Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture. —Ken Robinson
No, I did not watch the Oscars last night, and no, it wasn’t because of any boycott, though the issue of racism in Hollywood needs a lot more than just platitudes thrown at it. I didn’t watch the Oscars last night because there was absolutely nothing about the show worthy of holding my interests for three-plus hours after a long day that started at 3:00 AM EST. To have stayed up that late would have required feeling passionate about some element of the show and there was nothing deserving of my passion. I had a much better time putting my head on my pillow and going to sleep.
2015’s Oscars views were off by 18% from the previous year, hitting a six-year low. Last night’s numbers aren’t in yet (7:00 AM EST), but I will be tremendously surprised if they’re all that much higher, if any at all. And while it might be tempting to blame things such as #OscarsSoWhite, the reality is that popular culture has popped, imploded into a pile of monotony that is about as exciting as the underside of a dog house. There was no reason to stay up and see what won the Best Picture award because I hadn’t bothered to see any of the nominated films. Spotlight, the film that won, hadn’t even managed to cross my radar before last night. What is it about? Apparently journalists at the Boston Globe, from what I’m reading, and I’m sure there are plenty of people who think it is a very good film, but am I going to drop $20 and an afternoon to see it? Probably not.
This period of cultural boredom isn’t just limited to film, unfortunately. I have spent the past three weeks totally consumed in covering ready-to-wear fashion for Pattern magazine. Earlier today, we finished up the shows in Milan, which should have been one of the most exciting weeks of the year. It wasn’t. If anything, it was anti-climactic at a level that I don’t remember having seen before. Worse yet, this has been a five-year trend that isn’t showing any sign of improving. An article in Business Insider this morning addresses the problem that such complete and total boredom with fashion is a leading cause of declining sales at department stores. Why shop when what we see on the rack is not substantially different from we already have in our closet?
Is music any different? Regrettably no, and music is the one place that our culture should be constantly reinventing itself. This year’s Grammy awards, which should be the biggest night in music, lost a half-million viewers from last year, which wasn’t exactly the most stellar statistic in the first place. With autotuning and digitally precise engineering, all new music has begun to sound too similar for anyone to care all that much about buying new albums. Scream all you want about how streaming services are cheating artists, what really matters is the fact that no one is buying the latest album because it sounds exactly like the one before it and the one before that and the one before … you get the idea.
What has happened to American culture? Where are the distinguishing artists that once shone out like beacons, names like Elvis, Hank Williams, Three Dog Night, or Ray Charles? Where are the icons of culture such as the Dorsey Brothers, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, and Norman Rockwell? Who is replacing Edward R. Murrow, Huntley & Brinkley, Bob Woodward, and Norman Mailer? Where are the underpinnings of our culture that give definition to this second decade of the 21st century? So far, all we have are hipster beards and oversized eyeglass frames and, quite honestly, both of those have lost their panache. We need more. We need something new to help define the next four years.
Why is our current culture not more significant? I have an interesting example. Tonight begins a new season of The Voice. Approximately 40 outstanding vocalists will be given a chance to work with experienced professionals, presumably to help get their music career jumpstarted. This is the tenth season of the show, which is a ratings hit for parent network NBC, but when we look at its actual impact on our culture, what have been the results: Nothing. Zero. Why? Because by the time the contest works its way down to the final four artists, the unique voices that started the show are gone. In their place are packaged, over-produced, tightly managed singers who are fed into a corporate music machine and promptly spit out on the other side having had little to no affect on our culture at all. Everyone sounds the same.
American Idol closed under exactly the same fate. While finalists from the first two seasons have done well, no one from this decade has managed to even get a glimpse of the Billboard charts. Nada. Zip.
Why was the literary world so wildly excited about what was ultimately a disappointing new book from Harper Lee, one which she had, presumptively, never wanted to be published? Because even contemporary literature is in the doldrums. We were wildly hopeful that a writer who had set culture on fire back in the 1960s might possibly be able to thrill us where more contemporary authors have failed.
Our culture has become far too boring. We, as creatives, have become too risk adverse, too unwilling to rock the boat, and the corporate entities that now control most everything we consume have choked the life from our movies, our music, our literature, and our life. We don’t need more Jackson Pollock, thank you. We need the next iteration of Pei Wei. We need people who can turn Banksy on its ear. We need people who give Giorgio Armani a reason to retire.
As I sit here ranting, of course, I have to ask myself what I’m willing to do to become part of the solution. I have some ideas. Who’s willing to help? Our culture is deficient of creativity. You and I can make a difference. Start now.