Almost Famous and Adorno: an MIT Student Balances Pop Culture and Media Criticism

I recently wandered into one of my friends’ classes, where the instructor began playing the film Almost Famous. I had never seen the movie before, but it portrayed a dilemma that I have encountered as an MIT student and lover of popular culture. After leaving high school behind and entering university, first-year MIT students begin a journey in their lectures, one that unveils the bad aspects of the media. These students get introduced to many media scholars and critics. It does not take long to realize that some media scholars believe that popular culture, and the media industry at times, blinds the average individual from reality.

These scholars believe that pop culture and media distract us from facing real obligations. Sometimes, popular culture lulls us into a false sense of hope. Or the sense that we can reach the sublime. Or that we have freedom and the ability to make our own choices. It renders people incapable of coping with reality. If you really think about it, it all makes sense. Sometimes, instead of facing the root of our sadness or insecurity, we look for comfort elsewhere: we watch Modern Family to feel happy. Or we eat junk food while watching a sad movie, to purge the emotions in a “healthy way”.  None of these things get to the root of our sadness.

The quest to acquire material goods also distracts from what is important. The recent release of the iPhone 5, and the significant amount of publicity about it, has helped to divert public attention from the multitude of issues that are facing the world.

Media scholars inform students about these things, and the characters of the professor and mother in Almost Famous agree. The film follows the life of the main character, William Miller, who has a protective mother, Elaine. She tries to shield her children from popular culture, and does not allow them to listen to rock albums. But at a young age William starts listening to these albums, and begins writing music reviews, developing an appreciation for the genre. When he gets offered the opportunity to cover a story about a rock band, he goes along on a rock tour and is exposed to a life that involves lots of sex, drugs, and alcohol.

My dilemma, which is conveyed in this movie, stems from the professor’s and the media scholars’ point of view, as well as my perceived notion of popular culture. At a young age I got immersed in popular culture. I loved listening to music and watching shows, and I distracted myself with both. Who do I become when I understand and appreciate what the media scholars have to say but still retain my love of popular culture?

What do we do when we find out that popular culture, which is a part of virtually everyone’s life today, can incapacitate us and make us incapable of thinking independently, among many other things? And despite these realizations, what if some of us still have an optimistic view of popular culture?

Almost Famous helped me solve this dilemma. The main character’s mother eventually accepted her son’s love for popular culture, and realized that she could not shield him from the media. She undoubtedly had the effects of the media ingrained in her mind, just as they will be ingrained in my mind, even when I finish my program in MIT. I have come to the realization that it is fine to be optimistic about popular culture. It is even okay to retain one’s love for it, but it is necessary to educate ourselves and those around us, and to be vigilant of the constant and steady dose of popular culture that we receive everyday.  And, like William Miller, even though we can get lost and immersed in this culture, we can come up for air, remembering lessons that people like Theodor Adorno have taught us about popular culture.

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