Culture in general and pop culture in specific tends to have cycles. Imagine a pendulum swinging from one side to the other… or better yet imagine a rollerball style battle arena where the contestants speed in an endless circle karate chopping and punching one another while avoiding death traps. Starkly different imagery but still saying the same thing; everything is cyclical.
Or is it anymore?
There was a time where these cycles could roughly be measured in decade spans… roughly. I’m not talking about something bubbling up but when something, an art movement, a way of thinking, a music genre begins to hit a critical mass. A point where the circuit has flipped because enough people have grokked to something that a subculture becomes the culture. Cultural escape velocity as it were. If you’re not sure of what I mean go to your local mall and hit the Star Wars section of the J.C. Penny’s and get a Boba Fett T-shirt, then walk over to Hot Topic and peruse the selection of Star Wars funko pop figures (maybe get that exclusive semi-transparent blue hologram Darth Vader pop you’ve been eyeing) then go to the Disney Store and buy a Princess Leia Tsum Tsum that your young niece will love.
I realize that using Star Wars as an example is low hanging fruit but I chose it for its ubiquity; everyone knows who Darth Vader, Yoda and Chewbacca are! Hell, my daughter’s favorite character is Kylo Ren and she hasn’t even seen the movie (given Kylo’s yen for patricide maybe I should be worried). Star Wars is so ingrained in our culture that sports have utilized it for theme days, like this…
(It should be noted that I’d have no idea who the Mets guy (Jose Reyes) is if his name wasn’t in the metadata.) You know something has hit cultural saturation when jocks are into it. Aside from dating pop stars, doing cell phone commercials and rapping bad… jocks, culturally speaking, generally are into something when it peaks. They have more important things, like sportsing, to occupy their time. Point is there was a time when rocking a Star Wars shirt was a declaration of your membership in a sub-culture (granted, a big subculture, but a subculture none the less), then possibly as an ironic statement, now it’s as commonplace and as accepted as a Nike swoosh. Star Wars is a jumbo-sized Cultural Node.
Gigantic touchstones like Star Wars aside trends and cycles seem to have frayed over the last fifteen years. Pop culture has gotten more diffuse, the cycle seems less pronounced now. Music for example: the coke-fueled disposable pop rock of the 80s decade, like Poison gave way to heroin-fueled self serious acts of the 90s like Nirvana and eventually swung back into cookie cutter lite beer-fueled corporate rock of the aught like Nickleback. Now there is no dominant genre; you can’t really point to a group of bands and say “this is what everyone will be listening to a few years from now.”
Now there is no defining trend. Everyone is sequestered in tribes with overlap; RIYL culture. Our tastes are defined more by a “Customers who bought this item also bought…” algorithm. This is by no means a bad thing but as a trade-off we’re never going to see another Michael Jackson (think pop superstar not accused child molester) in our lifetime. Someone who can sell ten million records. The closest we got is (drat!) Kanye who’s album “Life of Pablo” has garnered 250 million streams in the first ten days on Tidal or “that streaming service you never heard of until Kanye was on it”. Yes, 250 million of anything is a qualified “Fuckload” but the metric is different. Would you get up, drive to Target and buy a CD copy of Life of Pablo? I wouldn’t. But curiosity would have you bring up tidal and stream the album and check out some other stuff while there using the RIYL software.
Some of you are even thinking “CDs, my dad used to buy those.”
Essentially the zeitgeist is cracked. And that’s fine, variety is good, but there are some growing pains.
This diffusion is an entirely new thing to mainstream culture and it’s only growing into other areas of society. The idea or of binary gender or sexuality or politics or any of the hundreds of other variables that flow in and around our lives have been expanded and/or blown to smithereens. Which has created a problem; with the boundaries so porous and so much to choose from many people have overloaded on choice. OR the idea of things being this varied is frightening to a person’s reality tunnel. That creates a reaction – both a conscious and unconscious desire for simplicity, and either/or dynamic… a Us V Them polemic. With everything in the world at our fingertips the increase in complexity the world has become more divisive than ever. It’s probably too soon to call it (and from what I’ve said above probably moot) but I think this second ten years of the new millennium will be looked back upon as the Vrs. decade.
