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The tendency for alien civilizations (and sometimes futuristic human civilizations) to be portrayed as having no native analog of contemporary popular culture, even when it would make sense for an advanced planetary or interplanetary civilization to have some kind of mass media and entertainment to go with it. Sometimes this can be due to The Law of Conservation of Detail, but frequently these cultures are exquisitely detailed: the creator of The Verse has written a rich, deep, complex culture with its own religions and traditions...but what do people do for fun?
In practice, this means that while Klingons have their own culture complete with Proud Warrior RaceSpace-Jesus and Vulcans have their Proud Scholar Race Space-Socrates, there's no alien equivalent of The Simpsons or The Three Stooges. These rich, detailed cultures, spread over dozens of planets and actively exploring the galaxy, seemingly have no literature that isn't ancient and part of their mythology. They have no comics, films, newspapers, novels, pop music, fashion designers, or the like; only epics, myths, legends, sacred scrolls and ancient tomes. Frequently, the entirety of an alien culture is equated with its religious mythology and traditions, completely excluding the existence of a secular mass media (as well as multiple religions among the race or atheism). This leads alien characters to interpret human popular culture along religious lines, for example when G'Kar in Babylon 5 asks if Daffy Duck is one of Garibaldi's household gods.
If an alien culture is explicitly detailed as being rooted in its theology, extremely isolated and/or controlled by an authoritarian government (and these are almost always examples of planetarymonocultures, sometimes in cultural stasis), this may be justified. Indeed, this can be seen in Real Life in totalitarian states like North Korea and Khmer Rouge-era Cambodia, where the media is dedicated almost entirely to promoting national mythology and propaganda. It is a mystery, however, as to how a civilization can purposefully develop starships and faster-than-light communications (and presumably print, radio and the technology for visual broadcasts) without also developing, at least by accident, a mass media independent of their ancient traditions for entertainment purposes.
Sometimes it is justified by high culture being the sort of thing that gets noticed sooner by outsiders, or that the aliens are on their best behavior when in diplomatic situations. After all, when works by one culture are translated to another on Earth they usually give a misleading picture: more people know about Homer than Aristophanes, and the Byzantines did do more for entertainment than making glorious mosaics. Imagine an alien judging our culture having only knowledge of the "Great Books" of the Western Canon without Family Guy or The Simpsons, the New York Times Best Sellers List, or even The Internet.
When this trope is in effect, an alien Cultural Rebel may find that when Klingon scientists get no respect, Earth becomes the general direction of interstellar brain-drain.
NOTE that this trope, common to Space Opera films and television, is usually remedied in Expanded Universe material like novels and comics which attempt to show more realistically diverse alien cultures. Also note that while this trope also covers futuristic human societies, it should not overlap with Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions, which is a separate trope. Please limit examples to aversions, subversions, and instances in which the trope is sufficiently played around with to warrant mention. Finally, note that instances in which aliens assimilatepopular culture from Earth are not true aversions, but this trope being in effect is what makes Earth pop culture so irresistible to E.T. in those cases.
Sub-Trope of Aliens Never Invented the Wheel.
Aversions, Subversions, and Not-So-Straight Examples:
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Anime & Manga
Robotech/Macross has an interesting example. There's an aversion with the future human society, since they still have pop stars and things like that (they're only Twenty Minutes into the Future). But the invading Zentraedi don't have anything like that; they are an entirely militaristic society. In fact, this becomes a plot point later on. The Zentraedi, having never been exposed to singing or anything like it, are rendered stupefied by a recording of a singing pop star. The humans actually seize on this and use it as a tactic in battle, making the pop star both a weapon and a morale booster.
A plot point in Haiyore! Nyarko-san, where pop culture is explicitly humanity's hat. The aliens have their own pop culture... its just that our unique attribute and advantage is that we produce so much more of such greater quality.
Nexus, by Mike Baron and Steve Rude, is an enormous aversion. We see alien rock bands, alien hilariators (the futuristic term for comedians), etc. Of course, there's a high degree of cultural integration among the various sapient species of the Nexus 'verse, especially on the moon of Ylum, populated as it is by refugees from all over the galaxy, where much of the story is set, so alien pop culture and human pop culture are frequently not really separate; Mezzrow's band, for example, has a human member and is extremely popular on earth.
Films — Animation
Interstella 5555 features a race of aliens with its own pop band, who are kidnapped and disguised as humans so they can be "the next big thing."
The Glatun and the Rangora, two alien species from John Ringo's Troy Rising series, have rich pop-cultures that include popular music, trash literature, movies and so on (the Glatun even have the same sort of advertising spam we get on their computer networks). The Horvath, on the other hand, are portrayed as being unimaginative to the point that their lack of a popular culture is justified: they're simply not creative enough to have developed one.
