If you had told us, at the beginning of this awful decade, that intelligent people would one day be writing essays — serial essays, yet — on reality shows about young dimwits, we wouldn’t have believed you. We would have thought you were doing a William Gibson-style riff about a future dystopia in which everyone has money but no one knows how to read.
That was a simpler time in general — people wrote in paper diaries, Whitney Port was being kept back in third grade again, and writing fancy words about moronic pop crap was just something that silly, reverse-pretentious professors like Camille Paglia did.
But here we are at the end of the 00s, and Brian Moylan, a very fine writer, has just penned a thousand words about Jersey Shore. And this is not a punishment assignment or a lost bet, but his job.
Other fine writers at classy venues are doing the same sort of thing. Hell, we even do it at the Village Voice.
These subjects was once the province of cheap gossip magazines, and actual gossip. High-end vendors barely touched them or, if they did, took a slumming, what-the-yokels-are-gobbling attitude. When you opened the New York Times Arts section, you might read about Leontyne Price, Woody Allen, John Updike, and — if the editors were in a really daring mood — Mabou Mines. You would not see anything like “Spike Jonze Explains His Kanye West Mini-Movie, ‘We Were Once a Fairytale,’” or anything about anyone who spelled his Christian name so eccentrically.
But trawl the internet and prestige publications today, and you will find a great amount of gilded commentary about pop culture of the lowest variety.
Way back in 2004, Today asked readers for their “guilty pleasures” — things that they liked but were embarrassed about. Their confessions, delivered with tittering self-abnegation, included The O.C., Sam Raimi movies, Journey, Neil Diamond, etc.
Would anyone feel the least bit guilty about owning to these objects of affection now? Of course not. More likely they’d be writing loving exegeses on them — maybe for The Observer, where this week Christopher Rosen says “With the decade drawing to a close this week, isn’t it about time we give the proper respect to Josh Schwartz and The O.C.?” He calls the show “The best teen series of the aughts,” as if this were some sort of distinction.
The phenomenon is not entirely new. There have for years been brave, eccentric souls who sought to make cases for neglected dustbin treasures — Manny Farber and his “termite art,” Roy Lichtenstein and his reimagined cartoons, the pop cult investigations of Dr. Ray Browne and Susan Sontag, and so on.
And surely rock criticism as we know it would barely exist if it did not allow authors of a scholarly bent to turn their analytic and literary skills to explaining the wider significance of, say, North Dakota metal bands.
But these worthies are mostly of a rarified class of cultural scavengers who add insight to their work, spinning dross into gold. In the mass market, we have neither time nor interest enough to do anything but spin dross into dross.
Or into unique page views, which partly explains how this condition came to be. As the need for poor laborers in the increasingly tight writers’ market to produce signs of effectiveness increases, it becomes an easy call to write about something to which a wide readership can relate. Why devote a thousand words to something only other intellectuals care about, when you can write about The City and scoop up a bunch of web trawlers who will go look at anything to which that brand is applied?
It’s no sin that educated people are less embarrassed by their downscale cultural choices than once they were. Why be sheepish about the fun junk you enjoy? But as more people are moved by economic or emotional necessity to actually write about it, this post-modern pride leaves a growing wake of literary detritus. Now we don’t just have the fun junk, but junk about the fun junk — which is less fun. It’s the difference between a music festival and the mountains of litter that accumulate in its aftermath — culture vs. cultural slag.
Perhaps we make too much of it. In small doses it’s harmless enough, and maybe in large doses too. So who cares if our morning news feed looks more like Tiger Beat than the New York Times? At the end of the next decade the Times will probably look more like Tiger Beat than the Times, and we’ll be getting all our news, such as it is, from social media shouters.
It will be an interesting experiment in journalism and in citizenship, and we will see how it worked out and maybe revisit the subject at the end of the next decade. If we do, though, we’ll probably have to do it in the form of pictograms.