Pop-culture recession

Culture | Declines in fast food, bestsellers, and record sales suggest a growing national boredom

Issue: "State of the Union 2003," Jan. 25, 2003

McDonald's and Burger King are struggling. Hamburger sales have plummeted. Stock in the two top fast-food giants-once a blue chip sure thing-has shrunk in value, and both companies are engaged in major corporate shake-ups.

What happened? Has the public become more health-conscious? Are people eating more at home? Or, after half a century and billions and billions sold, are Americans just growing tired of hamburgers?

What is happening in the fast-food industry is also happening in the publishing industry. The dependable cash cows of the bestseller lists, after decades of popularity, are no longer racking up big sales.

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Horror-meister Stephen King has a new book, From a Buick 8, but hardly anyone is buying it. Tom Clancy has another techno-thriller, Red Rabbit, but its sales are way down from his other books. Scott Turow has another legal thriller; Sue Grafton is up to the letter Q in her alphabet series of mysteries; Michael Crichton has what looks like another quick-to-the-movie bestseller in his latest book Prey.

But all of these-while putting up respectable numbers compared to lesser-known authors-are proving major disappointments to their publishers, who tend to rely on blockbuster authors to carry them through their less-profitable projects.

Record sales are also down for the second straight year. In 2001, music sales were down 5 percent, the first decline since the industry began keeping track. Then in 2002, music sales dropped an additional 10.7 percent.

The music industry is blaming the Internet, saying that the copying of music files onto computers has cut into sales. Or is the public simply tired of the same old sounds repeated year after year? After listening to decades of teenage angst, bubble-gum pop, macabre death metal, and the umpteenth repetition of a musical formula, is there really any reason to buy more?

Pop culture is evidently experiencing a recession.

Pop culture is the attempt to turn cultural artifacts-music, books, food-into commodities to sell and consume. Whereas high culture turns such things into works of art and whereas folk culture uses them to transmit traditional values, pop culture is interested primarily in selling them to a mass audience. This means that they must appeal to the lowest common denominator. They typically avoid being very demanding-which might exclude some consumers-preferring instead to offer "pure entertainment," often titillating the reader with sensationalism and the familiar "sex and violence." These works tend to follow an easily reproducible formula that has been found to attract customers.

The imperative to keep selling means that pop-culture products tend to be disposable, with not much to them. And ironically, the imperative to entertain and to keep the audience constantly stimulated means that the audience becomes more and more jaded. The prime symptom of pop-culture overdose is boredom.

We may have reached the point where the public is growing bored with pop culture. We have had our fill of the formulas; we know too well what to expect; and we are unsatisfied with the fare we are being served.

There are some bright spots in the pop culture. Although television is in a malaise, movies are doing well. New technology is giving cinematic artists new tools, and the industry is going beyond space ships and explosions to make creatively ambitious films like The Lord of the Rings.

Rap has become a hugely successful category in the music industry, especially with the rise of white rapper Eminem, who had by far the biggest-selling album of 2002, with The Eminem Show selling over 7 million copies. With white teenagers becoming rap's biggest customers, the often profane and decadent poetry has become mainstream. To pop-culture consumers, it is at least different from the rock 'n' roll that has seemingly gone to seed.

Country music too is up, after several years of decline. Its super-selling stars, such as Alan Jackson and the Dixie Chicks, seem to be taking it in a more traditional direction, after the failed attempts to make country music seem more like pop.

The bestseller charts are increasingly dominated by relatively serious works of literary art, such as Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, rather than by the same old formula fiction. And sandwich shops like Subway and Panera-not to mention the allegedly "upscale fast-food" joints, where you custom-make your own tacos or macaroni-are taking up some of the slack of the hamburger depression.

Christians have tended to make themselves slaves of the pop culture, imitating its worst features. Now that pop culture is exhausted and the public is looking for something different, Christians have an opportunity not just to follow but to lead, and to make Christianity, as it has been for centuries, culturally influential once again.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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