Flyover Culture: The Death of the Mainstream

December 24th, 2013 | Category: Essays

We’re all home for the holidays. Looking around the living room today at the family assembled there, most were clicking around on laptops, two were also wearing headphones, one was fingering a smartphone. The television was noticeably dark and silent with each of us engrossed in his or her own digital experience, be it a game, a TV show, or some, social metamedium. Jaron Lanier (2008) writes, ”…pop culture is important. It drags us all along with it; it is our shared fate. We can’t simply remain aloof” (p. 385). But what happens when we don’t share any of it anymore? Narrowcasting and narrowcatching, as each of us burrows further into our own interests, we have less of them in common as a whole. The mainstream has become less of a stream and more of a mist.

What We Share

A friend of mine noted recently that The Long Tail has gotten so long and so thick that there’s not much left in the Big Head. As the internet-enabled market supported a wider and wider variety of cultural artifacts with less and less depth of interest, the big, blockbuster hits have had ever-smaller audiences. This wasn’t the case just a decade ago. The audiences seem to decrease in proportion to the size of the screens. I have found this splintering more and more in the classroom as I try to pick somewhat universal media artifacts to use as examples. Even the biggest shows and movies I brought up this semester left nearly half of my students out, and if I ever got into the stuff I actually like, I was greeted with little more than cricket sounds. The postmodern promise of individual viewpoints and infinite fragmentation is coming closer to fruition.

Cultural divisions as such used to be framed as high versus low culture. New Yorker writer John Seabrook (2000) argues that we have evolved past such hierarchies into what he calls “nobrow culture.” Definitely erring on the high side, Seabrook doesn’t know Stormtroopers from Sand People. Depending on which side of the high/low fence you stand, he and his ilk have “condescended and/or pandered,” in the words of Hal Foster, to you for far too long. The mixing of high culture’s concerns with low culture’s lack thereof only makes sense if there’s a market in the middle. The mainstreaming of anything requires a middle class.

Middle Class, R.I.P.

The middle class is traditionally thought of as the masses of people who are above “working” class but also not quite “upper” class. By definition, membership in the middle class requires a certain amount of discretionary income. Mainstream pop culture relies on that. As that income diminishes and less of the extant money is spent on media due to an increasingly tech-savvy populous, the funding for frivolous entertainment decreases. Art and commerce have always been odd bedfellows, but their offspring are the least interesting children in history. Focus groups, product placement, and everything “brought to you by” a brand are not cool conventions. Mix that division and decline with pop culture’s obsession with its own past, what Simon Reynolds (2011) calls “retromania,” and we get reality television, ubiquitous advertising, and endless remakes and remixes. Reynolds likens the state of the culture industry to global economics, predicting an inevitable crash: “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivatives and indebtedness” (p. 410-420). If the rest of pop culture ends up like the demonetized music industry, then we can bury the middle class next to the mainstream.

None of this is to say that underground culture is inherently better. It’s never made much sense to describe something aesthetically in terms of the mainstream, and now it makes less than ever. Working the ends against the middle trying to get the best of both worlds, so-called “nobrow culture” ends up with the bad of both without any of the good. Watered-down, diluted, widely disseminated, what’s left of the mainstream is the cultural equivalent of the muddy, middle heartland, viewed from an airplane window. It’s flyover culture.

Wittgenstein (1953) once said there was no such thing as a private language. The presumption being that a language only works if it is shared. The same can be said of culture. It only works if it is shared. Here’s hoping we can continue to find some overlapping dirt to dig.

References:

Anderson, Chris. (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling More of Less. New York: Hyperion.

Lanier, Jaron. (2008). Where Did the Music Go? In Paul D. Miller (Ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 385-390.

Reynolds, Simon. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: faber & faber.

Seabrook, John. (2000). Nobrow: The Marketing of Culture and the Culture of Marketing. New York: Knopf.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.

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This post benefited greatly from discussion and correspondence with Mark Wieman and Tim Baker.

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