How an angry national mood is reflected in pop culture
Our screens and phones fume with righteousness. Our superheroes have forsaken us and our fictions pale against our headlines. Social media taunts have poisoned our political discourse and disfigured our reality. We have become an angry, fractious lot, a “Game of Thrones” for a digitized and unsettled century.
Much of our vexation arises from the insecurities of white working and middle classes threatened by a country reimagined by Wall Street, globalization, technology and changing demographics. The backlash has agitated racial tensions and identity politics that played out in the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders but also reverberated beyond our borders to a world shaken by financial crises, Britain’s vote to exit from the European Union, waves of Syrian refugees and terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Baghdad and San Bernardino.
Visceral and at times frightening narratives are running through our popular culture. We get Batman and Superman — once the extensions of our better selves — battling each other in a grim rain; the take-no-prisoners TV commentaries of Samantha Bee and John Oliver; abrasive, if clever, comics like Amy Schumer; rage and betrayal in Beyonce’s “Lemonade”; meth and degradation in “Breaking Bad”; beheadings, dragons, torture and wars for supremacy in “Game of Thrones.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” a bestselling meditation on being a black man in America, is, along with Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy- winning “The Blacker the Berry,” among the most profound expressions on anger and disillusionment around race. Two of last year’s most heralded films reflected fury that, while set in the recent past, connects with the current political turmoil: “The Big Short” was an examination of the greed and hubris that led to the 2008 financial collapse, calling out a Wall Street culture that has become a target of populist politics, while “Straight Outta Compton” reminded audiences of the LAPD’s brutal history with minority communities as new police shootings of African Americans set off disturbances across the nation.
Such works reflect the darker elements of our natures at a time when our realities seem more perilous than our make-believes. The canon of art is to make sense of seminal times, to pull insight from extremity and find universal meaning in uproar — that’s what powered much of pop culture through turbulent times like the Vietnam War or the Great Depression. But our anger today in the arts is aimed at narrower audiences and amplified through social media and appears more pulse-pounding and instantaneous than in past decades.
Our predilections both in popular culture and politics have increasingly turned tribal, as if a once-common language has broken into coded dialects that separate us from the other. Our entertainment options, many of them self-produced on Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, are plugged into multiple platforms. Our invective is searing, and our common ground is shrinking in a competitive and raucous media landscape that refracts and fuels our worst instincts.
Where are the broader signposts and what are the cultural descendants of Neil Young’s “Ohio” or Jimi Hendrix’s assaultive rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”? Where is Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”? Where are Archie Bunker’s rants, Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for “Network” or Norman Mailer’s ”The Armies of the Night”?
“Art is so fragmented. We’re off in our own ghettos,” said Charles Randolph, who co-wrote the screenplay for “The Big Short.” He added that social media and other outlets offer few galvanizing touchstones, such as the original 1977 television miniseries “Roots” (not this year’s remake, which had a fraction of the original’s audience), that resonate across race, economic class and culture.
“I don’t see the traditional players coming along and doing what they do,” he said. “But you also don’t see younger artists articulating the universal anger.
“Why hasn’t any artist done the job of a crazy politician from New York?” Randolph said in reference to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee who has channeled and amplified widespread dismay with public and financial institutions. Trump will headline what is expected to be a messy convention in Cleveland that begins Monday.
Writers and artists have long faced dilemmas on tapping into the zeitgeist. Some suggest art should arise immediately from the times it is articulating; others say art and popular culture best define landmark moments through a dispassionate prism of time and distance.
Philip Roth, in a 1961 essay, was perplexed over how to decipher a nation entering a decade of turmoil: “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Even the most socially attuned artists would have been hard-pressed over the last year to conjure anything as dramatic or revealing as the moods and faces at rallies for Trump and Sanders. The presidential campaign, notably during the Republican primary, has given us populist passions in a real-time mash-up of a “Saturday Night Live” skit and an updating of novelist’s Robert Penn Warren’s political masterwork, “All the King’s Men.”
