Popular and Generational Shifts in Cultural Capital
Whether conscious or unconscious, one could argue there is still a wandering desire for a major cultural shift. However, it does not seem guaranteed as a stagnant passivity has characterised late–postmodernism. In this sense, scrutiny over what cultural capital means, is not only significant for an imminent generational transition but also a redistribution of values, attitudes, beliefs, principles, desires, and more.
The interplay between cultural and societal transformations seems intrinsically tied to the shifting attitudes of distinct generations as they assume different roles with advancing age. Hence, observing the conversation about what gen z culture represents and offers becomes evermore intriguing. While the millennial has no difficulty in anticipating what this culture seems to be, they struggle to find a place within it. This accompanies a perceived awareness of their ageing, cultural irrelevance, and vanguardist incompetency. In other words, how one generation fades and another is introduced.
Cultural producers and commentators maintain a discussion around the nuances of societal expressions for insight, however, a comprehensive understanding of these phenomena necessitates a thorough consideration of the economic and political. Moreover, these subtleties often serve as a simulacrum—an imitation that, as Jean Baudrillard aptly noted, “is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.” This makes it harder to deliberate upon, as subjectivity not only clouds what is real to a community, or its fragmented individuals but also the expectations between what is versus what really happens.
The realm of an internet-based culture, characterized by decentralization, niches, hyper-connectivity, and self-determination, introduces a multifaceted landscape. It encompasses identity and representation politics, enigmatic online communities (such as message boards), the rapid dissemination of micro-content and trends, the transition of scientific and technological ethos toward questionable innovation, the transformation of documents into memetic forms through difference and repetition, the algorithm-driven commodification of content, and even the emergence of cult-like spirituality and magical thinking as modes of resistance against perceived political dominance.
In this upheaval of seemingly ever proliferant layers and paradoxes, the descriptions of a waning pop culture in exchange for a niche-based one, where the individual navigates democratic interests and occupies a diversified space are not accurate.
Cultural critics theorize the “death of pop culture”, a rise of “bad content”, and the atomization (or multiversality) of everything. However, these assessments frequently both acknowledge and overlook factors such as cultural capital, the role and accountability of consumers, the presence of anti–intellectualism, and the influence of postmodernity.
Economical viability can be exemplified in the millennial critique of zoomer culture. Interestingly, the generation that introduced terms like FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) tends to overlook their profound insights, dismissing the fundamental cause of their anxiety arising from diminishing influence, outdated perspectives, and a sense of cultural insignificance. The problem being, these ideas or waning relevancy perceived as products of “cultural shifts” and not simultaneously or inherently connected to the production and marketing of products and services to a specific demographic.
With the establishment of “adolescence” as a distinct age category, bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, this demographic has become increasingly profitable. The concept of “youth” represents the most active engagement in shaping and participating in culture, leading to a demand for tailored products and services. As millennials gradually transition from “youth culture” to being marketed as adults, it translates to their perceived sensible, expressive, aesthetic needs and observations as obsolete.
The attempt to outline the distinct characteristics of gen z offers the promise of clarity, yet this remains shrouded in complexity. Many descriptions are centered around their varying shopping behaviors and innate digital fluency, but a true understanding of their cultural identity fluctuates between presenting them as progressive or neo-conservative, as poptivists or fringe, participatory or cynically detached. While it holds true that generation z is commonly perceived as experiential, socially engaged, and even entrepreneurial from a young age, their unique traits appear to be rooted in nostalgia and a baseline stage rather than a fully realized revolution of their own ideas.
When it comes to the supposed change in media, a “death of pop culture” which points to atomization as its key cause, it overlooks the fact that the demise of traditional media was not an absolute occurrence. Many of these institutions maintain significance, no matter how much their authority or relevance has downturned, merely by the medium itself and their overarching influence, an umbrella capital of production.
What’s more, the manufacture and commodification of popular culture maintains relevancy through the consumer’s critical analysis and ironic interpretations. While the medium or format has changed, local music genres like trap go from the local to the zeitgeist, intellectual properties such as Marvel and Star Wars sustain prosperous models rooted in franchising and merchandising. Media-amplified events like those involving the royal family, the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, or controversies at the Oscars continue to incite discussions on Twitter and the like. People’s taste for culture and participation, while niche, still homogenizes itself in the mainstream.
It’s true that pop culture has decentralized the realm, making it increasingly challenging to gauge its alignment with “real-life” culture and social dynamics. Consider figures like Paul Brothers or Nelk Boys, who boast millions of followers on social media. Yet, from an outsider’s perspective, the sheer size of their audience might prompt questions like “Who are they? What do they do? Why are they famous?” Similarly, the general public might dismiss the Grammys as inconsequential yet the ironic consumer follows the show and online conversation closely
Is this media good or bad? Is it relevant or just a joke? How is it measured?
