Recently, I watched “Spider-Man: No Way Home” with my family in theaters which got me thinking about the current state of pop culture. Something about it feels lacking, as if it is mostly meaningless and empty. Of course, there is the argument that this is due to big corporations making bad movies but still making good money, which definitely has a lot of truth to it, though the issue goes deeper than that. We know that the incentive of a corporation, whether it is producing pieces of culture or simple goods, is profit, and for a business that creates products such as movies, music, or things of that nature, there is an incentive to produce as many of those products as possible. If they can get away with it, they won’t need to make it high quality, as long as it works. Kids movies are a great example. While there are many great ones, there are just as many poor ones (I’m looking at you, Emoji Movie). Unfortunately, this is what we are seeing right now with pop culture in general. I am not here to get into the specifics of why corporations are making these valueless creations for the public. Instead, I would like to explain why these creations are valueless, and how this has negatively affected all consumers.
Issue #1: Inclusivity
Within pop culture, there has been a growing push to make it more inclusive. In doing this, it is easier to produce, sell, and consume media. Modern pop culture knows no tradition, no language, no customs, no history, no religion, no people. It is made for everyone, it is made for all ages, all cultures, all nations, and all backgrounds. It is made for the global capitalist market. Unfortunately, when you create something for everyone, you create something for no one. Media becomes dumbed downed and generic. It reflects the blandest aspects of human life. Content stays at a surface level out of fear of being too “philosophical” or “deep.” Take The Avengers for example. It is intended for all audiences, trying to appeal to both the stereotypical comic nerd and the mainstream consumer at the same time. In fact, it has become something of a global mythos. Everyone knows who Iron Man is. Everyone has at least some idea of the stories and the characters. However, the wide appeal results in a fairly dull movie series with fairly dull characters and fairly dull stories, because the goal is to make them into the most marketable movies possible. Sure, sometimes they are fun to watch and can be rather humorous, but when you dig deeper the movies lack substance; they lack transcendence and true meaning. Now, this criticism is not applicable equally to every Marvel movie. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for instance, tackle painful subjects like loss, belonging, identity, and reconciliation. But generally, the Marvel movies are more about funny one-liners and big CGI battles.
What results is people consuming media without taking anything meaningful away from it. No one watching superhero movies is suddenly inspired to go and help others and improve themselves so they can be more like their favorite superhero. Why bother when all the popular superheroes are more boring than you are? Perhaps the most boring character in the MCU to date is Captain Marvel. She is an emotionless robot who has barely any struggle, and the sole purpose of her character is to be a throwaway “strong female” who appears to own the males.
Attempting to reach as wide of an audience as possible has made stories and characters into bland pieces of work. That is not even to mention the music industry, where hundreds of people try to make it big by recycling the same beat, technique, and lyrics over and over again, adding slight tweaks to come off as original.
Issue #2: Relatability
The second issue in pop-culture is relatability. As has already been discussed, pop culture enters into a futile attempt to appeal to as many people as possible by giving their characters the same traits as the average consumer. Ironically, they still fail to make their characters relatable in the ways they should be relatable. This lack of relatability further aids in creations being uninspiring. Once again, consider the MCU. The most well-known characters are a pagan god, a super soldier from WW2, a billionaire, a Russian spy, etc. These characters lack something which is very important in tales of heroes: they were never regular people. I think this is why Spider Man has enduring appeal, because he is one of the few characters that comes from normal and humble beginnings. Every kid can imagine themselves being Spider Man.
The idea of a superman originates from Nietzsche’s concept of the “Ubermensch,” that being, an ordinary person who overcomes their human limitations and sets out their own values. However, this is non-existent within Marvel and (to some extent) DC. Instead, they are people with somewhat ordinary values with a high status who never had a process of rising above the herd, or they are morally incorruptible from the beginning. They were simply given their status, power, fame, and glory and never overcame their humanity or their flaws. Superheroes are supposed to inspire you to improve yourself and the people around you, to maybe reflect the superhuman on the big screen, but they just don’t. This is, I believe, why there has been a rise of the anti-hero trope in recent years. The Injustice games tell a story of a tyrannical Superman and Justice League; The Boys tells a story of a genetically engineered “hero” who is nothing but a despicable and evil propaganda piece, and Omni Man burst onto the scene as a nearly godlike superhero turned mass murderer.
