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Personalized Media Stagnating Pop Culture

decline of pop cultureJump in your wayback machine for a moment if you have one. Take it back a decade or two, before the death of radio, before there were over 100 television stations to choose from, before the birth of the iPod. Those were the days of the “water cooler” TV show was the “The Wonder Years.” Those were even the days when the song that topped the Billboard charts was actually considered the No. 1 song in the country. Those days are gone.

What’s Mine Is Mine

With the birth of personal media in everything from iPods to TV on-demand, we no longer share the common experience of performing arts like we used to. The major networks that gave us “M*A*S*H” and “Seinfeld” simply don’t have the impact they did even a decade ago. If you and I were to share over our new water cooler about an episode of “CSI” that we saw, would it be “CSI”, or “CSI: NY” or “CSI: Miami”? Sure “The Walking Dead” is a critical hit, but does AMC have the reach into homes that ABC once had? Hardly.

Now there are hundreds of TV stations to choose from. And with on-demand services and DVRs, we no longer even have to pay attention to the TV schedule to see what we want. We can watch what we want, when we want. Of course that choice is good for you, but as societies, it’s also bad for “us”.

The Death Of Radio

AM radio once defined generations. The play lists of the top stations gave us all common songs to sing and share. We all knew songs from the “Top 40” or the “Hot 100” and genres from Pop to R&B and Soul had stations that provided a communal experience. We all could sing together. These were songs that bubbled up from local stations to regional and then national attention; earning their way into our ears and hearts along the way.

Two things happened in the commercial music world that ended all of that. First of all, local and regional radio was taken over by the Clear Channels of the world, such that every city had the same KISS-FM or JACK-FM, playing the exact same play list, no matter where, to the point that no one cared anymore. Songs no longer worked their way up with charts. They were instead, born there by the right mix of marketing, promotion and cash. Regional scenes withered on the vine. What was the natural momentum of something like the Motown, Philly, Surf, or later, the Seattle “sounds” were now nothing more than marketing terms “Crunk”, “Dirty South” – not really reflecting a local scene with any depth to it.

The second thing that happened was the birth of the personal digital music player. Now it was easy to have just the music experience you wanted – one that was yours alone. Your 100 tunes could be, if you chose, the only things you would ever hear again. Like TV, music also became a completely personal, though increasingly isolated, experience.

You Don’t Know What I’m Talking About

It was said in a quote attributed to David Weinberger, that in the Internet age, “Everyone will be famous to fifteen people.” This variation on Warhol’s famous quote is sadly accurate. It is easy now to have an experience of pop culture that is totally outside of that of your neighbor, or even your best friend. While this variety is a boon on one hand, on the other it creates almost a cultural Tower of Babel, where we no longer understand the mutual cultural touchstones that have throughout history been used to define our societies.

Ask yourself why The Beatles are still one of the top selling artists every year? I would argue it is because today we aren’t capable of producing an act with such global commonality. I remember when I was younger and a Paul McCartney solo album was in its first day of release. A friend of mine bought it and invited me over to listen to it. He said, “Isn’t it cool that all over the world tonight, there are people getting together to listen to this just like you and I?” It’s safe to say that those types of experiences don’t happen much anymore.

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