Pekka Kolehmainen: “Culture Wars Were Waged in the United States through Rock”


PhD Pekka Kolehmainen discusses cultural wars as political activity.

“Culture wars are often defined as major conflicts concerning the common norms of a cultural community or an imaginary community. For instance, in the discussions on abortion, rights of sexual minorities, and racial issues, the gaps dividing the sides are becoming ever wider. The fundamental question of all these discussions is who we are and who we should be.

In my dissertation, I define the culture wars as political activity in which the participants give meaning to their own actions and those of their imaginary opponents. The primary question of my dissertation is how political communication in the United States of the 80s and 90s capitalised on the meaning-making practices of popular culture. From the perspective of the culture wars, I study the use of rock music references as a tool when discussing larger matters.

In the Reagan Era, the conservatives glorified entrepreneurial individualism, but at the same time it was feared that it would also lead to alienation and the deterioration of communities. For conservatives, rock music served as a means to discuss these themes, as it provided an example of bad individualism. At the same time, for liberals, rock represented a legacy of the 1960s. For them, questions on the mainstreaming and commercialisation of the 60s radicalism were crystallised in rock.

In the ambience of the culture wars, the conservatives began to build a rhetoric in which they were a silenced minority. This way of thinking has continued to grow and it also creeps into our conversations in European settings.

Today, having a political debate through rock would not be feasible, as rock no longer evokes the same emotional fire as it did in the 80s and 90s.

Antifeminism, in which everything is connected to either real or imaginary feminism, could be considered a universal metaphor for the contemporary culture wars. Such debates serve as environments in which culture wars continue on the axis of feminism–antifeminism.

In order to close such gaps, I think we should strive to break the bloc mentality and refuse to use readily adopted rhetorical constructs. One should be more aware of the words and concepts that might bring hidden meanings into discussions. Especially in the media, the interpretations often pass along in the background. At the consumer level, improved media literacy and critical thinking is required.

We should stop and ask who is communicating with us and why they are doing so.”

Pekka Kolehmainen defended his dissertation in Cultural History in November 2021. He has also worked as a researcher and teacher at the John Morton Center for North American Studies.

Department of Cultural History celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Text: Minna Nerg
Photo: Hanna Oksanen
Translation: Jatta Koivumäki

Created 16.06.2022 | Updated 16.06.2022