What America’s Pop Culture Says About the Nation Itself

A new permanent exhibition offers proof that popular entertainment can be more than just a diversion

a sleeveless tennis dress
Billie Jean King wore this dress when she beat Bobby Riggs, a former number-one male player, during the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes.” Gift of Billie Jean King / NMAH

The music of the great Sam Cooke has been the soundtrack to my life for as long as I can remember. From “Cupid” to “You Send Me,” his silky-smooth voice still brings me joy. But it was his powerful protest of Jim Crow segregation, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” released in 1964, that reveals pop culture’s ability to transcend the ephemeral. Music especially can transport us back in time and incisively define who we are. When Patti LaBelle performed Cooke’s song at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, it was a poignant reminder of how much had changed since its release—but also how much work remains.

The new permanent bilingual exhibition at the National Museum of American History, “Entertainment Nation/Nación del espectáculo,” opening December 9, will showcase many examples of television, film, theater, music and sports reflecting and shaping the nation’s identity. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” featured in one of the exhibition’s immersive multimedia experiences, will help visitors learn about 65 unofficial anthems serving different communities in the United States.

“Entertainment Nation” will rotate objects into the exhibition, demonstrating the way pop culture continually changes form while retaining its influence as a social change agent. Billie Jean King’s outfit worn during the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match signifies her decades of speaking out for equal opportunity, equal pay and LGBTQ rights. The powder blue dress recently worn by Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians showcases the first major Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993. And the team jacket worn by Ray Werner, a World War II veteran who helped develop wheelchair basketball, embodies the therapeutic power of sport.

Entertainment connects people, celebrates our shared humanity and provokes contemplation and conversation. “Entertainment Nation” and its companion website and book will delve into Reconstruction, the displacement of Indigenous peoples, civil rights and immigration, proving that what entertains us also defines us.

Perhaps the most powerful part of popular entertainment is its ability to inspire us not only to imagine, but also to create a better nation for ourselves.

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This article is a selection from the November/December issue of Smithsonian magazine