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Fortress of Solitude: The Power of Popular Culture

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem reflects the interracial nature of American popular culture and explores the power of popular culture to shape American lives through an exploration of music, art, and gentrification as a vector for cultural cross-pollination during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

In the most obvious and straightforward sense, Lethem illustrates the power of popular culture to shape American lives by designing characters who make a living through their artistic contributions to the cultural industry (to borrow a term from Theodor Adorno). The two most prominent examples are Dylan’s father Abraham Ebdus, who supports his family by producing cover art for science fiction novels, and Barrett Rude Jr., who had achieved moderate commercial success in the music industry with his band “The Subtle Distinctions”. Dylan himself eventually establishes a career writing liner notes. It could also be argued that because they were both named after famous musicians, the destinies of Dylan and Mingus were partially determined from birth.

Lethem depicts the interracial nature of popular culture through the characters’ involvement in graffiti art. Lethem uses Dylan’s involvement with the underground graffiti scene to symbolize the interaction between ‘white’ and ‘black’ artistic forms that characterized the second half of the twentieth century from the mainstream’s appropriation of rock n’ roll to the cultural phenomenon of the ‘wigger’ in the 1990s.

Lethem overtly typifies the cultures to which his characters belong based on the styles of music they prefer. Dylan’s cultural identity crisis is symbolized by musical genres—his classmates in high school and college listen to classic rock (and later punk), while his black friends are immersed in the subcultures of R and B, funk, and later hip-hop. Lethem seems to use Dylan himself to symbolize the cultural hybridization that was emerging during the 70s and 80s—when Dylan began producing his own music as a DJ for UC Berkeley’s radio station, he encapsulated a mixture of the different styles he had been exposed to throughout his life.

The full extent of popular culture’s overwhelming power can be understood through its capacity to co-opt and commoditize forms of art that were originally intended to be subversive activities against its hegemony. This process of cultural commodification consumes both ‘black’ and ‘white’ cultural forms—hip hop and punk were both originally subversive rejections of power and the status quo, but both would eventually become fully commercial genres.

Some art forms are more difficult to commoditize than others—the visual avant-garde, for instance, is traditionally an intellectual ‘high-brow’ form of art that isn’t easily accessible by the masses. Because it could not be commercialized, Dylan’s father was never able to make a living off of it and was forced to produce ‘pop art’ instead. This is another mechanism through which popular culture can dictate the course of someone’s life and career in America—Dylan’s father was forced to give up his true passion in order to accommodate the demands of the culture industry.

Adorno had been attempting to warn Americans about the long-term effects of commoditizing our culture since the 1950s, but he fell out of favor within the academic community for being overly pessimistic, not proposing any viable solutions, and refusing to embrace the ‘post-modern turn’ that began to sweep the social sciences during the decades in which the plot of the book is set. However, if we continue to commoditize our culture, and ultimately our lives in service of the economy, we are merely digging ourselves a deeper hole. When the day comes that we find the resolve to say, “enough is enough,” it will be that much harder to recover what we’ve lost.