The stupification of news media: a virus of breathless hyperbole, meaningless lists and tawdry content.
November 7, 2014
All the news that’s fit to share…
Have you noticed how online journalism and media purveyors have increasingly tarted up and/or dumbed down their content? Things have gotten way more visual, mimicking the look of Instagram and Pinterest. Echoing Buzzfeed and other pseudo journalism sites, we see more and more lists of dubious nature populating web pages: Top ten this. Worst 20 that. Native advertising and news stories are now slurry. No secret why. Editors want consumers. Publishers want advertisers. Both need more and meaningful clicks to survive.
Oh, and you like this shit. (Not me. I’m impervious to salacious come ons and all those sweet, sweet lists.)
In one respect, this is nothing new. Sensationalism has permeated journalism since it began. Whether it’s creepy crimes or naked ladies or both, newspapers have always flirted with the devil. Boobs sell papers. “If it bleeds it leads.”
Yet, what’s different here -and more insidious, in my opinion- is the meshing of bullshit with the news. An obscenity-laden video featuring ghetto trash fighting in McDonald’s is presented as a news story. The “ten outfits no woman over 30 should ever own” is displayed in the same space as an article about foreign policy. Throwback Thursdays. Monday Mug Shots. Fail videos. It’s stupid content just for the hell of it. Gone are the obvious markers for “advertisement” or “paid for by.” So, why would any reader-obsessed editor put this stuff on a separate entertainment-only page? You don’t hide the chum, fool. Put dat shit where people can see it. Stink up dem waters. We. Need. Clicks.
I get it. I really do. Still, it’s sad when journalists start putting inappropriate hyperbole in their copy. Suddenly, everything is “fascinating” or “terrifying” or “hilarious.” Aren’t we -the reader- supposed to be the judge of that?
The immense and growing popularity of Buzz Feed, Reddit, Devoured, Huff Post and countless other content buffets make it impossible for struggling news sites and online magazines to ignore, let alone exist.
Oh, and we like this shit.
The most watched show on broadcast TV is The Big Bang Theory. A few weeks ago each of its primary cast inked deals worth a million dollars per episode. Last decade the big show was Charlie Sheen’s Two and a Half Men. The decade before that it was Friends. In the eighties I don’t recall. Was it Cosby?
So these are the shows that define the decades in American popular culture. Not Mad Men. Not Breaking Bad. Those shows get all the press but TBBT gets all the viewers. Like it or not, it is these slickly made and arguably idiotic sit-coms that tell the tale of us.
What is it about certain ensemble comedies that keep young professionals glued to broadcast TV? They all feature a big star or create one (Charlie Sheen, Bill Cosby, Jennifer Aniston, Jim Parsons) but I think it’s the fluffy familiarity that attracts so many worker bees to the flame. After whatever kind of day one had at work (be it hectic or dull) these shows are like down comforters we can sink into. The “vast wasteland” is comfy as hell.
They don’t challenge us. On the contrary they make us feel content. We look forward to the mild dysfunction surrounding these characters the same way we look at their signature haircuts (the Jennifer!) and colorful wardrobe (Bill Cosby’s hideous sweaters and Charlie’s doushbag bowling shirts).
While I happen to think TBBT is the dumbest show of the lot I’m sure that has more to do with my age than the show itself. I won’t lie. As cool as I think I am I once watched Friends fairly religiously and liked it.
Which brings me to the Simpson’s. Here is a show that has defied the decades as well as the odds. Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious (and white and male), it was and still sometimes is the writing that makes the Simpson’s a true cornerstone in popular culture.
Yet, at it’s core the Simpson’s has a lot in common with TBBT, Friends and the others. It too has its mega stars (Homer & Bart) and there is no question it is an ensemble –the likes of which we’ve never seen before or likely will. Still, it is the mild dysfunction and total familiarity that propel this show into the zeitgeist. Homer’s home. Bart’s school. These indelible locations are no different than the colorful almost tacky sets in all those other shows. We wanted to hang out in Rachel’s apartment or that proto-Starbucks, Central Perk the same way we adore plopping on Homer’s iconic couch or the ones that belong to those nerds on “TBBT.”
