In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture

Immersing ourselves in hours of television at a time isn't just a new way to absorb great art - it's the best way to keep up with our increasingly-global shared culture.

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness in their own excrement, blabbering like babies.

As I tore through the entire season of Netflix’s incredible House of Cards this year, I recalled The Entertainment (as the film in Wallace’s book is called), and felt pangs of guilt. Yet I am an avid defender of popular culture. I renounce the Harold Blooms (he hates Wallace) who elevate some privileged canon above the rest of our culture. I regard it as a terrible mistake to disdain or elevate some part of our current culture above another. There are gems at nearly every level, and sure, there’s lots of dregs.

But of course I worry, queueing up the fourth episode in a row of Game of Thrones, that perhaps we are sliding into some sort of dystopia such as Wallace envisioned, consumed by our own entertainment, stifled, pacified, and ultimately useless. So how can we approach this brave new world of readily available, downloadable, easily consumable multi-season packs of our favorite shows without guilt, without falling prey to The Entertainment? Can we become responsible consumers of popular culture, acknowledge its value, and benefit from this emerging new form of entertainment consumption: the binge? I believe we can.

Accidents of history
It is accidents of history alone that cause us to elevate some culture above others. Is Chaucer high or low culture? Surely he is part of Bloom’s “western canon", but The Canterbury Tales abounds with fart jokes and low humour reminiscent of any episode of South Park. I agree with philosopher John Searle, who argues:

In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Chaucer, or Tom Jones (not the curly-headed singer, but the novel by Fielding – though maybe the singer too), and even Shakespeare mix culture both “high” and “low”, appealing to audiences at various levels of appreciation. It is likely, as in every age, that the vast majority of our popular culture, much of which now comes to us in our living rooms through television, will be forgotten. It will not become part of any canon for serious study in the future, nor will it affect broader culture in any lasting way. But there are surely exceptions. Some will. Some have.

Star Trek was conceived as “Wagon Train in space", an interstellar western that would serve as a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future and his commentary on then-current events. It endures to this day, slightly darkened by J.J. Abrams, a current master of pop-cultural entertainment.

But Star Trek is now part of the canon. Spock and Kirk are as familiar as, or more so than, many historical heroes. Everyone everywhere now understands what you mean when you say “beam me up” or suggest moving at warp speed. And this is the most hopeful point. The pop-cultural canon is no longer “western”. Spock and Kirk are known in Asia, and Godzilla and Pokemon are known in Kirk’s home state of Iowa. Popular culture now moves effortlessly across borders, suffusing us with icons and vocabularies that are now common everywhere. This is a great thing. It is a New Canon.

I live and work in a multi-cultural milieu, teaching and living part of the year in The Netherlands, at an international university, surrounded by people from nearly every corner of the world – mostly students. I live the rest of the year in Mexico. Yet everywhere I travel and teach, I can slip in a “they killed Kenny!” reference, or allude to Walter White or Dexter in my discussions of ethics, and everyone (nearly) gets the point - they catch the reference. It is mainly through the popular culture that people of every class and background are able to form some common frame of reference, a vocabulary that can overcome local knowledge and prejudice, and allow ideas to be conveyed more meaningfully and successfully.

Of course, much popular culture still comes from the US, but this is so far mainly because that’s where much of the wealth and tools of production (and intellectual property protection) are. This won’t always be the case. Media production is being democratised by new tools, cheaper HD cameras, and readily available editing suites on PCs. These new technologies are making it possible to enter the popular culture with lower overhead.

In Japan, China, and India, this is already becoming the case and we are already seeing some of these sources of entertainment entering a broader market. The rest of the world will follow. We are all quite addicted to media, everywhere, and the internet now both satisfies and increases demand. This will lead us back to binging, and close up the loop in my argument for responsibly doing so this holiday season.

Saved by the internet
The internet is the medium for our entertainment salvation. Looming as a spectre to the media empires of America’s left coast, it promises to break down the final barriers to the great liberator that popular culture can be, if we let it. Time was, isolated from my ancestral land of 500 cable channels and abundant Walmarts, my access to English language popular culture would have been severely limited. In general, only the blockbusters get to cinema in The Netherlands, and television tends to be limited in its supply of current American shows.

Luckily, downloading a torrent of a season of Weeds in The Netherlands is legal (or tolerated), for personal use … much like the plant after which the show is named. People are able to catch up on shows right up to the present episode, no matter where they are, as long as they have access to the internet. Popular culture has truly been liberated.

Even authors and producers of shows that are frequently pirated realise, as Wilde might have put it, that is it better to be seen than to not be seen, regardless of the “legitimacy” of the avenue of consumption. George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which the show Game of Thrones is based, has said, “I have nothing against piracy, [the] majority of those people wouldn’t buy it anyway. And there are many pirates who will end up buying Blu-ray release because they want to support us.” His is the most pirated show on earth.

After House of Cards, it was Game of Thrones I devoured, catching up on three seasons, prodded by friends and a peculiar article in The Atlantic. That article noted that the U.S. White House had employed a trick to catch a leaker (@natsecwonk on Twitter), and said trick was the one used by Tyrion Lannister. I was sick of being out of the loop, as most of my friends were already fans of Game of Thrones, and now with the imprimatur of The Atlantic, I had to catch up, and fast. And I could. I exercised my legal prerogative of downloaded all three seasons and binged. I am glad I did.

While in the past, I might have felt trapped by having missed the first three seasons, unlikely to try to lock into the next and begin mid-story, I could quickly come up to speed with something that is clearly now an important part of our culture. The New Canon is both unhindered by geography and unrestrained by time. Binging is a legitimate and sometimes necessary way for us to join the broader culture, engage with fans around the world, and perform a new form of communion.

So as the holidays approach, and going to the cinema becomes too expensive for some families, take solace that your binge-viewing of Arrested Development, or whatever part of the New Canon you want to catch up on, is doing great good. You are building your cultural vocabulary, and joining a larger community bound together by characters, themes, and stories both small and epic, lowbrow and high-concept. We can responsibly consume The Entertainment, and put it to good ends, rather than let it consume us.

David Koepsell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

A Game of Thrones box set. (Photo: Idhren/Flickr)
Show Hide image

Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.