I spent my summer break in Ann Arbor. I
took a class and worked a couple of jobs. I also watched a lot of
really bad TV. Almost every day of the week was filled by a
different TV show that would waste at least an hour of my time.
MTV’s 10 Spot is a great way to waste time, and the start of the
new Fox show “The O.C.” will keep the fun going during the school
year. The best consolation I can think of to comfort myself for
wasting so much time is that I am not alone.
Americans are obsessed with this breed of TV. Not many of the
people in this country can name six of the Democrats running for
president, but I feel confident saying that they probably know who
Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard are. The combination of filth and
reality TV is a potent formula for networks lacking creativity and
looking for ratings. The names of Fox’s new TV series are usually
so funny on their own now that “Saturday Night Live” will no longer
be able to poke fun at them.
But television is not the only cultural medium in decline. This
year two of the biggest movie stars of an earlier era, Audrey
Hepburn and Gregory Peck, passed away, while Colin Farrell, who by
the way does a very impressive American accent, has rocketed to the
top of the industry. The great majority of movies are now under two
hours long (a noteworthy exception being “The Hulk”) and try to
attract moviegoers by having the coolest and loudest
Popular music has also gotten a lot sillier, not to mention
happier. 50 Cent is now the biggest hip-hop artist, ending his
friend Eminem’s reign over the genre. While the era of depressing
punk rock ushered in by Nirvana is becoming less popular, Sean Paul
and Justin Timberlake now dominate the airwaves and the “TRL”
countdown. Everything is lighthearted and fun now.
This column, however, is not meant to be a moralistic attack on
these changes or American tastes and preferences. As I noted above,
I have been known to indulge in this junk myself. What is so
striking about these changes, however, is the political climate in
which they have taken place.
Between the tenuous international climate threatening the
country to the feeble state of the U.S. economy, common sense
suggests that we’d be a little more depressed right now. Instead,
it feels a lot like it did in the 1920s. People are just partying
the time away. Popular culture’s response to John Kennedy’s
assassination in the ’60s, such as Don McLean’s “American Pie,” and
its reactions to the Vietnam War, such as a string of movies and
scores of record albums, were entirely different from its reactions
to Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. A generation ago, people actually
seemed as if they cared that the world and their country were
changing before their eyes.
As the world around us has gotten darker and more frightening,
Americans have begun expressing themselves in more carefree and
lighthearted ways. While every poll shows that people are serious
about national security issues, it’s hard to think of one way in
which anyone has actually changed his life in the last couple of
years to reflect this attitude.
It’s possible that this preference change reflects a need to
forget about serious issues – a desire for comic relief. But this
disconnect from reality is not only troubling, but it should make
many Americans feel guilty as well.
While I laughed at contestants on “Paradise Hotel” as they
drunkenly stumbled around while trying to manipulate each other,
some of the kids I went to high school with were in Iraq fighting a
war. I got better grades than they did in high school, but I have a
hard time feeling superior to them in any way as I goof around in
Ann Arbor learning academic theories and philosophy.
This disconnect between the cocoon many Americans are living in
and the world outside of this cocoon cannot exist forever. A little
bit of fun is fine, but slashing taxes and telling people to go
shopping after Sept. 11 not only denies the seriousness of the
situation facing the country, but it is a typical reflection of the
Bush administration’s superman attitude toward policy. They make
the big decisions, and we go about our happy little lives.