What happened to pop culture? How did we get to a place where almost anything new feels like it could’ve been made twenty years ago? I saw a tweet recently that pointed out that the musical Grease, set in 1959, debuted on Broadway in 1972, and that a similar play today would take place in 2007, a time that it’s impossible to be nostalgic for since everything today is essentially the same, just with less ripped denim. Paul Skallas, a Twitter personality obsessed with why certain aspects of culture remain while others change, replied to the tweet, “Stuck,” a reference to his theory that culture has been essentially the same since around 2004. By Skallas’s reckoning, that’s around the time the monoculture fractured, taking away any overarching cultural narrative and preventing any substantive changes from occurring.
But is this really accurate? In 2019, musicians like Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Ariana Grande each had their songs streamed billions of times on Spotify alone, way more listens than could ever have been possible with radio and record sales. At the same time, Avengers: Endgame shattered box office records, making $2.8 billion worldwide. The monoculture is alive and well, no matter how it may seem. The difference is not in the consumption, but in the content being consumed. Today’s pop hits wouldn’t sound out of place playing in the mid-aughts, and superhero movies have been dominating box offices since Batman came out in 1989. In fact, the Avengers series began with The Incredible Hulk in 2008, making it a clear cultural holdover from an earlier decade rather than anything resembling an original concept. Every single one of the ten highest grossing movies internationally in the past decade is a sequel or remake of an older film. By comparison, only two of the ten highest grossing movies of the ’90s sprang from pre-existing films. Skallas may greatly exaggerate the rumors of the monoculture’s death, but he’s right that something happened around 2004 that killed culture’s creativity.
One simple, obvious explanation comes to mind: originality doesn’t pay. We’re trapped in a cultural loop because the markets demand it. If people chose to consume new, original content, then mainstream artists would create new, original content. Since consumers are only willing to collectively shell out billions of their hard-earned dollars for yet another CGI-drenched sequel or generic earworm, the corporations that run the entertainment industry only invest money in the artists who produce CGI-drenched sequels and generic earworms. This is not to say that no artists make better content than you can find on the Billboard Hot 100 chart or on the New York Times bestseller list. There’s tons of it out there—more than any other time in history, thanks to the Internet’s democratization of resources—but most of it still seems to cover well-trod ground. And, as far as the minority of truly exciting and innovative content goes, major changes in pop culture only happen at the bizarre intersection of talent and massive injections of capital from corporate sponsors (see: The Beatles, Nirvana, the first Star Wars movie). An awesome group releasing EPs on Bandcamp unfortunately can’t change the cultural landscape without a huge influx of marketing dollars to expose it to wider audiences.
But all this is beside the point and only obscures the real problem. The question to ask is not why the culture machine only churns out rehashed garbage, but rather why people are only willing to pay for rehashed garbage. I understand that it’s an old cliché to gesture at one’s own contemporaries and despair that they have let culture go to shit. But a unique confluence of several factors seem to place our modern era at the absolute nadir of creative potential.
Mark Fisher, an English writer and cultural critic, was one of the few who recognized the turning point in real time. He noticed a subgenre of electronic music emerging in 2005 that relied heavily on distorted samples taken from archives of ambient audio clips, many of which had been recorded by the BBC in the mid-twentieth century, incorporating them into melancholic soundscapes replete with added pops and crackles to remind the listener of bygone media. Fisher used the term “hauntology” to describe this music, pioneered by English artists like Burial and the Caretaker, that simultaneously relied on uniquely modern techniques while self-consciously occupying a distinctly archaic past. The term, borrowed from Jacques Derrida, is a portmanteau of “haunting” and “ontology,” a pun in the same lineage as Derrida’s earlier “différance,” and refers generally to the specter of the past intruding on the present moment. In this sense, every aspect of culture, from art to politics, is hauntological to varying degrees, since nothing can truly exist without any forebears.
In a way, Harold Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence is an earlier formation of the same idea—it’s impossible to avoid being shaped by everything that has come before you, and so artists of the past occupied themselves with hiding this influence, banishing the ghosts of their ancestors to the margins of their works. In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, music critic Simon Reynolds observes that at some point in the early 2000s, it became cool for artists to be forthright about their influences and inspirations. What was previously taboo and, according to Bloom, an exercise that only inferior artists would participate in became the norm for artists of all calibers. Reynolds, a friend of Fisher who helped popularize the concept of hauntology, found this trend troubling, a sign of massive cultural decay. These artists not only allowed their ancestors to haunt their work, but they allowed them to take ownership of it. What set the new early 2000s electronica artists apart from both their forebears and their contemporaries was their willingness to invite the ghosts in, to allow their works to be occupied by sounds and ideas overtly taken from elsewhere.
According to Fisher, this represented “more than a moment in a familiar pattern, in which, as one genre wanes, another emerges to take its place at the leading edge of innovation. There was no leading edge of innovation any more.” At that point in the early to mid-2000s, there was suddenly nowhere creatively left to go. This was not necessarily because the weight of the past felt too heavy for artists to overcome, but because the weight of unrealized futures became too heavy of a burden to cast off. We had arrived at a point, culturally, that embodied “the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live.” We were—and still are—living in a future so banal, so remarkably similar to what came before, that all the optimism and utopianism of the past, ingredients that proved essential for innovation, have disappeared. What we’re left with, then, is not only the ghosts of the past, but also the corpses of what could have been and what could never be.
Fisher saw only two creative routes through this impasse. The first is the trend he observed in electronic music, one best suited for an aural experience. Artists can mourn the dead past and lost futures by recombining them, pulling them to the forefront of their pieces and allowing the specters to wander freely through their work. When I think of this, I imagine a person wandering from room to room in an abandoned house, picking up pieces of broken bricks and flaked plaster, turning them over in her hands, pushing the decaying furniture into different arrangements, creating something new yet recognizably old out of the remnants of somebody else’s life, a distinctly melancholic portrait of something that both never existed and never can exist. Artists like Ariel Pink and Oneohtrix Point Never/Daniel Lopatin have become paragons of this self-consciously hauntological style.
