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The Carletonian

As shallow as ever

<ther day, another fad. Faster than any one person can detect, the magic of the Internet transforms mundane, droll ideas first into comedic or sensationalistic gold, then into social phenomena, then into ironically-flogged dead horses, and finally into more specks on the obsolete ash-heap of Internet history, where they join the ranks of Rick Astley, Nyan Cat, Kony 2012, and all the other short-lived crazes that routinely spark interest online, remembered but unreferenced. Such is the state of modern popular culture: now that we have the ability to communicate with each other almost literally at lightspeed, instead of by pony, post, or wire, it’s that much easier for trends to develop that much faster.

All this means that we’ve developed a society that is now able to share more content much faster than ever before. The structure of modern content varies somewhat from previous times, in the sense that it’s now more technology-driven than ever before, but human nature remains fundamentally the same. People have always been captivated by the funny, the novel, the absurd and the lurid.

In the 1900s, newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competed for the attention of the American public with their so-called “yellow journalism,” inadvertently swinging public opinion in favor of a completely unnecessary war with Spain through a primitive form of viral campaigning. In 1969, the year of Abbey Road, Led Zeppelin, Let It Bleed, In A Silent Way, “Space Oddity,” and “Suspicious Minds,” what was the number one song in America? None of these, actually, but a little ditty by the Archies you may know, called “Sugar Sugar.” Yes, society preferred an artless, purely commercial piece of drivel to the many available works of art at the time. If these examples seem shocking, know that they aren’t so different from modern clickbait or memes. Decades later, we can still see the same forces at play in popular culture, through the sewer of content constantly spewed forth by “churnalists” and commercialized popular artists. So it’s not so much that the younger generation is shallower than its forebears. Every generation says that. I believe it’s more because, for one, we’re inundated with shoddiness where previous generations may have seen the same proportion of shoddiness, but in smaller amounts. The greater overall volume makes it appear as if there’s more bad stuff, but really there’s just more stuff overall.

Many enterprising media outlets have caught onto this trend, and now capitalize on viral marketing by adding sensational, entertaining, and misleading stories to their websites, in the hope of attracting more clicks and thus more revenue. In an age when free (and nearly profitless) digital media are rapidly becoming the norm, this is the big guys’ way of adapting simply to survive. Likewise, musicians, filmmakers, actors, comedians, writers, and anyone else who belongs to the cult of mass media are either deemed auteurs above all criticism or accused of succumbing to the pressures of selling out to the shallow forces of popular culture. Yet I don’t believe consumers themselves are shallow—at least, not any more than previous generations. It’s always been easy to buy into commercialism and sensationalism. People naturally respond to those simplistic, emotional appeals. No, the trends that enable us to experience such heavy media saturation show how complicated people really are.

The fact that “Sugar Sugar” could sell better than “Come Together”; or that, as I calculate it, 90% of CNN’s front page links today were not news articles; or that the color of a dress, or a dead gorilla or lion, or the years-old feud between a country-pop singer and rapper can captivate our entire country, shows there must be something more than simple logic governing our collective consciousness, especially when we collectively remain silent about far more significant issues, like a broken criminal justice system, increasing economic inequality, and the rise of far-right extremism. The concepts of these popular ideas may be shallow, but that doesn’t mean we appreciate them because we’re shallow.

There’s no question that we turn to superficial trends like memes, clickbait, and low-quality works of art as a means of escaping our problems. The very same media outlets that give us our bread and circuses also expose us to horrific acts of violence and hatred and prophecies of doom. These opponents counterbalance each other. We’re left with fatigue at the world’s heaviness that only its diametric opposite—breezy, shallow lightness—can cure. In fact, given that the dark stories and omnipresent media aren’t going anywhere in an increasingly interconnected age, maybe breezy, shallow lightness is exactly what we need.

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