The Golden Age of TV and Our Shrinking Popular Culture

Something lighter for the weekend.  On this week’s micro episode of the Weekly Substandard, Sonny Bunch and Victorino Matus discussed Stranger Things 2 — and Jonathan V. Last’s refusal to watch it, or television generally.  I don’t share JVL’s antipathy for quality TV, but I do want to write a bit about his observation that there is almost always this push to declare then new, hot show “the best ever.”  JVL added:

[T]his is all about cultural hype and conversation and everyone wanting to find shared space.  This is in a weird way the Millennial backlash to ‘Bowling Alone.’  We don’t have civic organizations, we don’t have families, but we’re going to find something that were going to take on as shared, common culture and we’ll just call it ‘the greatest television show ever’…

This is slightly ironic, insofar as television and the internet were blamed partially for the “Bowling Alone” phenomenon.   But JVL still has a point here about wanting to find shared space.  As a Gen Xer, the arcade was certainly one of those physical spaces of the common culture as depicted in Stranger Things 2.  And Vic is right about the greatness of Dig Dug.

But JVL is also right that those spaces didn’t have to be physical; they could be the movies and television that you discussed at school or work.  As noted in CNN’s Eighties miniseries, broadcast television’s peak as a shared cultural space likely occurred during the era depicted in Stranger Things 2, when the series finale of M*A*S*H* and the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas racked up the sort of ratings that are now only matched by Super Bowls.

Popular music created these sorts of spaces over the course of generations, often in the automobiles of the young, but also outside them.  There’s a reason why George Lucas pioneered the wall-to-wall pop music soundtrack in American Graffiti; even in 1962, teens had a relationship with the music their parents didn’t like and the disc jockeys whose disembodied voices were not unlike the Wizard of Oz metaphor deployed in the film.

American Bandstand brought this cultural space to Americans’ homes for decades thereafter.  Mary Katharine Ham and Kristen Soltis Anderson produced a fun and funny Federalist Radio Hour about MTV’s TRL providing a similar shared cultural space to first-wave Millennials, where you might be exposed to Britney Spears, Korn, and Sir Mix-a-Lot all in the same hour.

Just as video killed the radio star, the internet transformed the concept of cultural spaces from a heterogeneous shared experience to an endless array of niche communities.  We now live in an attention economy.

And this is probably why fans of a thing — any piece of entertainment or data — take to hyping it as “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever,” which may be just as effective in some contexts.  To be sure, the economics are such that there is an arms race of hype in the effort to monetize things.  But from the position of fandom, it is also a nostalgic desire for the shared, mass experience of yore.

It helps explain why our binary age drives binary discussions of so many things.  It definitely explains why you already don’t care what the Rotten Tomatoes score for The Last Jedi will be.

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