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Crunch culture

Updated Tuesday, 9th December 2008

Jason Toynbee sugests that when times are hard we can expect to see more about real life - and less reality TV - on our screens.

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What happens to culture in a crunch? The question isn’t a new one. When recession comes around – as it always will in that unequal, unstable system we call capitalism – it is bound to have an impact on media and the arts. Still, that doesn’t mean the relationship between economic crisis and culture is straightforward.

Take the Depression of the 1930s. During this period musicians, film makers and writers documented the devastation caused by capitalism as it leapt off the rails. In the US, popular songs like ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime’, or films such as The Grapes of Wrath, showed the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work or forced to accept starvation wages. Yet for every one of these social realist texts there were hundreds of escapist fantasies, best represented perhaps by the new genre of the screen musical. At RKO studios Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers spent the decade dancing their way through glitzy sets in big dresses, top hat and tails. No poverty here, except through its absence – if the camera was to track across the dance floor and into the street suddenly we’d see all the beggars. Of course we never do.

RKO Studios Creative commons image Icon by Mark Hinds, some rights reserved under Creative-Commons license
RKO Studios.

Jump forward to the present and you wonder how much has changed. Actually, I’d say quite a lot. As my colleague Parvati Raghuram explained in her recent blog about the BBC television show, Strictly Come Dancing, the fantasy of ballroom dancing now has a strong dimension of the ordinary. In other words, the celebrities who battle it out on the dance floor start out as banal, even mediocre, at least in relation to their dancing abilities. As in reality TV more generally what’s at stake is the mediated transformation of ordinariness.

The contrast with Ginger and Fred is that while they too had attributes of the ordinary, the fictional world they inhabited was completely separate from everyday reality. In reality TV, however, a bridge between the ordinary and the sublime is created. We are lured into believing that the apotheosis of everyday life can be achieved just by entering the gates of the media. Politically, this is much more pernicious than a Ginger and Fred film where fantasy remains, well …. fantastic.

Unlike the all-singing, all-dancing musical, reality TV emerged in a time of relative affluence. It’s a pre-crunch genre. So what will happen to it now? My money is on the irruption of real reality. Even though the coming recession is likely to be less extreme in its scale and immediate consequences than the 1930s Depression, the ideological bubble now being burst is a lot bigger. We’ve been told for years that the market provides us with almost unlimited bounty. The shattering of this neoliberal myth will be shocking indeed. I predict the return of documentaries about the hard lives of the millions, dramas with a social conscience, and more scandals concerning the revolting richness of the rich. It’s even possible that rock musicians will write as though they exist in the world itself (rather than in the reflection of a mirror hanging in a suburban bedroom).

Undoubtedly we’ll see more fantasy too, more sublime escape into an imaginary realm. Musicals are probably finished in the West.  But as GDP dives and unemployment soars, it's highly likely that  new popular genres will emerge to carry us through to recovery. Still, there is an alternative. We might just decide to call the whole thing off and abolish capitalism altogether.





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