I’m not so naive as to think the culture war is new, it’s been going on longer than I’ve been alive, but with fewer anchor points for us all to agree upon… the more removed from the collective each tribe gets… the weaker the main lines of communication become. Common ground gets smaller and smaller. With everybody standing in their own little patch of belief yelling at everyone else nothing much of value is communicated. As a symptom the volleys in the culture war seem to be getting louder: Gamergate, Return of kings, obstructionist agenda in congress, a spike in authoritarianism, bathroom laws, Dems V GOP, GOP V Trump, GOP V Women, Slipknot V Justin Beiber…
I’ve been waiting for months to work that video in organically, somehow.
Our culture is a bunch of tiny little self-imposed islands and nobody is suggesting bridges should be built; and our art is reflecting that…
Art is reflective of where society is at the moment; a lot has been written about why, say, Zombies became the touchstone of our collective fears during W. Bush’s reign (and is now a mainstream hit with Walking Dead on TV, natch). The rise and fall of the Zombie movie trend, Marvel Zombies, Blackest Night. Art is usually also ahead of the curve on trends; the creators of entertainment and fiction usually have their antennae a bit higher up to receive early signals (The Walking Dead comic several years before). Thus starting the trends that will be championed by jocks several years later.
Movies and TV are, arguably, art. But there is a time gap between the development, production and release of the art. In that gap the mark might be missed. Other times it is spot on. The culture of conflict is so dominate and broad that movies and TV have managed to catch up…
Batman V Superman, Civil War, Justice League vs Teen Titans, Daredevil V Punisher. Sure these match-ups are nothing new to us geeks; I was debating Bats against Supes back on the playground myself but I’m talking about how these stories are popping up in mainstream culture now. Geek culture has mostly been mainstream culture for more than a decade. So it is reasonable to assume that Iron Man going up against Captain America on the big screen might be saying something, directly and indirectly about where we are as a culture.
That something seems to be that the good guys are too busy fighting each other to see the real threat.
More importantly are the reasons behind such conflicts; miscommunication, fear, misunderstanding, or sinister forces pulling the strings in the background. To get a sampling of the first three look no further than your Facebook feed, assuming you haven’t blocked every person that has a different opinion than you and aren’t distracted by adorable videos of baby sloths like I usually am. A classic dad-ism “Opinions are like ass holes; everybody has one and most of ‘em stink.” has never been more true than in the age of social media. Where conspiracy theories used to be kooky and quaint, great fodder for stories and imagination (X-Files in the 90’s). Now they seem to have very real repercussions; anti-vaxers leading to a resurgence of diseases we stomped out generations ago, shifty politicians gaining clout by pandering to Jade Helm and anti-government paranoia, gnashing of teeth about false flag operations after every mass shooting.
It ain’t quaint no more (X-Files 2016).
As overly dramatic as the puppet master idea sounds it doesn’t necessarily have to be Lex Luthor manipulating a stand-off between heroes; think of the Koch Brothers, think of the money behind the Tea party movement, think of Fox “news”, Comcast’s endless war on net neutrality. I know this seems to contradict what I just said about paranoia above but I’m much more inclined to believe that Chuck and Dave Koch use their considerable resources and influence to increase their considerable resources and influence than mind control drugs being distributed through jet exhaust or secret illuminati rituals being performed during the Super Bowl halftime event (although that would be a hell of an Archer and Armstrong or Doctor Strange story).
I believe the term is “Occam’s razor”.
Maybe there is something behind all the divisiveness we have today. Beyond Chuck and Dave bankrolling noise to disrupt signal. A Lex Luthor or Baron Zemo hiding in the shadows playing an elaborate chess game with all our lives. Maybe we sense that in our guts. Maybe we’re starting to realize that even if we’re in different tribes we all stand on the same ground and someone is trying to keep us from remembering that. Maybe that’s why we’re getting the type of conflicts in our entertainment; spoiler alert Batman and Superman eventually stop fighting and team up against Luthor and Doomsday. Captain America and Iron man both have very valid points to their arguments (at least in the comic version of Civil War). I don’t know how Cyborg manages to be on both sides of Justice League Vs Teen Titans but I’m sure it’s explained.
