Schlock to the System: An America Under Trump Signals a Grave Challenge for the Creative Class


Brace yourselves for a deplorable avalanche of schlock culture, folks. My personal theory is that whenever a loathed-by-the-left Republican hits the top spot, the culture suffers: The artsy bunch feel crushed, defeated, and in need of some quick, mindless escapism — not the legitimate cultural rapture that would elevate them in the long haul. President Richard M. Nixon brought the schlock with him in droves — remember jean shorts, spandex, Hee Haw, and Beware! The Blob? — and Ronnie Reagan did the same thing in the 1980s, with an unhealthy heaping of A Flock of Seagulls, track lighting, Small Wonder, and Endless Love. So did you honestly expect that the Trump administration — which rose to power on moth-eaten razzle-dazzle — would arrive with an assortment of Masterpiece Theatre links? Consider my forecast of the year-to-be a “coming distractions” heads-up of misguided entertainment that we can blame on Trump, even if he’s not directly responsible for it. After all, it’s what he would do!

It turns out that a lot of the crap culture is already in motion, as sometimes happens when the wheels start turning even before the crackpot mans the dilapidated stagecoach. And it ain’t pretty. On Broadway, we are bracing for a SpongeBob musical, a version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a Harry Potter show — all family-style entertainment that might be better on ice. Nostalgia for more comforting, less scary times becomes an easy fix, and the tendency is toward large, noisy productions that might drown out current editions of Meet the Press.

Take movies. The sickening reality for quite a while has been that the studios only produce sequels, prequels, action films, superhero shtick, and other franchises thought to have built-in ka-ching. Execs’ behinds live and die based on the cash they generate internationally, so the last thing they want to do is put out art films about race relations or surreal musicals about art-vs.-commerce — leave that to the indies, honey buns. This has furthered the divide between the movies people go to see and the ones critics rave about. In 2017 more than ever, the Academy Awards will be a lonely event honoring movies only seen by people who happen to be seated in the live audience (and an occasional usher who knows someone who got a free screener). The home audience will sit there wondering why they’re being forced to care if Hell or High Water should beat Hidden Figures for art direction, while at least hoping for a presenter they may have heard of somewhere on a distant reality show.

In this environment of forced whimsy, critics have become enraptured with La La Land, a bittersweet musical about an actress and a jazz musician adrift on the freeway to semi-dashed dreams. They sing and dance and banter and fight and make up, and there’s lots of atmosphere and jamming, in between hard-to-argue-with messages like “Live your dream.” Despite some outbreaks of enchantment, this might have played better with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland (or on ice). As it is, it makes the blandish Best Picture winner The Artist look as substantive as 12 Years a Slave. But this may well be the Best Picture winner 2017 deserves. (At least last year’s #OscarsSoWhite outrage will surely be remedied with five or more likely nominees in the acting categories alone. But is it sacrilege to say that the acclaimed coming-of-age film Moonlight is beautifully done, and I hope I never have to sit through it again?)

Meanwhile, make way for Hacksaw Ridge! Yes, it’s OK to like director Mel Gibson again, and I sort of understand that: In the age where Trump has ascended to the highest power, is anyone honestly still going to be furious at Mel Gibson for having said “sugar tits” years ago? Besides, Mel has had the blessing of Jodie Foster for some time now, and people respect Jodie because of what she’s been through (including a bad movie with Mel Gibson). Add the fact that Hacksaw Ridge is a bloody film about a conscientious objector and you have so many more ironies and reasons to like Mel again.

It’s OK to like gays again, too, except that by now, same-sex marriage has made everything so generic I’d have to fish through my trash pail to find the disc for a sitcom I got about lesbian marrieds. With grave disappointment (but not surprise), I found it every bit as banal as the straight ones that spawned it. The only good side of Trump/Pence’s rabid homophobia is that it might ignite a new fire under gays’ butts and force us to return our blenders and not be quite as complacent anymore. Remember when righteous anger led to Angels in America? Well, let’s get furious and create some bristling art again.

Sadly, I think that instead of bristling art, Trump/Pence will elicit a sickening array of denial-prone retro habits like line dances, glow rings, smiley faces, and lunchboxes for grown-ups. Even worse, NYC will be hard hit by the cheese factor, and not just on our live stages; in fact, now that even Brooklyn is over as a place to migrate to, the center square of our city will be all the way in Atlantic City. I’m the only one happy about this, because I happen to like overcooked buffets and salsa revues performed by faded country acts. Everyone else prepare to suffer, and not in a fun way.