The Death of Pop Culture; the Mighty are Fallen

John Podhoretz had an interesting column in Tuesday’s New York Post, remarking on the “mass-media meltdown” that is more apparent every day. He writes:

He wrote,

But it can’t be a coincidence that the five major pillars of the American media movies, television, radio, recorded music and newspapers are all suffering at the same time. And it isn’t. Something major has changed over the past year, as the availability of alternative sources of information and entertainment has finally reached critical mass.

It’s not a coincidence. While Podhoretz is correct in asserting that affordable consumer options are a considerable factor in the across-the-board losses being suffered by the media, I do believe that something more is at play here, than mere materialism and convenience.

I think we’re seeing the first evidences of the death of Pop Culture, as brought to you by the once-invincible and insatiable machine of the news/entertainment industry. The mainstream media’s glitzy promotion of itself – of its own ideas and agendas, marketed as trends, sitcoms, music and “distinguished” drama – is no longer succeeding at holding our attention. Subsequently the Pop Culture which was conceived in silent film, nurtured by radio and talkies, brought into the full blossom of adolescence via television and finally into adulthood thanks to cable, is suddenly finding itself old and exhausted and played out.

Something has changed, but what?

Well, we know the media have not changed. Hollywood is still churning out mindless drivel with lots of blood and sex and things blowing up or caving in, but people are no longer fascinated. The music industry has an infinite supply of thumping bass lines, and more emaciated, over-mammaried young women willing to strip down to their bikini-waxes than it can use, but increasingly people are rolling their eyes and saying, “fer cryin out loud, put some clothes on and eat a sandwich!” Radio has shock-and-schlock jocks galore, but people are flipping the dial, and looking for something else, please! And television? Television has provided every American household with a new nightly mantra: “263 channels, and nothing on!”

Of course, there is plenty to watch on television. Several dozen home-improvement shows. Several dozen reality shows. Cooking shows. People playing poker. Sleazy music videos full of pimps and ho’s. Shopping! Vapid sitcoms made up of a guy, a girl, a snarky gay friend, a sexually frustrated woman and the stupid white men who cause all their problems. Cop and medical dramas which can be pretty good, until they start lecturing their audience about society or politics or religion, and exactly what good and noble people should think about those issues.

Alternative sources, iPods, TiVO and the internet have something to do with the diminishing influence of the news and entertainment media in the eyes of the public. Increased options have always pulled some consumers away from the mainstream products, but the media have always been able to woo them back with a flashy new gizmo or an outrageous new idea. That does not seem to be happening anymore.

Consumers of Pop Culture are not merely turning their heads in momentary distraction; they are doing a full-bodied turn away from the media gods and gargoyles which have held them enthralled for nearly 100 years. And the gods are both bewildered and jealous.

A pugilist who has taken a devastating hit and landed on the mat may jump back up insisting all is well, but as he staggers around the ring, the crowd will begin to abandon him; his opponent will let him believe he has regained his footing before delivering the final, crushing right. A blow to a boxers head may not be immediately fatal, but over time its consequences become apparent.

I suggest that when Mohammed Atta and his pals killed 3000 Americans in New York, and a few hundred more in Washington, D.C., they also struck a blow to the Popular Culture and its providers, which buckled their knees and left them breathless. Regrouping, that culture has spent the last four years staggering about the ring on wobbly pins, insisting that they are alright, that nothing has changed, but the crowd, sensing a loser, is starting to jeer. It may never receive a fatal blow, but its championship days are surely behind it.

People are weary of being lectured to by the media and the culture it promotes. They are tired of being told via sitcoms that their values are silly or via senators that the people they elect are losers. They are tired of reading that the traditions they wish to share within their communities are divisive if they insult an atheist, with no corresponding recognition that an atheist’s tirade is often filled with hate. They are sick of turning on a good cop drama, looking for an hour’s simple entertainment, only to learn that people like themselves, who hold with deeply-held religious beliefs, are really monsters of unenlightened hatred. To get away from that, they flip to C-span, just in time to learn that their traditional family units are insultingly heteronormative.

Wherever consumers of mainstream news and entertainment turn they are being lectured to by a punch-drunk media telling them that the terrorists they rightly disrespect are their moral equals, that relativism is truth and truth is unknowable, that their children are incapable of self-restraint, that failure to appreciate their elite and enlightened betters make them “knuckle-dragging, salivating morons.” They listen to elected officials like Ted Kennedy, a so-called icon of public service refer to them – the public he is supposed to be serving – as “Neanderthals.”

