Three recent examples drawn from popular culture show the agency of young people in creating cultural messages through music.
In New Zealand, high school senior and singer Joshua Christian Nanai, known as “Jawsh 685,” created and circulated an innovative musical beat, somewhat parallel to reggae and known as “laxed” (short for “relaxed”), along with a bit of melody. He later was surprised to find out that his beat was picked up and used by pop star Jason Derulo for his song, “Savage Love.” (Derulo initially sampled the beat without permission from Jawsh 685. But after negotiations, Derulo’s official version credits Jawsh 685 for his work on the song.) Jawsh 685 also received wide attention for his own official video, using the same beat again but focusing on his Samoan/New Zealand heritage.
Next, 17-year-old Disney star Olivia Rodrigo—crushed in heartache as a boyfriend no longer wanted her to drive to his house—recorded a song, “Driver’s License,” written with producer Dan Nigro. It was released by Geffen Records on January 8, 2021, to a huge response: TikTok videos, blog posts, streams, news articles, and covers were shared all over the internet. Within a week, the song had reached No. 1 on the Apple Music charts in 48 countries. At the time of posting this blog, the video—a sad recollection of Rodrigo’s past relationship—has been viewed more than 170 million times. (It’s even been the subject of a sketch on Saturday Night Live.)
Third, Camilo, a well-known Spanish-language singer with fans throughout the Americas, prepared an informal song, “Vida de Rico.” The video shows Camilo, his wife, and friends relaxing, having fun, and working on his new house. The message: “We are happy, but not rich.” Although the song was meant to be an informal promotion for Camilo’s new album, it gained sudden interest and was streamed at least 260 million times on Spotify.
Sharing Music, Sharing Culture
In each of these examples, the original music was produced using only basic sound and video equipment. Somehow, their informality struck a nerve and they rocketed to global popularity. “Driver’s License” focused on heartache, “Vida de Rico” showed the joy of love, and “Savage Love” balanced those two concepts.
These examples show how sharing across community boundaries has evolved: New platforms keep expanding the level of communication—from vinyl records and radio to television, from tape cassettes and CDs to internet downloads, and from mobile phones to YouTube and TikTok (or Douyin in its original Chinese). This technological revolution has allowed pop culture to be shared in every language—especially in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, but also in Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, French, German, Hindi, Swahili, Indonesian, and Russian.
This discussion, in particular, shows how music moves across boundaries. But with music also come styles of dress, language, dance, and much more. As such, the performers and the viewers/listeners themselves also end up crossing boundaries: They interact with peers from other cultures in the comments section; parents and grandparents are seen in the background—and sometimes, participating in—TikTok videos; and people end up accessing related pieces of music or art that they might not otherwise have been exposed to.
Migration is also a prominent influence in each of these examples—not to mention popular culture on the whole. Jawsh 685 shows his heritage proudly through his name (685 is the country phone code for Samoa.) and in his video; Jason Derulo was born in Florida to Haitian parents; Olivia Rodrigo, who grew up in Temecula, California, has Filipino, German, and Irish ancestry; and Camilo was born in Medellín, Colombia, only to become popular in Venezuela, and then in Miami.
Of course, capitalism plays its role in nearly every pop culture moment, through the investments and artistic decisions made by social media platforms, record distributors, and advertisers. Yet it is the artists and the audience members who have high and growing influence on the messages of the media they create and share.
Going Deeper: Pop Culture as Ideological Debate
Discussion of gender equality has become a central factor in popular culture. Women, previously constrained by the rules and power of local communities, are gaining new influence through the global connections of pop culture. Each of the three songs listed above includes negotiations on gender roles. The #MeToo movement, which began in the U.S., now has equivalents in many countries. And, the struggle over abortion rights, especially in the past 50 years, has changed as women have spoken up increasingly: In 2021, two dominantly Catholic countries, Argentina and Ireland, both adopted laws protecting abortion rights.
Gender rights depend heavily on education, most famously in the case of Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan. Malala’s childhood writings on her education attracted attention in Pakistan and abroad; at age 15, she was shot in the head in for her activism by a member of the Taliban. After her remarkable recovery, she continued writing and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. In 2020 she graduated from Oxford University.
The debates over gender relations continue both in shouts and whispers, but since they are now so readily shared throughout the world (often using the same channels that catapulted the music of Jawsh 685, Derulo, Rodrigo, and Camilo), one can see a move toward equality. For example, in Myanmar, with the recent military coup, women workers in textile factories used the internet to circulate their posters calling for a worldwide boycott of Myanmar exports, as they hope to change their government.
For young people getting their education, popular culture has blurred the lines between life in school and out of school, including the issues studied and debated in class. Young people have opinions on their intimate and community concerns, but also on the social and scientific questions they study. Greta Thunberg made this very clear.
From her schooling in Sweden, Thunberg learned of the threat of environmental collapse and debated the issue for years with her parents. Beginning August 20, 2018, at age 15, she sat outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign declaring a “school strike for climate.” Wisely, she posted her protests on Instagram and Twitter. (Her activism was inspired in part by the gun-control demonstrations of students from Parkland, Florida, who had suffered in a school shooting earlier in 2018.) Within weeks, many other children had joined Thunberg’s efforts, and she was invited to speak at events and to the media. Her words focused on challenging great corporations and national legislatures. Eleven of her speeches were published in the 2019 book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference.
It’s clear that popular culture is an arena for debating social priorities. But this exchange of ideas and opinions could be given an additional label: it is ideological debate. While popular culture is certainly “cultural”—in that it centers on music, dance, or poetry—it is “ideological” in that each expression conveys an individual’s or a group’s views on the proper organization of society.
Interventions in cultural debate include the images of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, which are now seen and shared all over the world as symbols of the fight to end racial discrimination. This is just one powerful example. In one way or another, popular culture conveys the views on a wide variety of issues: the functioning of family life, the governance of national societies, fairness in work and play, fairness in relations among people of different backgrounds, the meaning of “freedom,” and opinions on great scientific and social questions of health and the economy.
Phrased more gently, one may say that popular culture is discourse. It is at once the formulation and expression of cultural output; the ideological implication of social priorities modeled in cultural expression; and the exchange between artists and audiences on which cultural values and social priorities should be adopted as a consensus. The question of implementing one set or another of social priorities is a further step—a separate issue. But as I argue in this quick scan of current creativity in popular culture, we can be sure that people throughout the world (and especially young people) are participating in multiple discussions of their social priorities, at levels from the local to the global.