The Star Trek Novel Verse tends to avert this, for all that the TV series tended to play it straight. For example, the novel A Singular Destiny features a character owning a large collection of novels and comics (or equivalent) from Klingon popular culture — most of these had been introduced in earlier novels, only to be collected together here for Continuity Porn. In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Relaunch, a popular joke involves the crew of Defiant all reading their way through a melodramatic Klingon novel, and the same series introduced a Bajoran children's educational series, The Adventures of Lin Marna. Meanwhile, in Star Trek: Klingon Empire mention is frequently made of the Narm Charm found in the politically-charged animated series Battlecruiser Vengeance. In one novel, Ezri Dax is distracted by her memories of a Trill nursery rhyme.
Despite taking place either on Earth or in a space military setting, the main Animorphs series manages to avert the trope, at least for the Andalites. In internal monologues Ax mentions musical forms from his homeworld (and that he hates Earth's), and that people who can morph in creative ways (making themselves into Winged Humanoids when morphing birds and so on) are bona fide performance artists.
The Yeerks however, are a straight example. When Edriss fist arrives on Earth and scans the planet, she is mystified by the enormous amount of non-military communication humans transmit, and initially takes it to mean that we are some kind of juggernaut.
Star Wars Expanded Universe: The Essential Guide to Alien Species details Rodian theatre, which started as little more than staged fights to redirect the Rodians' Proud Warrior Race Guy tendencies away from hunting each other into extinction, but eventually evolved actual story.
The novel Shadow Games is about Dash Rendar acting as bodyguard to a galactic pop star.
The Tendu in The Color Of Distance have qabirri, a kind of storytelling dance art form. They're encouraged to interpret and portray specific qabirri in different ways, incorporating new imagery sometimes. It's noted that the culture is stagnating though - new qabirri are rarely composed and those are more rarely performed, because they're not the classics.
The colonies of Man in the 2000's Battlestar Galactica have pop music and indications of different subcultures. They also have sports, card games, nude magazines and novels that have nothing to do with the Sacred Scrolls.
Subverted even further in the prequel series Caprica, where various colonial subcultures (V-World, the Ha'la'tha, the Monotheists) were shown in great detail. 58 years before before the Fall, Caprican society was like our world now but on hyperdrive. Holobands were a good example of a realistic treatment of a fictional commercial application of virtual reality, though not without their critics.
The Minbari in nearly count as a straight example, but that's because outside of the Religious Caste, we know nothing about Minbari culture. However, most of the Minbari we got to know were either Religious or Warrior Caste, so the largely unseen Worker Caste may have their own separate cultural roots. Also, Minbari humor (not specifically Religious caste humor) is said to be based around failure to attain spiritual enlightenment (and puns). It's worth pointing out that because of the long-standing tension between the Warrior and Religious Castes, the Warrior Caste probably doesn't take things like myth and prophecy too seriously, and several episodes indicate they have a more secular outlook, though still obviously influenced by the few shared Minbari values (collectivism, sacrifice, honor) that cut across caste lines.
The alien parents in "Believers" appear to come from a planet like this. Somewhat justified as it's specifically mentioned their planet is backward and isolated and their contact with aliens is limited. They're not even members of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds.
The Centauri and Narns both have musical theater. Whether they developed independently or one influenced the other is never elaborated upon, however.
When a human boy raised by Talarians is on the Enterprise, Picard walks into his room to find him listening to what sounds like a death metal band doing the sound effects for an iron foundry, played at eardrum-piercing levels. It is, apparently, the latest thing among Talarian teenagers.
The infamous Klingon operas, which come up frequently since TNG. Some are suspiciously similar to conventional, Human operas, others are... special.
Specifically averted in the episode "First Contact", when the Enterprise (as the title implies) visits some aliens as part of a First Contact scenario. Less interesting than most aversions, since we never get to see any examples.
Troi: One of the things we do is monitor broadcast signals. We listen to your journalism, your music, your humor...try to understand you better as a people.
Alien scientist:[faintly embarrassed] I hate to think how you would judge us, based on our popular music and entertainment.
The Ferengi are the mercantile traders of the galaxy, so naturally they come stocked with holonovels like Vulcan Love Slave and other gems of the 24th-Century entertainment complex. Their children also collect action figures presumably based on a popular culture franchise, Marauder Mo (TM).
Cardassian "enigma tales" (detective stories) get mentioned a couple of times. One episode also features Bashir and Garak having a debate about the virtues of the Cardassian "repetitive epic", a type of story in which the essential plot is repeated several times over in order to drive home a point. In this case, service to the state above the self, which becomes something of a theme with both characters as the show goes on.
In one episode, mention is made of a Breen lullaby. With nonsensical but catchy lyrics, apparently.
Another episode features a children's edutainment franchise built around a character called Flotter T. Water, with Naomi Wildmon having a holodeck story in the setting. Janeway mentions that she also loved the character as a child, establishing it as a long-running series.
