Monuments to Popular Culture


Abstract: This paper delves into the contrasting nature of popular culture, known for its ephemeral nature, and memorial culture, which embodies notions of permanence and endurance. By exploring the intricate relationship between these two cultural spheres, it aims to challenge conventional perceptions of memory and the construction and interpretation of historical narratives.
Languages: English

Where fleeting trends and the ever-changing pulse of popular culture dominate, the idea of erecting traditional monuments seems contradictory. Yet, an alternative approach to archiving emerges through the active participation of fans. Can fan archiving offer a unique entry point to understanding and preserving the historical dimensions of our present era?

Monuments vs. Pop Culture

The idea of erecting a monument to a pop star may strike us as peculiar. Pop stars, after all, are often seen as transient figures, here today and gone tomorrow. Monuments, on the other hand, conjure images of equestrian statues, war memorials, poets, artists and grand arches – structures that endure through time. They are typically dedicated to significant figures, those deemed worthy of such commemoration due to their association with the cultural and intellectual elite, a realm traditionally associated with high culture.

This dichotomy between popular culture and monument culture may seem contradictory. Pop and popular culture, by definition, has long been perceived as the antithesis of high culture. However, in recent times, the lines separating “high” and “low” culture have become increasingly blurred, if not entirely dissolved.[1] Despite this evolution, popular culture continues to be linked to quantity, as it is defined by what captures the attention of the masses. In contrast, the former concept of “high culture” emphasizes a certain level of exclusivity and the pursuit of quality, often measured by a more limited audience.

Pop culture has often found itself intertwined with discussions surrounding memory culture, primarily due to its vast quantity and widespread appeal. However, it is important to distinguish popular culture from folk culture. While folk culture draws inspiration from regional or national ethnic influences, staying committed to these traditions, pop and popular culture represents something entirely different. It is predominantly international in nature and subject to the ever-changing tides of trends and time.[2]

This brings us to another contradiction between pop culture and monument culture: pop is characterized by its fleeting nature and potential impermanence, epitomized by the notion of the “one-hit wonder”. On the other hand, monuments are intended to honor and embody enduring significance beyond their own era. Pop culture embodies the spirit of the “new”, while monument culture embodies the reverence for “old powers”.

Pop culture, with its rapid pace and constant evolution, captures the spirit of the contemporary zeitgeist, reflecting the pulse of the present moment. Monuments, on the other hand, embody a connection to the past, preserving and honoring what is deemed culturally formative. While pop culture dominates the current era, monuments serve as reminders of historical legacies and provide a sense of continuity with the past.

Reevaluating Memory Culture in the “Broad Present”

Pop culture undoubtedly thrives in what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht referred to as the “broad present”, while monuments serve as significant artifacts in shaping historical worldviews.[3] Gumbrecht challenges the notion of a historical “narrative of meaning” within the context of the current “broad present”.

According to the author, a new “time configuration” has replaced the historical thinking that emerged in the 19th century. Previously, the view of the world was shaped by a linear time axis, where time acted as a driving force for change. In this perspective, the past was constantly left behind, and the future appeared as an expansive horizon of possibilities. However, the present now exists as a state of simultaneity. The future no longer presents an open horizon of boundless potential, and the past, far from fading away, remains permanently present, particularly in the realm of digital culture. Moreover, the current discourses continuously reconfigure our understanding of the past.

Regardless of one’s assessment of this diagnosis, the ubiquity of information availability profoundly challenges “historical thinking” and will inevitably transform the practice of historians. It also has profound implications for memory culture. The questions of what should be remembered, why certain aspects are remembered and how have never been more fundamentally contested than nowadays. This ongoing transformation challenges us to reconsider our understanding of memory and the ways in which we construct and interpret historical narratives. It demands a critical and thoughtful approach to memory culture, one that acknowledges the shifting perspectives and the ever-changing nature of the “broad present”.[4]

Pop culture can be seen as a precursor or an early indicator of the “broad present,” offering valuable insights when considered not only through a lens of cultural pessimism but as an objective inventory. It serves as a suitable entry point for exploring how we can approach the historical or potentially historicizable aspects of our contemporary world. In fact, the ways in which popular culture is handled within the realm of memory culture may provide plausible approaches for archiving cultural material in the age of the “broad present”.

