Patton Oswalt recently published a bewilderingly long-winded and altogether baffling article on Wired.com. He talked about the death of modern culture and what he termed ETEWAF: everything that ever was, available forever. He says that modern internet politics have brought all of culture together in one handily accessible place for anyone to get a hold of, and he says this as though it’s a bad thing. While I agree, he goes on to say that speeding up this process can only bring back the singular pop culture of yesteryear, where everyone watched I Love Lucy and listened to The Beatles. Where his daughter can be the singular rebel who’s the only girl listening to “superviolent line-dancing music” “from Germany”. I have bad news for you, Mr. Oswalt. While my brother may love your comedy and I may love your performance as Remy in Ratatouille, our modern geek culture will indeed die. And there’s little we can do to stop it.
When I see people listening to new music these days, I hear a lot of people listening to the same few things already. And when they branch out to something new, they don’t listen to something new. They listen to something that sounds exactly like what they’re already listening to, but with one element exaggerated or downplayed. They repeat this process until they find their singular favourite band, who make dozens of songs that all sound the same, but all have the exact mix of what they want. I see people do this to movies, where they look for the one genre entry that is undeniably theirs and no one else will like the exact composition of that film as much as they do. People do this with everything until we all have our own niches of culture all to ourselves. Am I guilty of this? I can’t even tell any more.
So much of what we’re creating today is motivated by the same practice of tinkering and adjusting until “perfection” is reached. Transformers is released: great success! For TransformersRotF, they turned down the story and turned up the effects: mixed results. TransformersStupidAssTitle is set to change the game by focusing more on story. Never mind that the first movie was as good as the series was going to get. It isn’t even specific to series of films–television series do this too, often emulating the surface elements of something else, while being an adaptation of an existing property. How many NHL games has EA released? How many Call of Duty games do we really need to get the latest and greatest play experience?
For my money, it’s not etewaf that will destroy pop culture, it’s specificity. It’s our inability to listen to something that has even the mildest deviance from something we don’t like. It’s our inability to deal with flaws in our search for entertainment. We demand everything be flawless or current in superficial ways. Gamers demand video games render at full 720p for every frame and feel cheated if it’s even a little off. Despite the fact that if you were playing the game to play it, you wouldn’t have noticed. It’s the kind of thinking that drives people to like specific bands instead of far-reaching genres as a whole. I have perfectly valid reasons to like Kanye West, D-Sisive and MC Lars and not like Lil Wayne, Sigur Ros or the Rolling Stones, but it still makes me feel kind of a douche to do so. I don’t like who I do to listen to the most obscure artist available, I like what’s good. Yet I still come out of a lot of records Dan recommends with instructions for the bands who made them. “Needs more louder”.
It’s also the simultaneous craving for safety and a secure success that will kill us creatively. I appreciate works that have a unique philosophy to them and follow through on it. Works that compromise themselves or their own goals turn me off immediately. And watching the growing number of sequels, the stale, safe, secure nature of everything being released, I feel like it’s an ending. The ending to anything that’s unique, not because it’s a slight difference from what’s already been done, but because it goes where no one has gone before. People tell me that Inception was stunningly original, but for all its sci-fi aspirations, it’s a terribly safe feature. No women of importance, no blacks of importance, brown people done away with almost immediately. Easy visual cues and references to latch on to. Hell, it was even put through the orange-and-tealerizer, just so your eyes wouldn’t be strained by the colour green.
I’ve seen the same concepts brought up over and over again in our contemporary culture, done in by young men who constantly whine for something “new” to satisfy their entertainment needs. But they don’t mean “new”. They don’t want “new”. If you gave your standard Call of Duty gamer a copy of Psychonauts, they’d tear your eyes out with rage. How did ICO and Shadow of the Colossus sell, again? After all these discussions of these games as being new and innovative, none of their unique properties have carried over to the rest of games. I’m playing Lost in Shadow at the moment, and no matter how much I say its atmosphere and addictively simple platforming mechanics are drawing me in, I can’t convince anyone I know that it was worth the money.
The tone of this article is inspired not by the whining of my contemporaries, but by Jeremy Clarkson’s review of the Aston Martin Vanquish with a 6-liter V12 engine installed. I’m seeing a lot of things these days that I count as daring or original, but instead of gaining widespread exposure for this, they’re buried under mountains on mountains of samey crap. I ask Chad and Dave frequently, how is gaming supposed to evolve if this is how we treat innovation? By ignoring it? But in truth, that’s where movies, anime, comics, books, music and television are already. So what are we supposed to do about our pop culture’s approaching end?
What can we do?
… Wave goodbye, I suppose.