“I’ll say this about Trump: Anger is an addiction. We like it. The brain likes it. And now you’ve got a country full of addicts,” Paul Simon was quoted as saying by Billboard magazine. “And the media and certain politicians are the dealers. So everybody’s angry all the time, and they’re all juiced up. I’m not saying there’s nothing to be angry about. What I’m saying is, you can’t make a calm decision when somebody’s got you in a rage.”
One wonders how Archie Bunker would view today’s America from his living room in Queens. A bigot and a racist who wore white socks with black shoes, Archie (Carroll O’Connor) was the embattled everyman of the 1970s groundbreaking television sitcom “All in the Family.” With his flag-pin patriotism, Archie, as politically incorrect as a man could be, clung to a past that was vanishing around him. But everyone knew the joke was on him; his insufferability allowed him our sympathy, or if not that, at least our understanding. It’s hard to imagine that attitude of amused tolerance for a character like Archie today.
But Archie’s was a time when much of American popular culture was distilled through three TV channels, a dial of radio stations, family-owned movie houses, newspapers and weekly magazines. Today talk radio, reality shows and legions of blogs tap into and stoke anger.
The era of hashtags and selfies has given rise to political expression and art that are instant and fiercely personal. Facts matter less than egos; swift thumbs and eviscerating texts have little time for context. A similar reckoning for cultural and political forces roiled civil rights protests and anti-Vietnam War marches of the 1960s but, except for certain pockets including the South, there were moments of shared purpose amid the many convulsions.
“Bobby Kennedy sat with Cesar Chavez. You had Woodstock and a racially multicultural effort that was the impulse of the ’60s,” said Dawn Porter, documentary film director of “Gideon’s Army” and “Trapped.” “But today we’re more separate and you have to cross a line. It is very dangerous. People at Trump rallies, it’s pretty scary stuff. I don’t see someone [an artist or musician] speaking to a multiracial audience. It’s odd. I can’t see a Trump supporter sitting with a person from Black Lives Matter. Who would be their headliner?”
Art has illuminated pivotal moments and forced evaluations throughout American history. The Depression-era photographs of poor families taken by Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange captured the public’s imagination. Woody Guthrie’s folk song “This Land Is Your Land,” written in 1940 and released years later, was a blistering counterpoint to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Playwright Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” resonated with the cruelty and tragedy of the American dream in the immediate post-World War II years.
This year’s two big Tony winners reflect these separate realities. The multicultural cast of the Broadway sensation “Hamilton,” a musical about founding father Alexander Hamilton, embodies the nation’s diversity. Playing not far away is “The Humans,” a potent rendering of the dashed expectations of the white middle class, including a line that crystallizes our economic fears: “Don’t cha think it should cost less to be alive?”
Different fears are realized in Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Disgraced,” just finishing its run at the Mark Taper Forum, about the stewing torment of a Pakistani American lawyer torn between his Muslim ancestry and his Western aspirations. In a recent interview, Akhtar said he was struck by how much the dramatic language of the theater has often been eclipsed by the knives-out vernacular of the real world.
“I wrote the play in 2010 and I didn’t think that that kind of degradation of rhetoric could exist anywhere but the theater,” he said. “But now we’re living in a world where what’s happening on stage is not all that controversial. It’s happening everywhere, all the time, about shifts in American life.”
Our rage these days often cuts deeper than our sense of humor. There are fewer agreed-upon pathways that allow us to examine together our transgression, foibles, prejudices and fears. Our shared humanity has been demarcated on smaller and smaller screens that often brim more with quicksilver judgment than open-mindedness. The lines have hardened. The terrain is vast and splintered, and as the lyrics of Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” suggest, self-loathing may bristle beneath the rancor:
“I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society / That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me / Curse me till I’m dead / Church me with your fake prophesyzing that I’mma be just another slave in my head / Institutionalize manipulation and lies / Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes / You hate me don’t you? / I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself.”
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