Yes, Popular Culture Really Has Gotten Worse

In case you think you’re imagining things, we here at QNUW are ready to validate the fears you didn’t know you had: yes, the popular culture that you live and breathe has degraded beyond recognition, and it’s probably happened within your lifetime.  You might be thinking to yourself, how is that possible?  How could things really be that bad?  Or heck, you don’t even watch movies or own a TV, so what difference does it make?  All good questions.

To qualify: this isn’t to say that popular culture was exactly healthy some fifty years ago.  The distinct turn toward visceral violence in the movies, the disparaging state of literature since the postwar period, the rise of genre fiction and the somewhat dubious natures of the leading figures in some of those circles, and the shift into the modern modes of popular music are all signs of a civilization steadily losing track of its bearings.  But they were still recognizably Western, for the most part, even if these works of popular art were layered with veneers of nihilism and pettiness.  The Beatles played tunes with recognizable melodies.  Pink Floyd’s long segments of improvisational material segued in and out with melodic passages, and all the while, they maintained a sense of harmony with distinct tonality.  What a movie like Star Wars lacked in originality, it made up for in its succinctness and sincerity.  And the modern souls on display in Apocalypse Now still narrated a story recognizable in structure and plot, despite its post-artistic pretentions of importance.

But compare these to the present day.  The biggest movies of the last few years have almost all been comic book movies.  The award winners are predominantly rudimentary attempts at poignancy directed by virtue signaling hacks.  The remakes—and the sheer volume of them—lack both the flavor and the patience that their predecessors had, even in cases where the original was little more than an irreverent and crass comedy from the 70s.  What has hollowed out the entertainment industry to the point that machine-generated sounds and shouted ghetto slang can qualify not merely as music to listen to, but music even to dance to?  This is a vast subject and worthy of greater scrutiny—indeed, to some extent that is what QNUW exists for—but the immediate cause of the decline can be discerned even if its general principle is somewhat hard to pin down.

Modern works of entertainment, much like the modern works of so-called art, wish to fulfill the function of entertainment without the form of it.  I base this assertion on the shift in the purpose of architecture in the last century, and in particular, the wholesale embrace of the maxim form follows function.  A cleverly alliterative phrase that seems reasonable enough at face value has, in the last fifty years, betrayed itself.  As Roger Scruton has pointed out in numerous lectures and books, centuries of architecture have been leveled and replaced with modern and postmodern blocks, indistinguishable from one another and based wholly on a centralized principle of human distribution—whether that distribution is for living, working, or entertainment.  But the human spirit, even when robbed of its traditions, religions, and languages, is not so passive as to be stuck reusing the same forms to fulfill its functions for very long.  In a word, humanity is fickle.  Thus the structures tailored to suit the ends of the nineteen-seventies style government administrator cubicle worker end up abandoned, and because the buildings are wholly unsuited to any other form of business, they rot away until they are expensively demolished and some other mildly-similar Frankenstein of a building is erected in its stead.

Such a maxim—that form follows function—says little more than this: build for today what you need for today, and when you don’t need it anymore, tear it down and replace it with something else.  It is a philosophy that serves only the immediate.  Things of beauty are difficult to create.  They’re often time-consuming, laborious, and expensive, and the modern notion of a cost/benefit ratio usually falls short of the mark when confronted with a desire to make beautiful the spaces of human occupation.  This is why you see urban commercial plazas with such silly looking sculptures poking out of them like frozen tentacles of a confused mechanical octopus.  Modern art, in which nothing must actually be depicted except the abstract vessels of an unfocused artist’s mind, suits the role for the modern plaza’s sculpture just as well as leaving a pedestal blank would.  Such sculptures are always making statements, even if the statement is little more than “by the way, someone actually paid for this.”  In a modern plaza, the same statement is made even without an overpriced commission for a twisted wreckage of steel poles taking up the middle of it; modern plazas are used almost as much as the works of art are.  They’re every bit as cold and barren of human life, and the one thing you see a distinct lack of in them is people.  The function of the plaza is to let people move around outside in them, and the form follows suit—they’re all large and cumbersome spaces of concrete with benches distributed every twenty feet, and plenty of stairs and wheelchair-accessible ramps.  But no one actually wants to be in one.

This principle has extended beyond architecture and into the realm of simple mass-market entertainment.  Movies are made by committee, stories and songs are written by groups of writers, and literature—still a solitary activity—is written by people with seemingly little insight into life and consumed by those with even less.  In every corner, form must follow function.  Movies must entertain people enough to fill box office seats, and so the industrialization of cinema necessitated the deconstruction of storytelling and moviemaking.  What do audiences want to see more of?  How do we hide the fact that our actors aren’t competent enough to all the stunts we want?  How can we fool the audience into thinking that this movie is a real movie and not merely a two-hour long commercial for itself?  The newest Star Wars movies are the perfect example: a creative team wanted it to look like Star Wars, but none of them seemed to know what Star Wars even was.  So instead of studying the works it was intended to augment, they assembled a plot using prefabricated and unfitting pieces and plastered it all together with Millennium Falcons and lightsabers.  But beneath that cold exterior is a vacuum of nonsense in between a narrative of political correctness.  Like the architectural results of their maxim, form follows function; in a few years, after they’ve reaped the money that they could from this Star Wars project, they’ll do another reboot and start all over again.  They’ll tear it down and make way for the next hollow facsimile of a franchise.

