Has Pop Culture Prepared Us to Settle for Less?

At the Oscars, Ellen DeGeneres took the selfie that crashed twitter.  In typical Ellen fashion, she is ultimately relatable and charming. She also is savvy enough to realize what the audience wants.  Does the Ellen selfie prove that stars are just like us or that we now insist that Stars be just like us?

Take for example Lizz Winstead’s chastising of Jared Leto’s acceptance speech.

“The movie that he just won the Oscar for, if you talk about an invisible community that needs an advocate, the trans community is there,” Winstead observed. “I wish that he would have taken that time.”

“Not that the Ukraine isn’t awful,” she continued. She added, however, that a more powerful statement from Leto would have been one centered exclusively on the plight of transgendered individuals.

Jared’s sin here is that in his own acceptance speech for his work, he did not reflect the exact prioritization of values of Ms Winstead.

Granted, much has been written about the decline of our culture and likely too much has been written about the decline of Justin Bieber.  People often will note that movie stars in the past had similar problems; but they were managed better by their studio or protected in part by a willing press.  The thing is, movie stars, PR people, and the media are in the business of making money. Therefore they want to project the image that will earn them the most.

Does the decline in traditionally glamorous role models lie with us?

Based on the direction of politics and the Us Weekly “Stars are just like us” page we may be being fed exactly what we want.  We all want to be rich but clearly we are all not rich so we must believe the myth of the Kardashian.  Getting rich isn’t hard or deserved. It just takes a well timed yet dull sex tape and some PR and then you too can be rich.

No factory, no invention and no business. Just sheer brute force of a packaged personality and a stream of selfies equal fame and fortune.  We live in an age where many people are “famous because they’re famous.” If everyone deserves a trophy, those who make it clearly are just benefiting from luck.  We all want to be skinny and beautiful so we read magazines full of photo shopped images interspersed with articles that show how photoshop distorts images, how fat is really beautiful, while simultaneously you are just one makeover away from looking like Jennifer Lawrence.

For anyone who has talent and appears to work hard like Jennifer Lawrence, accounts of her hard work must be coupled with the obligatory question of, “How hard can it be?” We wouldn’t want anyone to feel like their lack of success was due to a lack of initiative or effort.  Take the amazing voice that Idina Menzel has and watch Jimmy Fallon do what must be done, unplug the production and attempt to make it relatable.  Even Fallon fails to bring her down to earth in this unbuttoned version of “Let it Go” but he knows what we want.  We want to believe that we can all be Idina or play with her by just using xylophone and some rattles but if anything it makes her voice look all the more astounding.  Even Idina knows we want her to be just like us and gives us a peak behind the magic in her twitter feed.

If we accept that everyone is just like us, the path to success must therefore be regulated, else we would all be successful.

Therefore it follows that we have a proliferation of shows like American Idol or The Voice. These shows have always disturbed me in a way I wasn’t quite able to put a finger on until I watched The Running Man again.  I hadn’t counted on a dystopian future TV show looking so glitzy while being hosted by Ryan Seacrest.  Our heroes today achieve their success after jumping through the hoops that the elites designate for you.  Some elites have red spinning chairs, others have books they are promoting but either way, they are the gatekeepers. These shows combine the worst of all assumptions for success.

Recognition now lies in praise by a group of elites, not hard work.   One could surmise these shows serve to grant us little people the sense that at least someone is getting a shot so we can stave off the notion that opportunity is diminished in our everyday lives.

These shows harbor the worst fatal conceit, that there is a clear regulated path to success overseen by a team of elites.

“When I think about kids watching a TV show like American Idol or The Voice, then they think, ‘Oh, OK, that’s how you become a musician, you stand in line for eight fucking hours with 800 people at a convention center and… then you sing your heart out for someone and then they tell you it’s not fuckin’ good enough.’ Can you imagine?” he implores. “It’s destroying the next generation of musicians! Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy an old fucking drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck too. And then they’ll fucking start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana. Because that’s exactly what happened with Nirvana. Just a bunch of guys that had some shitty old instruments and they got together and started playing some noisy-ass shit, and they became the biggest band in the world. That can happen again! You don’t need a fucking computer or the internet or The Voice or American Idol.” – Dave Grohl

David Grohl’s advice is relevant whether you are a musician or pursuing any other passion but it’s the lesson pop culture strives to suppress.  Success often means a lot of failure, practice, failure and more failure before you hit “Nirvana”.  The path to success is rarely well defined and sadly for many young people saddled with student debt and no job prospects that is becoming all too clear.

If culture is downstream from politics, our culture is paving the way for a future where we all settle for less and those who have aspirations put their faith in a caste of elites selecting them for success.   The optimist of course should note, is there is no bringing down Idina in “Let it Go” no matter how many kazoos they use to weigh her down.

The more our entertainment looks like a world where characters are defined by their circumstance instead of their own initiative the more our country is gravitating to a lesser role in their own lives. If people want to think about “taking back the culture” entertainment or entertainers who champion or even give a nod to individual effort as the driving force in their success is a good place to start.

Aspiration is that uniquely human ability to see the world not as it is but what it could be. Without it, a world where we all settle is a diminished future. If we want to change the politics, our culture needs more unapologetic aspiration not more degradation and assimilation.

The question is, do we want it?