What happens when David Simon Cowell and I emerged from our recent hibernation to discuss the lazy abomination that is Grantland’s obituary for the very much alive David Bowie?
One person who adores David Bowie and one person who doesn’t really have a dog in that race!
We use the word “inarguable” a surprisingly high number of times, given that we are in the midst of an argument!
And David Simon Cowell writes more words for this blog than he has in the last year combined! Who can fucking resist that?
David Simon Cowell: So, it’s come to this, an e-mail chain about an e-mail chain, specifically Grantland’s back-and-forth about the imminent death of David Bowie that turned out not to be. Written by Alex Pappadamas and Chuck Klosterman, it was self-evidently propulsive, keeping my attention through three long pages of meandering asides.
(Has anybody made a worse decision than Klosterman’s to start hosting podcasts and generally put his voice out there… and by voice, I don’t mean his authorial voice but his actual voice, which is the worst stereotypical vision of a self-important Brooklynite who cares deeply about the differences between Kyle McLachlan’s David Lynch and Sex In The City work. His writing, which is good but tends towards preciousness, definitely isn’t helped by having that high-pitched droning in my head.)
(While it’s certainly not perfect, I think after over a year, overall it’s time to call Grantland a success, or at least a success at what they’re trying to be. While Simmons’s personal writing has deteriorated to almost meaninglessness, he has assembled a pretty good staff of contributors, who manage to put up a decent amount of readable stuff, at least a bigger amount than you would expect from the pop culture arm of ESPN, which is a conception that’s ridiculous to even type. But…)
This leads me to the issue at hand. Which is whether this piece is finally the last straw, the end of pop culture criticism as we know it. As I was reading through it I found it interesting, cogent, and ultimately amounting to nothing. It was like popcorn with truffle oil and fried sage, empty calories with a veneer of sophistication. It was basically the voice of the Internet, a combination of semantic loop-di-loops and irony as sincerity. Or irony as a cover for aching sincerity, with the author oh-so-aware of how he’s distancing himself from the oh-so-painful emotions that rest at the base of his feelings about Station To Station. Forty years later, the road that Lester Bangs paved has reached its end.
(Have you ever tried to read Lester Bangs? Like any other pretentious suburban high schooler of the ’90s, I bought a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and it mostly served as a totem on my book shelf. It was like listening to Lenny Bruce… while I completely trust in/respect their place in the history of Pop Culture, I don’t need to hear about the fuzz busting him for making out in a car anymore than I need to read about why Grand Funk Railroad is more real than the Velvet Underground (or whatever)).
Or more aptly, it’s the voice of Dave Eggers. It’s no accident that Heartbreaking Work came out in 2000, just as the Web was really starting, showing the generation that would come to populate the Internet that respect and success lay at the end of run-on sentences about minutiae that concluded with a sentimental twist. Which isn’t to hate on Heartbreaking Work… I loved it too, and blaming it would be like blaming Pet Sounds for Polyphonic Spree. But the ubiquitousness of that voice has kept me from keeping up with Eggers career, even though he seems to have moved on to more nuanced novels. It’s no accident that the ridiculously unnecessary Grantland Quarterly is published by McSweeney’s.
(Some might claim it to be the voice of David Foster Wallace as well, since his most read essays came out around the same time. And he was certainly an influence, but an influence through misunderstanding, with people trying to ape him for the exact things he was writing against. Or misreading his actual sincerity for winking sincerity or whatever. Basically, putting him in the same category as McSweeney’s/Grantland is like putting McDonald’s in the same category as Orson Welles).
So, basically what I’m initially asking is, has the Internet, or at least this version of the Internet (and, obviously, by Internet I mean Internet commentary, not sports scores or weather or porn or clips of funny cats) come to the end of the line? Is there anything left for it to say?
The Dilemma: That’s quite a leap you’re taking, from “Grantland published a shitty piece about David Bowie” to “POP CULTURE CRITICISM IS DYING AND THE INTERNET IS RUINED!” That’s some fin-de-siecle level panic, which I’m going to assume derives from you waiting around for Li’l DSC, with nothing better to do but pace and form half-crazed theories in the Peruvian darkness.
