Before Ray Browne came along, studying Western culture entailed analyzing the masterpieces of literature, music and art that emerged infrequently over the centuries, their importance growing over time and confirmed by generations of scholars.
The idea that Browne nurtured, as he founded the academic study of popular culture, is that, in an age of mass media, humbler transient works of "art" can influence life and society in ways important enough to merit serious study.
At Bowling Green State University in 1973, Browne established the first college-level academic department devoted to studying pop culture; he is credited with coining that term. He died last week at 87.
Browne remained a foremost expert on what Americans are excited about at any given moment. He was widely quoted by journalists trying to explain the latest trend.
Most likely, scholars always will debate whether studying ideas and trends that are popular for a nanosecond and then fade from the mainstream memory -- think J.R. Ewing beer cans -- is worth anyone's time.
Few would suggest that much of the everyday, vast volume of advertisements and plastic toys and imitations of some other recent fad that characterize pop culture has lasting artistic value.
But in the American democracy, public opinion translates into votes and political policy, and public opinion and attitudes are formed as much by reality TV and YouTube as by serious political discourse. What is loved or hated by the public in a particular season can tell the pop-culture scholar something about the public mood that might not be revealed in a standard opinion poll.
Historians trying to understand the 1970s might gain as much from a review of TV Guide magazines and Sears catalogs from that era as from the complete archive of a scholarly journal.
These days, the field Browne founded has grown infinitely more complex, as the Internet has sped up both the dissemination of ideas and how fast they lose popularity. This should keep his successors at Bowling Green, as well as others around the country who followed his lead, busy for the foreseeable future.
--Columbus Dispatch editorial, Oct. 28, 2009