This review traces historians' use of the concept of popular culture, since its entry into the discipline in the 1970s. ‘Popular culture’ was initially loosely understood as the values, pleasures, and pastimes of the poor, and research in the field was heavily influenced by both Marxism and cultural anthropology. By the 1990s, earlier conceptions of popular culture appeared crudely reductionist, and heterogeneity, diversity, and ‘appropriation’ were firmly established as key terms and concerns for the historian of popular culture. But in the search for social and cultural complexity, the role of politics and the simple force of power and social inequality have been neglected. I argue here that wealth and power have long been key determinants shaping the character of popular cultural practice, and that their operation needs to be incorporated into our analyses. In this way, the study of popular culture offers the promise of research that is both of intrinsic interest and of broader historical significance.