Why modern culture is dying

·11 min read
What’s new? Nothing: Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Tom Cruise - Alamy
What’s new? Nothing: Paul McCartney, Kate Bush and Tom Cruise - Alamy

A strange thing is happening in popular culture. This weekend, it will be dominated by an 80-year-old man – Paul McCartney – headlining Glastonbury. In London’s Hyde Park, a 78-year-old man – Mick Jagger – will be leading out the last surviving Rolling Stones to sing songs about street fighting and sex. Meanwhile, 63-year-old Kate Bush is back at No 1 in the UK with Running Up That Hill, just as she was in 1978, as a willowy teenager, with her debut single Wuthering Heights. She’s even made the American Top Ten for the first time.

Of course, Glasto’s main headliner happens to be the finest pop melody writer that ever lived, yet not too many would disagree that Paul McCartney made his last truly great album, Band on the Run, back in 1973. (And almost all of the Stones’ finest works date before that.) What is certain to be a mass celebration of a musical icon hides an inescapable truth: the rock’n’roll moment in human history is all but over.

Fifty years ago, in 1972, if you were into music, a trip to the record shop was full of possibilities. Exile on Main St was released that year, as was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Neil Young’s Harvest, Roxy Music’s self-titled debut and Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace. If you liked singles, you could pick up Walk on the Wild Side, Rocket Man, Superstition, Always on My Mind, Smoke on the Water, Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, or if you preferred, School’s Out by Alice Cooper.

Last year in the UK, the only real competition was between Adele and Ed Sheeran. The British music industry already knew beyond doubt that these would be the two best-selling artists of 2021, only the order was to be decided. (Cheque and large bottle of wine for number one album to Beverly Hills via Tottenham; just a cheque to “Sheeranville” in Suffolk for number one single – we don’t want him getting into bad habits.)

What was most revealing, though, about the end of year album charts was what was happening immediately below those two corporate dreadnoughts: at No 3, Abba; No 5, Queen; No 8, Elton John; No 9, Fleetwood Mac. These were all greatest hits collections, apart from Abba’s Voyage, which was a carefully composed simulacrum of classic Abba, from artists who had reached their peak, I would humbly suggest, in 1977, 1975, 1973 and 1977 respectively.

Mick Jagger performs at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy - Getty
Mick Jagger performs at the San Siro stadium in Milan, Italy - Getty

Clearly, the reason why these superstars still demand our attention is that nothing has come along to replace them. But why?

Well, there are theories. And one of the most interesting ones comes from the “experimental historian” Adam Mastroianni, who, in a fascinating online essay, digs into data relating to pop culture across the board. His starting point is film, and he comes to an uncomfortable conclusion: “At the top of the box office charts, original films have gone extinct”.

Mastroianni picks apart the argument that the film industry has always operated more or less along these lines by coding and graphing box office data from 1977 onwards. What it shows is that up to the year 2000, about 25 per cent of the highest-grossing movies fitted the description above or were “cinematic universe” expansions, such as Marvel films. But “since 2010,” he writes, “it’s been over 50 per cent every year. In recent years, it’s been close to 100 per cent.”

Go back a few years before his start date, to 1973, and the top 10 films seem barely fathomable now. In North America, cinemagoers went to see The Exorcist, The Sting, American Graffiti, Papillon and Last Tango in Paris, all originals. Bond made an entry at No 9 with Live and Let Die (it was number one in the UK), with Serpico and Jesus Christ Superstar doing well, too. Mean Streets, Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man – not just original but seminal – were all released in the same year. Cut to 2022 and the release of Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion - sequels to ancient films that for one week in June accounted for 92 per cent of the total UK box office.

The reality of what is happening goes beyond the tooth-rotting appetite for Marvel movies, which refine human existence, in all its sweetness and sadness, into stories in which everything ultimately comes down to how hard one being can punch another being in the face.

Laura Dern and Sam Neill in Jurassic World Dominion - Universal Pictures
Laura Dern and Sam Neill in Jurassic World Dominion - Universal Pictures

Sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and spin-offs. That’s all we can expect from here on in. The movie industry has found the holy grail of how to make money: spend a lot on brightly coloured, faster-moving versions of the same films they made before, and we will lap it up. If you don’t want to watch Spider-Man, Bond or the ninth instalment of Fast & Furious, tough.

But Mastroianni has more bad news. Leaping off from film, he applies the same data analysis and discovers that the pattern is being repeated in television, music, books and video games. In literature, 75 per cent of authors in the top 10 in recent times have been there before; in music, a smaller group of artists now tops the chart and these lucky stars have more chart toppers than they used to. He has a name for this phenomenon – oligopoly, and he compares it to a “cartel of superstars” claiming a larger and larger share of the market.

Mastroianni theorises on why it may be happening, such as the influence of ever more vast media conglomerates – “Big things like to eat, defeat, and outcompete smaller things” – which suggests that, just maybe, it has something to do with the crushing forces of capital. But he makes some very interesting points: that the process was already underway before the internet really got going – making it easy to watch the same things on repeat, aided by publicity’s new global reach, and search engines that pushed the already famous.