Internet-based passion, cults, fandom, and fringe are all readily accessible, yet too compartmentalized for the outsider’s eye to demystify. Our present interest in conspiracy theory also showcases how digital and real life dimensions are still miscalculated. When online followers, likes, and shares are compared to “real life” demonstrations, consumer demands, and monetary transactions, the influence of a cultural phenomenon is hard to measure, especially when the digital space is largely tied to individualized momentum and the offline to concrete action. Moreover, the nature of trend culture mirrors the stock market, identifying undervalued elements, elevating them to their peak, and subsequently allowing them to plummet as the attention shifts elsewhere. If the analysis of a cultural time and space is now focused on micro-moments, where is the transcendental or iconic?
This can also be tied to concepts such as the link between self-image, hobbies, and uniqueness. For example, the experience of someone going to what they think is a niche concert just to find thousands of strangers who share the same attire, appearance, and behavior. And of course, a fundamental example can be seen in language and communication. The perverse irony of a generation focused on constructing their identity and embarking on self-discovery ends up reducing itself to the realm of memes, an absurd approach rooted in the humor of shared banality.
Another cause often cited for “the death of pop culture” is the deterioration of tastemakers. However, trailblazers regularly come from avant-garde or otherwise underground environments. Perhaps even with creations that are unique only to the mainstream by their relative obscurity rather than their inane originality, which then makes its cultural life-cycle to become re-designed, economically viable, and ultimately commodified.
Since when has pop culture been a space of invention? Historically speaking, this space has not created culture, but the accommodations and general access to it. While a possible end to pop culture could indicate a triumph of cult interest, this does not equate to a reduction of popularity and its value, nor does it consequently mean an impact on creativity.
For instance, the recent popularization of F1 racing or reggaeton in the mainstream is not a result of creation or taste, but the hype of a documentary and the careful tropicalization of trap music for a latin american market respectively. In both cases, a history of authentic culture is vastly documented, however, its visibility only changed through the development of economic viability via an accessibility catered to the general public.
While the mass and its cultural expression are by no means lesser or inherently bad, when it comes to the relevant questions: What happens after postmodernism? How will things change? When is the next major cultural shift? A preoccupation might lay in the attitude towards the generalized concept of the avant-garde.
While both pop and the vanguard in the present have incredibly passionate and competent producers, ventures in the latter space are commonly disregarded by anti–intellectualism. This tendency has stemmed from a counter-reaction to concepts like gatekeeping, which is easily understood with precedents such as elitism creating exclusionary environments.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see how this notion is translated into spaces like the
digital, which has allowed for more democratic access to participation for both producers and consumers. Of course, this is not to say earlier models were better, or that the issue of representation has been solved, but it is to examine a curious transposition. Formats have changed, and some horizons have been expanded, but many behaviors remain the same.
The aforementioned anti–intellectualism acts not as a rhetoric against things like structure, intention, or establishment, but to value an all-trusting subjectivity that only exudes frivolity. The perception of the avant–garde as work that punishes the “ignorant”, in reality, serves to work with the impatient and insensible, yet mainstream notions of these spaces have traditionally been that of inaccessible, pretentious, or a prelude to a manufactured identity that in other contexts is candidly admitted.
This belief has led to the abandonment of an exploratory development of a taste for participation in socialization where the ironically veiled appreciation for trivial or campy content is valued. Something exemplified by the American subculture of b-movies, where the same insight, observation, description, and discussion that could be applied to any film is focused on “bad films”.
Individuals often appear to feel more embarrassed about enjoying things that might portray them as rigid or staunch, as opposed to engaging with content that facilitates effortless participation. This sentiment of anti-intellectualism is also observed in the fundamental conviction of criticism as inherently negative. Such reactions ostensibly serve as a means to protect one’s sense of individuality and personal enjoyment, rather than being a convoluted admission of surrendering to conformity or conceding defeat.
Finally, there is something to be said about originality in the present. Particularly based on a misunderstanding between the power of creation and the question of what to create. Paraphrasing José Ortega y Gasset, it is not the same to be able to create, as knowing what to create. In other words, what needs to be created in responsibility to a collective or unique culture, rather than an individualized expression of emotions and private affairs.
The role of the artist is now functional as a self-serving or commercially viable one. On the flip side, the consumer is not enticed to demand from the artist as commentary and review are disapproved behaviors. The artist becomes of no consequence in the pursuit of individualization, and culture becomes shareable but unable to contest. A market of sellers with no buyers.
