With Bond themes and The Brits bringing artists to a wide audience, Getintothis’ Rogerio Simoes looks at how much we need our common cultural touchstones.
Thank you, James Bond, much appreciated. Without you and your ludicrous but always enjoyable adventures, many people around the world would not have known one of the most exciting young musicians of the past few years.
When the outstanding No Time to Die, the theme song of the latest Bond film, reached YouTube, on the 14th of February, it spread like fire. The deep voice of the singer, Billie Eilish, reached ears it hadn’t reached before, and people from different ages, countries and cultures had something new in common: they were all in awe with the teenager’s talent.
Readers of Getintothis and millions of youngsters around the globe have known Eilish for years, but it takes something capable of overlapping generations and niches to create real common knowledge. The pervasive power of a Bond film dit that. It meant that Eilish’s music is now something that almost anyone in the western world can relate to, regardless if you like her or not.
We should also thank The Grammys, in which Eilish won five awards, including the most important ones, a couple of weeks before releasing the 007 tune.
The news that the 18-year-old had won so many accolades prompted many to google her and find out what the fuss was all about. Thank goodness we’ve still got something called mainstream culture.
Almost side by side with climate change and the kind of tenants that keep moving into Downing Street, there’s something pretty scary going on these days: extreme personalisation.
It’s become more and more common for friends to meet for a catch up in the pub and struggle to find something in common to talk about. Each one has seen a lot of TV, but on different platforms, Netflix, Amazon, Now, nobody’s been watching the same thing. Each person has their own habits, within their own channel.
Game of Thrones has managed something quite remarkable: it crossed the borders of age, tastes, countries and become almost ubiquitous. Even so, I still know a number of people who have never seen the show and know nothing about the Lannisters, Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen.
Sports? Everybody is or should be aware that Liverpool are about to win the Premier League, but not everybody will know enough to engage in a discussion. Some are completely oblivious – they’ve been following the NBA (basketball), NFL (American football), some other N or some sport we haven’t heard of.
Each has been enjoying their own thing.
This is potentially very bad. In society, we need things that bring us together, we need common denominators, we need common knowledge. Extreme personalisation is a threat to the social glue that binds us together.
Back to music: in the 1980s, one could love or hate a Madonna song every time it came up on the radio. Not everybody would buy her records, but everybody – I mean EVERYBODY – knew who she was and would recognise her most famous melodies.
Along with Madonna, Michael Jackson, U2, George Michael, Whitney Houston and others wrote the soundtrack of that decade, creating a common feeling that touched everyone, regardless if they liked it or not.
People could talk about those artists in the pub, because they all knew them. They could define part of their own personalities by praising or opposing those stars, but everybody shared those common references, like those who live in London and know where Piccadilly Circus is. They may not like the place, but they have it as a reference.
In the mid-noughties, Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired magazine, explained how this old scenario was changing dramatically and why, in his view, this was a good thing. In his article-turned-book The Long Tail, he showed how technology gave people zillions of new options, especially when consuming culture, and that put us in a completely new world.
The long tail represented a new age, in which almost every producer of content could have an audience, even if a pretty small one. The times when big record companies and producers decided what we would listen was over, and consumers would now talk amongst themselves and decide what to buy. Sounds great.
Anderson, though, probably without realising, pointed to the catch himself: “[the consumers’] interests splinter into narrower and narrower communities of affinity, going deeper and deeper into their chosen subject matter, as is always the case when like minds gather”.
Anderson wrote that as a positive thing, but is it really? Narrower and narrower communities means those who like electronic music will gather, just to realise that they’d better form another splinter group focused only on drum n’ bass.
The subject might feel too broad for a few people who decide they could form a smaller gang of German-only drum n’ bass, which could then generate a group of fans of only Berlin-based artists.
The long tail is a rabbit hole, from which many of us just can’t get out – and if we do, we may realise we no longer have much to discuss with the other rabbits who have also come to the surface, as we’ve all dug so deep and for so long that we’ve lost all our common interests.
Personally I consume music all the time. I watch TV, I listen to the radio, I go out. But I cannot think of a single song by Ed Sheeran, the most successful British musician of the past decade. I don’t think I’ve ever bumped into his music, because technology and today’s fragmented market sometimes keep me in my own world, within my own rabbit hole, filled only with the kind of music I like.
I’ve been travelling on a road parallel to Ed Sheeran’s, and our paths are not destined to cross.
Unless there’s a Bond film that makes me listen to a song by an artist I barely knew – without the 007 theme I would still probably not know anything about Sam Smith either.
This is why we need major cultural references to provoke the overlapping of tastes and audiences, of people and their opinions and emotions, so we can be reminded that, despite the technology-based little worlds we inhabit today, we actually live together.
On a similar note, the Brits brought Dave to my attention. Yes, Dave won the Mercury Prize, and that alone should perhaps have been enough to bring it to the fore of my mind, but it wasn’t – that’s how significant the chasm created by today’s cultural echo chambers is.
It was only when Dave performed at the latest Brit Awards, and came the news that he hadn’t minced words, stating “The truth is, our Prime Minister is a real racist”, that I paid attention.
Dave’s excellent performance at The Brits made me listen to his album, Psychodrama, which is indeed very good – and the sleeve is boss.
I’m happy I was nudged into knowing his music, instead of spending all my time stuck in some rock, indie or folk rabbit hole. We all need the surface, the place where things happen in an open way, so we can all hear and see them.
The changes in technology have indeed given individuals the tools to find much more of whatever they like and set themselves free from tastes and trends imposed by greedy music moguls.
However, if everybody goes “deeper and deeper into their chosen subject matter”, we might end up with billions of people on the planet listening to billions of different radio or TV stations. We won’t have any common song to talk about, and we might not share any particular knowledge to agree or disagree amongst ourselves.
We need cultural references, so in 20 years we can all take our minds back to 2020 and say, “Yes, I remember, that James Bond tune, it was brilliant!”.
We should all be fine as a society as long as we still have mainstream cultural events, anywhere in the world – and in the UK, as long as we have the BBC.
For the British society, the BBC works as an invaluable common denominator. It produces a bit of everything for everyone in Britain, for £2.97 per week – half of a Sky subscription –, while also keeping the British people on the same page.
Any BBC show, from Graham Norton to Strictly Come Dancing to Fleabag, reaches most of the population in one way or another, so most of us still have some cultural communality, from Derry to Kent, despite the current trend towards personalisation on steroids.
The day the BBC ceases to exist, and we lose this last resort that strengthens our cultural bonds, every single household – in fact, every single individual – might tune into something different.
Even at home, at dinner table, each person might say they’ve been watching, reading, listening to, consuming something different, one Netflix show that the others never heard of, one obscure band that will never get to the others’ ears. They’ll have much less in common than they do now.
So thank you, James Bond. Thank you Grammys, Brit Awards, the Proms, the BBC, Virgin Radio, Graham Norton, Mercury Prize, The Oscars, Glastonbury Festival, every single major cultural event that crosses niches, personal preferences, generations and borders. Thanks mainstream media.
We need common cultural products, we need famous, omnipresent artists, good or bad, we need stuff to talk about with our mates in the pub and with our family on a Sunday lunch, and we need this common culture to last.
We need to be able, in a couple of decades, to chat about the year 2027 and say to each other, “remember that James Bond theme song? It was everywhere!!!”. Hopefully it will be.