Bottom Up Culture

I don't believe I've ever linked to a non-golf story, so as David Gray sings, please forgive me. But Patrick Goldstein in today's L.A. Times uses the Oscars to analyze our societal and cultural shift as it pertains to media consumption.

I coudn't help thinking of the Big Break and golf. (That's how I'm saying this is golf related, but really, it's just an interesting read from always entertaining columnist.)

We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbuster movies, hit TV shows and top-selling CDs, but fewer events that capture the communal pop culture spirit. The action is elsewhere, with the country watching cable shows or reading blogs that play to a specific audience.


There is another, even more radical shift in today's pop culture that is helping to undermine the Oscars and other tradition-bound award shows. For years, the Oscars have mattered because the awards served as a barometer of cultural heft. Just the name alone — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — has the air of high-minded authority.

Millions of moviegoers who would've been wary of seeing a challenging film like 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" or 1999's "American Beauty" caved in and plunked their money down, soothed by the academy's best picture badge of distinction.

But this elite, top-down culture is being supplanted by a raucous, participatory bottom-up culture in which amateur entertainment has more appeal than critically endorsed skill and expertise.

The most obvious example is "American Idol," which has tested its ratings clout against the Grammys and the Winter Olympics, easily trouncing its competition.

In top-down culture, subtlety and sophistication rule. But like so much of today's bottom-up culture, "American Idol" is far more about aspiration than art. It is a musical kissing cousin of MTV's "The Real World," allowing us to wallow in its subjects' depressingly banal dreams and show biz ambitions.

It's telling that "Idol" devotes much of its airtime to interviews in which contestants rhapsodize about their yearnings for stardom, excitedly recalling their first visit to Hollywood Boulevard or their first trip down a paparazzi-strewn red carpet.

Even though the show, for me, is little more than a tedious night at a karaoke bar, its contestants offering second-rate renditions of familiar pop fluff, it has captured the imagination of its young, largely female audience. They don't need any gray-bearded critics to tell them what they like — they prefer creating their own stars.

Last summer, during the height of Tom Cruise's sofa-jumping meltdown, I asked a friend's 11-year-old daughter her opinion of Cruise. She said, forget about him. "Do you know ["American Idol" contestant] Bo Bice? He's much cooler."

The era of the suffering artist is over, replaced by the insufferably self-confident wannabe. After a thoroughly forgettable rendition of Donna Summer's "Last Dance" the other night, singer Brenna Gethers was asked by Paula Abdul how she thought she did. "I think I did wonderful," she said, full of assurance. "I think the audience loved it, and I think America loved it."

The lone dissenting voice on the show is that of Simon Cowell, who with his British accent and disdain for his fellow judges' slack standards, is a perfect symbol of the top-down culture. Scornful of mediocrity, he's a voice of sanity on the show, often wearily lecturing contestants about their show biz delusions. Still, he seems to be fighting a losing battle, cast as a highbrow scold whose deflating opinions are regularly played for comic relief.

Our bottom-up culture puts little premium on subtle craft, not to mention expert opinion, whether it's Olympic judges or academy members. Young people want to be a member of a group, encouraged by their peers.