No One Is To Blame For Pop Culture

By  · Published on May 27th, 2015

There’s no way to write this article without sounding like a stuffy antique who delights in polishing his monocle while listening to obscure, 15th century Slovak orchestral music, but here goes.

Last weekend, my wife and I watched the Eurovision competition in a gay bar in Amsterdam. For those not familiar with the majestic wonder of Eurovision (read: some Americans), it’s a half-century-old song competition that’s part American Idol, part carnival show. The sets are elaborate, and several acts are as campy as a John Waters flick, but what struck me most about this year’s competition was that almost every song in the final sounded the same. Same key signatures, same chord structures, same generically near-idiotic lyrics, same forgettable qualities. The message is clear: there’s a formula to winning this contest.

Which makes sense. The competition involves several dozen countries voting on favorites, which means that your song/singer has to appeal strongly to a diverse group of people, which means that it has a narrow field to operate in.

As the most-watched non-sporting event on the planet, the competition draws a lot of money and a lot of cultural handwringing after the fact, but it’s the perfect encapsulation of pop culture as product. It’s also the perfect transmitter for an important message.

That message? No one is to blame for pop culture.

There are three recent developments that bolster, challenge and desperately call for that fact to be repeated.

The first is Simon Pegg’s recent comment about science fiction and the dumbing down of culture.

Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon.

Pegg spoke eloquently, lovingly and bittersweetly about his appreciation for childish things as a response to the defensive response to his initial, flippant interview answer. Somehow, people thought Pegg was tearing off the hand that fed him and possibly lamenting an entire career spent fueling the beast of popular sci-fi.

Yet as a fan, his perspective is easy to sympathize with. Especially if your tastes go beyond those “evolved” kiddie toys. A massive chunk of intellect, time, money and sweat equity are spent in the service of adults looking for their youth, and there’s no reason to get up in arms about that. Pop culture goes in waves. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes it’s terrible and gives rise to counter culture that’s great. So it goes.

When attempting to create something for as broad an audience as possible, the laws of thermodynamics demand that sacrifices be made for that popularity. If Audience A will laugh loudest at Joke A, Audience B won’t get it at all, but both will find Joke Z decently funny, you can guess which joke will make the cut.

“The People” – a disembodied monster that decides what is the biggest thing at any given time – is something far outside our individual control. Quality and popularity are neither mutually inclusive or exclusive, but the stupdification of “The People” isn’t something to worry about either. Like all crowds, “The People” has always been pretty stupid to begin with.

In fact, it’s rare to find an art form that has thrived, at the same time, in its most technically challenging form and as the most popular art of its era. The Dutch Masters and jazz both come to mind, but they are outliers. “The People,” for the most part, has always loved bread and circuses.

Here with the rebuttal is writer and playwright Monica Byrne, who had a culture column at Wired for about ten minutes. After authoring a piece on the Hugo Award debacle this year, a representative from Wired urged her to continue pitching them with ideas, suggesting that she get a regular column, so she did.

I wrote to the editor, ‘Boyhood or the new Avengers movie? I could give a shit. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night or Crumbs? Yes, please. And it’s not even that I’m actively boycotting the former. It’s that I just don’t care. They coast on the assumption that these are stories that matter to everyone; they don’t. I think it’s important to say that, repeatedly, out loud, and point to alternatives, until the alternatives become a new mainstream that reflects the actual world.’

Now, the pitch topics she tossed toward her editor – tying Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” to Ferguson, the potential irrelevancy of an American theater industry that ignores non-white productions – don’t seem immediately up Wired’s alley (there are no robots at all!), but that’s part of the larger point that she makes with her article. Perhaps she pitched the wrong specific concepts, but it also seems difficult to imagine that Wired (a theoretically future-looking publication) would stray too far from their designated lane. When it comes to culture, they aren’t a thought leader so much as a follower of “The People,” just like almost every other publication (including this one).

Which gets to the heart of why popular culture is genuinely problematic. If we live in a cycle where popularity begets more popularity, it becomes difficult for anything interesting or different to rise above the fray to become well-known. Here’s where the third element comes in, and it’s more than a little inside baseball, so hang tight.

The dirty truth about sites like ours – just about every outlet out there – is that we have to write about the things you tell us to write about. More accurately, we have to write about the things “The People” tells us to write about. Majority rule has become the key to everything, and even then, it’s a struggle to get eyes on your particular perspective. Sometimes we get to lead a small, dedicated band toward a shiny new discovery outside the gaze of the greater populace. That’s what we save the champagne for.

That’s also why it’s frustrating to see hundreds (no exaggeration) of budding culture sites doing copy pasta from Twitter and considering the day’s work done. On a large scale, nothing is being added. No thought. No commentary. Raw, sometimes incorrect, data regurgitated and shared at the speed of an urban legend, rendering the time it takes to digest and consider and communicate an untenable burden. Even some established cultural critics have resigned themselves to create content by quoting giant passages from other editorials, adding 100 words of praise or condemnation and pressing Publish.

It’s tough to truly blame Wired for not picking up what Byrne was putting down, but it’s also unfortunate that online editions of established magazines won’t branch out more. If there were ever outlets that are in a position to help shape culture in a different way, it’s them. Smaller and mid-sized publications like us are battling for every pageview while trying not to feel suicidal when our Ex Machina thinkpiece earns 1/1000th of the traffic a blurry, context-less set photo of The Joker gets. (We try not to even think about our retrospective on Rio Bravo getting 1/1000th of the Ex Machina thinkpiece’s traffic).

That’s not to say that I’m not over the damned moon to cover the fun parts of cinema. That’s the whole point, really. I love stupidification, too, and it’s okay to love The Avengers and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Tokyo Story and Toy Story. It’s the imbalance – not the mere popularity of broad genre projects, but the shouting down of a wider range of topics when, shhh, the superheroes are fighting – that makes me pump my fist in agreement with Pegg. That includes his initial comments.

I have no idea if we’re getting dumber because of the movies that have grown to enormous popularity in the past few decades. I highly, highly doubt it.

However, I recognize that it used to be easier to have conversations about all sorts of movies, old and new. Even online. It used to be easier to let the blockbusters pay for the low budget experimental work. It used to be easier to justify spending time researching, reflecting and writing an article on the question of privilege in Blue Jasmine because the Iron Man 3 trailer post’s traffic would cover its cost. It’s an unfortunate truth, but it’s also 1) not permanent and 2) not the end of the world.

Plus, we’re all doing really well from a cultural standpoint, even as certain perspectives and styles aren’t in high demand. Interesting movies are being made all the time, old movies are still at our fingertips for discovering and re-discovering. Those who want variety, or a challenge, can get it lightning fast. I don’t know how “The People” is doing, but I have no real complaints about my cinematic diet.

So, even though we seem to be culturally focused on a single style of storytelling right now, and every Eurovision song sounds the same, no one is to blame for pop culture. “The People” is, there’s nothing we can do about that, and we’re going to be just fine.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.