He suggests the proliferation of options makes choosing harder, so people go with names they know. As the Sherlock showrunner Steven Moffat said to me recently, “Surely, we’ve got to stop. There is now more television that I would like to see than I have years left to watch.”

I would suggest though there is an alternative explanation for what is happening: culture is dying.

Lovers of high culture have long had to come to terms with the concept of an already passed “golden age”. Classical music repertoires return again and again to works from the late 18th to late 19th centuries, opera companies still need Verdi, Puccini and Mozart to get bums on seats, and where would ballet at the Royal Opera House be, today, without Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa?

Swan Lake (created in 1895) is still crucial to 21st-century ballet repertories - Bill Cooper
Swan Lake (created in 1895) is still crucial to 21st-century ballet repertories - Bill Cooper

This is not to downplay the many great achievements of those who came later. It’s just that things begin to die out over time. The fertile period after 1900 and before the First World War gives us almost all of Mahler’s symphonies, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos No 2 and 3, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, La Mer, and Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Strauss’s Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. It would be hard to make a case for a comparable clutch of great works over the significantly longer period since the turn of the millennium.

That’s not to dismiss the 20th century work of Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Gershwin, John Cage, Ligeti, Philip Glass, Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham, Kenneth MacMillan or Pina Bausch either, it’s just that you have to accept the preponderance of what came before.

In art, the process of oligopoly is absolutely at work. Try naming a Turner Prize winner from the past decade, let alone a nominee, then look at some of those who had been competing for the award before 2005: Grayson Perry, Steve McQueen, Tracey Emin, Chris Ofili, Anish Kapoor – if you made it through the door in time, the possibilities were enormous. Kapoor has talked about the $65bn international art market, of which contemporary art does more than half, “we play the game… are we makers of luxury goods? Does Louis Vuitton do it better?” The rewards for the players in that game, which favours the superstar names, mean lots of zeros.

Yet ever since Matisse and Picasso, and the twin detonations of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and Marcel Duchamp’s urinal Fountain (1917), art has been operating in a space that is influenced by what came before, even if it was Andy Warhol who forged its link to mass consumption.

In 2021, Damien Hirst created a series of 10,000 NFT works called The Currency. This July, buyers must decide either to keep the digital token of ownership and see the artwork destroyed, or give back the token and receive the work. There is nothing about this idea that is more radical or more witty than Duchamp making and signing a fake cheque to settle a dentist’s bill in 1919. His signature made it an artwork, which had value: art as currency, a century ago. Hirst, of course, understands, post-Warhol, that his Currency will make him a lot more money.

The Currency by Damien Hirst - Heni
The Currency by Damien Hirst - Heni

In literature, the current holder of the Booker Prize, Damon Galgut gave me what he described as an “instinctive opinion” – that the Modernist period of the early 20th century was when “the novel had reached its cultural heights … I do think we need to acknowledge and everybody in this business is better off if we could acknowledge that novels no longer occupy the central cultural position that they used to, they’re far more of a marginal activity.” He is not despondent about the fate of the novel, he insisted, but “all sorts of devious devices [are] providing alternative forms of storytelling”.

Ah yes, those devious devices. Anyone who has tried to watch a film with a child of mobile-phone-bearing age will know that attention spans are not what they were. It’s not confined to the very young either, as the phone zombies lurching along every pavement prove; one millennial TV critic recently described the latest Sally Rooney TV adaptation, Conversations with Friends, as “television designed to be watched out of the corner of your eye while scrolling through Instagram”. But will Instas and TikToks ultimately take the place of long-form visual narrative in the way that the three-minute single made the world shake?

Will NFTs lead to great new art? It seems inconceivable. Digital art that marries the vocabulary of graffiti to the aesthetic of Seventies record designer Roger Dean has been around for ages, we’re only talking about it now because the forces of capital – crypto capital at that – make it seem interesting. Lots of people prefer talking about money to art, but the works of Vincent van Gogh should tell us all we need to know about that.

Perhaps that’s why theatre still seems to be alive and kicking: it’s been more for love than money for years. As the writer/director Patrick Marber put it: “I can’t think of anyone who can make a living as a playwright.” Television, too, seems to be a special case. The pressures of oligopoly have been acting on it for a long time, driving out small-scale dramas and slice-of-life plays, pushing instead endless detectives, thrillers and murder stories at us, but the streaming revolution has unleashed an arms race among major powers that seems to have extended its golden age.

Murder still looms large, and remakes and reboots are everywhere, but rarely a year goes by without another remarkable, original new work being created, such as Apple TV+’s recent Severance, which mixes thought-provoking ideas with surreal humour. Yet there is a suspicion that the algorithms designed to feed us more of what we liked before will soon put a stop to that.

Of course, there will still be weeds and flowers growing through the cracks in the paved parking lot of our new cultural landscape. But apart from these, it’s concrete all the way. Can’t wait for Top Gun 7 in 2030.

Do you agree that original ideas fallen out of fashion? Let us know in the comments section below