Although you don’t really have to look any further than the likes of Chuck and Dave Koch.
Maybe it’s just human nature. Scientific research has discovered that our brains at this stage are only capable of conceiving of, roughly, one hundred and fifty people as PEOPLE. The rest become abstraction. That hardware limitation certainly can reinforce an US V THEM paradigm from benign manifestations like sportsing (You shall suffer humiliation when the sports team from my city defeats the sports team from your city) and geek culture arguments (Marvel V DC) to ugly and rancorous (liberal V conservative, “christians” V homosexuals) to downright deadly (Isis V non-Isis, Nazi V Jews). The limitation is also a big ‘ol exploitable vulnerability for anyone seeking or wanting to hold onto power; the oldest strategy in the book – Divide and conquer.
Whatever it is we as a culture have to deal and evolve. If Batman and Superman wailing the shit outta each other helps us reach that catharsis and allows us move on, so be it.
Random thoughts somewhat pertaining to the subject but couldn’t organically fit into the main column…
To continue my streak of poorly thought, out non-editor consulted theme runs across my columns my theme this time is Vs! I already reviewed Batman v Superman XXX and Salvation Run. Next I’ll be reviewing the Civil War GN for Comics on the Can and reviewing Iron Man XXX and/or Captain America XXX for Adult Continuity, so stay tuned.
How ‘bout that sportsing, eh? It was great when that one sports team out sportsed the other team!
I had a conversation over the weekend with a professor in communications who done a lot of work connection to information analysis and state surveillance. He gave me a line that describes what we as a culture seem to be going through perfectly: “Data rich, information poor”. I liked the line so much I told him I was putting it in this column.
Which I just did.
For a much funnier rant on cultural nodes, tribalism and bird poop read this Junkdrawer entry from last year.
I’ve only blocked one person on Facebook and it was because he called me vulgar and tasteless and had no class for reposting this pic
I’m all for vulgar and tasteless but this dude clearly had no sense of humor and was a judgemental prick about it. Good riddance.
Just about everyone I talked to about the X-Files revisit felt the same about the big conspiracy arc; it seemed irresponsible at best, mercenary at worst. To tie smallpox vaccination, false flag operations, chemtrails and population culling agendas into a TV series was cool when it didn’t seem so many people take such things seriously. This time around it just felt like fear-mongering.
As far as our brain’s hardware limitation its more commonly known as Dunbar’s Number. Here is the Wikipedia link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number#Popularization
David Wong editor of Cracked.com and writer of “John Dies at the End” calls it the Monkeysphere. Here is a column he wrote about it. What I’m talking about kinda dovetails with the column http://www.cracked.com/article_14990_what-monkeysphere.html
Wong also directly addresses the monkeysphere in his sequel to JDatE “This book is full of spiders”
David Wong writes cool books with cool titles.
There may be an indication that things are shifting; The Supergirl/Flash crossover. Barry and Kara almost instantly recognize each other as heroes and about the only competition between them is a good-natured race and which one can out adorable the other. One item doesn’t make a trend but with all the scowling going on in the superhero movies it was refreshing to see heroes enjoying one another’s company.
Take it even further with Legends of Tomorrow heroes and villains working as a team (sorta) against a bigger threat. The insane, despotic and (in the Arrowverse version) charisma free Vandal Savage. In the first episode Captain Cold, Heatwave and White Canary don’t fight each other they go get a drink and fight bikers (to Captain and Tennille’s “love will keep us together” no less).
And of course there is Suicide Squad in August; a bunch of super villains working together to SAVE the world. The trailers make the movie look fun and demented – something comic book movies should have at their core.
If this edition of Junkdrawer seems a bit more dour, I’m sorry. I’ll be back to snark and dick jokes next time. Promise.