The Bowie piece in question is ridiculous: Grantland’s staff got tricked into thinking Bowie was about to die, had two of their top guys write a billion words about it, then had nowhere to put those words when the Thin White Duke didn’t croak. So the first time the name “David Bowie” pinged their Google News alerts after that, they had their excuse to publish. Klosterman is a fool, and Pappademas is decent (I enjoyed his piece on Beck last week), but this back-and-forth is the ultimate in wankery. (It’s also part of a long-term trend at Grantland to publish content not in the form of essays or columns, substituting e-mail exchanges or roundtables or live chats. No blog worth their salt would ever take such a low road.)
The pop culture criticism you’re referring to — ” a combination of semantic loop-di-loops and irony as sincerity. Or irony as a cover for aching sincerity, with the author oh-so-aware of how he’s distancing himself from the oh-so-painful emotions that rest at the base of his feelings…” — is essentially describing Klosterman’s particular brand of faux intellectualism and attempting to blend low culture with high ideas. Don’t hold the critical community, or the Internet as a format, at fault for Klosterman and the million awful thinkpieces he has inspired. Pop culture criticism is as strong as ever…you just won’t really find the good stuff on Grantland. And the Internet is just a device and a vehicle. Saying the Internet is ending because you don’t like recent trends in writing is like saying music is dying because hip hop is popular now and you’re not really feeling it.
And you can call Grantland a success if your definition is, “a site that still exists” or “a site that might make ESPN money” or “a site that is helping Bill Simmons consolidate power.” But it’s certainly not a creative success — 80% of the content is completely skippable, from TV episode recaps you can find on 10 other sites to gossip magazine reports to endless, fucking endless brackets and oral histories. There are a handful of good writers under Grantland’s employ, but the majority are terrible (looking at you, Molly Lambert) or inessential, or are Simmons’s buddies being given a platform they don’t deserve and didn’t earn.
David Simon Cowell: Really, my problem isn’t with the specific piece, which was annoying but had some good stuff in it too… don’t disagree with your take on Klosterman, or Pappademas, or Simmons, or Grantland. But my issue isn’t really about that particular article or site… something in it just sparked me to explore my general dissatisfaction with Pop Culture, and my relationship to it, and the way it is consumed/chronicled today. I would disagree that pop culture criticism is flourishing, or as strong as ever, or not completely suffocating under its own weight. Even talented people like, say, Sepinwall or the AV Club guys or Videogum are just endlessly going over the same ground. And to not to acknowledge that the Internet has changed our behavior/relationship with both content and its meaning seems as strange to me as blaming it for “ruining everything”.
Maybe what’s really bothering me is the nagging emptiness that has kept my PCHA output from flourishing (or existing). Which is not to underplay my own laziness, or discount the important part laziness has played in the whole process (or lack of process). But really that’s more a symptom than a cause.
Obviously, it’s not a rare thing to have Pop Culture matter less to you as you get older. But it’s not the case that I can’t connect to things like I used to… I had the same high after seeing Beasts of the Southern Wild or listening to Teenage Icon as I always had when something I love comes along. Maybe it is inevitable that it happens less frequently as I get less invested in the same hype I’ve seen innumerable times before. But it’s not the case that I’m consuming less music, television, movies, whatever… I feel like I’m more inundated by and immersed in Pop Culture as ever.
Which I’ve come to see as a big part of the problem (and by problem I mean my own sense of disorientation at my lack of thoughts and opinions about all the stuff that I’m consuming). The Internet has become a never-ending flood, of not just opinions and comments, but content itself. My iTunes is continually growing with new albums, my Kindle with new books, my TiVo (or really, my thumb drive) with new shows, that I continually consume in what sometimes seems like a joyless march of attrition. I can’t remember the last time truly felt like I “discovered” something… there’s little room for exploration in the face of this constant barrage. And everything comes with an appendix of opinion, episode recaps, movie reviews, news about box office, clips from concerts, etc., etc.
In many ways, Pop Culture itself has become an endless Twitter feed, continually growing moment by moment, whether you’re watching it or not. Once Girls ends, it’s time for Mad Men, then Game Of Thrones, then Breaking Bad, and on and on. And that’s just Sunday evening cable television. It’s obviously overwhelming and numbing and there’s no way to truly Care without going literally insane, so it seems the only choice is to shut down and let it flow over you.
