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The term "trash culture" entered into common use from the '80s to indicate artistic or entertainment expressions considered of low cultural profile, and thus able to stimulate and attract the audiences.
It refers, as an adjective, to books, movies, TV shows, etc. being characterized by poor taste, vulgarity themes and subjects voluntary chosen and with self-satisfaction to attract the audience through what is shoddy, of low quality, and culturally impoverished.
As a noun, it can be referred to the spread of trash, the theorists of trash, TV trash, or trash sub-culture.
In this sense, trash culture is defined as the validation of the voyeuristic sight of the middle class which approaches the popular culture as style of consumption.
The concept of trash culture should not be confused or merged with the concept of "kitsch", even if the two are correlated. Kitsch is linked to art in a permanent way, but it is also a social phenomenon which establishes itself as a way of being: in Western society it is characterized by the limitation of the artist's space of creation. Kitsch is essentially multiplication and reachability. It is based on the consumeristic civilization which creates to produce, and produces to consume. It is a repetition whose consequence is a new activity in the relationship between man and environment: consumerism.
In this sense the concept of trash culture can be considered an evolution of the 19th-century concept of kitsch, a development of a consumeristic behavior that, at the beginning, was related to the lowest social classes. Now the phenomenon has embraced a wider range of classes, reaching the contemporary middle class and sometimes the high class. As kitsch was a social phenomenon that established itself as a way of being, so too trash culture can be defined, but in this one the aim of a continuous process of creation and consumption is the externalization and the accentuation of the self being, that can be expressed through the way of dressing, wearing accessories, and through the self social approach.
The popular culture that surrounds us in our daily lives bears a striking similarity to some of the great works of literature of the past. In television, movies, magazines, and advertisements we are exposed to many of the same stories as those critics who study the great books of Western literature, but we have simply been encouraged to look at those stories differently.
The great literature and cultural work of the past has been rewritten for today's consumer society, with supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer and celebrity gossip magazines like People serving as contemporary versions of the great dramatic tragedies of the past. Today's advertising repeats the tale of the Golden Age, but inverts the value system of a classic utopia; the shopping mall combines bits and pieces of the great garden styles of Western history, and now adds consumer goods; Playboy magazine revises Castiglione's Renaissance courtesy book, The Book of the Courtier; and Cosmopolitan magazine revises the women's coming-of-age novels of Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Edith Wharton.
When speaking about trash TV, the term is referred to a whole branch of TV production that tends to exaggerate and to take themes to an extreme level. The objective of this kind of entertainment is to hit the audience through frenzy, accumulation and the absence of any distinction. Trash TV is very often close to ridiculousness, and exaggerating is the key resource: it exaggerates quantities and proportions, the physical and the body dimensions.
The term "trash TV" entered into everyday language in the 80s, to indicate artistic expressions considered of low cultural profile, but able to stimulate an audience. Starting from the 80s, in fact, the private broadcasting channels started to be very spread, and this led to new marketing strategies, focused on the possibility of attracting a larger audience paying for more exclusive shows. Now, TV shows have to build up the brand of the TV station, creating content that cannot be found on the public channels or the competitors.
Probably, the most important and evident proof of how trash culture is affecting common people's tastes and preferences is laying on the spread of cheap richness as a way of self-expression and self-satisfaction.
Someone can be defined as a "cheap rich" if he/she is wearing ostentatiously certain kind of clothes, jewels or accessories. The aim of people dressed in this way is simply to become striking and to be showy, without considering the real value of the items worn. The key purpose of cheap richness is, in fact, to show eye-catching clothes and accessories that are not of considerable real value or quality, but they look like they were, thanks to golden and sparkling details. The cheap riches usually wear common fashion jewelry, but they display it as if they were wearing expensive and exclusive items. The same can be said for clothes. For example, it is common to associate furs with wealth and opulence, and therefore a person willing to look wealthy and rich is going to buy a fake fur and to wear it ostentatiously. The person cannot afford the expenditure for a real fur, but desperately wants to wear fur and to look like someone that could afford it.
We can find popular examples of cheap riches both in the African-American cultural tradition and in the white trash culture. Many VIPs are dressing themselves in ways that are easily reproducible in items of lower quality but equal prominence.
In African-American, hip-hop, and popular cultures, it is common to depict images of African-American rappers brandishing large, golden rings or necklaces, singing songs about themselves or others coming out of a difficult, "ghetto" situation and, afterwards, becoming wealthy because of their music.
Perceivably, the message for fans may be that they could also imitate wealthy individuals by the aposematic display of golden accessories - which may or may not be genuine - and might thereby attain some sense of conformity, interpersonal acceptance, enjoy social reciprocity; or even of conferring to themselves semblance of upward mobility.
This can indeed be appealing to a broad range of peoples over diverse geographical regions, cultures, classes, and linguistic spheres; in contradistinction to other contemporary styles whereby the wearer's aim is to "falsely appear" as though from a lower Socioeconomic status.
African-American rappers are not unique example of VIPs wearing clothes easily reproducible with poor quality items by cheap riches. The famous singer Madonna, for example, is being depicted as a trash artist, both in apparel and in behaviors since the 80s, when her career started.
Number 47, Fall 1996, pp. 57-72.