Each decade, through no fault of its own, comes to have one vein of popular culture being implicitly associated with it in retrospect. If we talk about the 1970s, the pop-culture compartment of your brain instantly conjures up flowers interwoven in long-matted hair and shirtless men in large trousers playing fender Stratocasters to fields full of glossy-eyed mud-people, yet many people – as hard as it is to believe now – actually didn’t partake in this particular variety of hedonism. The great majority of people in the 70s were very probably inside talking about all the people in fields - but regardless of the muddy-to-not-muddy ratio, the 1970s will always be regarded as 10 years of Woodstock and marijuana.
The same process of periodization is true of the 1980s, which, with the aid of Calvin Harris, The Klaxons and other excitable hands-in-the-air types some 20 years later, will always be remembered as a time of Day-Glo, orange paint on people's faces and some twit doing the robot.
The 90s was quite limp-wristed in its cultural identity. There were some angry lads from Manchester and some irritating lads from London (I’m referring of course to the beloved Blur and Oasis oligopoly, though I forget which is which). This incessant whining (commonly referred to as ‘Brit Pop’) was only drowned out by the ominous zig-a-zig-aaa of The Spice Girls, a collection of women who managed to blag their way through six years of fanaticism and fame without anyone realising that they had about as much musical talent as Rodney Trotter.
But disappointing as the nineties were musically, our country’s cultural stock was about to plummet to new depths. When Alex Turner sang in 2007, “there’s only music so that there’s new ringtones”, he may have been onto something. The music industry was struck with a number of crippling blows from such money grabbers as Akon and the Crazy Frog. Perhaps it was this moment when popular music ceased to be the defining ingredient in our nation’s periodization. But more than this, around the dawn of the new millennium some industry suits met in what we can only presume to be a lugubrious bunker beneath Elstree, and when they emerged in the new year they uttered two words that effectively transformed good old Blighty into a pantomime of inebriation, humiliation and shame. Those words were “Reality Television”.
The year 2000 hailed an unwarranted assault on the nation’s dignity entitled ‘Big Brother’. The nation watched with baited breath as ‘ordinary’ people were put on a stage for us so that we could all watch them tick and boil pasta. And from there began England’s addiction to ‘reality TV’ - an addiction so damaging that even Doherty & Winehouse had the common sense to avoid.
But Big Brother wasn’t enough. Once we’d tasted the moreish crack that is reality TV, we had to have more, as if we learned nothing from ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘Trainspotting’. In a dream-like blur the years flew by and the words ‘Celebrity’, ‘Popstar’ and ‘Dancing’ were carelessly imprinted into our national identity, like an anchor tattoo that the bearer will eventually come to regret.
And yet, to this author’s knowledge, what is the one common denominator that intrinsically links all these atrocities? From ‘I’m a (tenuous) Celebrity’ to ‘Strictly come dancing, (as long as you’re trying to boost your profile)’, a sense of any reality is startlingly conspicuous in its absence. ‘Reality TV’ has been so heartily spooned down our throats that we have hardly stopped to consider the passing words of Freddy Mercury; “Is this the real life? / Is this just fantasy?”. The last time I checked, a group of borderline B-list celebrities bunking up in the rainforest surrounded by a camera crew is a particularly un-realistic occurrence. The same goes for Big Brother where we’re supposedly just watching people ‘live’ in some weird rooms. Of course, this bizarre circus has no resemblance to reality, we’re watching desperate people try to contort their existing personality into peculiar and uncomfortable positions in a feeble attempt to fit the mould of ‘positive PR’. No, this is not reality.
The strange thing is, there actually is some fantastic realism at work in modern television; it just so happens to be mislabelled. Look in your TV guide to the ‘drama’ section (caution: avoid ‘Period Drama’), and you’ll find the work of such auteurs as Charlie Brooker and Shane Meadows (of ‘Black Mirror’ and the ‘This Is England’ saga respectively). In these fictitious programs viewers will find such stark parallels to real life that when you turn your television off, you might actually wonder if you have indeed been sitting in front of a (proverbial) black mirror.
This month saw Channel 4 unveil an advert featuring these two programmes, boasting the tagline: “Channel Four, Drama for our time”. Hold the phone. ‘This Is England ‘88’ is set in – you guessed it – 1988, and ‘Black Mirror’ is a satirical representation of a future England. How exactly is this drama for our time? What’s wrong with this decade, where’s the drama for this time? Has our culture become so bland that it’s actually best to just glaze over it, focusing instead on what’s gone and what’s to come? A quick flick through your nearest television guide might suggest so. When it isn’t playing host to the Go-Compare man or some sort of burger, our televisions are full-to-the brim with idiots. From the gutters of Newcastle to the tennis courts of Fulham Broadway there’s a ‘reality’ show that rewards idiotic behaviour with monetary gains and celebrity status. Meanwhile, on ITV, an audience full of discerning ‘normals’ gawp while Jeremy ‘Big Man’ Kyle shouts at people with drug problems. Whatever happened to the simple pleasures of ‘Big Break’?
So the question remains, how will this decade be remembered? Which product of our culture will this second decade of the millennium be remembered for? Will people look back on this decade and remember ‘The Only Way Is Essex’-style shows, or will we pretend it never happened and just talk about the 80s instead? Either way, anything is better than recalling Damon Albarn as a national icon.
- David Rapson