(DFW’s vision of never-ending entertainment as death in Infinite Jest was clearly more a brilliant prediction than the metaphor it seemed at the time. And near the top of a long list of reasons why he’s in his own league indeed.)
(And, of course, the ultimate nagging example of Internet as empty dread is Facebook, where every relationship from parent to high school crush to drinking buddy is reduced to the same cheerfully inane cocktail party chatter, where the choice only exists to like and not to dislike. And where somewhere in the back of your mind is the knowledge that when you die your feed will keep moving without you, the variation of the “OMG, that’s so sad… I can’t believe it” thread that will be your eulogy quickly moving down to make room for dog pics and thoughts about movies, your profile existing as an entry in the friend count of those who don’t defriend you out of uncomfortableness or some sense of propriety.)
To give an example of what I find missing, or anyway what I miss, I can point to a more personal example. Growing up, not only did we both love R.E.M., but we both thought that Life’s Rich Pageant was their best album, or at least the most important album to us, even though whatever critical canon existed at the time categorized it as a minor work. But we carried it around with us, and when we found others who felt the same way, it formed an instant bond of not just recognition but kinship. But if today’s Internet had existed when we came across that album, we would have found a thousand people who felt the same way instantly, and argued with another thousand who disagreed instantly, and the meaning that carrying around that largely unspoken opinion with us all those years would never have existed. Which is not to make our shared opinion about this one album into an earth shattering event (although it was obviously important to us and shying away from its Meaning is more from self-conscious embarrassment than anything else), but it is an example of the kind of thing that achieved depth through time and reflection that would have been blown past in the Internet world.
This isn’t to say that things are worse in any inherent way, or that nothing on the Internet is worthwhile, or that music or television or movies are worse, or that the solution is to destroy technology. Maybe it all just boils down to too much of a good thing, or those studies that show that the more stuff people possess the less happy they are. But I feel like my enjoyment of Pop Culture has diminished in directly inverse proportion to the ease with which I can acquire it and information about it, or at least has since reaching some saturation point. And am also interested in that you don’t seem to have had any of that reaction to the changes of the past, say, five years.
Of course, while some stuff can/should be simply cut out, it’s probably worth noting that most of the content I really like individually, like those Sunday night shows (yes, even Girls, which we can address at some point) or a number of recent albums or whatever, some of which are among my favorite shows/albums (or at least songs) ever. So, while the solution may well be cutting back significantly to gain some room for things to breathe, that would also mean cutting out stuff I truly like (and, ironically and inevitably, also feeling like I’m missing out on the same conversation that I’m lamenting).
The Dilemma: While it would be silly to deny that the internet (and about a hundred other modern phenomena) have caused monumental changes in the ways we consume, discuss and relate to pop culture, I think there are two additional factors causing your consternation:
1) As you mention, it’s typical for your relationship with pop culture to change as you get older — a change that generally manifests itself in pop culture becoming less important to you as other aspects of your life (work, family) become more important.
2) Every generation thinks that it’s seeing change at a pace never before experienced by any preceding generation.
I also think it’s entirely possible that your physical dislocation from American pop culture is causing the distance you feel from it emotionally to be even more acute.
It’s obviously inarguable that we have the opportunity to consume more than ever before at ever-diminishing monetary costs. And it’s equally clear that various market forces, along with the internet, have caused a perhaps-irreparable fragmentation in culture (which I think is one of the throughlines of PCHA) in which more shows/films/bands are liked by fewer people. In 1972, there were like four bands that you could reasonably claim as your current favorite, while in 2013 there are thousands. (Hyperbole, yes, but not by much.)
And so there are things we lose in the transaction — the feeling of connection with others your age that we experienced when Nevermind came out, for example. Though I’m old, I suspect that subsequent generation feel that connection, they just achieve it through means other than an album or movie. But I’m just as interested in what we’re gaining as what we’re losing.