Let us hang, we all ask. We won’t get in the way. Let us watch you fall in and out of preening love. Let us watch you get in trouble then fix it. Let us in! We won’t even balk at the laugh track; something, by the way, we find intolerable on truly good shows (like the Simpson’s).
Ensemble sitcoms have been around since television itself (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy) and they have proved over and over and over again to be the most lucrative 22 minutes or so EVER. And while none today (save for maybe the Simpson’s) offer the social commentary or biting observation of an All in the Family, M.A.S.H., or Mary Tyler Moore they clearly don’t want to.
Why, I wonder? Well, I’ll tell you. They don’t have to. After scrubbing leads all day in Media what 34 year-old Chloe wants most is not a tricky satire on race relations or the intolerance of ISIS; she craves a twit remark from Penny and a tarty retort from Sheldon. Throw in a subplot about the new hunky neighbor, who may or may not be gay, and she’s good. We all are.
A final note: I’m not bitching. My intent is not necessarily to disparage your favorite sit com. Compared to The Real Housewives of X, The Big Bang Theory is like Masterpiece Theater. (Look it up.)
July 31, 2014
Great tune. Too bad I wasn’t there. Or am I?
I’m reading Bill Flannigan’s book, U2: At the End of the World, about the band’s epic Zoo TV tour in the early nineties. The book is equal parts fascinating and cloying (like the band!) but one thing is certain the dude was there for all of it: back stage, in the vans, on the plane, in the pubs, at the hotels and, most importantly at the concerts.
And now because of the miracle of Internet, so am I. I can find high quality footage for any number of these amazing U2 shows online. I know we take it for granted that anything and everything is now available to us if we have a computer; hell, even a phone.
But back when Flannigan wrote this book, and U2 did those concerts, none of that was true. One could only imagine how cool the stage was and how bombastic the band. Flannigan’s words could only do so much. In the end, we are left with that great old saying: You had to be there.
Not anymore. Not now. Now I can literally find the very concerts he was writing about, and watch them. In Sydney. In Dublin. In my hometown of Chicago. All those big, fantastic shows I/we could only read about are right here right now.
I am able to do the same thing for Guns and Roses, upon reading Slash’s recent memoir. Or Keith Richard’s. The idea of being able to read about a specific event and then find that event online and watch it is, to me, one of the coolest things about the Internet.
I was so captivated by this notion, I took my entire third novel, Sweet by Design and committed it to a blog and gave virtually every reference in it a link to some relevant piece of content. A character goes to Water Tower Place to get a blow job (read the book) I provided a link to Water Tower Place. Every restaurant, town, street or landmark I gave a link. The reader could click on the word and see for himself what the character was seeing. (It takes me a couple hours or more to produce a single blog post. You do the math on a novel.) I even crowd sourced the cover, should it ever get published in -egads- paper. Check out the winner. It’s a pretty sweet design.
Did I expect people to actually check the links? Maybe a little, here and there. Honestly, I didn’t expect very many people would even read the damn book! But I did it anyway. It took hours every night and many months. I didn’t care. That’s how much I loved the idea.
I still love the idea. It still blows me away. A kid reads about the JFK assassination and she can watch the Zapruder film. And countless other related pieces. That’s amazing kids.
Brutal… but available.
Many of you can’t relate, I know. But I’m old enough to remember when none of this was possible. To support a lecture, professors told students to read this book or rent that movie. And a lot of times there was no supporting content, or if it did exist you had no way of accessing it. It wasn’t free. It wasn’t for you. Try and imagine that. Can you even? Oh well, I guess you had to be there.
And in a strangely related way, this bit of nonsense…
At a restaurant the other day I overheard a woman paraphrase the famous Andy Warhol quote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” She was referring to a video her son recently posted on You Tube. She told her rapt friends it had “hundreds of views!” For her, and likely her boy, that meant fame.
But is that what Andy Warhol meant? Yes and no. Remember, he was looking at fame through the lens of mass media. Warhol and his Factory defined popular culture, essentially creating it. Before him fame via artistic creation (be it painting, literature, photography or films) was the providence of a precious few, those who earned it with their talents and/or exquisite connections. After Warhol, fame could mean anything from getting a bad haircut to getting arrested.
