When the New Yorker recently offered an online test of their readers’ memory of significant cultural events of the last decade, I thought I would ace it. I like to think of myself as a well-informed, socially aware person, aspiring to wokeness, a happy inhabitant of Teilhard’s noosphere, my finger firmly on the zeitgeist. Besides, much of my academic and professional life has depended on my exhibiting an above-average facility with multiple-choice exams. How hard could a quiz about this soon-to-end, tawdry little decade be?
As I eagerly scrolled through the first few questions, I realized how very wrong I was. The test is really about certain micro-milestones in what might loosely be called the arts, subjects like pop music, television, and movies, resolutely ignoring some aspects of “culture” that one might think important, like, say, science, literature, and politics (or what passes for each in these troubled times).
Still, I dove in, and realized that not only did I not know which of four songs Beyoncé was singing with that baseball bat in her hand, I’d never heard of (let alone listened to) any of them. Nor had I the slightest notion of whether “Girls” premiered before or after any of “Game of Thrones,” “Scandal,” or “Orange is the New Black,” or who sang the lyric “You took my heart and my keys and my patience,” though I guessed, wrongly, Ariana Grande, just ‘cause I like her name. (Turns out it was Rihanna, whose name I’m not even sure how to pronounce.)
And who would have thought that in May of 2018, Kanye West tweeted, “Once again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas”? Evidently, quite a few people, or this wouldn’t be on a test of one’s cultural memory of the Twenty-Tens, would it?
All told, less than half of my answers were correct, and many of those were wild guesses. (The New Yorker helpfully font-shouts “Incorrect!” after each wrong answer, and tallies your ignorance at the end.) I am, evidently, a cultural idiot.
A number of plausible rationalizations spring to mind. First, taking a culture test from the New Yorker is sort of like getting a routine physical from a brain surgeon — too much hedgehog and not enough fox. As New Yorkers will, staffers at the New Yorker know ‘way too much about too little, and tend to fixate lovingly on outlier phenomena. These are people whose livelihoods rely on knowing whether and when Kendall Jenner made a fool of herself in a Pepsi ad, rather than the sort for whom such matters are not merely irrelevant, but literally beneath notice, like the color of the wallpaper in someone else’s bathroom.
Then there’s the fact that I’m, well, old. My profound knowledge of popular music tends to shallow out around 1985, when my subconscious concluded that nothing I heard on the radio (such was our cutting-edge technology at the time) held a candle to the artistic pinnacles reached in the 60s and 70s.
The truth is we’re all stuck in our generational culture ghettos. Just as my parents would have guessed that Jefferson Airplane was some sort of hippy airline, and my daughter probably can’t name the members of Cream, I can’t fairly be expected to tell you off the top of my head whether Billie Eilish is old enough to drink, or even the gender of Solange (though I’d hazard a guess that Cardi B’s boobs aren’t real).
But even youth is no guarantee of hipness (if that’s even a word anymore), and this isn’t the first time I’ve been a cultural ignoramus. I missed most of the 70s and early 80s in the process of getting through law school, having a family, and starting to work in a big New York law firm. There are entire swaths of popular culture from that era that passed me by unnoticed, though I vaguely remember watching what were, even then, reruns of “Kojak” in the wee small hours after I’d dragged myself and my briefcase home. Which is merely to say that one’s degree of attention to popular culture can vary over time, and for some very good reasons.
But the bigger problem today (if my failing an online quiz can be called a problem) is that we no longer share a common culture – that is, a collective experience of human intellectual and artistic achievement within a nation, a tribe, or a continent. Indeed, “collective experience” is almost an oxymoron these days.
In some ways this is a good thing, because it means that culture, formerly shaped by and reflecting the biases and tastes of a small coterie of the rich and powerful, has become radically democratized. The internet (that Faustian bargain), and a host of individualized delivery systems birthed by streaming technology, have allowed a wildly diverse and less expensive (for both artist and consumer) cultural ecosystem to arise and thrive.
The bad news is that, as in so many other aspects of modern life (politics in particular) we now have the means to cocoon ourselves in the bubble-wrap of our own individual preferences, and to screen out not only what we know we don’t like, but what we might have liked if we’d only watched and listened.
I can program Pandora to play nothing but Brazilian samba music for the rest of my life, and the playlist would subtly update itself so that I might never tire of it and take a chance on, say, Dr. Dre. The only time I hear music I’m unfamiliar with these days is at someone else’s house, or when my wife and I watch the Grammy awards, constantly asking one another, “who are these people?” We can binge-watch “Mrs. Maisel” and never have to learn the names of all those dirty Celts (or whatever they are) in “Game of Thrones” until they all turn up in gowns and tuxedos on the Golden Globes.
None of this can excuse my flunking the New Yorker’s decadal culture quiz; I really need to get out more. I should listen to some Drake, maybe watch some “Fleabag,” hunker down for a few hours of TikTok. I’m sure I’d be a better person for it (once I’d recovered).
But let’s face it, I use these examples because I know of them, having no idea what’s out there that I don’t. And that seems to be just fine with me. And, I’ll bet, with you.
So on to the next decade. May it be a better one, and one we all experience more collectively.