The Pop Problem

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-06-18 21:00:00 No comments

The other day I ended up spelling out for someone else my whole take on why I enjoy mainstream pop-culture stuff while at the same time being almost completely indifferent to it. I learned a few things about my own insights along the way.

The first thing I said was, I don't think most of, say, the Marvel movies are actually bad. (Batman v Superman and Joker are genuinely awful movies, though, but that's another essay.) By and large they're well-made and are generally entertaining enough to enjoy for the span of their two hours. But they feel — and this was a term I more or less made up on the spot — "top-down". They don't feel personal or spontaneous. They don't feel like something that, for lack of a better term, escaped into mainstream culture and earned their popularity (the'77 Star Wars, Mad Max, The Matrix, etc.) The few times there's something personal and spontaneous in Marvel movies, like Taika Waititi's Thor film, it's not in the design of the movies themselves but in the spontaneous bits off in the corners. The overall design is still according to the bigger corporate plan, which is essentially inflexible. Friendly, accessible, well-meaning, but ultimately a product by committee design.

I kept coming back to that word, "escaped". I like it when it feels like some piece of popular culture has gotten away with something. I liked that Blade Runner 2049 was essentially a $200M art film, because we should make more $200M art films, dammit. I liked that David Lynch's Dune, for all that was wrong with it, also had a lot that was daring and unrepentantly weird.

That other dirty word, subversive, also comes to mind. Most popular culture doesn't feel like that. Most of it feels like a reification or reaffirmation of too many things we already know too well. When something actually subversive breaks into the mainstream (Steven Universe comes to mind), it's a rare delight. But most of what we call "subversive" tends merely to be jejune provocation (Joker).

Real risk-taking either happens on a small scale (modern TV, for instance), or happens because someone is just crazy and rich enough to try something once. Maybe this is why many of the DC Comics animated productions are more satisfying than the live-action productions: they can afford to take risks, even modest risks, that the big films simply can't. I know that it takes a lot of people to make even a small movie, but the financial stakes with the Marvel films are too high for anything like real creative risk-taking to come through.

I guess, then, my big issue with pop culture is that most of the things I want from creative culture in general don't come from there. I can go most anywhere to be entertained; that's not hard. It's harder to go somewhere and be entertained, and shown something truly new, and feel like the ones responsible for it are doing so out of some personal need, and feel like everyone involved got away with something. Don't get that very often. When it happens, I hug it. But most of the time I go elsewhere to get my fix.

Tags: entertainment popular culture