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Pop Culture Armageddon
Is anyone watching this crap?
While the implosion of each of America’s culture industries may look different up close, it is not hard to see the common factors at work. These range from the consolidation of once-thriving industries and the monopolisation of distribution channels to the stamping-out of competition, the ongoing detachment of monopolistic conglomerates from their audiences and the pursuit of lowest-common-denominator blockbusters to pay for the resulting losses. As America’s culture industries have decayed into anti-competitive, risk-averse monopolists, they have imposed layers upon layers of mind-numbing and increasingly politicised bureaucracy on their productions that make real creativity all but impossible. Looming above all these developments is the threat of push-button culture-production driven by AI, whereby studio executives can fulfil their dystopian dreams of licensing the likenesses of dead actors and actresses and feeding them into software owned by tech conglomerates. This would dispense with the need to negotiate for the services of pesky writers, directors and actors, along with Hollywood’s century-old hodge-podge of unionised guilds.
That’s what the strikers are fighting against. And from a distance, it is easy to wish them good luck. As a consumer, though, it is easier to wish that a giant fault-line might open up beneath Los Angeles and swallow the creators of endless hours of unpalatable dreck along with their bosses at Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google, and other industry giants which, as their names indicate, are no longer entertainment companies but tech companies, pursuing the filmed entertainment business as a sideline to their insanely profitable monopolies.
Among the other things that Hollywood’s new industry leaders have in common is that they produce oodles of stuff that nobody seems to be watching. In the second quarter of last year alone, Netflix lost 1.3 million subscribers in the US and Canada, while earning a total of $4.3 billion on the year. Yet even that relatively modest net profit is deceptive, since Netflix amortises its content over a period of four to five years, while spending close to $20 billion each year on new productions. In reality, then, the company is burning cash in the hopes of a future profit while losing subscribers, a business model that is clearly headed for the rocks. When Hollywood writers and actors demand their “fair share of the profits”, they might think twice about what it is they are asking for.
The dirty secret of the Hollywood strike, then, is that no one is making money. How did that happen? The short answer is that Americans have stopped going to the movies. In 2022, movie theatres sold more than 800 million tickets – nearly twice the number sold in 2021, but less than two-thirds the number sold in 2019, before Covid. In 2002, movie theatres sold nearly 1.6 billion tickets, or nearly twice the current number. These numbers are even more depressing when one considers that, prior to the dual release of Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s less exceptional woke doll movie, Barbie, this summer’s two biggest box office attractions were the latest Raiders of the Lost Ark movie starring a now 81-year-old, digitally-enhanced Harrison Ford, and the new Mission: Impossible, starring Tom Cruise, each the 7th sequel in a series.
Similar declines can be seen throughout the American culture industries. Total album sales in the recording business 2001 were 762.8 million. In 2022, the recording industry sold 100 million albums, in all formats. Besides Swift, who as a 17-year industry veteran is a comparatively fresh face, the acts who make money touring overwhelmingly made their reputations many decades ago, when the industry was still healthy enough to create stars such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. Revenue from periodical publishing, whether in print or online, declined from $40.2 billion in 2002 to $23.9 billion in 2022 –— a loss in raw dollars of almost 50%. Factoring in inflation, those numbers are again much worse.
Innovation-wise, the last great American pop culture decade was the Nineties — the last decade of the century that saw America’s rise to global pop culture pre-eminence. In television, the Nineties were book-ended by The Simpsons (1989), which kicked off a surge in witty, prime-time animation, and The Sopranos (1999), which ushered in quality scripted cable television. There was plenty of fare such as Dawson’s Creek (1998) available, too. In Hollywood, the Nineties was decade of indie studios such as Miramax, and birthed the world-class writers and directors Stephen Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino along with stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon. Alternative rock birthed dozens of highly creative and financially successful new acts, from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani, while rap music reached new creative and commercial heights with Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. The last two American literary fiction writers who have attracted any real critical attention, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, made their debuts in 1987 and 1988, respectively.
So what accounts for America’s pop cultural collapse? The short answer is digital technology, which led directly or indirectly to monopolistic stagnation in every one of America’s culture industries in response to disruptions of prior business models.
If Barbie were simply the feminist screed some of its critics are taking it for, it would be a failure — an interesting, pretty failure, to be sure, but a failure all the same. If this assessment were correct, then the fact that Ken, upon returning to Barbieland, makes it into a patriarchy to which all of its Barbies instantly submit would represent an inadvertently more compelling and potent satire than the vision Barbie appears to offer in its stead. A kind of shallow Yas-Queening comes to reign again in Barbieland by the movie’s conclusion, with the Kens only slightly better off, and the Barbies still in charge after Robbie’s Barbie, with the help of some real-life humans, breaks their patriarchal false consciousness.