In many ways, this is the golden age of pop culture — there are more amazing TV shows than ever before, there’s a vibrant independent film scene, and we could argue until the end of time about the best decade for music, but in terms of sheer quantity of good albums, bands, and concerts, this is an unrivaled era. But it takes more work to find what you really like, there’s more noise to filter out, and it’s not as easy to go to the local bar or whatever and find people who are into the same shit you’re into. This is a time of earbuds, not boomboxes.
So yeah, things have changed. Things are changing. But I think it’s too narrow a view to grumble that things aren’t like they were when we were teenagers. Every generation assumes it’s going to experience end times, and the same is true with pop culture. Every generation thinks that music, art, etc. are going to be permanently ruined in their lifetime one way or another. Whether it’s recorded music destroying the oral tradition or mp3 blogs moving onto the next big thing too quickly, it’s always something. But in truth, that anxiety is just an inability to cope with getting older.
I’m happier to have heard all the new music and seen all the new television that I have in the past few years than I am sad about the evolution in the way I experience it.
David Simon Cowell: I don’t really take exception to your caveats. Certainly, your relationship to Pop Culture is affected by your age, and as you gain more experience things make less of an impact on you (although I doubt that family (at least until the kid comes) or work is more important to me personally than it was five years ago). And being in a different society means that I’m taking in everything through the Internet rather than personal contact which is more isolating (although I have no doubt that changes in our lives and culture in general means I’d be consuming more through the Internet in any event).
But what I find baffling is this idea that any ambivalence about the way that the distribution channels and consumption patterns have changed is just “these kids today” griping. To me, it’s probably the most interesting thing about pop culture, and something that’s affecting our perception far more than the content itself. I certainly think that:
1.) The statement “Every generation thinks that it’s seeing change at a pace never before experienced by any preceding generation” is extremely simplistic. It’s inarguable that change IS occurring at an accelerating pace. To wit: the difference between when our parents were children and we were children was pretty small. In music, albums may have been bigger than singles, but you were still buying a record (CD vs. vinyl isn’t all that different), or hearing things on the radio. There were a few cable channels that changed the way we got news and sports and music, and it was color not black and white, but television was largely the same. The biggest technological difference was VCRs, which allowed us to rewatch the same content again and again, either through buying/renting movies or recording television shows. This is HUGE change, making visual media much more permanent and dissectible. But it pales in comparison between the changes between our experience and our kids. This isn’t putting any value judgement on it, but you can’t deny that acceleration. There’s been a bigger change in the past 15 years than in the previous 60.
2.) And to “unpack” each art form separately:
a.) Sure, there are more albums released each year, so there are more great ones. Again, my issue isn’t that anything has inherently deteriorated in quality, that Jay-Z is worse than Michael Jackson or whatever. But is having 25 great albums a year that have no real impact better than 5 that bind/define/shape a culture? Maybe yes, but not necessarily so… at the very least, recognizing that something is lost doesn’t mean dismissing what’s gained.
b.) Am I glad I’m watching Louie and Mad Men rather than Family Ties and L.A. Law? You bet (and those are examples of two of the better shows of our youth). Clearly, television is the genre where the improvement in quality recently is inarguable. But the change in distribution patterns has led to an unending cascade of “quality” shows that bleed into each other. Am I yearning for the days where new shows came in the fall, and there was maybe one good new thing a year (which in retrospect wasn’t that good)? Of course not. But is the impact of Breaking Bad, either personally or societally, the same as Twin Peaks, or even The Sopranos only ten years ago? Of course not.
c.) The only thing you said that caused me to stop cold was “there’s a vibrant independent film scene”. I really have no idea what you’re talking about there. One of the reasons that I loved Beasts so much was that it was the first time I viscerally felt life in American independent cinema in years. Maybe you mean directors like Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach, but I certainly don’t think they’re breaking any new ground. Every once in a while there’s a decent film like Drive or Martha Marcy, but I think it’s mostly thin gruel. I’d be honestly interested where you see such life.
To me, the point of view that things change and any notion that there has been a negative trade-off is just a fear of getting older is just as reductive as the idea that things have gotten worse and quality has deteriorated because the form has changed. Sure, dealing with the changing playing field is part of adapting to culture, but I’m really not looking to have the same experience with Wrecking Ball as I did with Born In The USA. Anybody who evaluates the changes in pop culture and sees some negative changes is open to the charge of yearning for their youth, but I certainly don’t think that technological advancement is equivalent to cultural or artistic advancement, and may actually have(and I would argue has had) the opposite effect.
