If Madonna had launched her career 30 years later, well, she’d be Lady Gaga. However, she’d probably name her big hit “Material Girl” “Pop Culture Girl,” as it’s more appropriate. The 1980s were the decade of acquisition and the 21st Century is so far all about escapism, which is achieved mostly through reality TV. Odd, that.
If our memories can stretch back far enough to contemplate the weeks after September 11, 2001, you’ll recall how we wondered if the grim reality facing us would allow for escapist entertainment. Also, odd, that. Of course, it would. In fact, it would demand it. The Great Depression gave us Universal horror movies, the Marx Brothers, and Fred and Ginger. The Great Recession gave us The Bachelor and The Bachelorette (working title — Not-The-Bride of The Bachelor). Maybe if we’d just fessed up and called it The Great Depression, the artistic product would have been better.
As Madonna might have sung, “We are living in a Pop Culture World.” It’s even become the dominant language. Try communicating with the average person without knowing the words “Snooki,” “Kardashian,” and “Fey.” No one discusses politics — either because it’s considered rude or uninteresting (“We won’t change our minds on this issue, so let’s just enjoy our lunch and discuss whether Brad and Angelina will ever get married.”). No one even explores the deeper meaning of our escapist entertainment. Generally, because it has none but also because deeper meanings inevitably return you to politics, philosophy, confrontation, and discomfort. We content ourselves with the personal lives of celebrities — as if they truly mattered to us. We even treat commercials, designed solely to sell us things, as “artistic expression.” We repeat one-liners from heartless sitcoms that are merely “clever” pop-culture references that reveal no true emotion — they conceal rather than reveal.
My intent is not to lament the situation, which is inexorable, but to ask that we acknowledge it. The reaction to Whitney Houston’s death has generated the same commentary we saw when Amy Winehouse or Michael Jackson died. People are shocked by the outpouring of emotion. They wonder why the world stops when a pop culture figure dies. What about the nameless soldiers? That’s a good question. Here’s another: On February 26, will you watch the Academy Awards or spend the three hours reading Love My Rifle More Than You by Iraq War veteran Kayla Williams? Already read that one? How about One Bullet Away by Nathan Flick? The list goes on. More Americans have read the memoir of a TV writer than have read any first-person account of the Iraq War. I don’t judge. I just illustrate the reality of the world. On a daily basis, we reinforce what we considerable valuable.
Voltaire said that the living deserve our respect, the dead deserve only the truth. The truth is that our society lives and breathes pop culture. The emotion expressed on Facebook and Twitter when these figures pass on is genuine. Yet, suddenly, we feel shame for what our culture has become. I could cynically say it’s probably because no one enjoys being outside a party — even a funeral — looking in. If the pop culture figure is not important to us, we suddenly see the triviality of it all. If the pop culture figure is important to the individual, we suddenly comprehend the importance of naming a street in the figure’s honor or putting the figure on a stamp.
So, when the flags fly at half-mast for Betty White, I don’t want to hear a peep out of anyone.