Marc Weingarten is a Los Angeles-based journalist. He is the author of Thirsty: William Mulholland, California Water and The Real Chinatown.
I recently had the rare privilege of watching a basketball game courtside at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, near my home (thanks, Mike!). This is the “gold coast” at Staples, the prime real estate where the richest and most famous congregate to watch the game and schmooze, but in the absence of Jack Nicholson, no one famous registered on my radar. A man seated to my right was being photographed a lot during timeouts, and I had to ask the woman to my left to identify him. It was Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan.
This happens to me quite often these days. I will walk past a newsstand (the few that still remain in L.A.) and not recognize a face on any magazine cover (is that Michael B. Jordan on the cover of Esquire?). Watching the silly majesty of the Academy Awards is so much more fun when you have no skin in the game; having not glanced at any pre-Oscar coverage, it was all a surprise to me, including the awards in which everyone on Earth knew the outcome except me. (Oh, Brad Pitt won!? Bless his heart.) This is a conscious choice. After a lifetime of paying assiduous attention to pop culture, I have decided to log out of everything. I’ve unhitched my Netflix, shut down all social media, signed off Twitter. I’ve cancelled pop culture.
As an act of personal liberation, it doesn’t seem like much – my daughters regard it as irresponsible madness. When you have ensconced yourself under American culture’s Superdome for the duration of your waking life as I have, disengaging with it feels like you’re finally ending a toxic relationship that went south long before.
A few years ago, I would have regarded my willful ignorance as a personal shortcoming, an unacceptable slippage. From the age of 15 onward, pop culture has been my life and my vocation. For a number of years, in a checkered career that started in high school, I wrote about music, TV and film – sniffing out trends, critiquing those trends, then waiting for them to die in exchange for something new to write about. If I had failed to recognize an established star such as Mr. Jordan, I would have regarded it as a mortal threat to my income. I tracked celebrities with the vigilance and assiduity usually reserved for the study of tort law.
I was covering pop culture in the nineties into the early aughts, a time when it all seemed so much more meaningful and manageable, before the internet revved it all up into hyperdrive. I’m not even sure how I would approach the job of keeping tabs on pop culture now, but I suspect I would be losing a lot of sleep. It takes far more effort now to stay on top of a culture that rips through trends with head-spinning velocity. Believe me, I have tried. Turning away from pop culture now has streamlined and simplified everyday life, made it more manageable and less anxious.
To classify entertainment as diversionary seems quaint in 2020; we drink it in constantly now. Like everything else in our lives – work, play, shopping, communication – pop culture is always on, 24/7, an endless torrent of information that takes patience and vigilance to sift through. Pop culture has been subdivided into ever smaller bite-sized chunks: Far more people watch YouTube videos of movie clips than they do full-length feature films.
If this all sounds like a pathetic case of OK Boomer-ism, I plead guilty. As someone who has used the best of pop culture to piece together a personal aesthetic and discover new ways of seeing the world, following it in the past never felt like work. It’s only now, when millions of hours of music are available at no cost, when the highest-grossing films are remakes and comic book adaptations, and the never-ending streaming binge keeps us tethered to the couch, that pop culture feels like an endlessly renewable resource that we are all abusing. It was far easier for me to enjoy a few great things rather than a lot of pretty good things.
Pop culture has soundtracked virtually everything significant in my life: birth, death, illness, success, failure, loneliness, joy, marriage, separation, reconciliation. I am deeply connected to the lyrics and movie dialogue I have consumed, tiny beacons that light the way back to adolescence. I have thought about, written about, played and made pop music, TV and movies my entire professional life. I’ve never done anything else.
By choosing to say goodbye to all that, I’ve unleashed new energies for thinking and doing. It’s turned me away from myself, toward meaningful engagement with others. I’ve volunteered to work in a homeless shelter and I’m helping my daughter navigate the tricky passage from college into adulthood. I go outside more often, a simple act that has turned out to be a profound power boost to my mental and emotional well-being. Effacing pop culture’s clutter has allowed me to see the world as it really is, rather than through an electrical storm of data. I have located the still centre of myself, a space where I’m free to think clearly, with patient deliberation. I can form clear, rational opinions, instead of half-baked judgments coloured by intemperate Twitter feeds, including our own President’s deranged online screeds.
It’s tricky to break up with pop culture when you live and work in Hollywood, as I do. It is, after all, the city that made a global fetish out of it. Talking about movies and TV here comes as naturally as breathing, and it’s hard to get away from it. This can be fun in small doses, but Los Angeles has big problems at the moment, such as 30,000 homeless people living in tent cities downtown under the shadow of shiny new high-rise condominiums. Still we persist in discussing Lizzo’s self-empowerment, or Ben Simmons reconciling with Kendall Jenner, or the shocking upsets at the Golden Globes. In fact, not one person I know who works in entertainment seems at all concerned about the homeless population. Apparently it’s not sexy enough to pitch as a limited series.
As someone who isn’t 15-years-old any more, it’s hard to find my footing in such a scattered landscape. In December, my friend and colleague Scott Timberg took his own life. A brilliant music critic and cultural reporter, Scott, in his insightful and essential 2015 book Culture Crash, examined in sickening forensic detail the indignities of journalists, musicians and artists having to negotiate a cultural landscape that no longer has any use for them. I can’t pretend to understand the depression that blocked out Scott’s sun, but I do know that he was adrift from the culture, with no way to pull himself back to shore. He couldn’t find proper purchase and he fell. Scott’s tragedy was that he saw himself as expendable, when in fact he had it all wrong. It’s the culture that is expendable.
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