For LeRoy Ashby, Washington State University Regents Professor of History, the public outcry that ensued from Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction during the 2004 Super Bowl was simply the most visible recent skirmish in a battle over popular culture that dates back to the beginning of mass entertainment in the early 19th century.
For Ashby, American popular culture isn’t a distraction from the serious issues of our time. It is inseparable from them, and always has been. He makes the case that popular culture is both a mirror and a shaper of our times in a 648-page meticulously researched volume titled, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture Since 1830, published May 2006 by University of Kentucky Press.
A starred citation in Library Journal notes that Ashby’s account of the development of popular culture includes discussion of “such critical perspectives as the immigrant experience, race, gender, technological advances, politics and economics.” He demonstrates, for instance, how 19th-century Wild West shows reinforced the politics of expansionism and how the once-criticized music of ragtime ultimately advanced not only popular music but also multiculturalism.
“This is the first book that attempts a systematic overview of popular culture since its emergence in the 1830s,” says John Kicza, chair of the WSU history department. “Other books on the subject have limited themselves to just one or two aspects of popular culture. Only Ashby’s book attempts sincerely to be comprehensive.”
Instead of dismissing those Americans who know more about Kelly Clarkston than they do about Lewis and Clark, Ashby writes about popular culture as a democratic art form that represents competing ideologies or ways of looking at the world. As such, there is no single story line, but multiple, interwoven strands that reveal myriad ways in which mass entertainment has reflected, changed, or reinforced American values.
“I’m willing to concede there’s an awful lot wrong with popular culture–its cult of celebrity, its often unflattering stereotypes, its emphasis on the acquisition of things, its power to render important ideas and movements meaningless, its capacity to mute civic engagement,” Ashby says. “But, I would still defend it as an important source of ideals, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.”
The citation in Library Journal also notes, “No single author has tackled popular culture with so much breadth and depth and managed to strike a balance between the popular and scholarly approaches.”
Ashby’s previous books include Fighting the Odds: The Life of Senator Frank Church and Endangered Children: Dependency, Neglect and Abuse in American History. He is the Claudius O. and Mary Johnson Distinguished Professor of History at WSU, where he has been on the faculty since 1972.