I was watching TV tonight and had a momentous realization: It is not possible to go slumming anymore.
When I was a younger man, it was possible to enjoy various lowbrow entertainments. Professional wrestling was fun, in small doses. There was Haystack Calhoun and Wahoo McDaniels. It wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, and you could watch them on the television between commercials for safety razors and beer.
Or, as in college, an afternoon between classes could be spent with Ryan’s Hope or All My Children. There was no guilt attached to watching what we knew — what pretty much everyone knew — was empty and meaningless. But fun, in a mindless kind of way.
You could sometimes go to the movies to watch junk, and enjoy it for its junkosity. You could read Sidney Sheldon at the beach or have a blast with the Monster Mash.
To go slumming was not to look down on those involved. Far from it. In that part of American cultural history, before it all went meta, there was an acknowledgment of the differences between highbrow, lowbrow and even middlebrow, and people would gravitate to their respective level and there was no shame in that — not everyone needed to be the same, and it was just fine if you were a plumber, just as it was fine if you taught physics at Columbia (I had friends whose fathers did both). Society needed both.
My own parents were solidly middlebrow (my mother read every Sidney Sheldon book as it came out) and I gravitated to a brow a few grades more rarified. That was my natural “specific gravity” and I sought it as naturally as a hatched sea turtle waddles to the ocean.
It was a stratified culture, and aside from the haughty censure of a few snobs, that fact seemed both acceptable and, in fact, normal to most of us.
But, as I was watching tonight, I recognized promos for TV shows that reveled in what one old-timer used to call “meatball culture” — that is, adolescent testosterone-inebriated arrested development stupidity. And I realized that all the brows had been swirled together into one agglomerated goo of meatballery.
We’ve even added a drunken frat boy to the Supreme Court.
I think I first noticed this change with the advent of Beavis and Butt-Head in 1993. Since then, the number of shows, cartoon and live-action, in which all the characters are slovenly and imbecilic has metastasized.
If you compare it with The Simpsons, you can see the difference. The Simpsons is a well-populated series, with all levels of intelligence and aspiration accounted for. Homer may be a dunce (but good hearted), but Marge is solidly middle-class, Lisa is highbrow, Bart is lowbrow. Each has a place in the well-greased family dynamic.
But, look at Bob’s Burgers now, where everyone is a marginal cretin.
The Simpsons also was consistently witty, with sharp writing, social observation, character-driven gags. It was written by a gang of really smart people and meant to appeal to every level of society and education.
Now, the general pitch level is for Cletus the slack-jawed yokel. How else do you explain the multi-season broadcasts of Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, The Masked Singer, Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, Drunk History, The Batchelor and Batchelorette, Love Island, The Kardashians, Cops, Pawn Stars, Judge Judy, Toddlers and Tiaras, Sister Wives, The Apprentice — You can continue the list. I haven’t the heart.
To say nothing of so-called “Trash TV,” and the fist-fight, chair-throwing, bleep-rhythmed shows like those with Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, Geraldo. And all the other faux courts and dating shows. Low culture is now all culture.
Quiz shows used to ask substantive questions (Jeopardy was the last to give in to pop-culture references, although it still asks many hard questions), but when we get to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, we get questions more akin to “What color dress did Adele wear to the 2020 Emmy awards?”
And I shouldn’t have to mention that a professional wrestler has had his turn as governor of Minnesota, or that a reality TV star has occupied the White House.
Our culture now sees no difference between Jackass and Jackson Pollock. Even academics now consider Duck Dynasty worthy of a Ph.D. thesis, while at the same time castigating Rilke as dreadfully elitist.
Film has become an endless assembly line of multiverse superheroes. I cannot begin to count the number of different Batman actors have put on the suit. Michael Bay sells tickets. Blow stuff up real good.
Even classical music has been taken over by the so-called “historical performance practice” people, whose claim to be inspired by the way music used to be played when originally composed (which nobody really knows — it was centuries ago, before recordings), but to be honest, that is mere self-delusion. It is really the propulsive rhythmic drive of rock and roll that makes them rip through the classics. Beethoven à la speed metal.
I believe that the rise of a universal meta has come to us partly because of this meatball culture. Brains come in various capacities, and just as some people are taller than others, some more athletic, some more talented, some people are more intelligent than others. We’ve made a horrible mistake in the past by ranking intelligence with value. Taller people are not “better” than short people. Brown eyes are not better than green. And we shouldn’t think that intelligence makes anyone better than anyone else.
There have been some pretty horrible people in the world with tremendous IQs.
But neither should we think that we are all the same, that one size fits all. Smarter people and those better educated (different from simple intelligence — plenty of really bright people never went to college) get more easily bored by simple entertainments. It is why highbrow culture exists — it is really just more complex material that keeps an intelligence engaged.
And so, with the level of culture in general aiming lowbrow, the intelligent mind, on the edge of boredom without more nuanced material, looks for some way to occupy itself and spins wheels with invented complexity: theory, deconstruction, post-structuralism — all ways to make the simple seem more complicated, more rigorous and more worth our time and thought.
And so, here come the graduate classes in “post-dynamic power relations in multiracial subtext in 21st century television comedy.” Not that something like that isn’t worth investigating, but rather that bored minds will go to great lengths to occupy their capacities. Great poetry, dance, symphonies, literature all used to do that. Now there is only Hillbilly Handfishin’ to feed on.
Which brings me back to my original thought. It is now pretty close to impossible to merely sit back and enjoy a guilty pleasure. Slumming has become ironic.