Popular culture offers valuable lessons on how to preserve and archive cultural material in a world where the past, present, and future converge. A contemporary approach to archiving must be adaptable and agile. It should capture the dynamic nature of our cultural expressions, embracing the constant flux of ideas, trends, and influences.

Exploring Fan Archiving in Pop Culture

Fan culture plays an indispensable role in archiving and preserving pop culture from its very inception. Conversely, the possibility of archiving within pop culture is what enables the formation of fan communities in the first place. As John Fiske suggests, there must be “producerly texts”[5] that allow for active engagement and participation, transforming consumers into meaning-making contributors. This requires products that not only invite consumption but also encourage acquisition, collection, and categorization.

Within fan culture, several distinct forms of archiving emerge, each with its own significance and effectiveness. These forms include:

  1. Archiving as validation: This involves the elevation of pop culture to high cultural realms, such as monuments, museums, and exhibitions. By transferring pop culture into these esteemed spaces, it gains recognition and legitimacy.
  2. Archiving as storage: This form focuses on the preservation and accessibility of pop culture artifacts. It includes the creation of databases, streaming services, and social networks that facilitate the storage and distribution of pop culture content, ensuring its availability to fans worldwide.
  3. Archiving as ritualization: Here, fans engage in personal practices of collecting and categorizing pop culture memorabilia. They create intimate spaces, resembling altars, where they curate and display their cherished items, fostering a sense of connection and devotion.
  4. Archiving as staging: This form involves the appropriation of pop culture through creative expressions such as cosplay and fanfiction. Fans actively participate by embodying and reinterpreting pop culture, adding new layers of meaning and expanding the narrative universe.
  5. Archiving as restaging: It involves the recontextualization of pop culture through retro trends, memes, and quotations, providing a lens for reflecting on its evolution and impact over time.

Living Archives

“Get the sledgehammer, they’ve built us a monument, and every moron knows that it ruins love”, laments German pop band Wir sind Helden in their song “Denkmal” from 2004.[6] Rather than viewing the act of monument-building as a tribute, they express their frustration, highlighting how concrete structures can stifle the essence of pop culture. The lyrics reflect a sentiment that only the living can truly embrace and love, as concrete represents an immovable finality, signifying not a beginning but a permanent end: “Forever united in concrete and bliss”.[7] Indeed, concrete may not be the most suitable medium for memorializing the ever-evolving nature of pop culture. But what forms are appropriate for a culture that thrives on fleeting fashions and trends, constantly subject to updates and transformations?

The answer lies within the vibrant and dynamic fan communities that embrace and sustain pop culture. These communities serve as living archives, where passionate fans engage in ongoing dialogues, discussions, and creative expressions centered around their beloved pop icons. Instead of fixed monuments, fan culture thrives on fluidity, adapting to new trends, and generating an ever-evolving tapestry of fan works and interactions. In this context, archiving pop culture becomes a participatory endeavor, with fan communities taking an active role in capturing and preserving the essence of their favorite artists and phenomena.

Digital platforms and social media provide fertile ground for fan archiving. Through hashtags, dedicated fan pages, and online communities, fans curate and share their creations, creating virtual spaces where the legacy of pop culture is perpetually evolving. These platforms enable collaborative storytelling, remixing, and reimagining, fostering a collective memory that thrives on the interplay between fans and their beloved pop icons.

Drawing from the ways in which memory culture is handled within popular culture, we can explore innovative methods of documentation, curation, and preservation. Of particular interest here is the inclusive and participatory approach that incorporates the active contribution of individuals and communities to ensure a comprehensive representation of cultural expressions.

Without fans, there would be no stars. Considering the current meme culture and its role in shaping meaning and discourse across various domains, including history and politics, a broader question arises: Can’t this process be generalized? Without recipients, no artifact becomes worthy of historicization.

Further Reading

  • Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2010.
  • Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. Our Broad Present. Time and Contemporary Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Winter, Rainer. Der produktive Zuschauer. Medienaneignung als kultureller und ästhetischer Prozess. Köln: von Halem, 2010. 2nd expanded and revised edition.

