'Is it any wonder Oppenheimer and The Zone of Interest feel more like horror movies than war movies?'

July 25, 2023   9 mins

When the great American critic HL Mencken wrote his great essay “The Sahara of the Bozart” in 1917, lamenting the absence of high-level American minds equal to those of Europe, especially in the South, he badly missed the mark. America is not Europe. Her cultural genius lay elsewhere, in what would soon become known as the popular arts.

If America has produced only the occasional James McNeill Whistler or Charles Ives who might make a plausible case for inclusion in the Western high-art canon, it has produced no shortage of geniuses whose works have delighted hundreds of millions if not billions of people around the world. America’s greatest composer, George Gershwin, wrote jazz, just as America’s greatest artists, from Jackson Pollack through Andy Warhol, were undeniably pop. The list goes on, from Hollywood writers, directors and stars; to Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson and the other founding geniuses of American jazz and blues; to Walt Disney, who gave us Mickey Mouse; to Chuck Jones, creator of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck; to Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and dozens of other songwriters and performers who shaped rock and roll. What makes art American is the exuberant marriage of high and low, often at a large profit.

This summer is no exception, with transcendent work from the country’s two greatest pop talents. What has defined the director Christopher Nolan’s genius to date from Memento to Inception to Batman Returns to Tenet has been his endlessly inventive manipulation of the inner workings of the feature film form to tell stories in ways that reshuffle your brain — a talent founded on an acute awareness of the way the medium uses time. It should be mandatory viewing in all undergraduate philosophy seminars. With Oppenheimer, Nolan has transcended both the normative frame of Hollywood cartoon blockbusters and his own puzzle-palace constructions to make a big film on a world-shaping subject, centred around one of the 20th century’s most important and enigmatic characters. The result is a once-in-a-decade film that marks Nolan as perhaps the most dazzlingly brilliant directorial talent that Hollywood has produced since Orson Wells.

American pop music audiences have also been enjoying a generational talent this summer in Taylor Swift, who is perhaps both the single most gifted and also the most routinely downplayed and ignored pop music icon that America has produced over the past three decades. The mature version of Swift is a brilliant songwriter-storyteller who can hold large football stadiums containing 50,000 or more people spellbound while standing alone on stage for large portions of her three-and-half hour-long shows, which she performs without any breaks.

Only a few individual stars in the history of pop music have been able to mesmerise stadium-sized audiences by standing on a stage alone: David Bowie and Michael Jackson both come immediately to mind. But where Bowie and Michael Jackson were both great dancers, Swift is not — which makes her stage presence all the more remarkable. Her charisma comes from her singular focus on songwriting as a vehicle for mastering her own feelings and communicating them to her audience, which has proven fanatically and deservedly loyal.

The multifarious reasons why Swift has not received her due from America’s pop culture taste-makers over the past decade, despite her near-unimaginable level of global fame in the end all boil down to one thing: Swift is a single white woman in a pop medium at an identity-obsessed, politically-divided moment when her particular identity is deeply unfashionable. The fact that she seems as utterly devoted to her craft as Christopher Nolan makes her even less sympathetic to critics who would prefer that her talent wasn’t so outsized, or that her songwriting wasn’t rooted in the storytelling tradition and strong female characters of country music, or that her skin was a different colour, or that she was a gay man or lesbian instead of a straight woman who develops needy crushes on men, or that she was an outspoken proponent of sex in marriage instead of wreaking vengeance on her long list of ex-boyfriends, or whatever else. Good luck to them.

But beneath the triumphs of Nolan and Swift, American pop culture hasn’t been looking particularly healthy this summer. A case in point is the writer’s strike that has paralysed Hollywood for months, and was recently joined by the guilds representing directors and actors. The strike, which shows no signs of being resolved any time before autumn, is a fearful response to the impact of new technologies on the industry, which are in part a response to the cratering of the film and TV business over the past four years. In turn, Hollywood’s problems are only the latest in a series of culture industry cataclysms that have overtaken American journalism, book publishing and the music business, and which make both Nolan and Swift seem more like the freakish end-products of bygone eras (Nolan released his first feature film in 1998; Swift’s eponymous first album came out in 2006) than harbingers of future glory.

