Two of my colleagues at the college newspaper I write for submitted articles this week that both posit and argue the same point: that popular culture is swallowing itself whole, there is nothing good out anymore, and that we are all doomed to a life in a world with mediocrity as the status quo for entertainment. Reading both of these, I couldn’t help but give my opinion on the subject. In many regards, they are both right. Mainstream television is abysmal. Think of the number of crime dramas, courtroom dramas, and medical dramas. Hell, even The Office, which was groundbreaking in its time as a fake documentary-style comedy, has its sister show Parks & Recreation on NBC, as well as the middling knock-off Modern Family on ABC.
And then there’s reality television. Good God, do I despise reality television. It was cute back in 2001 when everyone was saying shows like Big Brother and Survivor fulfilled Andy Warhol’s promise that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes in the future. However, this notion has gotten swallowed whole by two factors:
1. It has become disturbing. Upping the ante in competitive shows has turned into a disgusting variation of wondering just how far one will go to be on television. We have seen people subject to humiliation, stress, and even physical pain on reality programming, all in the name of making captivating television.
2. These shows are cheap as Hell to produce. With a cast of unknowns and simple premises, shows like these are much cheaper than standard narrative-driven programs.
One of my old band-mates said to me, “The fact that we celebrate Paris Hilton is more than enough reason to understand why people overseas want to kill us.” It’s a bit hyperbolic to say our veneration of these coked-out poor little rich girls (to make another reference to Warhol and his entourage) is the cause for Al-Qaeda, but it can’t be helping our image abroad.
As we know it, mainstream cinema is dying, but only because the industry is going with the safe option, regularly and consistently. I cannot emphasize enough that this applies to MAINSTREAM movies. I liked Inception, but I didn’t love it. I would have much rather seen a two-hour exploration of the main crew invading people’s dreams. Unfortunately, it quickly shifted gears into a surrealistic James Bond movie. While engaging, it could have been better. Every week, I read news stories about the major studios giving the green light to projects that are sequels, prequels, adaptations of television programs, re-imaginings (whatever that means), and the so-called “gritty reboot.”
For the last, consider the size and success of the Spiderman films with Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. Somehow, somewhere, a high-ranking executive proposed that the world has changed so much since 2007, the year of the third (and final) Spiderman film, that the world needs a gritty reboot. A film project based off of the board game Monopoly is on its way. How much longer until audiences are clamoring to catch Backgammon: The Movie on opening night, in 3-D? It’s not that there is a shortage of fine ideas, far from it. Rather, it has to do with the massive increase in production costs. The studios can’t afford to throw tens of millions of dollars into a project that doesn’t break even – and even the “hits” can barely do this now. That is why 3-D cinema has been forced upon us: if you’re paying 50 percent more for a movie ticket, this increases revenue. Why take a potential risk when the guaranteed hits earn so large? The movie industry is fighting a war on another front with regards to piracy, putting a gaping hole in the hull of their titanic enterprise.
Another medium constantly under assault, and just as prone to piracy, is popular music. I cannot tell you the number times I’ve watched a vintage clip of The Kinks, The Beatles, or other “classic” artists on YouTube only to see the top rated comments are from people saying something to this effect: “I was born in the wrong decade! All we have today is Lady Gaga! There will never be another Beatles.” I’ve also heard too many old farts bemoan how nothing has been good since such-and-such year, that there’s nothing good out today, and so on and so forth.
If you’re only listening to the radio, you might be right. A lot of what is being crammed into our ears sounds the same. Most, if not all of it, is highly derivative. However, consider that people in very high places in the world of music journalism – they shall remain nameless – have been known to fire writers who give negative reviews to concerts or albums. It has more to do with Mr. Editor being pals with Mr. Record Executive, who in turn is friends with Mr. Radio Programmer. To call it a conspiracy is too much. To call it payola is dead-on.
The industry is set up so that there never will be another Frank Zappa. Someone like him would be dropped by a big-name label after the inevitable flop of their first album. Bob Dylan almost suffered the same fate in 1962 after his debut tanked. Thankfully, an open-minded producer pulled for the label to give him a second chance. The result was The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the first in a consecutive string of albums that turned the world of popular song on its head. As for there never being another Beatles: that is correct. There will not be another Beatles. The listening public is far too diverse now to embrace any single entity.
The only counter I can offer to the argument that we are living in a cultural desert and that society reached its peak sometime during my parents’ lifetime is a simple retort: no, it’s not.
Those in the entertainment business are only interested in the latter word. They don’t want anything challenging, they want what is guaranteed to sell. We as a public aren’t without options. Word of mouth is the best way to discover new music. Befriend the clerks at your friendly neighborhood record store – assuming those still exist where you live. Go to live shows, and instead of chatting through the opening act, listen. There’s a reason your favorite singer tapped someone completely unknown to you to come on before them. Go to smaller venues, too; it’s places like Otto’s Shrunken Head and the Issue Project Room where artists who are in it for their art rather than commerce can be found, playing like their lives depend on it.
The same can be said for film – go to the indie theaters. When possible, view student projects. As for television, I avoid it for the most part. I stand by Groucho Marx’s quote: “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” Yes, I have my favorites, but I don’t own a set. I watch shows online – legally – and am thankful that I don’t have the distraction of television in my life.
And for the record, all I can say is I can only embrace someone like Lady Gaga. Our society needs someone to shock us. Gaga is merely the latest entry in a fine lineage that includes Igor Stravinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Miller, The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Johnny Rotten, Prince, 2 Live Crew, and Marilyn Manson as an entity who shake the public out of its complacency. Not only that, she’s a damn fine artist, just like her predecessors. The best and most memorable art provokes and shocks.