A Bit of Cultural Commentary on Cultural Commentary

By Jaylin Paschal

Peter Saville discussed pop culture with It’s Nice That in an interview this month regarding his True Faith exhibit. On pop culture he says, “It transcends music completely. It’s in every gallery you go to, it’s in every fashion collection, the influence of this [pop culture] has spread through everything.”

He continues, “There is a ghetto around pop culture with music there at the heart of it. It suffers from a lack of intelligent discourse around it, so very very rarely is there any kind of creative critique at a sufficiently high level for pop culture, which is ironic seeing that actually, it’s the single most powerful culture, particularly in the UK, for the entire post war period.”

“Pretty much everything, every change that has happened in this country has been channeled first through pop,” he explains. “Whether it be political, civil liberties, gender issues, fashion, design, art, it all channels through pop culture. It’s pop culture that has educated this country for the past 50 years and introduced things to people, because that’s how it works.”

Immediately after reading Saville’s insight, I thought of the current state of cultural commentary and whether or not is was, in fact, “unintelligent.” For the most part, it is. The cultural conversation of the day, July 5, was centered around celebrity gossip and social media drama, with Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna at the top of tending topics lists.

To be fair, I also saw plenty of talk reviewing Azzedine Alaïa’s first couture fashion show in six years. An important question regarding the present day relevancy and appropriatness of Independence Day. Lots of healthy debate surrounding Jay Z’s “The Story of O.J.” on his most recent album, 4:44. But ultimately, the manic-Kardashian & co. were at the forefront of our discussions.

Which puts me in mind of an article I wrote a few months ago, The Complex Complex, in which I expressed my disappointment with Complex’s recent content. Complex, which was once heralded for smart journalism, is now best known for baseless lists, a poorly managed hip hop debate show (although I admit, I love Nadeska Alexis), and an overwhelming amount of Kardashian coverage.

I faulted Complex for being dense and gossip-governed, insistant on publishing advertiser-dictated content and clickbait headlines. But now I realize that the cultural commentary issue is much bigger than the Complex complex. Beyond trash cultural commentary that’s supposed to be trash commentary (like the National Enquirer, The Shade Room or People), and beyond trash cultural commentary that’s disguised as good commentary (Complex, Hypebeast) there is a trash cultural consumerism which allows unintelligent cultural discourse to prevail within mainstream media.

The fact of the matter is, if no one was buying trash, trash wouldn’t be sold. If the headlines weren’t getting clicks, they wouldn’t be written. It’s a basic principle of economics: Supply and Demand. Capitalism in journalism — the last editor; crossing every “t” and dotting every “i.”

But what’s at stake when we barter quality commentary for dollars and cents? As Saville stressed, pop culture is a powerful force, informing the public through an explicit and hidden curriculum. Pop culture must be thought of as an educational tool just as much as it is thought of as an art or as entertainment. Pop culture is film, music, dance, art, celebrity, literature, etc. It is more than a culture — it’s a medium. It’s a vehicle for ideas, and it’s important we take inventory of the goods we’re peddling. Oftentimes, an elemtent of pop culture is commentary on its own, which only begs for more discussion.

A more important, thoughtful point to make regarding Blac Chyna and Rob Kardashian would have been focused on our generation’s unhealthy obsession with revenge-posting and the weaponization of social media. But the surface level analyses offered were “Well, duh, Rob should’ve expected this, Chyna’s a stripper” or “Yasss Chyna, scam!” or “That’s what happens when you try to make a hoe a housewife.” No “creative critique at a sufficiently high level.” In other words, the commentary is not as powerful as the culture itself. Which is and has always been dangerous — an unbalance which allows festering rather than promotes growth.

When no one stops to ask “What the fuck is going on with us?” it just keeps on going, with no real journalistic record of the goings-on or thought tracking of the ongoers.

Not to be pretentious or condescending, but eventually we have to look at pop culture outside of 140 characters and memes and be reflective of what it says about society; of what it says of the human condition. Because ultimately, that’s the cultural commentary that matters — the kind that forces us to reevaluate our belief systems, provoke new and original thought, consider our histories more deeply and push the human race forward. 

But in order to get this commentary, we must demand it. Read the articles that matter. Subscribe to newsletters or publications which publish meaningful work. Purchase only through transparent advertisement. Retweet ideas rather than gossip. Let retailers see you thumbing through W rather than Us Weekly. Until that happens, cultural commentary will remain exactly where it is: in the gutter.

Jaylin PaschalComment