Sunday, August 18, 2013

One of the wonderful things about the internet is the sheer amount of content available on anything and everything. While this is unfortunate in certain cases – especially in matters concerning pornography and other forms of cruelty to others – the amount of excellent material is a delight.  I have been especially interested over the years in the intersection of popular culture and religion and so wrote a book on apocalyptic movies and television shows a decade ago The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film and Television). There is a great deal of and on popular culture on the internet, which I follow on numerous platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and specific podcasts and websites. There is a little less on popular culture and the intersection with religion, but there are a number of sites which I follow, not least among them America Magazine online. What I have noticed increasingly, however, is the treatment of popular culture as religion (not I hasten to add on the America Magazine website). Before moving farther, though, I need to define two concepts, at least to the extent that this can be done for a blog post: popular culture; religion.

I will start with religion, because it is the term to which I am going to give short shrift, simply because this is a significant and knotty issue in academic circles and for people in general, namely, what counts as religion? I am aware of the discussions as to whether a deity is necessary to call something a religion, since such definitions might exclude some eastern religions, or a higher power, or sacred texts, etc. I am using the term “religion” loosely here to identify that thing or group of things to which someone gives their utmost time and attention. Here is a real-time example from NBC’s broadcast of Chelsea and Hull City in the English Premiere league today: a huge banner hanging from the stadium which read, “Chelsea Our Religion.” Whatever the fans who hung that banner mean by it, that’s what I mean by saying that popular culture is being treated like a religion.

What am I counting as “popular culture”? A whole confluence of things, such as sports, video games, music, movies, YouTube and especially TV shows. There could be more – comic books, magazines, websites, blogs, books in general, internet memes – but I do not think there could be less. What I am saying about popular culture being treated as religion has to do with how these different media are now received and interpreted by a new class of "religious interpreters" and their disciples not what their creators (or even most consumers) necessarily think about them.

One final piece of information, I consume a fair amount of popular culture, but there is too much to have someone consume it all. I receive a lot of my information about pop culture from a few sources: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, Grantland, a website connected to ESPN, ABC and its parent Disney, my eclectic Twitter feed and Facebook, through which I subscribe  to many pages, apart from my friends posting their various interests. What I mean to say is that although I do not have a finger on every pulse, nor do I know it all, I have a smattering of information covering a wide variety of content.

I am fairly in love with NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, which is the porridge that is just right for me, and keeps me up to date on what is going on in a quick and snappy 40 minute podcast a week. What I have noticed elsewhere is that pop culture, especially on the high-powered Grantland website, also a favorite, is now treated not as reflective of the culture, or offering insight on our society, but is treated in many ways as the shaper of who we are and what we do. Pop culture, especially sports, TV and movies, are treated not as an addendum to a life, a nice bit of entertainment, but the goal and purpose to which one’s life is ordered. Grantland might be an anomaly, as it has some of the best pop culture writers in the English speaking language amassed at one site, or contributing and participating on podcasts, such as Malcolm Gladwell, Bill Simmons, Chuck Klosterman, Charles P. Pierce, and Nate Silver, as well as new up and coming writers, many of whom are superb, but that just makes it an anomaly in quality not in how it focuses on pop culture. It is also the case that a pop culture site, under which I include sports, ought to discuss pop culture and do so with a degree of seriousness or proper regard for its importance. My issue has more to do with when popular culture became the reverently discussed content of or for a well-lived life.

One of the ways we can see this is the way in which popular culture is interpreted on the Grantland website through other forms of popular culture. For instance, the attempt to understand English soccer through the television show The Game of Thrones.  Similar to this is the Breaking Bad to NBA translator, in which characters on the show are said to represent a NBA basketball team, e.g., Walter White is the Miami Heat. Podcasts are made about new ESPN contributors such as Jason Whitlock and Nate Silver, not sports themselves or TV shows (though there are plenty of podcasts about these topics too), which indicates that as important as the content are the interpreters of content.

More significantly, we see this in the Grantland fantasy trade machine in which characters from one TV show are “traded” to other shows, the same way in which athletes are traded between clubs.  The author Andy Greenwald explains it this way,

in 2013, television is covered with a breathlessness and focus once reserved for sports. Recaps are our generation's box scores, we trade tweets the way we once swapped baseball cards, and NBC is our version of the hapless Washington Generals. So why not take TV coverage to the next logical extension? When real sports were no longer enough, humans invented fantasy sports.1 And now it's time to do the same with TV. It's time to introduce Grantland's Fantasy TV Trade Machine.

This is a terrific opening paragraph for it sums up the state of popular culture with a few quick sentences. Here are my takeaways: “television is covered with a breathlessness and focus once reserved for sports”; “recaps are our generation's box scores”; “when real sports were no longer enough, humans invented fantasy sports”; and “now it's time to do the same with TV”.

