“Pop culture died in 2009.” Or so the saying goes over at one of my favorite websites on the internet, a contextless virtual time capsule of the so-called naughty aughties. They have a point. Though it was merely a decade ago, scrolling through the remnants of trucker hats, chunky highlights and Us Weekly headlines feels a little like taking part in an archaeological dig. Everything seems to have changed, from the celebrities we’re fascinated by and the ways we engage with them, to the platforms we consume entertainment on and the pace at which we consume it.
In 2009 everybody had at least a passing familiarity with the faces featured regularly throughout the pages of supermarket tabloids or making a splash on the newly influential TMZ. You could TiVo your favorite shows and watch them on your own schedule but most people were conversational in American Idol or Grey’s Anatomy, and tangentially aware of what was going on over at Jersey Shore or on The Hills.
I say all of this not to play the role of the wrinkled lady lamenting the loss of the good old days— these were days after all that involved a preponderance of low rise jeans, how good could they really have been— but to marvel at how dramatically the landscape of popular culture has changed.
With the advent of social media, smart phones and streaming services we are all now able to curate highly individualized entertainment experiences. We can pick and choose not only which television shows we want to watch but whether we want to watch them one episode at a time or entire seasons at once. There are ecosystems you can observe on Instagram full of minor reality stars you’ve never heard of but your next door neighbour feels passionately about. The term “popular culture” itself may very well be obsolete— if we’re all silo’d off in media bubbles of our own choosing, who can say what’s truly popular and by what metric?
I wouldn’t return to 2009 and give up my iPhone’s LTE network for all the Uggs in China, but I think it’s worth examining the unintended effects of our fragmented culture on individuals and society. Worth it for someone else, I mean— someone serious and academic, probably wearing tweed. Sitting here in my flannel suit pyjamas, I feel slightly unfit for the job. But I am qualified to wonder, and what I wonder about is how disconnected we might end up from each other in this hyper connected world.
Published in 2000, long before the age of social networks, during those long forgotten days when only one member of the Kardashian family had any kind of reknown, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D Putnam raised the alarm about a lack of commonality in the modern world. While Putnam was concerned with declining participation in civic and political life, I really believe the same anxieties can apply to our ever fracturing popular culture.
One of our greatest needs as humans is to feel like we belong to something bigger than just ourselves. This is why we root for sports teams, join Facebook groups, sing national anthems. We like to see our values reflected back in those around us. People who say they feel connected to their local community regularly report having a more positive outlook on the world as a whole. If more people are declining to take part in local organizations or are feeling disenchanted by religious and political institutions, what is there left to connect us but our mass entertainment choices? And when even that begins to erode, where else do we look for the touchstones with which we can relate to our friends and to strangers? Finally, without the assurance that our peers share our basic values, how can we come together to solve the massive problems facing the world today?
These might sound like dumb questions or a supremely shallow area of focus, and I do know that the icebergs are likely to keep melting whether we’re all watching The Manadalorian together or not. Still, I believe that the desire to work with and do good for others comes from knowing that we’re all stumbling along under the same sky together, and that participating in one enormous cultural conversation can only help.
Which is why I’m pleased and relieved to announce that pop culture was in fact revived in 2019.
Yes, for all my handwringing over media silos and self-imposed entertainment cocoons, it turns out that the mass entertainment that constitutes popular culture is alive and vibrant. After all, 2019 gave us not only Avengers: Endgame, the now highest grossing film of all time, but also the rise of Lil Nas X and his “Old Town Road” remix, now the longest charting number one song in history. Game of Thrones, the last and greatest Goliath of television’s golden age bowed out with its final season. It was a rare kind of collective hold-your-breath excitement that glimmered in the air on the evening of “The Long Night”, the episode which chronicled the battle for Winterfell, when viewers were terrified that their favorite characters were about to meet a bloody end. The outrage that followed every episode afterwards was rarer still, a unanimous contempt that is probably the closest we’ve come to achieving consensus since the advent of indoor plumbing.
There were also popular currents beyond the brightest of blockbusters. James Holzhauer went on a seemingly unstoppable Jeopardy run, breaking records and forever changing the typical strategy of gameplay. The Bachelor franchise was never more relevant than in 2019, between Colton’s viral fence jump and Hannah B’s catastrophic season, a season saved only by the emergence of Tyler C (initials on these shows are typically a harbinger of success). Tyler C went on to amass over two million Instagram followers and briefly date genuine supermodel Gigi Hadid. What a time to be alive.
HBO reasserted its dominion over Sunday nights (and the ensuing Monday morning conversation) even beyond Thrones with an infinite supply of must-watch fare like Succession, Watchmen and Euphoria, along with the final seasons of Veep and Silicon Valley. Speaking of domination, we may have glimpsed a future in which there will be no governments, no institutions of international order and no gods; there will only be Disney. In 2019 the studio achieved the absolutely ridiculous feat of seeing six of their films cross the one billion dollar mark at the box office; Endgame of course, along with the live action renditions of The Lion King and Aladdin; Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4 and the sequel to Frozen. To cap off the year, Disney launched their streaming service, Disney+ and introduced the world to beloved icon baby yoda. There’s another piece to be written where I fret over media hegemony but for now I must pay the house of mouse its due.
What else. The third season of Stranger Things came and went with the explosive delight of fireworks on the Fourth of July. The brilliance of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas took over radio waves everywhere, right next to the exuberance of Lizzo. Two auteurs released their best work in years; Quentin Tarantino with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and Martin Scorsese with his op-ed for The New York Times. And I guess also The Irishman. Taylor Swift saw a return to form with Lover, the highest selling album since the last time she released an album. And of course the Star Wars universe, perhaps the most recognizable cultural symbol of all, saw the conclusion of its latest trilogy with The Rise of Skywalker, an entity around which the discourse is still buzzing.
Again, I’m not trying to say that going to see the same movies as everyone else is the path to brokering any kind of world peace. It may not even create harmony at one family’s dinner table. But I do think that having these little reference points in common can make people wandering around an increasingly overwhelming world feel a little less alone. Having opinions on the topics that everyone else is talking about reminds us that we are taking part in the larger human experience, that we have a stake in what’s going on and that maybe we ought to do right by each other.
Maybe 2019 will prove to be an outlier. Maybe in 2020 we’ll all put our air pods back in and return to the niches of our choosing. But I hope that’s not what happens. 2009 can keep skinny scarves, sparkly vampires and the version of Twitter that didn’t have a retweet button, but the important things— connectedness, a sense of community— I hope we keep those things alive.
5 thoughts on “How Pop Culture Was Revived In 2019 (And Why It Might Save The Planet In 2020)”
Ainsley. Beautifu blend of irreverence, respect for your readers and tons of great info. I, too, was fretting about the demise of pop culture as people seemed to burrow down into their own hidey holes of self interest but your observations reassure me. Plus you say stuff like “For all the uggs in China.” That was worth the price of admission right then and there. See you on netflix!
Thank you so very much for reading, this comment means a lot. I’m excited to participate alongside you in the grand cultural conversation as it unfolds in 2020!