But this interpretation fails to account for so much that it is surely mistaken. For one, the real world is not represented as quite the patriarchy Ken, with his superficial Barbieland brain, makes it out to be. After an initial montage (mantage?) that marks his realization of the patriarchy, Ken is rebuffed in all of his attempts to join the male hierarchy that purportedly dominates the world. He must return to Barbieland to institute it; what he institutes there is so shallow that it collapses almost as quickly as it is set up. Meanwhile, though Robbie’s Barbie restores female dominance in Barbieland, she chooses not to stay there, electing instead to become fully human. What it all appears to suggest is that Barbieland is not merely a superficial construct but an entirely satirical one: a kind of post-feminist satire of what feminists imagine a perfect world looking like and of what they imagine male dominance is like. Plato had a city in speech; Gerwig has given us a city in plastic.
The scenes in reality, and involving humans, are of much greater import than those set in Barbieland. It is two humans, mother Gloria (America Ferrera) and daughter Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), who anchor the film. This is familiar territory for Gerwig, whose Ladybird has a similarly complicated mother–daughter relationship. It is Gloria’s revelation of, and reveling in, the complications of real life that help to bring her daughter away from the crass cynicism in which she had been mired. And it is this embrace of reality, in all of its complications, transcending facile theorizing, that the film endorses. One sees this in Gloria’s late-movie monologue, and in the realization by Mattel’s corporate board that a “reality Barbie” would sell like hotcakes. It is especially evident in Stereotypical Barbie’s decision to become human (a clever bookend to the 2001: A Space Odyssey reference that opens the film), with all its concomitant messiness.
This is a bold claim. And one not without problems of its own. One male human character in our world might seem to counter the idea that Barbie means to complicate our appraisal of reality with his assertion that a patriarchy still exists, but we’ve just gotten better at hiding it. It also requires accepting entire portions of the movie — Helen Mirren’s arch narration, almost everything that happens in Barbieland — as satirical. And it places upon the slender, plastic shoulders of a toy doll many layers of irony and complexity, perhaps more than they can reasonably bear. But detractors have a harder case to make. They must ignore, among other things, what happens to Robbie’s Barbie and what the human world actually looks like. And perhaps most daunting, they must ignore the past work of Gerwig, who showed in Ladybird especially that she is far from some kind of straightforwardly vanguard feminist figure.
Perhaps. But how much of the backlash is just driven by the people who take Barbie at face value? From this morning's splash feature on The Ringer (emphasis mine):
Did one of those little girls also ask her mom to take her to the bathroom the moment Barbie and Ken Rollerbladed out of the colorful and charming Barbie Land and into the crises of self awaiting them in the real world? Yes, she did. And did she then ask to go to the bathroom again just as one of the humans in Barbie Land, Gloria, began expressing to a handful of newly radicalized Barbies that to be a woman in the world is to balance a million patriarchy-fueled, contradictory expectations? Also yes.
But if millions of little girls around the country decided to take their fourth bathroom break during a soaring monologue mostly meant for their moms, maybe that’s OK—they’ll discover the Sisyphean nature of being a woman on their own one day. It’s also fine because awaiting those children when they got back was a different scene that elicited equally confusing reactions (more hysterical laughter than cathartic sniffles this time) but that will hopefully linger in their psyches until at least freshman year of college. Let me put it this way: If director Greta Gerwig can save one generation of young people from thinking that they need to be able to explain The Godfather—or sit there patiently while someone explains The Godfather at them—then she will have done her job. (Also, why is it Greta Gerwig’s job to advance the progress of feminism when the movies next door can simply be about men and their obsession with legacy?)
I realize they're referencing a mansplaining scene with Issa Rae in the movie, but come on. If you don't understand The Godfather, and if you think that going through life not understanding it is a good thing, you're the loser. Like this guy.
Millennials, Gen Z Turn Against America
American patriotism has faced a steep decline among young adults over the last decade, and now sits at a record low.
Pride in national identity is lowest among those 18-34, and illustrates the fracture between young Americans and older generations at a time of deep partisanship in the United States.
In the most recent Gallup poll, Americans 55 and older were nearly 3 times more likely to be extremely prideful of their nationality than younger generations.
Overall, 39% of U.S. adults say they are "extremely proud" to be American in the most recent poll.
Meanwhile, only 18% of those aged 18-34 said the same, compared to 40% of those aged 35-54 and 50% of those 55 and over.
By comparison, in 2013, 85% of those aged 18-29 said they were "extremely" or "very" proud to be an American.
The percentage of U.S. adults of all ages polled who say they are "extremely proud" to be American remains near a record low, per Gallup.
Looking at the last two decades, the percentage of Americans expressing extreme pride intensified after 9/11 but began a decline in 2005 that has continued today.
In addition to age, party identification is one of the greatest demographic differentiators in expressions of national pride, per Gallup.
The percentage of those "extremely proud" to be American stands at 60% for Republicans, 33% for independents and 29% for Democrats.
Items of Interest
That it was shy when alive goes without saying. We know it vanished at the sound of voices Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises, Though it could be approached by someone praying. We have no recordings of it, though of course In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers. But its song is lost. If it was related to A species of Quiet, or of another feather, No researcher can know. Not even whether A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou, Where legend has it some once common bird Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.
— A.E. Stallings