The mainstream media have a strong left hook, and they have used it to bludgeon the sensibilities of a trusting, agreeable and curious public for decades. But in the weeks and months after 9/11, the public saw the gods and goddesses of television wonder if their Emmy awards should not be held at a military installation, because, of course, the terrorists would want to hurt our prettiest people. They listened to so-called comedians like Bill Maher suggest that a celebrity pedophile “servicing” a young boy sexually was not as bad as a beating by a schoolyard bully. They watched an old-guard news anchor, on the eve of a national election, promote demonstrably faked documents questioning the military service of one candidate, even as he resolutely refused to ask a single question about the credibly-doubted service of another candidate, and they realized that the towering heavy-weight they had long supported was nothing but a chump who perhaps, finally, needed to be brought down with a good uppercut from the right.

What has happened to the mainstream media, in all of its incarnations, is this: The champion, the Mighty Pop Culture, has taken a hit and gone down. It will probably rise again, but never with the same mythic status of a favorite. Once humbled and brought down, its weaknesses have been exposed; the crowd will watch knowingly, just as ready to jeer as to cheer.

Whether the giant egos who manage from the corners can handle the laughter remains to be seen.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Sydney Carton

    Amy, while you’re right that a lot of people are distancing themselves from the “Popular Culture,” don’t be so sure that society as a whole is doing it. There are vast demographic sections that clearly are NOT (such as young white girls or young black men). It’s not for nothing that gangster rap continues to rise in popularity.

    Just because a mass-culture has been broken up into different pieces means that things have improved. In fact, it might mean that certain of those pieces could get worse and worse, immune to criticism from the greater society. That’s my take on things.

  • Mir

    Holy Right Hook, Anchoress, what antibiotics are you scarfing up? I want a dose of that! Great rant.

  • Jean Marie

    I actually find the decline of some media to be very sad: local daily newspapers, classical radio stations (especially when Detroit’s SUCCESSFUL station was bought and changed), and the big networks who at least allowed time for local news and special-events broadcasts.

    I agree with Sydney Carton: Worse trends are happening. Even in a small town like mine, teenagers can download all sorts of music, get age-restricted violent games, and get free porn via their “friends” on the Internet.

  • Joseph Marshall

    “People are weary of being lectured to by the media..”

    We’ll let the usual foolishness of the “people” being a synonym for “all the folks who think like me”, pass.
    There are certain quarters where the illusion that everybody else is merely a bunch of holograms simply can’t be dispelled.

    Culture is culture is culture. That champion of “people”, Rupert Murdoch, has remade the cable news program over in the “people’s” own image. When he, or Mel Gibson, or both together, step into the world of weekly sitcoms and dramas I, for one, will be intrigued by the results, and how they will play with the public (both the “people” and the holograms, since both will have to be watching to make it profitable, and I strongly suspect that neither will).

    In a like manner, when the bloggers replace Reuters, AP, Knight Ridder, and so on, I will be intrigued by how well they report the news, instead of merely commenting on how someone else reports it.

    But until some of the REAL money behind the crusade make everything the way the “people” want it starts getting into the entertainment business, or behind giving the bloggers airplane tickets to go places and report things, I won’t hold my breath.

  • MaxedOutMama

    Definitely a maul.

    But so much of what I read resonated with me. I haven’t watched a television series in years. Not even an individual show.

    So many of the parent I know don’t want their kids watching that sort of thing either. It’s a constant stream of contemptuousness. I think a substantial minority is turning away from the traditional media.

    It is not that they are dead – it is that they have lost their monopoly status. Education programs and papers will still be read. But the trend toward diversification is significant.

  • Pammy

    Your rant was a joy to read and I am so with you on this. The other night I sat down to watch “Law & Order,” just wanting an hour’s of entertainment. What I got was a big poke in the eye to me and every other Christian out there. You nailed exactly how I feel about the media and entertainment in general. Thanks.

  • Gerald Augustinus Naus

    Great rant :) I’ll quote it later, off to baseball game now, go Padres! (and Red Sox of course. Yankees shall perish)

  • dilys

    It all began with C-Span IMO. I remember watching unedited press conferences of Newt Gingrich, then reading the newspapers reporting those conferences. Night and day. I wouldn’t have recognized the event. Once the machinery behind the curtain is exposed, the illusion is never the same.