While the implosion of each of America’s culture industries may look different up close, it is not hard to see the common factors at work. These range from the consolidation of once-thriving industries and the monopolisation of distribution channels to the stamping-out of competition, the ongoing detachment of monopolistic conglomerates from their audiences and the pursuit of lowest-common-denominator blockbusters to pay for the resulting losses. As America’s culture industries have decayed into anti-competitive, risk-averse monopolists, they have imposed layers upon layers of mind-numbing and increasingly politicised bureaucracy on their productions that make real creativity all but impossible. Looming above all these developments is the threat of push-button culture-production driven by AI, whereby studio executives can fulfil their dystopian dreams of licensing the likenesses of dead actors and actresses and feeding them into software owned by tech conglomerates. This would dispense with the need to negotiate for the services of pesky writers, directors and actors, along with Hollywood’s century-old hodge-podge of unionised guilds.

That’s what the strikers are fighting against. And from a distance, it is easy to wish them good luck. As a consumer, though, it is easier to wish that a giant fault-line might open up beneath Los Angeles and swallow the creators of endless hours of unpalatable dreck along with their bosses at Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Google, and other industry giants which, as their names indicate, are no longer entertainment companies but tech companies, pursuing the filmed entertainment business as a sideline to their insanely profitable monopolies.

Among the other things that Hollywood’s new industry leaders have in common is that they produce oodles of stuff that nobody seems to be watching. In the second quarter of last year alone, Netflix lost 1.3 million subscribers in the US and Canada, while earning a total of $4.3 billion on the year. Yet even that relatively modest net profit is deceptive, since Netflix amortises its content over a period of four to five years, while spending close to $20 billion each year on new productions. In reality, then, the company is burning cash in the hopes of a future profit while losing subscribers, a business model that is clearly headed for the rocks. When Hollywood writers and actors demand their “fair share of the profits”, they might think twice about what it is they are asking for.

The dirty secret of the Hollywood strike, then, is that no one is making money. How did that happen? The short answer is that Americans have stopped going to the movies. In 2022, movie theatres sold more than 800 million tickets – nearly twice the number sold in 2021, but less than two-thirds the number sold in 2019, before Covid. In 2002, movie theatres sold nearly 1.6 billion tickets, or nearly twice the current number. These numbers are even more depressing when one considers that, prior to the dual release of Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s less exceptional woke doll movie, Barbie, this summer’s two biggest box office attractions were the latest Raiders of the Lost Ark movie starring a now 81-year-old, digitally-enhanced Harrison Ford, and the new Mission: Impossible, starring Tom Cruise, each the 7th sequel in a series.

Similar declines can be seen throughout the American culture industries. Total album sales in the recording business 2001 were 762.8 million. In 2022, the recording industry sold 100 million albums, in all formats. Besides Swift, who as a 17-year industry veteran is a comparatively fresh face, the acts who make money touring overwhelmingly made their reputations many decades ago, when the industry was still healthy enough to create stars such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and the Eagles. Revenue from periodical publishing, whether in print or online, declined from $40.2 billion in 2002 to $23.9 billion in 2022 –— a loss in raw dollars of almost 50%. Factoring in inflation, those numbers are again much worse.

Innovation-wise, the last great American pop culture decade was the Nineties — the last decade of the century that saw America’s rise to global pop culture pre-eminence. In television, the Nineties were book-ended by The Simpsons (1989), which kicked off a surge in witty, prime-time animation, and The Sopranos (1999), which ushered in quality scripted cable television. There was plenty of fare such as Dawson’s Creek (1998) available, too. In Hollywood, the Nineties was decade of indie studios such as Miramax, and birthed the world-class writers and directors Stephen Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino along with stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Matt Damon. Alternative rock birthed dozens of highly creative and financially successful new acts, from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani, while rap music reached new creative and commercial heights with Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. The last two American literary fiction writers who have attracted any real critical attention, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, made their debuts in 1987 and 1988, respectively.

So what accounts for America’s pop cultural collapse? The short answer is digital technology, which led directly or indirectly to monopolistic stagnation in every one of America’s culture industries in response to disruptions of prior business models.

Hollywood’s main initial antagonists were the streaming services; these have since eaten old-fashioned movie studios and production companies whole by spending billions of dollars on content regardless of whether or not there was an audience. The race to become Hollywood’s Uber left smaller competitors without the ability to competitively distribute their products, with the resulting monopolistic structures imposing top-down uniformity on an industry that had formerly boasted about the audience being king.

