Back in 2006, writer Chuck Klosterman gathered some of his best essays dissecting pop culture and published it as Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. One of my favorites of the bunch was called "Here's Johnny" and it attempted to nail down Johnny Carson's cultural significance in the days after his death. The essay has stuck with me over the years mostly because of a point Klosterman makes that was not only astute at the time but which actually turned out to be incredibly prescient. Klosterman called Carson, "the last universally shared icon of modern pop culture," arguing that anyone who grew up during the 60s and 70s knew exactly who Johnny Carson was and what he did.
"Johnny Carson" was, almost in totality, the entire construction of watching TV late at night. Everybody knew this, even if they didn't own a television. It was a specific piece of knowledge that all Americans had in common. Obviously that could never happen today. There will never again be "cultural knowledge" that everybody knows, mostly because there is simply too much culture to know about.
Keep in mind that Klosterman wrote this essay back in 2005, which means that he's basing his assertion that mass cultural appeal had become impossible only on the sheer amount of information that existed at the time rather than on the element that would ultimately provide the killing blow for "cultural knowledge": on-demand media. While it's true that in 2005 MySpace was beginning to hit its stride, it was still a novelty rather than a juggernaut and the full-on splintering of our culture into various niches -- or even niches of one -- was a few years away. Think about how many of us live now, how it's now possible to practically cocoon yourself off from information you don't like, music and television you don't care about, opinions you don't agree with. Now more than ever before, Klosterman is being proven correct: it's almost impossible to be all things to all people (or even one very big thing to all people).
We got a really good sense of this a couple of weeks back when Apple gave every person with an iTunes account a free U2 record and a lot of them responded the way the apes did to the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can argue that any publicity is good publicity, and U2 is at least pretending to revel in how "punk rock" they are for not concerning themselves with whether you'd actually want a new U2 record, but the debacle is going to cost Apple around $100 million and U2 now has the ignominious title of "the most hated band in America."As we showed you here last week, there's even a Tumblr dedicated to kids who have no idea who U2 are and can't figure out how the band wound up on their iPhones.
How the hell did this happen? Whether you're a big fan of U2 or not, there's no way to deny that they were once considered the biggest band on the planet and they still stand as one of rock's most enduring and iconic groups. They can sell out stadiums even now and have more hits under their belt than most bands could even imagine. Tim Cook had to figure that nobody would be angry about a free album from a band like U2 and that a surprise release from the band was giant news in and of itself. And yet the roll-out bombed, maybe because Cook doesn't fully understand the cultural impact his own company's products have had. iTunes has given each person exactly what he or she wants, with nothing he or she doesn't, for so long that we've come to expect it and it feels like a violation when some piece of pop culture is dropped into our self-curated, on-demand lives that we didn't specifically demand.
Cook saw U2 as a band that was so legendary they'd be able to transcend tastes and genres, but the problem is no one can do that anymore because no one has mass appeal anymore -- because there is no mass, just individual niches. More than that, even the biggest stars don't have the kind of absolute grip on the cultural imagination that celebrities were afforded back when there were fewer media outlets and we weren't in control of everything we see and hear. Social and new media have allowed each of us to be the king of his or her own little entertainment domain, so while there's more "culture" out there than ever before it's also counterintuitively easier to wall yourself off from as much or as little of it as you'd like. It's not simply a matter of U2's cultural status having changed over the years -- them being past their prime -- it's the fact that we've changed. Culture itself has changed.
Beyoncé is probably the biggest musical star on the planet right now, and yet if Apple were to do with her the same thing they did with U2 two weeks ago, I'm betting the reaction would be largely the same. Sure, there would be a lot of very happy people out there -- but there would be just as many losing their minds because, even as undeniably relevant as she is, she had intruded on their personal cultural space without an invitation. Apple helped to create this dynamic by making products and media delivery systems that felt tailored to each specific person and they would be arrogantly violating their own philosophy by dropping free Beyoncé music into people's laps just as they did by installing U2 in the music libraries of 500 million iTunes users. This is simply the way things are now and it's kind of shocking that Apple miscalculated so badly.
The reality is that, as Chuck Klosterman said almost ten years ago, there are no Johnny Carsons anymore and there never will be again. There isn't an entertainer out there who appeals to everybody or who holds a special place in our overall cultural consciousness because that cultural consciousness is itself a thing of the past. Maybe U2's a dinosaur, maybe they're not. But the "cultural knowledge" that would've allowed something like a free U2 album to go over like gangbusters? That's definitely dead and buried.