    And yes, everyone isn’t turning away from MSM. But the benefit of the doubt has been removed, a hermaneutic of suspicion fostered. It’s no longer the familiar guest in the living room.

    We did some home renovation a few months ago, and haven’t turned on the TV since. Books and DVDs and long talks. What a concept!

  • Stefan

    Fantastic!! What fun that was! I rant about this topic all the time. I think that the funeral of JPII will have an impact in this regard which cannot yet be measured. Most Americans really had no clue to what JPII had been saying all these years. They just thought what they were being constantly told. The pope is an example of the closeminded and backwards religious institutions which are out of touch with the new improved reality of the modern secular wonderland that all of the elites have graciously bestowed upon us. JPII’s acomplishments had a shock effect on the MSM and the un-knowing public. The smart, eloquent, and charming religious that were the “experts” of the week spoke of the phenominal depth of JPII revealing his brilliant and compelling defence of True human dignity in the face of the banalities and violence brought by the “new reality” of the enlightened and secular world. People probably encountered some of the first serious “adult” arguments of why the chruch stands were it does and found that it was deeply principled, consistant, and compelling. This shattering of the stereotypes even moved many hardened. MSM reporters and I hope it moves some of our fellow citizens in the future.

  • cranky

    Great rant! I think you may have cut Pop Culture and now he’ll always be a bleeder.

    I need lectures from God. I don’t need lectures from the MSM or banal TV shows. For me, September 11th changed everything and when the MSM subsequently ‘asked’ us to consider the viewpoint of the terrorists, you know, just to balance things out, I lost all my patience with their moral relativism and now considered them completely irrelevent. They didn’t want to offend evil people and instead offended all people who are not evil.

    So I don’t watch them and don’t buy their advertisers’ products. The advertisers will get a clue before the MSN and TV people do.

  • cranky


    The advertisers will get a clue before the MSM (not MSN) and TV people do.

  • Catherine L

    I haven’t reglarly watched an entertainment series in years. I turned on Will & Grace once in the first or second season and was treated to an extended discourse on the size of Grace’s breasts. That was the last nail in the coffin of TV for me. Now it’s just Brit Hume, occasional home improvement or cooking shows, and pre-screening kiddie shows for my little ones. I’m free, free, free; and I take a secret delight in giving people blank stares when the discussion moves to entertainment TV.

  • Darrell

    Do you think the majority of people in this country ever agreed it was a good idea for our entire educational system from preschool through graduate school to be controled by the Left? Did you vote for that? 60% of college professors communists(recent poll)? An additional 30% Socialist or other Left. Four of the five major pillars mentioned(movies, television, recorded music and newspapers) unarguably Left. We allowed it to happen. We have to set things right. Maybe top companies should start refusing to hire anyone with degrees from the twenty worst offenders among universities. Rabid anti-capitalists aren’t going to help you grow your business anyway. A lot of people are now waking up to the Leftocracy that has silently taken over this country. “Law and Order” has been unwatchable for at least two years now. The solution is simple–Time to stop watching these shows! Stop buying the DVDs! Stop going to “message” movies like “The Kingdom of Heaven.” We started it? After 1000 years of getting sucker-punched. Cancel those subscriptions to the magazines and newspapers that you can’t stand to read anymore. Show the Left the power of free markets, before Hillary and Co. are giving you a centrally-planned economy.

  • Tom Spence

    Excellent piece of writing! Right on target too.

  • Ellen

    I came across a gratuitous dig at Bush in a Lemony Snickett book a few weeks ago. Then last night, I found a sneer at Republicans in a romantic suspense novel I was reading. Curse you mass media! You’ve driven me away from TV, at least leave me my books!

  • TheAnchoress

    I’d be interested in knowing the name of that book, Ellen. Might be fun to write about.

  • SallyVee

    Dear Anchoress. I do so want to believe your conclusions. But how will I (or you) ever really know, since we’ve taken ourselves out of the stream? I will leave room for the possibility that your optimistic view is correct. But in my heavy, heavy heart — weighed down by our obscene culture despite the most overt attempts to ignore it — I am not optimistic. I am disgusted, ashamed, and completely disenfranchised. I know, I know. Christians are supposed to be strangers in the world. But it seems to have gone way beyond that stage. Some days I wish we’d stop pretending and jump straight to the good old fashioned persecution and slaughter stage. That’s how much I yearn for truth and brutal reality.

