These days, when someone asks me to recommend something to watch, read or listen to, my answers are unpredictable. “Can I interest you in this 14-year-old mini-series following a group of American marines during the first 40 days of the Iraq war?” Perhaps a bit of Until Now, a 2012 compilation album featuring the biggest collaborative hits from revered house supergroup Swedish House Mafia, in this trying time?
I don’t do this to be awkward, or out of some curmudgeonly belief that things “aren’t as good as they used to be”, which is something exclusively said by people who reach a certain age, and decide “Yep, that’s done me, just these films and albums on rotation for ever then, and wait for death.” No, I am culturally ravenous. As much as I spend my free time compiling supercuts of all my favorite songs from the American Pie soundtracks, there are also podcasts whose episodes I look forward to every week. I have opinions about the new Kendrick Lamar album (a masterpiece). I, too, watched Conversations With Friends. I haven’t given up on the new by any means, but I have given up on keeping up.
Just before the pandemic, I canceled all my streaming services. Not for financial reasons as many later did (although that’s certainly a welcome bonus), but because they were contributing to a profound malaise. At this point, most people will be familiar with the numbing sensation of opening Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, or whatever your choice of poison is each evening, and scrolling through an abundance of content before settling on an episode of a show you’ve already seen. Most likely a comfort watch from your childhood – Seinfeld, Gilmore Girls, The Simpsons. Either that, or gravitating towards whatever thing is doing the rounds on Twitter that day.
I spent almost three years this way until I found myself booting up yet another season of Stranger Things – a decent show that I have absolutely no strong feelings about – and realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I made a decision for myself. Culture is my life force, and I’d fallen completely out of love with it because I was spending all my time engaging with things I wasn’t really interested in, just to feel appropriately plugged in. A mountain of middling entertainment had consumed me like the gigantic mass of flesh at the end of Akira.
It’s a common modern ailment, feeling smothered by the compulsion to be across everything all of the time. Every day there’s a new “song of the year”, a new micro-trend, a new perfectly OK Netflix series that somehow generates months of online discourse. Social media is obviously designed to compound things; boosting particular forms of entertainment in a way that triggers your fomo worse than BBC One on Glastonbury weekend. Of course you should be watching this, you should have an opinion, you should be gathering around the great modern “water cooler” that is the Emily in Paris hashtag, which, if you click it, will show literally millions of people just screaming at each other. Sure I knew what was going on most of the time, but at what cost?
Culture has always been my way of understanding the world. That’s what compelled me to “keep up” in the first place – I figured plugging myself into as much entertainment as possible would help me grapple with the increasingly fractured mentality of society these days. Alas, in the words of Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If you’re constantly inundated with stories you don’t care for, can’t relate to, or aren’t learning anything from, then what’s the point? Culture isn’t there to be hacked and gamified, or to “win”.
It’s silly to equate any kind of value with compulsive consumption. Despite what your Goodreads goal says, nobody can read 200 books a year – not really. Unless you have a superhuman brain, that information goes in and out, ticking the “read” box without necessarily giving you any of the benefits of actually reading. The act of discovery is, for me, the most invaluable aspect of culture. It’s the buzz you get from stumbling upon something that makes you rethink your entire life and the warm glow of having found it alone. It’s the difference between meeting someone organically, or being set up on a blind date by someone whose end goal is to make a load of money setting people up on blind dates.
So, now, I try not to care so much about knowing it all. Over the last few years I’ve been forcing myself to remember what it was like to embrace random obsessions. To walk into a record shop or bookshop and pick something up because you like its vibe. To read and reread interviews with artists and pick out all their references, and indulge in those too. To hear some random Russian hardbass song on TikTok, or a classic on the radio while driving, and have that element of the unexpected be your first point of contact. And sure enough I’ve felt myself getting excited about pop culture again. I’m far from immune to the lure of Love Island, but I can’t wait to not watch an episode of Ted Lasso as long as I live.