Popular culture and aspirations are as closely linked as Rolls and Royce.
A recent BBC survey measured the press coverage devoted to UK public figures in 2004. This was then used to define who the popular culture icons really are in Britain today. Clear winner was England and Real Madrid footballer David Beckham with a whopping three-quarters of a million column inches devote to him. And second at half-a-million inches was his wife, the former pop singer Victoria Beckham (picture above).
The top ten popular culture icons comprised three footballers, three pop singers, three members of the Royal family, and a topless model.
Even more recently pop culture icon number two, Victoria Beckham, revealed in an interview with the Spanish magazine Chic that she has never read a book.
Popular culture is depressing aspirations. A role model is someone that people copy. Victoria Beckham is a role model, and it is a certainty that millions will emulate her bookless life style. And that means they will suffer low levels of literacy.
Reading is the basic literacy skill. In the UK 7 million adults have low literacy skills, and a survey showed that individuals with poor reading ability only have access to 1 in 50 of lower level jobs. Research by the UK Office for National Statistics found a quarter of adults had not read a book in the previous 12 months. This figure rose to almost half among men aged 16 to 24.
While popular culture and the media remain so closely interlinked aspirations can only be raised by changing the behaviour of role models. But clearly there is little scope for Victoria Beckham to extol the virtues of Tolstoy in Eurotrash magazines. And sadly the continuing popularity of reality TV shows like Big Brother shows that the impressionable have an infinite appetite to watch the aspirationally-challenged.
Short term we need a new grassroots layer of role models to demonstate that aspirations are nothing to be ashamed of. These role models need to come from the local community, from business, from sport, and from the creative world. A great example is Harry Potter author JK Rowling (picture to right). Her journey from working as a secretary to fame, money, and literary adulation is truly inspirational. Millions of kids love the books, but more importantly they also love the author.
Another great new role model is the composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He has worked extensively with schoolchildren at his own St Magnus Festival in the rural Orkney Islands (picture below), and has been successful in making learning about music and the arts ‘cool’. Max, as he is known, is also not afraid to speak his mind, and has been a vociferous critic of the low levels of central funding for music education. And he doesn’t stop there, He is also an entrepreneur - which goes down well with The Apprentice watchers. Max recently started his own record company, called MaxOpus, because he didn’t think the major companies were giving his music the support it deserves.
But grass roots role models only have limited scope for driving change. Popular culture is rigidly controlled by the mass media, including record companies, TV and radio stations, book publishers and the tabloid press. The big opportunity comes when popular culture is separated from the mass media. And this is already starting to happen, driven by an exponentially increasing rate of technology change.
In the old model the big players controlled popular culture because they also controlled the high entry cost media through which it was communicated. This meant Victoria Beckham’s image was defined by mass media players including her record company, Virgin Music, and her book publisher, Penguin Putnam.
But all that is changing. Already we have seen major record companies such as Virgin brought to their knees by the new technologies of file sharing, and internet distribution. Now texting, webcasting, podcasting, blogging, and e-publishing are rapidly undermining the stranglehold that the old media companies have on popular culture. This is opening up enormous opportunities for the visionary to influence aspirations, life skills, and appreciation of the arts.
This is not daydreaming on my part. A revelatory example of technology empowerment is Wikipaedia. This collabarative online encyclopaedia started five years ago. It is now available in 200 languages, contains 1.6 million articles, and receives 60 million hits a day. The organisation that controls it, Wikimedia, has just one employee.
In the education sector the UK Government's Learndirect service uses the Internet and computers to deliver distance learning on subjects ranging from simple maths to advanced German. Learndirect uses computers to bypass the traditional delivery mechanisms of text books and broadcasters.
The new technologies give government and local authorities, educators and arts bodies a limitless opportunity to raise aspirations. Realising these opportunities requires funding and planning, but above all it requires energy and vision. Which is what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, JK Rowling and Wikipaedia founder Jimmy Wales have in bucketloads.
I want to finish with an illustration of how media and culture barriers are breaking down. Your brief asked for a ten minute oral presentation with no visual aids, which is what I have delivered (see footnote). But I am also giving out a paper copy, so it becomes a written presentation. But that hard copy is not just the text, it is created from an HTML file. And as I am sure you know HTML is the core technology of the internet.
Exactly a year ago today I created a weblog. It was part of an experimental programme to raise adult learners’ aspirations by improving their literacy. It is now rated by monitoring service Technorati as being in the top ½% of weblogs worldwide, and 90% of the large number of readers live outside the UK.
When I finished writing this presentation a few days ago I uploaded it to my web site, which is how it became HTML. It has already been read by thousands of readers around the world, and some of them have commented on it.
Technologies such as blogging offer us all the opportunity to divorce popular culture from the mass media. And that is the crucial ‘tipping point’ where we can start to raise aspirations, and help those marginalised by poor life skills and appreciation of the arts, to realise their full potential.
This post takes on an overgrown path full circle back to its origins 12 months ago as an experiment in teaching adult literacy. It is the text of a presentation I am making to a regional government body here in the UK on Wednesday 24th August on the theme of 'How is popular culture affecting aspirations'. I know many readers are involved in the education sector, music teaching and arts administration, and I would welcome any views using the comments feature below. You can also email the post to a colleague using the envelope icon.
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to A Musician with Teeth