5 Little-Known Reasons Why Modern Pop Culture Sucks
Let's get this out of the way early: I do not think that art sucks now. I am not That Guy. I do not think that rock peaked in 1977 and video games have been going downhill since Mario 3. If anything, I'm too eager to bury the past. Honestly, if I put together lists of my favorite stuff, most of it would be recent, or sequels, or both, because if you ask me, shit never rocked back then like it does now.
Why? Because art is getting better. Because the more that's out there with each passing decade, the more refined and/or novel art has to be to stand out. But when it sucks, it sucks for consistent and modern reasons. So for the sake of debate, here's another angry list (THESE COLUMNS SUCK NOW).
This Title Tells You Nothing Because It Was Trimmed Down From a Longer One
Take a look at the history of video games with "Shock" in their title for an example of one way art sucks right now:
The issue here is simplification, i.e. the removing of allegedly superfluous features or details (press x to use/interact/mantle/jump/give orders/pay respects/place C4/skip cutscene/defeat final boss). Setting aside the contemptible rationalization of this being done so as to not confuse a mass audience, it's not bad in and of itself -- it's bad because simplification has become a minor trend in art, and, like with every trend ever, once it's popular it stops getting seen as a technique and starts getting seen as the ideal, which has always been the source of everything shitty in the arts.
The other reason this is bad: a piece of art is like a face, and a face is unique because, unlike other stuff, when you remove even a small feature it ain't the same face. You can't take features out and always call it streamlining -- what you're doing is making it into a different experience. Details are there for a reason, if only so we can tell things -- and each other -- apart. But so much art now is the equivalent of using desktop icons everywhere instead of where it makes sense. It removes all but the information aspect to art. Art is subjective, of course, but surely one of its strengths is to be able to dress information up a bit.
One reason art gets worse is the fallacy of assuming that the audience likes something in spite of its superfluous details rather than in part because of them. We don't need two eyes and ears, but that doesn't mean you should gouge one out with a dessert spoon until it stops working.
Conversely, a lot of art has gone to shit by going in the other direction -- blockbusterization. That quote about how one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic? That's all you need to know about writing, because going bigger in no way means having a bigger impact on the audience.
That time in Star Wars when millions of voices cry out and then are silenced? I doubt you felt much. That time in Star Wars when Ben/Obi-Wan/Whoever Kenobi gets killed? That one you probably remember in detail. This is the problem with a lot of art -- the trend toward "epicness," toward the huge story with endless characters, toward media franchises. The more that happens, the less you remember, and let's just say I could remember every part of the Star Wars story when it was only three movies and like a couple of novels. And then it wasn't.
It's not that less is more (see previous entry on list), it's that more is less, because as the limited animals we are we can take in only so much before it becomes meaningless -- and that refers to the length of stories as well as the breadth of the events therein, which is why at this point the epic, sweeping Star Wars saga is just a statistic.
This Column Has Drawings to Distract You From the Weak Writing
Often, the creation of the work itself is too epic. The fewer mediums you have going at once, the stronger each must be -- if all you're producing is literature, then, uh, you'd better not skimp on the writing. But the more you're combining, the weaker each can be, and, moreover, one starts to see them all as equally important -- The Writing equal to The Music and The Visuals and The Crotch Shots. But this is why The Writing is often The Worst: because it's the engine of the car and thus both disproportionately intricate and important, yet it's so often treated as equivalent to the paint and the sweet rims and the kickin' stereo and the other shit that isn't in any way equivalent ...
The features that are endemic to the medium will get polished and carry the experience, and the rest need be only an afterthought. Music once had only notes, so they had to be in a damned fine order -- introduce lyrics and a marketable image and power chords will do just fine. And, yeah, books just have writing, but they have ideas too, so even a book that reads like it was written by a cat walking across a keyboard can succeed if the ideas it presents to a mass audience aren't being presented elsewhere. Why not ALSO make it well-written? Because it would be really hard? Then you're in the wrong business. Or you're just in business period. Speaking of which ...
The Level of Collaboration Is Too Damn High
Stuff is good when it's well-made and entertaining. Stuff is GREAT when it's well-made and entertaining and resonates on a personal level, because what art can do best is reflect genuine truths and make us feel less alone. And great stuff is made by people, but it's never made by groups of people large enough to dilute any possible idiosyncrasy. You can get a team of top comedy writers to rewrite something 100 times, but it's never, ever gonna be great, because what singular human voice could possibly shine through all that? It's just as bad as the similar problem of having only a few writers but then switching to some others partway through a story (try that in literature some time), with predictable results ...
There are just too many cooks on too many projects. It's not that the best things are made by only one person. I mean, the game Doom is brilliant because it captures a genuine moment in time -- the specific milieu of a group of early '90s nerdish guys (and is, much like a Tarantino movie, light-fingered to the point of plagiarism, so it's not copying that makes you soulless and unoriginal). But the fewer cooks, the better, and for fuck's sake don't switch them out halfway through the recipe.