I won’t belabor the obvious. The Internet and social media have made getting famous a whole lot easier for the rest of us. In this sense Andy was a prophet.
In a world where everyone and their teenaged sons are famous for a few minutes, what exactly does “fame” mean? Are there a certain number of views, likes and followers that can deliver one into fame? Surely, it’s more than several hundred. But even gaining many thousands of online friends can’t equal the popularity of the most random of reality TV stars. And, in turn, can one honestly compare a reality TV celebrity with, say, Audrey Hepburn or Jack Nickolson?
As more people become sort of what is considered the pinnacle and whom would we find there? George Clooney? Bono? Ghandi?
Hard to say. But surely Joe the Plumber (remember him?) or some opera-singing five-year old wouldn’t be there. Or might they? After all, aren’t those the knuckleheads Andy Warhol was talking about when he said his famous bit about fame? And besides, wasn’t Justin Bieber just a Canadian falsetto on You Tube?
I wonder. If everyone today is capable of being famous can fame even exist anymore? By definition don’t we need lots more un-famous people in order to appreciate the ones that already are? Remember your Dr. Seuss. As soon as all those Sneetches finally got stars on their bellies the stars lost all of their meaning.
Back in the day my father said his 15 minutes came when the Wall Street Journal rendered his portrait in those iconic black dots. That trumped merely just getting his picture in the paper, which, by the way, used to be the quintessential determiner of fame.
I recently read a blog post talking about “access” being the new standard for wealth. In other words, one doesn’t need to own things in order to be considered wealthy -just have access to them. Is fame like that, too?
May 19, 2014
Upon leaving the new Godzilla movie, my wife and I found ourselves walking behind a couple young boys, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, and we could easily hear their conversation. Excitedly, they were discussing the pros and cons of the film we all just saw. One lamented how relatively little of the monsters actually comprised the movie. “I would have been happy if they spent more time on Godzilla and less time on the father-son stuff,” he said. (Which, by the way, is a fair assessment.) What I loved was his friend’s reply: “Well,” he said, “there’s only so much of the Godzilla story you can tell.”
I remarked to my wife that his was a surprisingly articulate and even witty reply. As they were just steps ahead of us, I could easily discern the Led Zeppelin tour shirt, circa 1977, he was wearing. (How pleasing to know Zep is timeless, like Godzilla.) Unruly long brown hair flowed over the boy’s shoulders. Along with his black concert tee shirt, he had on the obligatory pair of blue jeans and converse sneakers.
That’s when it hit me. I was that kid once! I had that tee shirt. I had that hair. And most importantly I had those opinions. When I was a kid his age I too was first in line for the latest Godzilla movie. I can recall walking with a buddy up Clark Street in Chicago, dissecting the film we just saw. Maybe it was Destroy all Monsters. A classic. We analyzed the plot, giving thoughtful consideration to the many (I supposed) understandable holes in the story. Of course I knew Godzilla was fake, especially the campy Godzilla of my youth. I wasn’t delusional. Far from it. However, I still wanted the movie to be plausible. Or said another way, to not be ridiculous. I was interested in the film’s craft, the special effects, and the ways in which the monsters behaved. Their hierarchy. If there was a “Monster Island” I needed to know how it worked.
What did the creatures eat for example, if not each other? To this day I can’t recall seeing a single Japanese movie monster (called Kaiju) actually eating another one, let alone a person. How could that be? What sustained them? In the current reboot they provide a somewhat plausible explanation. But back then? I could go on forever…
Revelation number two (which will come as no surprise to anyone reading this), I was a nerd. Like the boy in front of me, I’d been captivated by these monsters (however silly they were), and was determined to make sense of their universe. At 15, I certainly didn’t understand mine. What with gas rationing, The Ayatollah and the haunting specter of g-g-girls. I needed that dark theater more than it needed me.
To a certain extent, I actually appreciated my glimpse at these two lads more than the movie itself, which, though it had its virtues, was frankly a let down. I was reminded of the strange circle of life and how true that old cliché really is: the more things change the more they stay the same. For one thing, I am still a nerd -even if my wardrobe choices are suh-weet!