We see the other route, then, in most mainstream culture: continue as before, and act like the ghosts just aren’t there. Each new Marvel movie pretends to be something new while in reality being no more than a re-animated corpse of something long dead. Even a film like Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems (2019) or an album like Moses Sumney’s Græ—both works which I personally enjoy—are like creatures from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978): zombies that don’t fully realize they’re dead, unthinkingly returning to the places they loved when they were alive. While still hauntological, as all works are, works of mainstream contemporary art often seem like they're original, and they’re generally received as such, while in reality they’re almost always artifacts of past eras, dug up from what could have been their final resting places, dusted off, and presented as new inventions. With no way to imagine the future, pop culture simply gives up and only reproduces the past.
There may be more at play here than simply collective disillusionment and artistic cynicism, though. In One-Dimensional Man, written in 1964, German-American philosopher and social theorists Herbert Marcuse remarks upon a similar sort of artistic stagnation. He observes that art in the mid-twentieth century fails to have the same transcendent power as art created in earlier eras. He attributes this to capitalism, but not in the reductive, market-driven sense that I outlined above. Instead, he makes the case that art functions best when it can in some way critique the ruling order. It allows for the expression of ideas that could not be said aloud for fear of social ostracization or legal punishment. Using Freudian terminology, Marcuse explains that the great art of yesteryear sublimated artists’ unusual desires and critiques of the ruling class into works of beauty that could then be enjoyed by the same ruling classes, allowing for a healthy outlet for dissatisfaction without fear of retribution. As Marcuse puts it, sublimation “in its most accomplished modes, such as the artistic œuvre, . . . becomes the cognitive power which defeats suppression while bowing to it.” But with widespread democratization and liberalization came the dismantling of the old aristocracies and the acceptance of dissent. In a society where everything, or almost everything—particularly sexually—is permitted, we no longer need to sublimate our desires or our dissatisfactions, reducing contemporary art to mere entertainment, mere distraction. At the same time, through a process Marcuse calls desublimation, the radical aspects of old works lose their edge, demoting them to historical documents rather than powerfully affective objects.
Fisher expresses a similar longing for a return to sublimation. He describes one of the dead futures as a “a culture that could continue what had begun in postwar social democracy, but that could leave behind the sexism, racism, and homophobia which were so much a feature of the actual postwar period.” We’ve learned, especially in recent years, that these -isms simply won’t die, no matter how much we’d like them to, and part of this is a result of living in a society structured around a suffering underclass. In the Freudian sense, art, too, depends on that suffering being sublimated into uniquely powerful work. With all our dialogues around race, gender, sexuality, and so forth, and our relatively new language to describe them, we’ve lost any way to depict them effectively in anything but plain language; art is too ambiguous.
By Freud’s construction, sublimation is a necessary and healthy part of psychological development. Sublimation allows us to live without instant gratification, giving us the ability to, say, write a novel rather than spending all our energy trying to get laid, or to create a painting rather than murder our bosses. This of course isn’t to say that we now live in a society of free love and legalized murder, but these are no longer unthinkable desires; they can be fulfilled by reading or watching their exact representations in books or films. We no longer need to replace these desires with something else.
We tend to lose sight of how outright offensive so much of “canonical” art seemed when it was created. We’re now only able to view these works as historical artifacts rather than as acts of rebellion. Be it Ulysses, Lolita, or Elvis’s hips, great art becomes great by thrusting something raunchy or disturbing into the public’s face and overwhelming the public’s initial reservations with the work’s sheer power. Even punk rock, which retains its bad-boy image to an extent, has been calcified by its induction into the musical canon, making us forget how outrageous it really was. As a relatively tame example, the Ramones, icons of the ’70s punk era and movie soundtrack staple, wore Third Reich regalia and recorded demos with the lyrics “I’m a Nazi, baby, I’m a Nazi, yes I am.” Were they just starting out today, the Ramones would be canceled before they could upload a YouTube video. Perhaps paradoxically, desublimation has obliterated our ability to be shocked and left us only with the ability to be outraged. Since nothing can represent anything other than what it really is, wearing a swastika cannot be an act of protest against an oppressively tight-laced culture, but can only identify the wearer as a literal Nazi. A novel that includes the plopping of a man’s shit into a toilet bowl or that’s narrated by a pedophile can be nothing but scatological or pedophilic. Desublimation not only prevents contemporary art from being “great,” but prevents it even from being art.
Marcuse hints at another way that our capitalist utopia makes real, powerful art impossible: With no aristocracy and only a small, mostly silent minority of very wealthy people, everybody in society is forced to work for a living. Historically, most artists have been either independently wealthy or supported by independently wealthy patrons, allowing them the time, freedom, and physical space to pursue excellence in their craft. Now, when only a relatively miniscule number of people can live off the income from their art alone, art inevitably suffers. I’m always shocked by how rarely people recall that Virginia Woolf exhorted women writers to get rooms of their own and independent sources of unearned income—in her case, an inheritance paid in annual installments of £500, the equivalent of about $39,000 today.
So maybe it does come back to money, but not in the sense that my simplistic market sketch implies. Artists should exist outside of the economy, free from the whims of supply and demand, liberated to write and paint and make films without worrying about the public at large. We can’t return to a culture built around sublimation any more than we can return to one that believes in literal ghosts. But maybe we can provide artists the financial security to explore the present’s hauntology without needing to defer to a public that craves nothing more than the thirteenth Star Wars film.