First, the coverage television gets, in podcasts, recaps and articles, is remarkable, though it is true that the great TV shows of the past 10-15 years are the greatest TV shows ever (a smattering: The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Mad Men). These shows are now events – Grantland offers precaps of Breaking Bad! – and couples genuinely argue, or worse, when one partner jumps ahead of the other in whatever season they are watching. Was this the same as the “breathlessness and focus once reserved for sports”?

Yes, and sports has always been loved and adored by fans, who with great joy and loyalty followed their teams. But once again, sports worship itself has grown to what it never was in the past. This is partly seen through fantasy sports, in which adults create football and baseball rosters – soccer and hockey too – and follow them throughout the sports year, often in leagues. It is also seen in the fact that grown-ups now dress up in the jerseys of their favorite teams and go to cheer on their team or even wear their teams’ jerseys to social outings or activities. (Full disclosure, I once wore a Boston Bruins jersey, Phil Esposito, but I was 12 and that is what boys used to do.) There was a degree of hero worship that boys (and girls) engaged in with their sporting heroes, but adults now are fully invested in their teams. There is nothing wrong with a little sporting fun, but one hopes it never becomes “Chelsea Our Religion.” It is possible that I am overreaching on fandom today, that sports has always served such a purpose, but my sense is that in the past 20-30 years sports has taken on more and more significance in the lives of its followers, fueled by the internet, more specialty TV networks (ESPN; NBC Sports), more year round channels devoted to their sport (NFL; NBA; NHL; MLB) and, inevitably, more money.

So, now, fueled by money, the internet, podcasts, social media, and specialty TV networks (or streaming content like Netflix) dedicated to producing excellent TV, the best TV is followed by people like sports were once followed. We have TV watchers, but we also have acolytes and interpreters of the texts (some of whom are excellent) producing recaps almost instantly, since they generally have access to “secret” information, i.e., they have often screened some or all of the texts, that is, episodes, in advance. Their interpretations of the texts are then posted in links on Twitter and directly on their websites so that we can "understand" what we have watched.The worst thing to do to someone, though, is not to let them experience the text on their own, but to “spoil” it by talking about it before it has been seen by everyone. (But how long must you wait before sharing the truth?)

But is it time to have fantasy TV leagues? And why? The fantasy TV league is all in good fun, I am certain, and popular culture websites have to fill up the space with something, but I think the answers lie in the valiant attempt to try to share a culture with those around us when we have so little that we do now share. This extends to more than just popular culture, it has to do with a lack of sharing the basic things that are the bedrock of life: worldviews; beliefs; traditions; rituals.

There used to be a shared popular culture when there were three networks, but it was entertainment, not the stuff of life. Admittedly, TV is way better than it was, as some old TV shows from the 60s, such as Beverly Hillbillies, are barely watchable. But the seriousness of today’s TV shows are made to bear a cultural weight they cannot carry – they are simply TV. In some ways, the combination of lack of a shared popular culture – everyone watched The Brady Bunch; not everyone watches Modern Family – combined with the lack of a shared religious or moral culture – not everyone was Jewish or Christian in the past, but the Judeo-Christian worldviews, beliefs, traditions,and rituals were broadly accepted publicly – mean that what we do share, the best of popular culture, has taken on an importance far out of proportion to what TV or sports were intended to do or can do. They are diversions, entertainments, not the focus of a life or the cultural capital of a well-functioning society.  In the absence of shared beliefs, we will put the weight on Breaking Bad or the Dallas Cowboys.

Popular culture is not the be all and end all; it should be interpreted through something greater than itself, not through other forms of popular culture. My fear is that interpreting popular culture through popular culture as the means to understand a big part of our lives leaves us, ultimately, ill-equipped to deal with genuine community life and real-life decisions. When this is all we share, not as a diversion to the difficulties and struggles of life, but as the core of our moral life and reasoning, we are on the verge of trouble. For the world of TV, movies and sports, popular culture as a whole, does not have a moral compass broad and strong enough to shape culture instead of just reflect it. It is not that I have a problem with sports as such, as a NBA season ticket holder, or with TV or movies, as a great lover of both, yet I would like to know what it means that they are now shaping our culture instead of functioning as pleasant diversions, entertainments and releases of energy. 

Possibly, this is all so much worrying about nothing from a grumpy old guy, for the issue is not with the producers of the entertainment, or even its (over?) interpreters, but with the consumers of the content. It will function as entertainment for those who want entertainment; it will be a diversion for those who want a diversion; it will be interpreted through the lens of religion for those who have a religion, or whatever worldview they do have. Perhaps my issue is simply this: is this all we share now as a society or is there more? Can we be sustained by a culture that does not have deeper roots? And am I engaged in some form of nostalgia for the "way it was," or was there never a shared culture as I am assuming? 

John W. Martens
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