One or a few voices ring clear, and you can recognize yourself in them, but a bunch of voices sound like this -- it's loud and it's impressive, but you can't even tell what country they're from. The problem is when stuff gets as big as it does these days, you've suddenly got a stadium's worth of people depending on it to make a living, at which point the chances of that something ever being meaningful or resonant again are basically nil, because you have to target the only audience big enough to pay your bills -- a mass audience. And in that way so much art ironically functions in the same way as its exact opposite: politics. It's a committee designing something to seem acceptable to everyone as opposed to incredible to anyone, because their goal is simply to stay in business.
And that, of course, sucks.
Because the Meek Inherited the Earth
Lastly, let's talk about rock stars.
Are you the kind of person who thinks that music sucks now? Do you feel like you were born into the wrong era? Do you wonder where all the rock stars have gone? Now, are you also the kind of person who torrents music instead of buying it or gets it from a streaming service -- the kind of person who cheered as the Internet changed the music industry forever, as technology left the hated major labels behind? Are you both these people? Because if you are, then you're the cause of your own problem.
Let's define rock stars as the kind of people who are compelling because they're so different from the audience -- they're uninhibited and wild and crazy and charismatic, and they'll say anything. It's the chicken or the egg: either they sell millions because they have huge egos or vice-versa. They're not like us, and the same thing that makes them so uncontrolled is what makes their music come from so deep inside.
Now, let's define the current music industry as a world of greater self-determination but also of much tighter margins, because you have the Internet but you also have more bands with a more decentralized environment vying for a smaller pile of money -- especially so for rock music, as it's out of fashion. Let's define it also as major labels being able to take fewer risks because of that aforementioned diminishing cash pile. And let's definite it as the reason there aren't a lot of rock stars around anymore, because what makes someone a good rock star is what makes them less able to survive in an industry where they now have to do more than just rock, where they have more responsibilities and have to be more responsible -- an industry where major labels used to do for them what they now have to do themselves. Let's define us torrenting Hendrix albums as maybe the reason there are no more Hendrixes.
We've minimized the music industry, but did rock stars emerge in spite of the major labels or in part because of them? I think the big trade-off we used to have was that crazy, volatile people who can't even dress themselves could make millions as recording artists because they had 20 staffers around to put their pants on for them. When you're bananas, you're great onstage, but offstage you have to be led around and talked to like a 90-year-old ("HERE IS THE MICROPHONE. WE NEED YOU TO SING NOW.") because you are impossible, and that's a relationship that requires two parties.
But when it's a DIY path to an industry that can't take risks, you have to show initiative and professionalism, and if all you know how to do is art, then what do you do? You might think you hate major labels, but in return for their 98 percent cut they at least do all the organizational shit that crazy artistic sketchy people can't do, and, moreover, they can do so because they have (or had) the money to fall back on. Crazy needs a financial cushion to survive, and it's easy to absorb an insanity-related loss when even the band's shitty third album just sold a million in a week. But albums don't sell that much anymore, so if you're hard to work with, you're dropped -- if you somehow made it far enough to get signed to begin with. And if you can't do it yourself, you can't do it, because the people currently making money off musicians sure as hell aren't going to help you.
Or to use a genre that's never had a major-label cushion as an example: the savvy DIY punks of the '80s are often still solvent, but the crazy punks aren't, because they were the same off the stage as on. And now, because there's so much less margin for error, that's the entire music industry. As any industry changes, so do the entry requirements, and as a college degree is the new high school diploma and 325 pounds is the new 300 (which was the new 255), acting professional is the new not acting professional. And then even the rock stars wonder where all the rock stars have gone.
And it's a drag, despite how fucking good rock still is. But then you read about Hendrix, and the 27 Club, and what happens when people who feel everything have to deal with the madness of fame, and you honestly start to wonder how much of a drag it really is. And you consider that one of the great ironies in music is that if Kurt Cobain had instead joined the military like he thought about doing, then he'd probably still be alive. And millions would have missed out on the art and inspiration and comfort his music would bring, and the choice was his alone, and that's a choice that everyone should fucking have, but society overall does seem to be inadvertently walking away from Omelas on this one, and thus -- purely for the sake of looking on the bright side here, as I'm powerless to stop it -- one could at least argue that for some people it might be an improvement when art sucks ...
Winston Rowntree is also available in book form at your local bookstore or prison library, and you can and should read his webcomic as well. Like him on Facebook too or he'll get you ...
For more from Winston, check out The 4 Reasons We Fall in Love With a Piece of Pop Culture. And then check out 19 Mind-Blowing Details You Missed in Famous Works of Art.