I have had a couple of ideas rattling around in my head for a month or so now and finally have some time to get at least one out. As I came of age in the 1980’s I have a unique view on art and culture as I experienced the largest cultural shift in music, television, and movies in American history. After the 1980’s we saw our entertainment industry shift toward more and more commercial interests. Yes, I know that all art is commercial and Hollywood has been commercial for a long time but it became a driving force over all others in the 1990’s. Since then then the quality and substance of music, movies, and TV entertainment have continued to plunge to new lows each 5 years or so.
First off, lets look at music, my former favorite. In the 1970’s music was largely segmented across racial, cultural, and sub-cultural barriers. R&B was rhythm and blues, Jazz was jazz, Country and Western was country, Folk was folk, Disco was disco, Rock was rock and Pop was the top 40 or top 100 selling singles for the week. You could tell the difference between Kenny Rogers, Aerosmith, Boston, Chicago, Stevie Wonder, and Louis Armstrong without any thought. Music was tailored for its base consumer base and innovation was in the air as new electronic recording and production capabilities were introduced. In the 1980’s the movements within each genre started to split into smaller sub-groups, rap, soul, acid jazz, bluegrass, hard rock, heavy metal, glam, dance, etc. started emerging and specializing while pushing innovation and selling albums hand over fist. The lines started blurring and it was harder to tell the difference between Lionel Rickie and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam or Van Halen and Loverboy or Randy Travis and Garth Brooks or LL Cool J and Ice T yet it was easy to tell the differences between the major groups. This is where the beginning of the end came in.
In the 1990’s the music industry had reached a climax. All the creativity was creating more artists and sounds then the industry could handle. The money being made forced the industry to make a decision that killed music for the fans, copying. In stead of trying to find the next big sound or next big segment of the music world the recording industry wanted to find the next Nirvana, NWA, Metallica, Whitney Houston, New Kids on the Block, Clint Black, etc. They went for formulization that raised a generation of copy cats instead of innovators as the previous generation was. Don’t believe me, who was the Eddie Van Halen of the 1990’s? All the sub groups started to sound alike to the point you couldn’t really tell if you were listening to Sponge, Bush, Silverchair, or Radiohead. Pop and Rock were merged as were R&B, Soul, and Rap. New innovators like alternative and techno were just lumped into the larger groups. Talk in the industry went from “where is the next place the new sound will come from?” to “who do they sound like?”. From here the talents were shifted to mocking and not innovating. Now I realize that there was innovation and new groups coming out, but not at the rate you saw in the previous decade. The turn of the century just saw more of the same, copy cats and imitators of successful groups being milled out as quickly as the industry could find them. All of this was on the backdrop of the peer to peer downloading which trumped the news that record sales had been falling for years, just now at an alarming rate. The industry blamed the college kids, but the industry was no longer putting out quality product worth dropping any cash on.
Next is TV. In the 70’s TV was tame. The industry was in transition as commercials were being regulated, smoking and alcohol were now out, and the industry was starting to use more psychologically based aids. I can remember watching movies on TV with only 4 commercials, try that today, even on cable! Programs were cheaply produced and the themes were often mundane and predictable. Hits were something special and people would plan their weeks around favorite shows, like Dukes of Hazzard, Rockford Files, Kojak, etc. TV programming was not much different then in the 1960’s and competition was light, thanks to just 3 networks and only major cities having VHF. The 1980’s saw TV explode with larger budgets, edgier scripts, and new and interesting programming that captivated the nation. Dallas, Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere, LA Law, Miami Vice, Family Ties, etc. They all started to incorporate movie style budgets, cutting edge topics, pushing the lines of decency and challenging the national attitudes on social topics of the day. People planned their weeks around their favorite shows. The advent of the VCR allowed people to start taping the shows they had to miss or could not watch because of a competing program of equal quality.