Maybe it boils down to this… I’m more interested in how art or entertainment interacts with culture and the footprint it leaves (which has deteriorated), while you’re more interested in the number of interesting/quality things that are available to consume (which has grown). I don’t mean that in a snarky way (that you’re more shallow/self-interested about things or whatever)… that point of view is at least equally as valid. But we obviously have a base difference about how we value the changes in pop culture that I honestly don’t think is much about me having trouble dealing with aging, and it seems have something to do with impact vs. amount of quality content.
I mean, I think you would say, “There’s more quality out there than ever,” to which I would say, “So what, none of it is making any real impact,” to which you would say, “So what, it means something to the people who like it,” to which I would say, “So what, if it’s just about individual pleasure it’s ultimately meaningless,” and on and on. Not to put words in your mouth or be too simplistic, but that’s kind of where I see the disconnect.
The Dilemma: My response isn’t “So what?” — it’s that I think your overestimating the rate of change and how much it matters.
If your thesis is, “Advances in technology are changing the way we experience pop culture in significant ways, many of which we can’t even fully comprehend yet,” then my answer is, “Yup!” If, however, your thesis is, “Pop culture criticism as we know it is over and the Internet has come to its natural end and nothing will ever be the same,” then I’m not on board.
I think you’re lacking in perspective: you’re like an infantry member on the ground in a battle in World War II, and you can’t see all the other battles going on simultaneously around the world. The technological and cultural changes of the last decade feel more significant to us than they really are because these are the changes we’re experiencing. Sure, there have been more changes in the last 15 years than there were in the last 60. But there were more changes in the those 60 than there were in the previous 100, and so on. Technology always advances exponentially, which I think leads people to Y2K-type panic and anxiety. You seem to be taking a cataclysmic, end-times view that I don’t understand at all. Our pop culture isn’t spiraling down a drain, it’s just shifting.
I think your most flawed assumption is that entertainments carry less meaning than they used to. It’s based on the notion that if you were 15 in 2013 instead of in 1991, that meaning would come from the same places and things. Perhaps today’s teens will never love a movie or album that 60% of their demographic also loves — but why is loving something that 20 million people love somehow better or more valuable than loving something that 20,000 other people love? Our cultural fragmentation doesn’t mean we’re completely isolated — or that individual pleasure is all that matters now — it’s just a numbers game. But is seeing an amazing show at the Metro inherently worse than seeing one at Solider Field? They’re very different, and they’re impactful in different ways, but I don’t think one is better or worse than the other.
So I think my basic response to you is threefold: a) things haven’t changed as much as it might feel like, b) there are plenty of positive changes to balance what you perceive as negative, and c) we’re not at any natural endpoint of anything right now. People have been saying sitcoms are dead for 30 years. They’ve been saying rock is dead for longer than that. Both of those things, and many others, will someday die. But there’s too much reactionary analysis — and there always has been — without taking a longer view.
I’m not in denial that the music industry, for example, is radically different than it was ten years ago, but I’m trying to fight against the instinct to inflate the significance of the times in which we live. Sure, I feel some personal loss that there is no great unifying band anymore, but I don’t want to overstate it. In the ’80s, I didn’t give a fuck about Michael Jackson or Madonna. They were just cultural noise to me…elevator music that played while I went about my life. It’s great to be part of a mass phenomenon if it’s something that means a lot to you — Nirvana, again being the obvious example. And there is value in having giant icons to define yourself against, I suppose, but I just don’t know yet how much difference it makes that Rihanna only sells X albums while Whitney Houston used to sell X albums more.
As to the individual fields, it’s not mutually exclusive to think there’s a “vibrant independent film scene” while also thinking that Hollywood is a decaying pile of garbage people. Every year, there are a shit ton of movies that take chances with form and content — everything from documentaries to foreign films to directors working on the fringes of the system. It’s a lot like music to me, where you have to work harder than you used to in order to find the best stuff.
By the way, doesn’t the fact that Cameron Crowe just responded to you on Twitter pretty much end this conversation, and prove that the internet and the world are full of magic and wonder?
