The concept of culture is one that has multiple definitions, that is constantly changing with time, that can be applied differently to different places and events and is a wide, fluid concept that has and continues to have various meanings attached to it. Many of the theorists who authored the book, Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, have used the term ‘culture’ as a broad category that indicates both, the different types of cultural products such as TV, paintings, newspapers, etc. as well as the discussions about these products (Durham & Kellner, 2006). In the book, they describe how in addition to these products, culture also includes practices such as watching sports or going out to cafes. In other words, culture as a concept, thus has both a form in itself as well as various meanings attached to each form. Culture can be both ordinary and extraordinary (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p.xiv). As indicated, it is now clear that there have been many contestations over the definition of this broad term.
Does culture mean a whole way of life? (Williams, 1989, p.4) Is culture a process that involves meaning-making? Is culture a practice or is it a system of symbols and meanings? (Hall, 1997) Based on its definition, is culture then relevant to our society today? Due to the use of this concept across several disciplines and the fact that the concept itself could mean something different based on the discipline, the term has been difficult to define (Sommier, 2014). Stuart Hall argues that in some sense, culture has always been important (Hall, 1997, p.208). While several scholars have discussed the relevance of the concept and have debated over whether or not the concept should even be regarded, Hall writes about the centrality of culture and how and why this concept became so important (Hall, 1997). In order to discuss the relevance of this concept, it would be helpful to try and define the term culture. Raymond Williams (1983) provides many definitions and descriptions of the word culture under different contexts and also discusses how the term’s meaning has changed over time.
Culture, when used earlier, was a term that meant a process or the doing of something (Williams, 1983). Over time, the use of the term became more complicated. Williams (1983) also describes how the term culture was strongly linked to the term civilization during the 17-1800s. While culture seems to be an overarching term that consists of many meanings under many contexts, one of William’s definitions of culture as an artistic activity pursued by forms such as film, literature, music, etc.
(Williams, 1983, p.90) is the one used for the purpose of this essay. In trying to argue for the relevance of culture in the digital age, the concept first needs to placed in the context of media and communications.
Hall (1997) discusses how culture consists of systems or codes of meaning that give significance to our actions. He shows how all of these things taken together constitute our ‘culture’ (p.208). He says that “all social practices express or communicate a meaning” (Hall, 1997, p.208). Relating this concept of culture to media and communications and in particular, to the information revolution and the development of new media technologies, Hall (1997) argues that the ways in which culture is produced, circulated and exchanged has transformed significantly. This essay argues that, even with these developments in technology, culture still remains a significant conceptualization when studying the field of media and communications in today’s time, that is, the digital age.
Hall (1997) also adds that media is not only a fundamental part of the physical framework of the way in which a modern society operates, but is also the primary tool using which ideas and images are shared. Thus, the role of media in being able to circulate, exchange or share ideas, values, beliefs, languages, traditions, etc, which are all elements of culture emphasizes the importance of it as an agent of change. Coke Studio Pakistan, which is the case I study for the purpose of this essay, can be seen as an agent of change that has brought back parts of Pakistani culture that seem to had been forgotten by the youth today. In order to understand the impact of the digital age or the developments of technology on the concept of culture and furthermore its relevance today, it would be helpful to look at the historical development of culture as a concept. Recognizing the relevance of culture previously will help indicate whether culture has become more or less relevant in media and communications today.
As mentioned previously, Hall (1997) states that culture has always been important in discussions about its influence. During that 1950-60s, McLuhan’s work in the study of media and culture, showed that the shift from print culture to new media culture transformed the ways in which individuals and societies shared ideas and behaved (Durham & Kellner, 2006). Similarly, different schools of thought that are discussed in this book conceptualized culture differently. While the Frankfurt school was one of the first to address this debate about culture and its relevance, British Cultural Studies looked at the shifts in the analyses of culture over time. Theorists like Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) discussed the notion of individuality and sameness within certain cultures and how that shaped the entertainment industry. In addition to these perspectives, the Marxian approach to studying culture involved looking at class differences and inequalities in society (Durham & Kellner, 2006).
