Every society has its story-tellers, who look at life through imagination-colored glasses, to entertain, inform, question and reassure their audience.
In the past they created folk tales, folk art and folk music. Today, they write movie or television scripts and novels, create commercial art, and compose popular ballads and rocks their product is called popular culture.
Together with the story-sellers, the businessmen and women for whom they work, they are the makers of popular culture.
Although names such as Paddy Chayevsky, Harold Robbins, and Norman Lear are well-known, most story-tellers are largely anonymous.
We know "the Fonz" but not the writers who created the character and put words in his mouth. Most story-tellers are white, middle-aged males, although some women are now breaking down the sex barriers. Most story-tellers are also well educated, and some do not personally care for the popular culture they created, but they also professionals who aim to please the audience.
Then, too, popular culture is a group effort; an individual writer's work is frequently rewritten by others, including story-sellers, who make it conform to what they think the audience.
The "passive" theory holds that popular culture makers only spell out what is already in people's minds, so that popular culture is actually a mirror that reflects American society and its people. Not only their wants, but also their secret fears and wishes - for example, to be heroic, or bionic supermen and women.
But an audience in the tens of millions is so varied in age, income and education, and thus in its wants and wishes, that popular culture cannot possibly be a mirror for everyone.
Nor does it even try. Being a commercial products, popular culture is aimed at specific audiences. Many television programs are made for 18 to 49-year-old middle-class viewers, especially women, whom sponsors most want to reach; movies are generally intended for the 13-to 29-year-old age group, since movie attendance drops of sharply in middle age.
But even more to the point, the audience may not even have strong wants or fears for which it needs a mirror.People use popular culture mainly for entertainment and diversion, and most do not take it very seriously.
Moveigoers flocked to "Jaws," I believe, for the chase scenes and the suspense, not because they needed to deal with their fears about Nature Rampant.
Nor do people care that much about the popular culture they get. In fact, Paul klein, an NBC television executive, believes that viewers usually choose the programs "which can be endured with the least amount of pain and suffering."
One version of the "active" theory maintains that the popular culture makers are also America's taste-makers; that in creating popular culture, they also create our tastes and values. No duobt they help to shape some tastes, for the miniskirt became popular after actresses wore it in films and television programs.
But values must exist independently before they can appear in the mass media. For example, many Americans believed in the devil before Hollywood made "The Exorcist," and they became more liberal in their sexual attitudes before the mass media were allowed to be franker.
The popular culture makers may propose new tastes or ideas, but the audience disposes, only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of popular songs recorded every year find favor with listeners; and these days, most new television programs are cancelled before the season is over.
Therefore, popular culture makers do not try to create or alter tastes; instead, they appeal to already existing tastes. More often than not, they only add novel touches to old formulas, standard story plots, and familiar heroes and villains, some of which have been popular since the days of folk culture.
Indeed, story-tellers and story-sellers proceed by guesswork, for while they know what the audience has liked previously, they cannot predict what it will like next. They are better described as nervous guessers about, rather than powerful manipulators of, the audience's taste. And well they might be nervous, for they may soon be out of work if they guess incorrectly.
Another "active" theory argues that the popular culture markers, being in business, will do anything to make a profit. They therefore appeal to the audience's basest motives - or what is called "the 12-year-old mentality" in television. The result is a popular culture that is shallow or emotionally harmful to people.
"Charlie's Angels" and even "Upstairs, Downstairs" may appear superficial to the exceedinly well-educated partisans of high culture, those cultural experts who believe that almost everything save Shakespeare, Bach, and Rembrandt is trash. Popular culture is not made for experts, however, and people who use it for diversion do not necessarily find it shallow.
The charge that popular culture harms people has been made for many years, but so far, researchers have only demonstrated that seeing movie or television violence makes boys - although not girls - act more aggressively for a short time afterward. No one has yet been able to identify lasting harmful effects of popular culture.
Heavy doses of "Starsky and Hutch" and other television and movie violence may not be desirable, but there is no evidence that they cause today's high crime rates. To be sure, from time to time, individuals carry out violence acts that they have copied from the screen, but they are few and far between.
In any case, television or films did not create their urge to commit violence. Rates of violence in America were much higher during the 19th century, before television and movies had been invented, than they are now.
Still another "active" theory proposes that popular culture, by being diverting, also diverts us from recognizing America's econimic and political problems - and from doing asomething about them. Admittedly, most popular culture (other than the news) seldom addresses the country's problems, but mainly because the country is too divided to deal with them. The popular culture makers know that whatever they say about controversial ecomonic and political topics will upset some people in their highly diverse audience and scare off advertisers.
My own theory is that the popular culture makers divert us because we want to be diverted, from our own as well as the counrty's problems, and they respond to the wants - and tastes - that allow them to stay in business.
In the process they may influence some tastes as well, as occasionally they guess so accurately what is on many minds that popular culture does reflect widespread wishes or fears.
Most of the time, however, popular culture only supplies the laughs, thrills, and drama that help make life a little more pleasant. We have become so used to it that we can no longer do without it, but it does not often move us strongly or touch our deepest feelings. Which is just as well, for a popular culture with that kind of power could also divert us from families, friends, jobs, and other responsibilities.