David Simon Cowell: Yes, I was entirely wrong. I will now go back to listening to In Your Eyes on repeat.
Scanning this treatise (mostly to make sure it’s cogent for the future generations that study it), I think I need to clear something up. I began this thread with the idea of having a serious discussion, yes, but also as a parody of the Grantland piece that started it all. So, some of what you’re taking as overblown panic was actually brilliant satire. Of course, I didn’t tell you that was my intention, and just assumed that you would read my mind and jump right in. And in that you didn’t is really your fault.
Our disagreement seems to boil down to two things:
1.) I believe that the Internet has changed our relationship to content in ways that are deteriorating our relationship to it. You agree with the change (although not that it’s really that big or that permanent), but not with the deterioration (or at least that it hasn’t been off-set by more gains).
2.) I think that not having shared cultural experiences with people not in your small specific cohort is a loss for our nation (again, overdramatic, but I guess that’s kind of what I’m saying). You don’t.
To address the first part, I’ll try to steer this back to where we started before we start Chapter Two: When Veronica Mars Validates D.S.C.’s Fears. Maybe the reason that Grantland article got me to start this conversation that’s been germinating for a while was the subject. I’m a huge David Bowie fan. Of course, a “real” David Bowie fan would say that I’m a piker. But the Sound & Vision box set came out when we were in high school, and I listened to it over and over for about a six-month period. And since, as we’ve noted before, the period in your teens is the period of the strongest influences, it was totally formative.
But even though I know a lot about David Bowie and pretty much revere him, beyond the box set I only owned maybe two of his actual albums. You’ve known me for a while, and this connection I feel to him probably isn’t something that’s ever come up, that he was much more influential to my opinions about art and culture in that important period than, say, Bob Dylan. But he was (is, whatever).
So, when I was reading that article, besides wanting to punch Chuck Klosterman in the face, one of my first instincts was to go to Pirate’s Bay and download his entire catalogue, which would have basically sat in my iTunes. Which led me to wonder why I stopped exploring his works in the first place. And the answer is clearly that CDs cost money then, and there were other CDs, like Nirvana or the Beasties or whatever, that got my money. Whereas, I haven’t spent money on a CD in probably a decade now. I pay for concerts (obviously not much now in Peru), but albums are files that I download at will. And, while I certainly don’t equate money with meaning, that they have literally no value does seem to have cheapened them overall.
Of course, bringing this into the realm of the personal opens it up to charges of adolescent nostalgia. But really it’s not (or not what I’m talking about here, not saying I’m totally immune to it ever). I’m talking about two things that have almost entirely disappeared Pop Culture-wise: that there is value in scarcity, and that there is value in space and reflection. And if there’s any “these kids today” in this particular discussion, it’s that we all know what happens when you give someone everything they want at the moment they want it. And that it means they don’t value any of it, which is why we’ve become a bunch of Pop Culture brats, which is certainly reflected in the type and level of discourse on the Internet.
Some of this is probably covered in Quiet by Susan Cain, but I downloaded it in a file with 100 other books and it’s still sitting on my Kindle.
As for the second part, my point would be this. We are in a period of severe conflict in the U.S. right now, with the level of social and political discourse that is toxic. And this isn’t just anecdotal… social scientists have done studies of stratification that suggest Civil War levels. This is obviously, obviously due to a host of factors. But I think part of it is cultural. In 1985, a suburban mother in Connecticut may have hated Reagan while a Kansas farmer’s wife loved him. But they both got their news from Dan Rather, and both had copies of Thriller in their car, and both watched The Cosby Show every single week. Now, the same people that diverge on Obama get their news from totally different sources (let’s say MSNBC and Fox), listen to totally different music (rap and country), watch totally different TV (Breaking Bad and 2 1/2 Men). Is this either the sole cause or the sole cure? No. But not having shared social experiences is having an effect beyond just the business of entertainment, and the Balkanization of the Internet exacerbates that.
The Dilemma: Is this where I acknowledge that I was drunk when I read the Bowie piece and definitely didn’t recognize your satire/callback?
David Simon Cowell: I did think you started screaming at me awfully early.