  • greg

    Hmmm. From your comments section it’s easy enough to tell that the Romans agree with the lions, with the exception of the inimitable Joseph Marshall. While I certainly appreciate your well-thought-out essay and the sense of profound frustration that drove it, I wonder if the cure – assuming there even is one (or that one is needed to begin with) – might actually be worse than the disease at this point.

    Perhaps I should add that I neither watch television nor listen to talk radio of any stripe. Not a point of braggadocio; just fact. And I mention the following only as the qualifier to my own compass fix on morality: While I have certainly considered myself a Christian for the past 34 years and a subscriber to the Apostles’ Creed, I presently don’t consider myself a member of any specific denomination or church.

    With that dispatched, I feel it necessary to respond to your essay simply by suggesting you assume far too much for your years. Were you more a student of history (or simply had a few more years notched in your belt, for that matter), I would think you would see this is entire landscape as merely cyclical. Society has always had a popular culture, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome. That’s certainly not a revelation.

    Looking down the road, I seriously doubt podcasting, et al is going to give MSM a run for its money once people realize they’re merely substituting one viewpoint for another. I happen to agree with Mr. Marshall 20/20 vision into the crystal ball. I don’t see anything on the horizon near healthy enough to replace what you and others such as you deride as “on the ropes.”

  • Ironman

    As the risk of being wonkish, maybe this is demographics at work.

    The number of artistically talneted twentysomethings has declined as a result of the 1970′s baby bust. (This alos reduced 1990′s crime rates, BTW)Notice the explosion in the pop culture in 1964 when the first baby boomers turned 18.

    We will see in about five years when the echo boomers reach maturity what happens then.

  • greg

    And a nod to Ironman as well. I completely agree with the idea of “demographics at work” insofar as persons such as myself who are 55 likely have little clue as to the reality of culture even five years hence.

  • Stefan

    Here is the deal Greg. I think that what people are really noticing is not the literal “end” of pop culture but the weaking of its authority. It would seem like common sense that pop culture has been and will always be with us and no one , I don’t think, would seriously dispute that. The culture that we are hoping might be heading into death throws is the pop culture built on the radical social upheaval of the 1960′s. This has probably been the single most influential and pervasive re making of public culture the world has ever seen (for various technological reasons) and it has worshipped itself into complete decadence. The reason people are turning away, so to speak, is not because they are purely cynical (although there is probably some of that) but rather because it is pop culture that has rotted itself to the core with cynicism. The entertainment industry has attacked everything traditional, everything considered sacred, and every deeply held conviction. Religious people have been the target of drooling, seething derision and scorn. They are mocked at every turn. What you are seeing now (I hope) is that people have tried every dish the post modern world has offered. Solipsism, moral relativism, and the sexual frenzy that have been the ideals of this culture. They have found that no matter how glitzy the image and how charming the messenger they are left starving for somethinng else. What we hope for is not a Christian pop culture which will replace the old one and create a happy little utopia but rather a pop culture that allows other ideas in and creates more options for movies, books, and music. The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books that are in production now are examples of the depth that Chistian writers bring. This depth is felt and hungered for by audiences who have had their fill of “Nip/Tuck” and “Kinsey”

  • Ironman

    I also think there is a difference between the “early boomers” who seem to run the media these days–who’s life story is all Vietnam, all the time, and the “late boomers” who are parents today and whose world view was shaped by Reagan.

    I think the late boomers have gone sour on pop culture and their children have no knowledge of a centralized media ala 1970-80′s America

  • Ellen

    Anchoress, the book was Black Ice by Anne Stuart. I like her books, and maybe I am making too much of it, but it just set me off.

  • buckey1

    The women in my house( I am outnumbered 3-1) will watch, “Desperate Housewives, the current “Batchelor or “Batchlorette” or “CSI-Las Vegas” or whatever else is on the WB. Yet, my wife who will bemoan the decay of our culture and want to harken back to better days. Me thinks that some of our folk have both feet in both worlds and need to be more consistent in their worldview. I have been at the ‘puter and have taken the remote and turned the channel on the three (my wive is one of the three) who watch “Desperate Housewives” because the content was so racy and inappropriate for the 13 year old to view.