Ruled by pop culture

March 20, 2014, 3:39 PM UTC
Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

I was reading an interview with the great American novelist Philip Roth in the New York Times by Daniel Sandstrom, the cultural editor of the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet (I know, slow business-news day) when I came across a most provocative passage. Roth said:

The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy. It is no longer, as it was for centuries throughout Europe, the church that imposes its fantasy on the populace, nor is it the totalitarian super state that imposes the fantasy, as it did for 12 years in Nazi Germany and for 69 years in the Soviet Union. Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

Of course, the older generation has been complaining about pop culture forever. As the late Paul Lynde sang with a twisted snarl 50 years ago, playing the out-of-it father Harry MacAfee in the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie:

Kids!

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today …

Laughing, singing, dancing, grinning, morons!

And while we’re on the subject!

Kids! They are just impossible to control!

Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an’ roll!

Still, Roth’s ideas got me thinking in a few different directions. Number one, even if popular culture has always been a potent force, it has never been more so, because of the vacuum created by the shrinking of traditional institutions. For better or for worse, organized religion, government, sports, and, yes, big business have been discredited and hold much less sway over us. It means that there’s less counterweight to Game of Thrones, Katy Perry, Lil Wayne, Breaking Bad, and Duck Dynasty et al. (I know, I like some of that stuff too.) Again, unlike Roth, I say for better or for worse, but we should acknowledge this is an unprecedented development with unknown consequences. And as pop culture becomes more tightly fused with technology — witness the daily examples of partnerships between media and the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat — the power and immediacy of pop culture is heightened every second. Condemnation? Not necessarily. Fact? Absolutely. And certainly it’s something for those in the C-suites of media and tech companies to consider. (Please note: “by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends.”) It will take the kind of thinking displayed by those on our World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list to avoid a race to the cultural bottom.

One of the few institutions I could think of that even begin to rival the unfettered rise of popular culture is our colleges and universities, if only because they haven’t been discredited as the others have. Americans still have tremendous respect for the likes of Yale, Indiana University, and Pomona. But if the academy isn’t careful, admissions scandals, outrageous athletics policies, and hubris that comes with the riches of a place like today’s Stanford will bring them down too. If that happens, it’ll be hard to argue that we aren’t one step closer to Roth’s moronic amusement park. Imagine what Paul Lynde would have to say about that.

This story is from the April 7, 2014 issue of Fortune.