Thus, many different approaches have been used to discuss the relevance of culture in history. The digital age, often referred to as the new media age, which includes the use of the internet, social media, etc. and that relies mainly on information technology has significantly transformed the ways in which culture is spread and exchanged. Looking at media as a tool or a platform through which this culture is spread, ideas circulated, values and traditions passed on, the digital age has made this circulation much easier and accessible to more people at the same time. The digital age has characteristics that have enabled the multiplicity of producers, distributors and consumers, having multiple networks and communities (both online and offline) as well as the variety of meanings that can now be associated to different cultures (Pavlik, 2008). Appadurai (1990), in his article about the Global Cultural Economy describes five dimensions of cultural flow, two of which relate to the relevance of culture in the digital age. The first one – ‘technoscapes’ is the phenomenon that he links to globalization, wherein technology can now easily move across borders, a movement that was not possible before (Appadurai, 1990).
Thus, in the context of this essay, technoscapes can be applied to the flow of cultural values and ideas across borders that is now possible due to this flow of technology. Similarly, Appadurai (1990) describes ‘mediascapes’ as both the distribution of the technology that allows for the spread of information as well as the discourses that are created through this media lens. A combination of both these dimensions can be used to analyze the case of Coke Studio Pakistan. The link between digital age and globalization and the ways in which they operate together have led to cultural changes in society today. Globalization has made possible “the proliferation of new voices and perspectives on culture and society” that were previously taken for granted (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p.xxxi). This essay uses the case study of Coke Studio to show how they brought back voices and traditions that were being taken for granted, in order to produce this new voice that valued the cultural heritage of Pakistani music. Coke Studio Pakistan, a music television series that started in 2008, is an international music franchise that was created by Coca Cola in 2007.
Started in Brazil, the concept of this show was adopted in Pakistan and featured live studio-recorded music performances by several artists from different backgrounds and varied popularity (Monie, 2011). The music from this show is officially available for free on YouTube and Soundcloud, which makes it easily accessible to large numbers of people. Using YouTube as a platform of the digital age and Coke Studio as a form of media, I will argue that culture and various elements of it are still very relevant today.
Coke Studio is a show that celebrates the “country’s diverse musical heritage” and brings back the culture of Pakistani music (Moye, 2013). A report about the show states that the Pakistani version of the show “pioneered the musical fusion concept” and this has been a significant contributor in reshaping the popular culture in Pakistan (Moye, 2013). The artists who perform on this show and the music they play is a combination of a variety of music ranging from eastern classical, folk and traditional music to a more contemporary and popular form of hip-hop or rock music (Moye, 2013). Rizwan Khan, the general manager of Coca Cola in Pakistan has said in an interview that “By creating a new genre of music, we are touching generations of people across Pakistan and around the world” (Moye, 2013). Among these generations of people who consume this music, the main audience that is most affected by the music is the youth population of Pakistan. This is the part of the population that has never been exposed to traditional music and folk culture which has been such a prominent part of Pakistani heritage and culture. The show now brings back these forms of music and by fusing them with more popular and mainstream forms, a new genre of music gets created that widely appeals to large numbers of the population especially the youth.
The producers of the show state that “the aim is to create long lasting music that reflects on our heritage and will be remembered years from now” (Sabeeh, 2014). By gathering cultures from all around the country and combining classical singers, folk legends and young or new talent (IANS, 2011), the show brings back in a unique, inclusive and stimulating way, the rich music culture that was forgotten. Due to the fact that Coke Studio does not present only mainstream and popular music, it has different meanings attached to it, and by creating new identities amongst the music industry in Pakistan, it presents a specific ideology through this form of culture. Coke Studio integrates “eastern values with western influences” and gives the Pakistani youth access to a cultural element that would easily resonate with them and prompt within them an emotional and intellectual sentiment, enabling them to feel a strong sense of pride (Moye, 2013). Thus, the ideology represented through this form of culture creates an online as well as an offline imagined community (Anderson, 1983). This community is created due to a shared culture that is consumed by not only the people in Pakistan, but also Pakistanis living abroad, populations in India and many others from the region.
The show helped in building a community of people in these South Asian countries as well as amongst the South Asians abroad as it consisted of all the people that wanted to listen to alternative and restored music (IANS, 2011). On seeing how popular Coke Studio Pakistan was amongst Indian audiences, MTV India decided to collaborate with Coke and start their own version of the show in India (Mahmood, 2013). Similar to the success of the show in Pakistan due do its rich cultural heritage, the show became successful in India due to its diversity (Mahmood, 2013). Wasim Bashir from Coca Cola said in this article that, from the songs that were performed in these shows, we could see that “from a cultural perspective, ties are healthy between the two countries” (Mahmood, 2013). The cultural influences of both versions of the show were being highly appreciated in the neighboring countries.