The music industry’s collapse into the dull repetition of rap beats, machine-generated trance music, and pop songs written by algorithms can be explained in the same way.  The function of the music is no longer to supply the community who listens to it with dance and joviality, nor is it to lead the viewers on an artistic and insightful journey into the soul and toward the transcendent.  It has, as I’ve commented in a previous post, become a method of pure consumption.  Consumption without purpose, treated as an end in itself, fulfills the very credo—the form must follow the function.  If the function is simply to be consumed, then the form it must take is that which is most easily consumed.  The music mustn’t be easy to replicate on home instruments, because then people might play the music by themselves instead of buying it from online services or going to the band’s shows.  The music mustn’t comment too directly on the human condition, or if it does, it must do so in the blandest possible way, because otherwise, it lasts too long in public memory and will be harder to replace with another album.  The music mustn’t dwell to deeply on tonality and its relationship with rhythm for effectively the same reason.  The music, in other words, must not be made to last.  It must be made to be consumed and then dispensed with, only to be looked at in a decade’s time as a vessel of quaint nostalgia bereft of substantial meaning.

In other words, the modern culture has become a culture of pornography.  Just as pornography manipulates the physical vessels of sexuality and turns the act of sex into a consumable commodity, so too has popular culture necessitated that all forms of entertainment are to be simple widgets awaiting consumption.  Pornography requires that the consumer surrenders any conscious reflective capacity at the moment in exchange for a quick endorphin rush that services him only for the moment.  Meanwhile, he has lost time, exerted energy, and weakened himself—he’s done an awful lot of work for an act whose benefits cannot even be felt after an hour’s time.  And yet it’s easy and, as we’ve seen in the West, all-pervasive, with the rates of young men addicted to pornography growing greater by the year.  But the consumer has indulged in an impulsive hedonism for no significant gain, and as this behavior becomes habit, it poisons his soul in ways that even he will find difficult to recognize.

Our entertainment industry can be understood by a comparable principle.  Rather than sex, commercialized music has turned the community activity of festival into a solitary experience that leaves no lasting impression.  It has walled people off from sharing the experience of performances with each other and defined the limits of their enjoyment to the boundaries of their earphones and car radios.  Even the live performances are sold as units rather than encouraged as folk activities to bring together communities.  Music has become a pornography of the heart.

Our films and stories, dependent upon the glamor of Hollywood idols and the glitz of sophisticated technology, have turned our searches for meaning into little more than box office tickets and puerile attempts to escape our droll reality with genre fiction.  Instead of fostering our capacities for reason, reflection, and understanding, they run wild with a very facile sense of imagination and are forgotten within hours of having left the theatre, or within weeks of having put the book back on the shelf.  Movies and literature have become pornographies for the mind.

And our buildings, created to service transitionary needs in our society, and then forgotten when those needs have transitioned on to the next new industrial need, have created cities of concrete block and spires of glass and steel that are considered more pleasant to destroy and replace than to retrofit for alternative purposes.  By their nature, these buildings are too cumbersome for significant retrofitting, too tall or large to be of use to anyone except those who operate in the industries that abandoned them.  It may take a little longer than a few hours or even a few years, but eventually such complexes are simply used up and then forgotten, and then replaced.  Architecture has become a pornography for the entire civilization.  Form must follow function.

It is difficult to combat these problems.  One must be willing to hone his mind and open his heart in ways that are disagreeable to our modern sensibilities.  The reason our popular culture has degenerated is because we have degenerated.  It is easier to consume than it is to reflect, and it is easier to create trinkets intended for consumption than to create works intended to last.  Houses should be lived in for longer than a single family’s time.  Buildings should outlast any one business that inhabits them.  Songs should be listened to and played for years and years to come.  Books reread.  Movies watched over and over.  But the forms of entertainment which are built to last have been rendered marginally inaccessible due to how we have educated our youth.  We have trained them to hate reading, unless it’s easy.  They should hate films, if they aren’t quickly-edited and visceral.  Music, too, should be hated, if it isn’t hyper-processed, adolescently vitriolic, or libidinous.  The culture that looked to cash in on consumer products has created new generations of spiritless manic-depressives who have become too distracted by mass entertainment to remember how to even be entertained.  All because it is easier and more convenient than the alternative.

Change can only happen on an individual level.  Get your life together.  Get cultured.

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