This issue exists within the modern music industry as well. The more popular pieces of music being made today (whether it be rap, pop, rock, etc.) all seem to have lyrics about drugs, sex, fame, money and other things of that nature. Instead of making music that people can see themselves in, many modern-day musicians simply make music to brag about their status or material success. The popularity of music like this can be damaging as this leaves people listening entirely to music which is emotionally numbing; you don’t feel the lyrics, you just listen to the music and the words go straight in one ear and out the other. This is arguably why bands like Twenty-One Pilots and My Chemical Romance have had such success among certain audiences; while you may not like their music, it is hard to deny that their songs lack substance or that they do not deal with weighty issues at times. This is why many people are able to find comfort in such music, as compared to the meaningless and radio-friendly modern pop music hits.
Issue New #3: Unoriginality
As you would expect, these trends in pop culture, of being unrelatable and of appealing to the widest possible audience, results in a lack of original work. Just about everything Star Wars has been trying to churn out lately has been the recycling of the same characters. Of course, this appeals to all the fans who love the nostalgia and the old faces, but it lacks innovation. In The Mandalorian we see Ashoka Tano return, in the New Trilogy they randomly bring back Lando Calrissian and Palpatine, The Force Awakens is just a facsimile of A New Hope with its Big Planet Destroyer arc, and the newest series to hit Disney+ is about Boba Fett. Even when we do see new characters, they have often been disappointing (see the abysmal handling of Finn). Contrast this with Star Wars: The Clone Wars which introduced us to complex and varied characters and fleshed them out. The handling of the clones in that show was phenomenal, as each was given a distinct and compelling personality, manifested in different attitudes, mannerisms, voice inflections, and appearances. It was easy to develop an affinity for these characters and get invested in their stories.
Perhaps even worse than the repetition within a franchise is the never-ending reboots and sequels. What Fast and Furious movie are we on now? How many new Jurassic Park movies can they make? I think there was a new Terminator movie sometime recently. The new Ghostbusters was an embarrassment. They’re remaking A Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Multiple Stephen King reboots have been released in the last few years. They remade Godzilla and King Kong. They remade Planet of the Apes. The list could go on.
Are There Any Recent Examples of Substantial Pop Culture?
In all of this mess, there are still some gems. These pieces carry far more weight because, despite what has already been discussed, these try to relate to a certain audience. For example, the show Teen Titans was made for a very pointed audience, that being, American teenagers living in urban areas. Each character is meant to be a more exaggerated version of a certain subculture: Raven is an exaggerated goth, Beast Boy is an exaggerated “gamer,” Cyborg is an exaggerated jock, Starfire is an exaggerated “girly girl,” and Robin is an exaggerated “alpha male.” This makes the show more memorable and enjoyable as people can not only relate to the characters but be inspired by them. Even I, who first watched the show far before I was a teenager and never lived outside the suburbs, felt more connected to these characters then I ever would with Iron Man and Thor. That’s because these characters seem as if they were average people who rose above and overcame their human limitations, as opposed to high status figures who never had to deal with normal human limitations. This is what pop culture should be promoting, not what is being produced now.
This will definitely raise a few eyebrows, but I’ve found that another more impactful piece of media produced in recent years was Black Panther. Some criticize it for pandering to liberal and Black audiences, but is this a bad thing? Why shouldn’t there be a movie by and for a specific group of people to relate to and point towards as theirs. It was made specifically for a Black audience, and this is made clear through the cast, the costumes, the setting, and the themes. Of course, anyone is allowed to watch it, and being a corporation, Marvel would prefer as many people watch it as possible, but it ended up resonating far more with Black audiences than White audiences. The story and production itself were not anything to write home about (the CGI fight scenes between Killmonger and Black Panther left a lot to be desired), but it has had a surprising impact on Black culture. Consider how Wakanda and the salute have become easily recognizable symbols in the Black community. This allows the movie to live on in people’s minds, their art, their actions, and their speech. It allows people to relate to a shared story or piece of media. Media that is intended for a specific group or which focuses in on a particular people, topic, time period, or hardship, works better than one which attempts to have the widest and most consumable appeal.
As I have briefly demonstrated, modern pop culture has a plethora of issues, including forced inclusivity, relating to and alienating the audience at the same time, and a lack of creativity. The clear solution to this would be to do the exact opposite of everything pop culture is doing now. Instead of trying to appeal to as many people as possible, movies, shows, and music should strive to have a single audience that resonates with its content really well. Movies and shows should have characters who start off as regular people but overcome their own struggles and become something more. Music should try to activate true, deep emotion, as opposed to the vague and numbing feelings people often get when listening to modern pop music. Content creators should experiment with new ideas and take inspiration from the old without completely copying it. A combination of these factors would bring about a more refreshing and much healthier pop culture than what we currently have and perhaps a better culture as a whole.