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Are you not entertained?

The emptiness of popular culture

Last Tuesday I was sitting in bed with aching joints, feeling sorry for myself. This scene, in a COVID world, is a familiar one — we all have either experienced feeling crappy with COVID or looked after people close to us who have been struck down by the modern day, much less lethal plague. 

However, we do not need illness to take to bed. The era of the “self-care day” is firmly upon us. Now if we are feeling a little blue, we are encouraged to look after ourselves in an attempt to cheer up. 

Many of us choose to spend that time watching our favourite shows. Whether they are nostalgic — giving us the equivalent of a sugar hit to a small child — or complex and suspenseful series, the creation of online streaming has given us access to an unprecedented amount of content. No longer do we have to be content with access to a mere five channels, or satisfy ourselves with a trip to Blockbuster; now we can watch what we want when we want. As Peggy Olson says to Don Draper in Mad Men: “I look around and I think: I want what he had. You have had everything, and you have so much of it.”

We have a cultural and entertainment smorgasbord that previous generations could only imagine. The sheer volume of cultural products now available is not limited to TV but stretches to games, books, and podcasts.

You sit drowning in the characters and stories, yet feeling little

Just like with Don Draper, the abundance of materiality has not brought the contentedness or joy that may have been presumed. Instead, we are drowning in a sea of choices, none of which provide any measure of true comfort. The content washes over us as we become increasingly numb to what comes next. Our present condition is not quite the same as that of Huxley’s Brave New World. However, our unfettered access to technology and entertainment has created a “numbing” culture. When Huxley’s savage declared, “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin”, does it not remind us of something too close to home? 

If you’re a “binge watcher”, you’ll get no judgement from me. As a way to switch off, I oftentimes watch TV late in the evening. Consuming both respectable products like Succession and the frowned upon psychodrama of Jerry Springer, I am a truly democratic connoisseur. Aesthetical differences aside, they fail to reach the cultural or communal influence that is oftentimes claimed. You sit in bed, or on the couch, with a snack and a big bottle of drink, drowning in the characters and stories yet feeling little if anything at all. 

Our overreliance upon content affects not just consumers but the multitude of creators, who cannot make a living from their efforts. Denied both recompense and recognition for their efforts, their content hangs in the cultural ether, with most of us unwilling or unable to pay for it. The result is a painful one, full of unfulfilled dreams and creators “grinding” in a desperate attempt to force interest upwards. 

Now, we have a “creative underclass” of people who produce content but cannot make a living from it. The spring of our economy, competition, has led to many content creators having “side gigs” to supplement their incomes. Not only do the creative underclass suffer from economic struggles but they also suffer from a lack of recognition. Not everyone can be famous — but everyone wants to be appreciated.

Our entertainment also speaks to our culture. Erich Fromm, in the Fear of Freedom, warned about the de-stabilising effects of Western individualism on the strength of communal bonds and the constant questioning of our “place” in the world. In entertainment, we can witness the demand for recognition and solidity via what we watch, read and play with. Today, rather than debating the republic or the monarch, questions of representation fill the air. Fearful that our story, or our community’s story is not being told, we are increasingly obsessed with being seen and documented.

Rather than providing genuine comfort or transportation to another world, the volume of our entertainment functions as a mere distraction. Much like candy floss, it gives you an immediate hit but leaves you still feeling hungry. Rather than focusing solely on the nature of the content, resetting our viewing patterns and our relationships is essential to rediscovering the transportation culture can achieve. The structural relationship of culture and distraction leans too close towards giving us too much, too fast, and yet too little.

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