Hindsight is 2020, etc.
"Free time" is a myth!!!
Hello dear friends,
Been a while! Let’s dive right in.
A year of nothing
There’s no easy way to talk about the death of art and culture without sounding like a complete asshole. (Fran Leibowitz and Jo Livingstone prove it can be done with eloquence, sans snobbery, but I digress.)
“The homogenization of the arts happened slowly, then all at once,” Livingstone writes in their recent article on the tech-fueled monopolization of art, loosely starting when bookshops lost to Barnes & Noble in the ‘90s only to suffer future blows at the hands of Amazon. Spotify and Netflix pioneered the streaming economy through the 2010s, making art an unsustainable pursuit for the vast majority. What we have now is an entertainment industry that runs on unvaried, constant output that rarely leaves a lasting impression. In other words: Nothing! This isn’t to say meaningful art isn’t being made. It’s out there. It’s just increasingly harder to create.
The streaming economy has been squeezing the spontaneity and experimentation out of popular culture for a while. Spotify killed album sales, forcing artists to survive on measly streaming payouts (an average of one-third of a penny to one-half of a penny per stream) and relentless touring schedules. But in 2020, the tech monsters tightened their death grip. Their platforms stood in for movie theaters and concert venues. They told us what to watch and what to listen to, which of course tended to be whatever guaranteed the highest return on investment— Hamilton on Disney+, a Mulan remake, Ariana Grande’s concert documentary Excuse Me, I Love You, the ceaselessly expanding Marvel cinematic universe. (I could go on and on about how Hollywood treats us like giant babies, but I’ll save that for another newsletter.)
Established superstars and indie artists are competing on a playing field that looks more like a cliff face (the Beyoncés and Scorseses of the world are standing atop said cliff while small bands and creators scream from below, if that wasn’t clear). It gets steeper and taller every year, and 2020 triggered a growth spurt. A new kind of content gap follows the widening wealth gap and a disappearing middle class.
“The lack of options marketed to consumers has created a missing middle: the zone between mass market and niche market where experimentation is supposed to proliferate and engender variety,” Livingstone continues. “Worse, the consolidation of the country’s vast creative sector into fewer, more powerful production and publishing companies has come at the direct expense of the quality of their product. The coronavirus isn’t the reason Tenet sucked, for example. It just sucked because Christopher Nolan has too much power, and very few other people in his industry have enough.”
Of course, this isn’t much different from any other year. But quarantine boredom and COVID hopelessness begets a more poignant childhood nostalgia and IRL FOMO. We gladly ingest the musical theatre film adaptations and virtual concert “experiences.” What else do we have?
Time! The crisis of time!
In Oli Mould’s Against Creativity, he argues that capitalism absorbs and flattens art and rebellion. Creativity is understood as an individualized characteristic to be traded and monetized. Artists are just content creators, tools for tech platforms.
The capitalist machine (groan, I know) doesn’t care about your health or fulfillment and it certainly doesn’t care about good art. You’re not making money while you’re making dinner (optimize! meal prep! misery!) or doing guided yoga (unless you’re the instructor and it’s a YouTube livestream sponsored by Chobani). There isn’t time for nourishment. There isn’t time to make meaningful entertainment. There isn’t a budget for a lo-fi arthouse flick. There’s no incentive to create.
In 2020, any newfound “free time” for the creative class — sans socializing or participation in public life — was tainted by death and despair. For others, “free time” was a byproduct of unemployment. Most essential workers found themselves with even fewer non-working hours than before. The “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine” line came and went as life lost its flavor and our main source of inspiration became our collective tragedy.
Still, I experienced some great art and entertainment in quarantine. I writhed around on the floor listening to Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now and watched every episode of I May Destroy You in one sitting. I finally read Anna Karenina! But I didn’t pop into a random matinee or catch the unknown opener at a concert. I didn’t use my time indoors to write a book or work on a screenplay, either. Maybe what I need to focus on is a more focused consumption of culture.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of things I enjoyed consuming this year.
Some things I read in 2020
‘This Brand is Late Capitalism’ by Rachel Connolly for the Baffler
‘The American Nightmare’ by Ibram X. Kendi for the Atlantic
‘How Venture Capitalists Are Deforming Capitalism’ by Charles Duhigg for the New Yorker
‘High Maintenance and the New TV Fantasy of New York’ by Willy Staley for the New York Times Magazine
Every Talk Hole column by by Eric Schwartau and Steven Phillips-Horst for Interview
‘Accumulation and Appreciation’ by Sophie Haigney for Affidavit
‘Is There a Cure for Burnout?’ by Jeremy Gordon for the Nation
‘Kim Kardashian and the Year of Unchecked Privilege-Checking’ by Lauren Michele Jackson for the New Yorker
‘Monopolization Is Killing Art’ by Josephine Livingstone for the New Republic
‘Going Postal’ by Max Read for Bookforum
Kyle Chayka’s newsletter on digital culture
Some podcasts I listened to in 2020
The Mask episode of True Anon
The Least You Could Do episode of Reply All
The knockoffs episode of Articles Of Interest
The Lost Cities of Geo episode of 99% Invisible
Chapo Trap House’s This Is Sus series
Las Culturistas’ Top 200 Moments in Culture History
Some music I listened to 2020
Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now
HAIM’s Women In Music Part III
Oneohtrix Point Never’s Magic Oneohtrix Point Never
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist’s Alfredo
Against All Logic’s 2017-2019
Porridge Radio’s Every Bad
Taylor Swift’s Folklore
A.G. Cook’s 7G
Amnesia Scanner’s Tearless
Eartheater’s Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin
Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher
Fleet Foxes’ Shore
Bartees Strange’s Live Forever
Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Flo Milli’s Ho, Why Is You Here?
100 Gecs’ “Sympathy For The Grinch” 100 times
Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s “450” 450 times
Bad Bunny’s “Yo Perreo Sola” … a lot
Some things I watched in 2020
Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott’s miniseries
Other things I enjoyed in 2020
Eating donut holes at least once a week
Watching New Girl before bed and marveling at the suspicious whimsy of Obama-era entertainment
Laying on this acupressure mat
Practicing Yoga With Adriene
Painting cartoon mice
Resources & Donation Links
Donate to your local mutual aid fund
Email templates to send to your elected officials about reallocating police budgets towards education, social services, and dismantling racial injustice.