Jokes! Barbie! I got a wig for the thing, so then I sat down and started wondering just what about pop culture had possessed me so thoroughly that I’d get a pink wig to go see a movie. I own this thing now. I’m a pink wig owner. What’s that about? The little I know about pop culture’s origins is rooted in the rise of mass media, just as deeply as apple pie is in the American spirit (it’s not actually American, which I hope helps me make a point). I hate apple pie! Urgh. That’s for another day. Barbenheimer’s gotten me thinking a lot about stories. Big stories! That and the fact that my autocorrect didn’t even pretend to underline the word Barbenheimer? That’s just a word now? Fascinating how that works. The moment we live in, with far flung peoples quilted onto a global digital metaspace (I made that word up just now, since we can just do that), loves latching onto narratives, legends, the unending saga of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. I’m sure this has existed through time, but I’m also pretty sure it used to take way longer than a week or two to make a new word. Oxford’s word of the year in 2022 was Goblin mode – Twitter borne phenom from the late aughts. Ha! What happened to things? This strangeness is the kind of pop culture I’m thinking about. I don’t actually know what pop culture is really, but this here’s what I’m working with. I digress. I was thinking about big stories I think? Big stories, and big pictures!
I’d heard every word to Hamilton before I saw it, knew every word before I saw them spoken on a stage. I learnt all the words in my Joburg bedroom, evenings after seeing Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Coat at some Sandton theatre. I say this only to remind myself that I had stories to think about there too, but somehow I would want something bigger. Don’t ask me what about Hamilton was bigger – I could think about that for days. I like, liked, going to the theatre, but bringing the theatre to me? Why would I pass that up? Our appetite for stories really must’ve found a higher plateau with the advent of cinema.
But that’s still not the thing that was bugging me! I keep getting sidetracked. My qualm was supposed to be with celebrity. Hollywood, Broadway, Nashville – call it what you will. Gradually, pardon my frantic gesturing at the obvious, the line has blurred between reel and real, and our obsession has shifted from narrative to the narrators, from the magic of storytelling to the magicians themselves. We’ve built temples of worship, written glittering paeans to the godhood of Beverly Hills. The theatre (movie, not play) I go to has a thermofax of the hollywood walk of fame – stars immortalized in concrete. And lo and behold, the pantheon is not filled with divine figures of lore and mythology but with humans – flesh, blood, silicone and bone. With a bizarre cocktail of audacity and amusement, we’ve enshrined the idols of fame and fortune upon pedestals so high, one would think they wouldn’t need breathe the same air us mortals do (because they’re in space, yep that high). We gawk and gasp, bemused and bewitched, at their outlandish exploits. I find it perplexing, the unrivaled fascination we have with these celluloid titans who play at splitting atoms, who bring plastic figures to life. It seems sometimes, that what stirs our collective heartstrings isn’t the breadth of their thespian abilities but the soap opera that surrounds them, the spectacle of cascading sensations: from the red carpet to the clandestine corners of Malibu mansions. Our obsession, like any semi-decent episode of your favorite TV show, has a twist. The inescapable glow of the celebrity halo has a tendency to outshine our understanding of reality, reality that’s sometimes more ‘Stranger Things’ than ‘Friends’.
I think(feel like?) we have an unhealthy preoccupation with the fame brigade and their platinum lifestyles that creates a skewed perception of success and happiness. It feeds consumerist frenzy, blinding us to substance in favor of the superficial. We become, whether we admit it or not, entrenched in a culture of comparison and inadequacy, always aspiring for the unreachable and, often, the unnecessary. Ah, but the tale can’t all be doom and gloom. It is, but I’m trying a new thing where I look for positives in things just because.
Sure there’s some flickering positivity to the spotlight. I, too, love judging Met Gala fits outfits just as much as the next dude. I too have to listen to these guys say things and, when they’re not busy posing for selfies or escaping paparazzi, they wield significant power to influence societal narratives, to push for change, and, dare I say, even to educate (ew). Their vast reach can promote ideas that resonate with masses, fostering awareness and, maybe even occasionally, action. Entertainment culture, for all its bedazzling excesses, can be a galvanizing force, driving unity and empathy, sparking dialogues that might have otherwise remained hushed. I’m preparing to plunge into yet another next cinematic sojourn, and something told me to remember to check my blind devotion at the door. To be entertained, be thrilled, be moved, but also be aware. I don’t want to let the glitz of Tinseltown to distort my tenuous grasp on reality. Like a perfectly timed punchline, whatever pop culture actually is, I’m sure, is best appreciated with a dollop of discernment, a dash of disbelief, and a healthy serving of satire. I hope I can learn to savor all these in their rightful proportions. After all, culture is itself an absurdly wonderful dichotomy – a madcap ballet of spectacle and introspection that somehow coalesces into a symphony of life. Here’s to sparkle!