Web Resources


[1] Niels Penke and Matthias Schaffrick, Populäre Kulturen zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius 2018), 9.
[2] Ibid., 10ff.
[3] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart (Berlin: Suhrkamp 2010).
[4] Cf. ibid.
[5] John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (Taylor & Francis e-Library 2010 [1989]), 83.
[6] Wir sind Helden, Denkmal, 2004 (from the album „Die Reklamation“) (translation by the author)
[7] Cf. ibid.


Image Credits

“Michael Jackson, Mourning among German Fans,” Munich 2016 © Annekathrin Kohout.

Recommended Citation

Kohout, Annekathrin: Monuments to Popular Culture. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 6, DOI:

Editorial Responsibility

Cord Arendes / Stefanie Samida

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  1. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    Monuments to Popular Culture

    The article is dedicated to an interesting and productive juxtaposition of popular culture and commemorative culture. It assumes a tension between two spheres: Popular culture on the one hand as an ephemeral, fast-changing culture, and commemorative culture on the other, which is oriented towards stability and permanence. Another difference seems obvious to me: popular culture is offensively commercial, a culture of the market; commemorative culture, on the other hand, is usually institutional and designed for permanence and appreciation.

    The article juxtaposes the contrast described here with the archival work of fans, which could possibly offer “access to understanding and preserving the historical dimensions of our present.” The fan activities mentioned are compelling examples of how productive fandom can be in relation to history. The perception of fandom as active archival work that collects, preserves, organizes, curates and perpetuates (popular) contemporary culture contributes an important aspect to fan studies, a field that is still underrepresented in Germany

    With regard to the postulated opposition between popular culture and commemorative culture, however, it can be argued that there are a number of exceptions. The fact that people remember biographical as well as historical events with the help of artefacts from popular culture is not a completely new insight: The function of popular music “to shape popular memory, to organize our sense of time” was already pointed out by Simon Frith in 1987.[1] The Scorpions’ “Wind of Change”, for example, is associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But even historical figures such as ‘Mozart’ or ‘Sissi’ are probably better known to most people through their popular versions than through academic historiography.

    The notion of popular culture as contemporary culture also comes up short: since the 1960s at the latest, popular culture itself has always referred to its own history, through cover versions or new film adaptations, through references and quotations, through the implementation of “old” aesthetics in new productions and, of course, through its own historiography and documentation, for example through Halls of Fame. For “pop culture’s addiction to its own past”, Simon Reynolds has also introduced a term: “Retromania.”[2]

    In this respect, it would be worthwhile to combine the undoubtedly valuable perspective of fans’ archival work with the perspective of the content of popular culture itself. This is relevant on two levels: The first concerns contemporary popular artefacts. As Siegfried Kracauer noted back in the 1920s: “The position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself.”[3] The “inconspicuous surface-level expressions,”[4] the revues, the Schlager, the cinema films – all these popular artefacts – are thus not only inevitably components of contemporary history itself. According to Kracauer, they are of analytical-historiographical value because “by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”[5] The perspective on popular culture is not only cultural, but also contemporary-historical. Moments of very deliberate and conscious use of historical material have also become established in postmodern popular culture. Madonna refers extensively to film history in her music videos, Amy Winehouse or Adele to music history in their sound. Robbie Williams ennobles himself with a swing album, and hip-hop is a permanent invocation of old music and sound elements, which are thus often also honored, distinguished and memorized. In this way, popular culture becomes an archive and a monument to itself

    Since it is of course a fact that stardom and fandom are connected, it would therefore be interesting to observe how the respective memory and archive work differs or complements each other, and how fans and stars react to each other in their specific access to and handling of history.

    [1] Simon Frith, “Towards an aesthetic of popular music,” in Taking Popular Music Seriously Selected Essays, ed. Simon Frith (Aldershot: Ashgate 2007), 257–273, cit. 266.
    [2] Cf. Simon Reynolds, Retromania. Pop culture’s addiction to its own past (London: Faber & Faber, 2011).
    [3] Siegfried Kracauer, “The Mass Ornament,” in The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge/Mass.: Harvard UP, 1995), 75–86, cit. 75.
    [4] Ibid.
    [5] Ibid.

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