I was asked the following question on Quora:
What are some mystic perspectives on pop culture?
Here’s my answer:
There are many mystic perspectives in pop culture — drone-based music, mystical lyrics, surrealist art, the whole Jedi religion. So here I’d like to draw analogies between mystical thinking and pop culture criticism.
Many mystics seek some elusive higher state: liberation, nirvana, moksha, satori, theosis, and so on. A common feature of descriptions of such states is that they transcend the bounds of language, and specifically the dualistic thinking that seems to go hand-in-hand with language: good and evil, self and other, present and absent.
You can actually discern similar quests for transcendence within pop culture. Many artists working within a genre eventually feel constrained by it: they then attempt to transcend their confines in some way. They become aware of the stifling quality of categorization schemes. In effect, they want to rediscover whatcalls : “what resists symbolization absolutely.”
For example, in certain genres of rock music (especially punk and its progeny), noise takes on an almost transcendental quality. Whenever a particular sort of distortion becomes tame and domesticated, certain rock musicians will seek out new forms of noise. The music journalist Simon Reynolds describes this very well:
“Noise is about fascination, the antithesis of meaning. If music is a language, communicating moods and feelings, then noise is like an eruption within the material out of which language is shaped. We are arrested, fascinated, by a convulsion of sound to which we are unable to assign a meaning. We are mesmerized by the materiality of music. This is why noise and horror go hand in hand-because madness and violence are senseless and arbitrary (violence is the refusal to argue), and the only response is wordless-to scream.
“The problem is that, as with any drug or intoxicant, tolerance builds up rapidly.”
“In their voices, you can hear a surplus of form over content, of genotext over phenotext, semiotic over symbolic, Barthes’s “grain” (the resistance of the body to the voice) over technique. Of “telling” over “story”.
“Both “strategies” are alike in one thing-they demand from the listener an immobility-one stunned, the other spellbound. Unlike the soulboys or decent songwriters, resistance does not take the form of becoming a subject, but through becoming an object. Refusing (at least in the domain of leisure) to deploy power over the self; to escape, for a few blissful moments, the network of meaning and concern.”
Doesn’t this sound like some kind of mystical quest?
Noise is just one example of an attribute that people attach mystical meaning to. The quest for noise is a specific example of a wider quest in the arts: the quest for authenticity.
Once upon a time, pop music had no aspirations of being Great Art. It was seen as just another branch of show business. But as entertainment became a more central part of people’s lives in the 20th century, pop music (and pop culture more generally) began to be taken seriously by cultural and economic elites. And this means a lot of writing and talking about the virtues and vices of particular forms.
Even though many pop culture fans didn’t really like the self-seriousness of, say, classical music critics, many ended up becoming mirror images of the people they were trying to knock of the pedestal. So the innovations of jazz became ossified in ‘trad jazz’, and the wildness of rock and roll was put in the safe zoo of ‘classic rock’.
This borrowing of a classical sensibility — believing that culture might be more than just a momentary thrill, and instead a revelation of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness — may also have been a response to the economic reality of pop culture. Most people feel uncomfortable with the “pop” in “pop culture”. Is everything popular is necessarily good? And if not, as most people believe, how do we decide what to consume? Pop culture critics have been tying themselves up in knots over such questions for decades.
At one extreme you have Marxists likewho saw pop culture as little more than a tool for creating subservient and stupid masses. At the other extreme, you have sundry “ who believe that anything on the pop charts must be good because it is produced by and/or aimed at minorities, teenagers, women and other groups neglected by the of aesthetics.
Between these two extremes — which might align in the religious world with gnosticism (the world is an evil illusion) and pantheism (everything in the world is divine) — you have space for debating the particularities of a culture product, rather than the vague sociology of who produces it and who consumes it.
The poptimist reformation occurred in the early years of the 21st century. The pop-protestants were disgusted by the indulgences of the catholic church of “rockism”. Rockists, according to the poptimist narrative, valorize qualities such as musical virtuosity (often seen as symbolic of aggressive masculinity), complex lyrics, and ‘seriousness’. Poptimists decided to invert this system, valuing artifice, catchiness, queerness, girlishness, and teenage notions of love/sex. As you might expect, poptimism rapidly became as self-righteous and insufferable as rockism. 
A mystic might laugh at the absurdity of such binaries, and instead just focus on the sensual experience of actually listening to music. Or she might ask if the music transports her, or moves her to compassion towards fellow beings.
Silent listening doesn’t fill up space in a music review, so ultimately the more verbose among us return to 2]Obsessive music academics and journalists (and now, bloggers, tumblr users, twitterers, redditors, and Quorans!) therefore try to come up with criteria for why some piece of music makes you a better person, or gives you access to cosmic consciousness, or makes you… cool. [
So authenticity becomes the ‘mystical’ goal for both musicians and listeners. Different genres just have different notions for what counts as authentic. In an old genre it might be adherence to tradition. In the avant-garde it might be ‘creativity’ and ‘boundary-breaking’. And for the mainstream it is usually just giving the people what they want.
If you think about it, each of these musical sensibilities has multiple equivalents in the world of religion and spirituality. Every genre is a denomination. Ask yourself who the ‘Amish of rock’ are, or the ‘sufis of soul’.
I’ve written here about music, but you can use this kind of analogy to talk about any form of pop culture. You can have fun asking questions like these:
- Who is the St Francis of cinema?
- How can a painter convey nirvana?
- What is a Taoist approach to science fiction?
- Which computer games might Alan Watts play?
 Armed with this analogy, you can start to see aesthetics as the last stand of theology. :)
 You’ll discern this kind of hand-wringing about authenticity even in musical genres that seem to place irony and insincerity at the forefront, like ‘vaporwave’. I recommend watching this video to see how far the rabbithole of pop cultural anxiety goes:
Vaporwave: A Brief History