Wikipedia defines pop culture like this:
"Popular culture, or pop culture, is the vernacular (people's) culture that prevails in any given society. The content of popular culture is determined by the daily interactions, needs and desires, and cultural 'moments' that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream. It can include any number of practices, including those pertaining to cooking, clothing, mass media and the many facets of entertainment such as sports and literature."
Using that definition, one can lump any number of topics under the heading "Pop Culture": "Brokeback Mountain", bird flu, "Survivor", the Super Bowl, Brad & Angelina. Basically, anything that gets discussed around the water cooler (or coffee machine or internet message board or whatever constitutes today's "water cooler").
Pop culture in so ingrained in us that we don't even notice it. For instance, take a normal day in my life. I wake up to local news and "The Today Show" on the TV where they're talking about everything from Hamas gaining control of Palestine to Oprah calling out a disingenuous author on her talk show. On my way to work, I listen to music. Once I log onto my computer, one of the first things I do is check the previous night's sports headlines. Next, I check the status of my fantasy sports team; baseball, basketball or football, depending on what season is in session. I might find an email in my inbox imploring me to take note of upcoming concert events in my area. Walking past a co-worker, I'll join in on a conversation about who was more ridiculous on "American Idol". Lunchtime finds me either listening to local sports talk on the radio or reading a book. After work, I usually catch "Fear Factor" and "Seinfeld" on TV while I'm eating dinner. And most nights end with me listening to more music or falling asleep while watching a DVD.
That's a lot of attention directed to "cultural 'moments' that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream." And for me and many others that's just the tip of the iceberg. It's nearly impossible to go anywhere without being deluged by pop culture.
Yet many regard pop culture with disdain, as evidenced in this quote, also from the Wikipedia:
"Popular culture, being so widely available, has been opened to much criticism. One charge is that popular culture tends to be superficial. Cultural items that require extensive experience, training, or reflection to be appreciated seldom become items of popular culture."
My guess is that this sort of attitude comes from people who get sick and tired of hearing phrases like "Git 'er done!" and watching B-list celebrities snipe at each other on shows like "The Surreal Life". No argument here.
But for every "Elimidate", you can often find an alternative with more redeeming qualities like "Beauty and the Geek." Billed as "Ashton Kutcher's social experiment", this show strays from the typical dating show formula and actually tries to find some social significance. While "Elimidate" groups three loud and overbearing breast-implant recipients with a guy just looking to get laid, "Geek" brings together a group of attractive, sorority-type girls with a bunch of dudes who look to "Revenge of the Nerds" for role models. If you expect the girls to be repulsed by the guys and the guys to be condescending toward the girls, you'd be right. But only for a while. Each "Beauty" is paired up with a "Geek" to compete against the other pairs in a series of challenges. The challenges generally involve the girl trying to do something "brainy" and the guys trying to do something hip or romantic. Where the real beauty lies in the show is that the teammates have to help each other prepare for the challenges and in so doing find that the stereotypes they have of each other start to melt away. Each group ends up feeling empowered when trying to instruct their partners and receives respect for sharing their perspectives. All in all, it's a very interesting and entertaining show (unless you're more into watching chicks hurl nonsensical insults at each other in order to win the key to a guys pants.)
The point is, pop culture gives people an opportunity to connect with each other, a common bond to discuss when there may not be any other reason to interact with someone. Sometimes, pop culture lends itself to opening up avenues for more important topics of discussion, as "Beauty and the Geek" does. Sometimes, it just gives a person the ability to be comfortable talking to someone they don't really know.
This is one reason why sports is so important to men. A guy can walk up to almost any other guy and start a conversation with, "So, how about those (insert name of local team) last night?" Instantly, conversation is started and discomfort avoided. It's an easy way to start a quick, superficial discussion or one that evolves into more important issues. Either way, it gives an arena for guys to express themselves without delving directly into their "feelings" or some other seemingly uncomfortable topic.
And while it seems women have an intuitively easier time generating conversation, they aren't immune to using pop culture as a stepping stone. It's not surprising to hear one woman say to another, "Did you hear about the sale at The Gap," or, "Isn't the new 'Bachelor' kind of creepy?"
Additionally, pop culture provides topics for girls to talk to guys about and vice versa. I miss the weekly conversations I used to engage in with a female co-worker after I stopped watching "Lost". We had little else in common to talk about, so we just avoided saying anything at all. (At least I had a couple of weeks to complain to her about how annoying it was to wait all week for a new episode only to find out that the writers decided to repeat last week's show, told from a different character's perspective.)
In a world that has become so fractured and specialized, often it's the pop culture that pulls us back together. Everyone likes to find their own niches and interests and the community that encompasses them. But it can be difficult to interact with someone who has altogether different interests that "...require extensive experience, training, or reflection..." Pop culture gives us common ground.
So, the next time someone asks you whether you know who got "fired" from "The Apprentice" or if "King Kong" was worth spending eight bucks on, you can look at it as an opportunity to connect with a fellow human being and not feel as if you're pandering to the lowest common denominator. Unless, of course, that's of interest to you.