time spent, while the dark circles of long nights staring at monitors have upgraded to a set of carry-on bags. It both is and isn’t the face I would have seen when I first answered a call for writers on PopCultures.com. That face belonged to a sprightlier person who was newly enamored of the potentials of culture, and especially popular culture, to illuminate the human condition. That person responded to the call with a cheeky move of framing the intent of a then-nascent online magazine in a writing sample called “Why Does Pop Matter?”, which eventually became my first published feature.

Reading it now, I’m older, hopefully wiser, certainly more critical — my first reaction is to cringe a little, primarily because of the simplicity and idealism of those ten-year-old thoughts, thoughts that make me snicker at my old self. Over time, those notions of investigative eagerness have given way to a slower, deeper appreciation of the richness and scope of culture’s long reach. Culture has, in effect, become far more complicated a proposition.

And yet I can’t help but be a bit proud of the little fella, too. Because those basic notions, the assertion that — “Magazines that explore popular culture, through examinations and theories and reviews, help all of us come to a fuller appreciation for the 3-D, 4-D, or 5-D worlds we inhabit. In that, we interpret our surroundings, our humanity, and ourselves. That is why pop matters.” — still rings true to this day. And had the fresh-faced scrub not seen that truth then, I might not have spent the first decade of the 21st century in such a pursuit.

In the past ten years, we’ve seen the networks of communications between people and cultures shift and transform and decay at a wonderfully dizzying pace. PopMatters was born before social networking, before the term “blog” became commonplace, before cellular phones placed the still-shiny Internet in our pockets. PopMatters also bore witness to the dot-com bubble bursting, the Wired utopia turn sour, our wonderful new communications technologies used to undermine our civil rights, and our thoughts distilled into 120 characters or less. And over that time, PopMatters continued to grow, expanding its coverage and its audience, reaching out to the world at large to draw in new voices and bring the undefined borders of cultures within closer proximity.

In ten years, PopMatters has covered tens of thousands of items reviewing CDs and films, books and concerts, television and games. Hundreds of thousands of words of insight, both large and small, have emerged from our columns. The features of the magazine have covered instances of popular culture around the world from the narrow to the abstract. Millions of readers have turned to PopMatters as a voice of interest, and a record of note.

And yet it all began as a personal vision of one Sarah Zupko as a tiny little side-project, ancillary to an online academic information center. Unlike Athena leaping fully-formed from the head of Zeus, PopMatters built itself slowly and in stages, gathering its resources with calls for interested individuals to share in creating a site with the spirit of a ‘zine, the goals of a quasi-academic journal, and the thrills of entertainment journalism. And Zupko’s shoestring-budget Field of Dreams project did draw those individuals, collaborating together to create something new out of whole cloth, unfunded and unsubsidized and even — in those early days — unread. Such is the power of an idea to create.

Ten years later, we stand in a position where the roles of cultural reporting have been reversed. Where Internet-based publications once drew all the critical scorn of vanity press publishing, and were scoffed at by institutional powers as unprofessional upstarts, now the world of traditional print media has seen its readership, and subsequently its power, dwindling ever more rapidly. The barbarians at the gate have pushed open the doors to the Fourth Estate, and a flood of new voices and new media methodologies have taken over — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. But the territory has doubtlessly changed, especially as the old money tributaries have dried up.

For my part, the thing I am most proud of aiding at PopMatters is the dissolution of the idea of the sanctioned critic. Journalistic and critical purists may choke on their tongues, but the very nature of popular culture is that it affects all of us — we are each of us entangled in its interwoven intricacies, like it or not — and rather than support the notion that a select few can and should act as taste-makers and gatekeepers is antithetical to the nature of popular culture. Meaning is not made by the special few, it is made by the cacophony, and as such we all have the right and the duty to critique our own lebenswelt. Rather than ignorant navel-gazing, this is the primary impetus of the well-examined life: not to receive from others, but to explore from within.

As a writer and editor for PopMatters, I’ve had the great pleasure to work with hundreds of writers from all across the spectrum of professions and certifications. These are professors and business people, journalists and retail workers, students and freelancers, young and not-so-young, all of whom have volunteered their time, their thoughts, and their words to building a site that is not driven by a consensus opinion or editorial ideology, but instead by a joining together of various perspectives, sometimes in accord and sometimes in conflict, to create a whole. This is not the misleading and often misguided aim for objectivity, but instead a synergistic Greek agora where ideas compete on their own merits — bound by ethics, yes, but still with the freedom to let meanings evolve in expression.

Popular culture works through specific channels, but it also works against them, around them, above and below them. We are all in the business of making meaning. But the opportunity to find new voices waiting to be heard, to give space and opportunity for those voices to develop and mature, and the ability to reach larger and larger audiences for those ideas through hard-won reputation makes PopMatters a rich and valuable part of the fabric of popular culture.

“Pop” may be an abbreviation of “popular”, but it also stems from “populism”, and this function of PopMatters goes generally unnoticed. This magazine isn’t supported by corporate funding, nor is it owned by a parent media company. It’s “indie” without ever shying away from the desire to be huge. These writers are here because they have a desire to speak out, to flex their critical thinking muscles and share their findings. This is the idea that simply through caring, each of us can contribute to professionalism and quality, without ever having to incorporate ourselves in an industry. The doors are always open to the public.

Pop matters because it is a reflection of how we collectively assign meaning and develop cultural responses to that meaning. Magazines like PopMatters give voice to those meanings and explore the natures of those cultural responses, allowing us all to share in them, and we open the doors for all who have the talent to express those ideas. That is why PopMatters matters.

Ten years on, the face in the mirror looks a little more worse for the wear, but PopMatters looks better than ever. And that’s all the validation my younger self needs to be proud today.