We will, in the closing days of this wretched decade, list the Top Ten reasons why it sucked. Reason #10 is here. This is #9.
Name your favorite artists of the past decade.
Tough one, huh?
The Voice plays the best-of-decade game in the current issue, and we salute the fine critics who stepped up. But for all their very creditable explanations, we notice a distinct lack of enthusiasm, of passion, of gush.
That’s because it’s hard to be excited when you’re picking kernels out of shit. In the arts, as elsewhere, the 00s sucked.
Take, from the Voice lists, these random lines for the theatrical look-back by Michael Feingold — Pulitzer-Prize-winner-in-waiting and, to steal a line from Gore Vidal, a master whom we revere:
“Money, being our culture’s central value, is our theater’s permanent heartache.” “…the worst thing about New York theater in this century: the lack of a great company regularly producing works of classic stature.” “The small groups that struggle Off- and Off-Off Broadway to sustain some semblance of our tradition battled bravely, often achieving modest success…” “Even Off-Broadway, where new plays are the main thing, the decade showed severe constriction.”
Sounds like a goddamn golden age, don’t it.
Feingold picks some winners out of the muck — he likes The Producers, the long-dead Ingmar Bergman, and the rise of minority playwrights — but in the main he sounds like a doctoral candidate cobbling together a paper on English theater during the reign of Cromwell or some other such doldrums. With his digging expertise, he can find some nuggets. But if he were writing about any other decade in the past five or six, he could have just picked those nuggets off the ground.
And he doesn’t say anything about the money machines — Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins, White Christmas — that have distorted the theater on the high end.
In general, the end-of-the-decade reviews have all been like this. Have a gander at the NME BoD list. Their top entry is The Strokes’ Is This It. Nice album. It still sounds good. Why does it still sound good? Because it’s simple and rocking. The lyrics are stupid — and not even wildly, madly stupid, but just plain stupid — but it provides the MDR of riffage and rhythm. And that’s the greatest album of the decade.
(By the way, Julian, we’re still waiting for your Sgt. Pepper. Or even your Give ‘Em Enough Rope.)
Go down NME’s list, or any of the others. Maybe there are songs on it your really love, because you heard them at your prom, or during one hilltop dawn when you were coming down off something. Maybe some of them are really top-drawer.
But now that we’re at the end of the decade, do you look back at all this catalogue and say, yeah, that’s the sound of the 00s? Of course not. First, because you can’t pronounce “00s.” Second, because while these top finishers were happening, the music industry hit machine — undaunted by the decentralizing trends that shook up the business model (like a certain other industry we could name) — was creating the real sound of the 00s. Which sucks.
Look and listen to this:
Look, mom dropped the pancakes she’s so stressed! This is the #1 iTunes seller of the week. It’s like “All I Wanna Do” forcibly cross-bred by Josef Mengele with “Party in the U.S.A.” This is the sound of the decade, at least at the moment, and maybe they’ll develop another one before December 31st, which will sell just as well.
Now let’s glide over the movies. We can take Paste‘s list, or the Voice‘s, or anyone’s. Nice movies, some great ones too. There’s your indie dweebies, your Disney weepies, blown-up closet dramas and late works by old masters.
But in the course of the decade, we don’t notice the top talents in the biz having much of an impact on the industry at large. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans aside, Werner Herzog has not infiltrated the consciousness of Hollywood the way Godard, Penn, Altman, and other groundbreakers of yore transformed mass market movies. The 00s started with Gladiator and end with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — quality-wise, at best a flatline.
OK, maybe chart-toppers are a bad example: Look at the box office champs of the year thus far. Up. Harry Potter. Twilight. If all the great filmmakers of the decade had never existed, how would that list have looked any different?
If anything, the energy is flowing in the other direction. Wes Anderson made a mass-market cartoon. Spike Jonez made something like a mass-market cartoon. Maybe next Herzog will make one.
And that’s how it is in general. If you want to blame something, blame the power of the marketplace, and especially that of niche marketing.
In this decade, before the recession, there was enough money sloshing around to sustain niches in virtually any entertainment category. Indie films had their own cable channel. Amazon customers could form clubs where they were only exposed to books in which they were presumed to have an interest. There were internet radio channels based on even obscure groups (we didn’t know before this week there was an Iron and Wine channel on Pandora). The internet so exponentiated the opportunities for choice that one could pick and choose what kind of culture one wanted to be part of, and never have to have contact with any other.
This may be difficult for young people to comprehend, but once upon a time there were far fewer options for artists. After battling their way into some sort of limelight, they had to pick a team and fight with it until it took the hill. Thus the rebels of the 60s took over the radio and the rebels of the 70s took over Hollywood — because they had no choice. It was either that or obscurity.
Now far fewer of them have to be obscure, because however narrow their focus might be, if there’s anything anyone might like in their work, there’s a slice of the market for them. And as these slices have established themselves as profitable minor markets, the big players have taken notice. The established niches now act as farm teams for the majors, much the way post-punk labels became farm teams for the major labels. Suddenly being what used to be called an outsider is just another species of market opportunity — you can be “called up” at any moment if you play your cards right. You are technically an independent, but if you have any ambition at all, that ambition is directed at cracking into the bigs.
(This isn’t limited to film and music. Jersey Boys was developed by the La Jolla Playhouse; book publishing is also “going indie,” and a glance at the best-seller lists will show how beneficent the effect has been.)
This new pro-am circuit is probably a big reason why the arts suck worse now than ever before. You could also say that that the money simply got too big. The top-grossing film of 2000 was How the Grinch Stole Christmas, at $260 million. The top grossing film of 2008, The Dark Knight, doubled that with $533 million. The stakes have gotten so high that even penny-ante players will have their motivations distorted by it — not just in the movies, but in TV, music, and anything else.
But if that doesn’t mean anything to you, as Bogie said in The Maltese Falcon, forget it and we’ll make it this: we get the pop culture we deserve. This was the decade of George Bush, Simon Cowell, Bernie Madoff, Oprah Winfrey, and Judd Apatow. Maybe we should write it off as a low dishonest decade and call it quits. But what will make the next one any better?