In Interstellar Wars it is specifically stated that there is an aristocratic Vilani culture and a commoner Vilani culture.
Aslan have a fancy for decorated weapons and elaborate epics. They also have insult contests, bragging contests, and tall-tale contests. Recreational dueling (which often requires a ritual insult that the recipient pretends to be offended at) can be either an Aslan high culture or a pop culture depending on how the GM presents it. However their Proud Warrior Race ethos makes them one of the straighter examples.
Of the Major Races Humans, Aslan, Vargr and possibly K'kree are really the only ones to which this trope could apply. Hivers and Droyne are Starfish Aliens so it is hard to say what would be high culture and what would be pop culture among them. Among the Hivers the "topical clubs" might count as pop culture.
There are many mentions of Imperial pop culture, including the popular if historically inaccurate holo series Attack Run, the children's song The Tracks on the Land Raider Crush the Heretics, and Pyrus the Flame from an edutainment book on promethium.
Never any mention of alien pop culture, but that's because no Imperial citizen cares what the filthy xenos do with their free time, and the ones that do are filthy heretics that need to be burned with extreme prejudice.
The Eldar Harlequins do plays on the fall of the Eldar Empire. Really, really intense plays.
Gav Thorpe's Eldar trilogy, in addition to the aforementioned Harlequin performances, show that the civilian populace of the Eldar spend most of their time making and enjoying art, whether it be painting, sculpture, or drama. This is to keep them busy with worthwhile pursuits and prevent them from descending into hedonism again.
Part of the background of the Teenagers from Outer Space role-playing game is that Earth has the best pop culture in the galaxy. There may be some pop culture put out by alien races, but it's our Hat and the reason all the aliens have come to Earth.
While BattleTech strictly speaking has no aliens as such, the Clans as the next best thing that does exist seem to play this trope pretty straight. This is another way in which they contrast with the Successor States, where contemporary pop bands and imported soap operas can be found even in such restrictive regimes like the Draconis Combine or Capellan Confederation, and the possibility of the Clans' lower castes becoming 'infected' with Inner Sphere cultural mores if allowed similar access has been brought up on both sides of the fence (with the Clan leadership naturally viewing it as a threat and at least one shrewd Kurita business magnate considering it a possible opportunity).
Averted with Transhuman Space. Every third sidebar covers pop culture elements from 2100.
Mass Effect has some popular alien films, but most of them are relatively recent. Examples include Fleet and Flotilla and Blasto: The Jellyfish Stings (although that sounds more like a human production than a hanar one). Several alien video games are mentioned as well, such as Galaxy of Fantasy, which was based on turian mythology.
Other forms of art come up in passing, including a recurring feature on Cerberus Daily News recounting the latest box-office hits and bombs. Apparently salarian horror is cerebral and fourth-wall-breaking, asari make lots of romance flicks, and nobody likes krogan war epics (except krogan, who see them as comedies). Also, it turns out that the Blasto movies are a multispecies production, run by a salarian. Presumably they're in it for the money, since there's no artistic integrity to be found. Even plays are still around; an advertisement in the first game mentions a production of Hamlet with an all-elcor cast (as elcor communicate emotion primarily through pheromones and incredibly subtle gestures that other species miss instead of speech, the director wanted the audience to judge Hamlet by his actions, not his emotions). It appears in another ad in the second game, with a length of fourteen hours. In the Citadel DLC of the third game, you can have a brief conversation with the director; the play's massive success has led him to consider other cross-species productions, such as krogan Macbeth.
The game even mentions the side effects of this. One planet you can scan in the first game is mentioned as looking grim and desolate enough to serve as a filming location for Starless, a gothic horror film which became a classic of the genre. As the planet's atmosphere is near-vacuum, the sets are perfectly preserved and a popular tourist destination.
Fast-talking Salarian scientist Dr Mordin Solus is surprisingly involved in cultural life - he has a penchant for Gilbert and Sullivan, having sung Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and the Lord High Chancellor in Iolanthe, but has also played Polonius in Hamlet and appeared on several TV programmes, including an edutainment childrens' show (he set the hosting hand puppet on fire).
The X-Universe averts it, although you'll miss it if you're not paying attention to flavor text on some of the Fetch Quests. Various junk carried by NPCs also points to a stealthy aversion.
Civilization 5: Brave New World does this to cultural victories. You can create works of art, but they tend to be the widely accepted works of literary canon, classical music and art. While the dialogue for cultural dominance of another civilization does mention pop culture, not a scrap of it can be found. Strangely, there is also no abstract art. Make of that what you will.
The What A Cartoon! short Captain Buzz Cheepley features a space captain coming across a planet whose civilization revolves entirely around television and beer. They essentially have nothing but entertainment and leisure (not even buildings, apparently).
Capt. Buzz:"Beer, television, beer, television, beer, television, be— I gotta get out of this planet!"