Contemporary micro-trends (or spurs of popular culture) feel more like diluted remixes of past expressions (as the postmodern condition explains), made for the rules to win an algorithmic game. However, it’s also important to note creativity and experimentation still blossom in communal spaces where storytelling is the mechanism and intrigue is the objective. Icebergs, Alternate Reality Games, Lores, Wikis, Creepypastas, and more networked narratives, exemplify how digital mediums still accommodate mundane accessibilities and societal participation towards cleverness and imagination.
When it comes to our current generational transition, politics become more tragic. In very broad terms, the translation of movements such as social justice, identity politics, progressive activism and more into a homogenized mainstream left, led to a process of radicalization in perfect symbiosis to the right’s own transformation. The public’s political views today seem extremely cynical, mantriatic, and infinitely paradoxical, while completely devoid of any true radical, free, or pioneering action.
The birth of the American alt-right showed an astonishing strategy for rebranding right-wing stereotypes. The aesthetics of an ignorant and unassuming minority, has become that of the logical and revolutionary silent majority. For example, your Andrew Tates who pose as the true counter-cultural moral fighters against an era of decadence, weakness, and a totalitarian state. A narrative, more classically used by the left.
Today traditionally leftist tropes enter a supreme space of absurdity. The most basic culture touchstones, forms of satire and critique to capitalist culture, your Travis Bickles, Patrick Batemans, George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Fours, and the gym–crypto-bro rekindling of stoicism, are now all essential and overplayed high-school curriculum to radicalize the manosphere. The sweet-tooth of gen z’s endless Tik-Tok feed. In the spectrum from “jocky” to properly extreme, one can access a large community of conservatism packaged as transformative, intellectualized and anti-establishment.
All of this begs the question, is there a reaction, an alt-left or its possibility to emerge? Perhaps one with a subset of views oriented to the political and economical, not the cultural vehicles of action that today seem stagnant, compartmentalized, and commodified. A critique reminiscent of Marxist economic geographer David Harvey views on postmodernism.
The meaning itself of an alt-left is presently contested and obviously a twisted exercise in the post-modern. Not only that, it contributes to a highly volatile political gas canister, nevertheless, at least providing some fun.
As contemporary sociologist Steve Fuller writes, “To counter that dialectical trajectory, those wanting a proper alt-left should take a page from the alt-right’s own playbook and delve deep into the Left’s own psyche.” Fuller goes further by proposing fundamental Enlightenment ideas, such as the purpose in collective action towards individual freedom, and revolution as “a re-drafting of the social contract” towards equality of opportunity for each generation, both as framing starters.
In today’s cultural landscape, can the left evolve into a counterculture that transcends moral codes, prioritizing accountability and legislation instead? Culturally, might consumers transform into discerning evaluators and conscientious arbiters of media production? Could the approach to diversity and inclusion pivot towards genuine curiosity and an empathetic understanding of the opposition’s perspective?
In essence, is it possible to employ a less cynical lens to interpret unwanted conditions, channeling them into a form of playful finesse. A sort of purposeful gallows humor?
Moreover, if the right has crafted a narrative pitting counter-culture against the perceived and ironic uniformity of the left, and this dynamic is amplified through the swift channels of algorithms, should we not be concerned about the potential political legacy passed down to gen z? If the avenue for youthful rebellion is now perceived to lie in the adoption of conservative principles, have we inadvertently nurtured a profound paradox? This is precisely where the dismissal toward pop culture power underscores the significant influence of cultural capital and its interaction within the spheres of both creators and consumers.
Pop culture is not gone, nor gen z cultural schisms are forlorn. What the zoomer needs and anxieties come to eventually be will allow for a new definition of value and cultural capital. This will reflect in a pop culture that will need to market and commodify while opening new venues for new counter-culture. The millennial role will no longer be that of definition. The determination of how this generation will be delineated and challenged can solely be orchestrated by the generation itself, endowed with the intrinsic economic influence to shape its occurrence. The established values, attitudes, beliefs, principles, and desires, along with their associated complexities, stand as the driving forces informing the trajectory of cultural production.
While there is no prospect in sight for the end of postmodern values and conditions, like subjectivity and fragmentation, there is one for a major surprise. As the millennial chose identity and representation politics as their piece de resistance, both as counter-culture towards older generations, and a particular interest, zoomer culture finds itself in the position not only to express style and aesthetics but their own idea revolution(s). While this might not be identified yet, the appreciation of a time passed comes only in hindsight. A black swan.