The Endless Present, or Why You’re Getting Disclaimers On The Muppets These Days
Back in 2009, when I was young and dashing and being a music journalist was a viable living-making career, I interviewed the musician, producer, artist and all-round interesting person Brian Eno. And, unsurprisingly, he was an utter joy to speak with, not least because he was very thoughtful about art and music and technology and where the future was taking us.
That’s why we’d barely said our hellos before he neatly summed up a then-new experience which, as it turned out, was to become a regular culture-war flashpoint in the world of the future:
“One of the results of digitisation, where everybody owns everything [is that] you don’t just have your little record collection of things you saved up for and guard so carefully. My daughters have 50,000 albums or something each, but not only that they have albums from every era of popular music history, from doo-wop onwards, and they don’t really know what’s current and what was done a long time ago. For instance, they were listening to something a few nights ago — some prog-rock thing, I can’t remember what it was now — and I said “gosh, I remember when that came out we all thought it was really boring,” and she said “what? Is this old then?” [laughs] To her, and many of her generation, everything is equally present so “retro” doesn’t really have quite the same meaning.”
That observation is even more relevant now that there are billions of hours worth of music, TV and cinema immediately available on our devices with barely any effort. There’s far more than anyone could consume in a lifetime, with everything equally present.
And that immediacy marks a hugely significant change in the way that we consume pop culture.
In previous epochs, for the most part, pop culture was ephemeral and superseded from year to year and generation to generation; now instead of replacing our pop culture, we accumulate it instead. There’s a reason why we swapped physical media for digital, and then swapped digital media for streaming: it’s not just convenience, it’s that personal storage of such vast libraries would be impossible for anyone without a fleet of trucks.
More importantly, our relationship with pop culture itself has been changed by that ease of accessibility. Instead of, say, The Office existing as a sitcom fondly remembered from a decade ago, it’s a show people are watching for the first time right now. There’s still new pop culture being created, to be clear, but it has to elbow for room amongst humanity’s vast back catalogue.
And precisely because everything is present, everything is necessarily judged against the standards of the present. And this is where every argument about WOKE CANCEL CULTURE GONE MAD begins, usually before declaring that the problem is libtards and their insidious PC agenda.
But I’d argue that the current sensitivity regarding older works of arts isn’t because audiences are thin-skinned or oversensitive or stupid, but because so much of our pop culture has become unmoored from the time and place in which it was created. And that means that it can be very easily misunderstood — or, worse still, be seen to carry messages which were never, ever intended by the people responsible.
Take TV for example: when programmes from previous eras were harder to find, the only people who saw them were those who knew enough about it to hunt it down in the first place. Since a potential viewer had to go to some effort to see, for example, that episode of The Muppet Show with special guest star Johnny Cash (starting with knowing that it even existed) chances are that viewer would be watching it with some understanding of how certain signifiers might have changed since 1980.
Now it’s available on Disney+ where anyone can stumble over it with no prior knowledge, and therefore find themselves going “hey, why is Johnny Cash flanked by Confederate flags? I didn’t know he was a white supremacist!”
THAT, I contend, is why we’re getting disclaimers on certain programmes or letting old children’s books go out of print for containing outdated racial stereotypes: not because of hysterical snowflakes obsessed with virtue signalling their woke agenda, but because society changes as time goes on and our increasingly-archival approach to pop culture no longer keeps pace. How can it, when so much of it is trapped in amber like mosquitoes in decades-old dinosaur-themed blockbusters?
Now that everything remains accessible we interact with our cultural past differently. More accurately, we don’t necessarily even realise that it’s from the past at all.
It’s an unavoidable consequence of living in the endless present.