TV continued to grow and mature in the 1990s as cable saturation gave more variety to more people as its prices became more affordable and programming expand beyond movie channels and shopping channels. The industry saw the likes of movie directors lending a hand to writing and big name stars appear along side emerging stars. Commercials began using popular music instead of jingles and industry standbys of the days before. Programs were becoming more popular and attracting the money that follows. Stars were born overnight and their influence began to sway corporate executives, sometimes to disastrous results. Still, the shows were new and fresh, but by the middle of the decade they started to follow the music industry model, copy the successful ones and formulate everything. Even successful shows of the time, Law and Order, ER, etc. formulated their own past successes to become predictable and boring, only the actors were changing. By the turn of the century the only innovation was on cable and only by networks like HBO that dared to push the lines of cultural acceptance with previous taboo subject matter and nudity not allowed on networks, Sex and the City, 6 Foot Under, The Sapranos. Now we see the same things being imitated over and over, just now they are old and stale.
Movies have gone the same route. In the 70’s themes were small, budgets not so big, and themes not too shocking. This was changed by 2 genres, horror and sci-fi. With the likes of Exorcist, Halloween, and Star Wars, Close Encounters the industry changed and changed overnight. Suddenly special effects and simple story lines took over. Movies shifted into fun events and escapes from the issues of the day. The 1980’s continued and added the big budget blockbusters with India Jones and the introduction of serials, suddenly everything got a sequel. This was different then the sequels of the past that were more like separate movies instead of familar characters doing familiar things. The 1990’s took the success of the past decade and merged it with the TV model of the day. Edgy, dark, and themes pushing social views came to the center. Serial killers and anti-heroes were the order of the decade and they filled it with glee. At the turn of the century it all started to turn in on itself. Kids movies were so formulated that kids were becoming board half way through, until smart writers stepped in and added adult content, truing the focus of the movies into how many clever ways to conceal adult material. Disaster movies, Thrillers, Mysteries, and the old mainstays Action, Horror and Sci-Fi became all carbon copies of the successes of the first part of the decade. See the pattern here?
This has started to change, but change for the worse. How? The writers, producers, and creative minds behind music, tv, and movies have been copying the successes of the past for so long now that they are no longer able to create anything new. Sure some try only to get lost half way through it. Take Lost for example. It started out like the Matrix, something new, fresh, and daring, only to fall flat on the creativity side and end up a mashed up compilation of tired old themes and sub-plots. Even Axl Rose sounds like Guns and Roses after taking 15 years to produce an album that is well, just like you would expect from him. We see things the entertainment industry trying to re-do all the successes of the past now. Movies are the worst here. Remakes that only try to update the feel of the originals or take a new yet tired twist of the original, like Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and less flattering remakes. Now we have music artists releasing albums of there favorite songs from the 1980’s, that was just 20 years ago! While it is hard to be unique, edgy, daring, and fresh it seems nobody is trying. Just as groups like Linkin Park think they are original anyone who listened to Stabbing Westward will see stark similarities. I even saw Cuba Gooding Jr. AND Christian Slater in a horrible film, Lies and Illusions that begs me to ask what were their agents thinking. TV is so bad that it is mostly reality programs, the rebirth of the verity show like Jay Lenno’s disaster. This begs me to ask, where did all the creativity go? Why is it that the best entertainment found is in sporadic spurts that fade as quickly as they emerge, like the movie District 9 or hard rock metal group Union Underground?
I know it is not just my age and jaded nature or cynicism as others have mentioned this to me before. The last movie I really felt fun watching was just a montage of 1970’s kung fu flicks, Kill Bill vol 1, vol 2 sucked. I gave up on music long before I moved to China. Since moving here I have been catching up on TV and movies quickly as DVDs here are dirt cheap and over the years the quality has constantly declined. While I know that this is not the case for 100% of the things in entertainment, where is the creativity that used to make us forget our daily slog? Where is the excitement that used to grab us and make us plan our lives around, like TV shows, album releases, opening weekends of movies? Most of the big movies of the past 5 years were either re-makes or aging series started a decade or so before, Star Wars, Indian Jones. From where I am sitting it is all going down hill and I don’t know why. People in entertainment are getting paid more and have better benefits then they did before yet their productivity, creativity, and innovation is all well below where it was just 15 years before. Why is this? Do we really have to make artists suffer to get anything good from them? Could it be that our human condition is only improved through struggle and adversity? Is it possible that when we are happy, secure, and confident on our professions and futures we stop striving, reaching, and taking the risks that inspire millions? I think we have all gotten so complacent that we just accept what is handed to us and quality is less then a concept to most of us now. I guess we should just go back to reading books and telling stories around campfires for entertainment, those were always entertaining and fresh then what we are being sold today.