The concept of culture was playing a major role in this because, despite the political and economic tensions between the two countries India and Pakistan, it was this music culture that was bringing the people of both countries together in way that connected them through this shared and common culture of traditional and popular music. Despite the borders between them, Monie (2011) claims that Coke Studio managed to bring the subcontinent together using elements of culture that are common to them. Monie (2011) writes that Pakistan reminded “us of the shared cultural heritage that predates our religious differences”. He argues that this impact has been observed not just in the people living in these two countries but also amongst the expatriates of India and Pakistan living abroad. This success was measured by the popularity of the show on social media through comments on YouTube and Facebook that displayed the reactions and feelings of those who listened to this music, both locally and internationally (Monie, 2011). Specifically, with case of Coke Studio Pakistan, the show’s success has been associated with a change in Pakistan’s image.
An article by the Coca Cola company, ‘Music Transcends Everything’ talks about the positive effects the show has brought with it. Apart from the entertainment aspect of the show, “Coke Studio shines a positive spotlight on a country burdened by negative headlines” (Moye, 2013). With strong cultural influences on people all around the world, the show transformed the image of Pakistan significantly.
In terms of reception and recognition of the show, Coke Studio music was broadcast on many television channels and radio stations, which was then consumed by audiences both local and international. Some of the episodes including the ones with Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, both of whom are very prominent musical artists of the country, broke records on YouTube with over 100 million views (Daily Times, 2017). Rizwan Khan commenting on the breaking of these records stated that, “over the years it has driven the cultural leadership agenda of Pakistan, celebrating diversity while bridging barriers relevant to the youth of today” (Daily Times, 2017).
The digital age and social media platforms especially YouTube, Facebook, etc. have played a huge role in the success of this show and as a medium of reviving and bringing back the music culture of these countries. The imagined community (Anderson, 1983) that is created through the consumption of this shared culture is only possible through the online networks that are formed on these platforms. Moye (2013) stated in his article that the show Coke Studio had a very strong social media presence through which it was marketed. The success of the show that came from social media marketing can thus be attributed to the digital age that enabled this kind of widescale and convenient distribution. The show has a fan base in around 150 countries, which would have been unlikely without the advancements of new media technologies including YouTube, Soundcloud, etc. (The News, 2017).
Thus, even in the digital age, it is these advancements that are helping people to connect back to their cultures and their heritage through music. The digital age is not hindering the spread of culture, in this case, a new genre of music, on the other hand, it is contributing towards increasing the scope and value of this cultural element. One thing to note in relation to the success of Coke Studio is that it is a musical series produced by The Coca Cola Company, which is a major multinational corporation. Thus, while it may be true that the primary motive behind them sponsoring the show is to increase sales of Coca Cola and to help promote their products in large markets around the world, it does not necessarily indicate that the involvement of a big corporation in any way resists the spread of the culture that Coke Studio is known to bring with it.
In fact, the Coca Cola aspect of the show can be seen in a positive light, where rather than thinking about them as a commercial sponsor, it’s link to the show can be associated more with a feeling. For instance, Rizwan Khan related Coke’s tagline ‘Opening Happiness’ to the reactions Coke Studio in Pakistan received, (Moye, 2013) in the sense that, the show’s impact is focused more on the cultural value and feelings it holds amongst its audiences. As indicated in the beginning of the essay, Hall (1997) describes how culture holds a constitutive position is all aspects of social life today (p.208). Technological advancements in new media or the digital age does not diminish the importance of culture in the field of media and communications. In many cases, it makes the spread of culture through various forms of media much easier and far-reaching. Through the case study shown in this essay, it can be noticed that while a form of media (i.
e. Coke Studio) was responsible for bringing back the cultural heritage of traditional and popular music in Pakistan, it was the digital age that made the circulation and consumption of this culture accessible and consistent. No matter how much technology changes, this essay argues that culture continues to play an important role in media. As many scholars like Hall (1997) have emphasized on the significance of culture in the past, in the digital age as well, culture is still a relevant concept in media and communications today.