In turn, the transition from the big screen to the small screen that streaming services and their users demanded made it near-impossible to create stars, who depended on big-screen magic and the industry’s promotional cycles. The strategy of overspending and then dumping new content into the marketplace made it hard for even the most original creators to stand out from the surrounding oceans of sludge. Cashing big checks from Hollywood’s would-be monopolists may have helped writers, directors and actors to pay for their swimming pools, but they also helped to kill the golden goose.

The extent to which these practices have alienated large parts of Hollywood’s traditional audiences may never be entirely clear, since the streaming services refuse to release even basic audience numbers for their shows. In part, that’s because companies such as Apple and Amazon are content to see entertainment as a loss leader. In Apple’s case, it’s an adjunct to the company’s marketplaces, which are linked in turn to its hardware; in Amazon’s case, entertainment is largely a way to draw some segments of consumers to the company’s immensely profitable marketplace, and keep them there. Freed from workaday competitive constraints, and with access to nearly unlimited piles of cash from their patrons’ primary, profit-oriented businesses, new Hollywood’s culture bureaucrats can give free rein to fashionable pre-occupations such as conducting Me-Too corporate witch hunts, ensuring equity in writer’s rooms, and injecting woke politics into shows that audiences refuse to watch.

Unlike Hollywood, the music industry has been largely unimpressed by the advent of woke-ism. Their business is rebellion, which took a weird turn when free file-sharing services such as Napster and Limewire started encouraging users to routinely violate artists’ copyrights. The result in the Nineties was music industry-wide campaigns in which aging rockers testified before Congress in the hopes of convincing or else forcing their fans to obey copyright law, and buy records. Brilliantly sensing an opportunity, Steve Jobs created the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone, essentially using sleek hardware to take control of the music business. Waving his hardware around like an old-time gangster, Jobs explained to the moguls that they were no longer in the music business: They were in the 99-cent singles business, with Apple getting the biggest cut.

After Jobs’s iPod, and its accompanying iTunes software, ate the music business, by essentially establishing a version of file-sharing that was now under Jobs’s control, the big music companies woke up and decided to go into the streaming business, taking pieces of Spotify and leaving the artists they had once nurtured on steaks and cocaine with a diet of pennies in return for their back catalogues. As record sales plummeted, the music industry stopped paying big advances or otherwise investing in the music they were putting out, and artists could no longer get paid for recording songs. As the star-making machinery broke down, scouts looking to sign the next big thing went to YouTube, and nurtured new talent on social media platforms such as TikTok. Needless to say, none of these platforms select for songwriting talent. Today’s Taylor Swift might find a home in Nashville, but would be an unlikely candidate to be nurtured by one of the major labels, which are no longer in the business of finding talent and making stars.

Book publishing saw successive waves of consolidation, which left four conglomerates competing to publish the same best-sellers while dumping mid-list authors — the vast talent pool from which authors suc as Wallace and Franzen had emerged. As the audience for literary fiction shrank, the products of the big four publishing houses became ever more formulaic. In turn, the publishers began to rely on sales to institutions that could turn their products into mandatory reading. This new linkage, once reserved for niche textbook publishers, meant that the publishing houses were more easily swayed by academic fads, and by the censorious doctrines of younger woke employees who had more recently graduated from high schools and universities.

The failure of American book publishers to produce interesting new work, and new literary stars, was also linked to the destruction of America’s once-thriving ecosystem of newspapers and magazines, which had formerly employed hundreds of book critics who served as independent gatekeepers and taste-makers, on behalf of their readers. Today, the number of full-time book critics employed by independent newspapers and magazines in America is perilously close to zero.

Aside from gazing longingly at the night sky in the hopes of spotting the occasional shooting star, like Oppenheimer or the next Taylor Swift album, it is hard to see how America’s culture industries imagine they will escape from their decades-long spiral of anti-competitive practices, creative sterility and dwindling audiences. In order to return the culture industries to health, what is needed is kind of broad anti-monopolistic legislation aimed at the tech industry that has often been promised but seldom actualised over the past two decades. While both Democrats and Republicans like to talk about punishing monopolists, such talk has so far proven to be a way of driving up the size of the checks they receive in order to further polarise the country while cementing Big Tech’s monopolies over pipelines and platforms that connect creators to their audiences.

If Hollywood’s striking writers and actors are serious about benefitting their audiences in addition to paying for their swimming pools, they might start by demanding an end to the stranglehold of monopolistic practices and same-think over the products they produce. Now that would be a show worth watching.

David Samuels is a writer who lives in upstate New York.