The Ringerization of Pop Culture

I was on Twitter the other day (also every day before that and every day since, it is ruining me) when I came across one of the most deranged sentences in human history:

“The modern world can be divided into two distinct eras: before Tom Holland performed ‘Umbrella’ on ‘Lip Sync Battle,’ and after.” The modern world can be divided into two distinct eras: before Tom Holland performed “Umbrella” on “Lip Sync Battle,” and after. The modern world can be divided into two distinct eras: before Tom Holland performed “Umbrella” on “Lip Sync Battle,” and after.

Sure, it’s an intentional exaggeration, but the rest of the blurb makes it clear that in their eyes, it’s not that much of an overstatement. A “seminal moment in pop culture history” what? WHAT?! Until I saw the tweet I was unaware that this thing had even occurred! Also, I’m sorry, an oral history to mark the fourth (!) anniversary of a lip sync are you people out of your goddamn minds? Oral histories are my favorite type of journalism, and you’re just gonna shit all over that by publishing a pile of interviews with everyone except Tom Holland? Awesome, thanks guys. Hey, keep an eye out for my oral history of I Am Legend — I talked to the dog’s first owner, the key grip and one of the mannequins (not Fred, couldn’t get him) about a film that redefined cinema as we know it and also confirms the existence of God.

It’s not just Tom Holland lip syncing “Umbrella,” either. (What a phrase. What a world. What a time to be alive.) Tom Holland lip syncing “Umbrella” is merely the most recent example of a growing trend, one in which we take something even mildly interesting and ascribe to it some pantheonic cultural significance. It’s not enough just to say “I like this thing” or “This thing is good” anymore, it has to be some wild, out-over-your-skis declaration like there has NEVER been a more indelible pop culture moment than Left Shark at the Super Bowl.

Some of you may be tempted to reply with that “Let people enjoy things” cartoon. (Don’t, or I’ll throw you off an overpass like Macaulay Culkin in “The Good Son.”) I’m not saying people can’t enjoy these things — I’m saying let people just enjoy things. It’s perfectly okay to finish a show or a movie and say “Wow, I really enjoyed that” to yourself and then let the words evaporate into thin air. You don’t have to hop on Twitter and say some shit like “Avengers: Endgame is the best-directed film in the history of cinema” or “No television show has done more to make space for de-otherize interracial relationships than ‘The West Wing.’ Not. One. #charlieandzoey4eva #thankyoumistersorkin”

Posts like these pop up on Twitter all the time:

Move over Roger Deakins, there’s a new game in town: a guy with a free trial of Adobe Premiere.

Despite what their username suggests this person is, in fact, not trolling. To answer their question, Kelsey Grammer, a real live human being who is not a character on a TV show.

Jesus Christ.

Get this “Baby’s First Metaphor”-ass bullshit out of here. It’s a commentary on how, when you think about it, our reputations earn us! shut up, idiot.

I can’t entirely fault these people for their horrible takes. Don’t get me wrong, I fault them the maximum amount allowable by law, but they’re only doing it because of the way certain media outlets cover pop culture and entertainment nowadays.

I don’t mean lowbrow pop-culture-focused outlets like Entertainment Weekly or Us Weekly — their bailiwick is all pop culture: good, bad, or indifferent, they’ll cover it. Their job is to tell you how much a movie made at the box office and maybe include a quote from someone at the studio, then it’s on to the next thing. What I’m talking about are the outlets that ostensibly take pop culture More Seriously, the ones that aren’t interested in such trivialities as *scoff* box office receipts, can you imagine, how gauche. Theirs is a much nobler cause: poring over each frame of a movie like a religious scholar studying a holy text, searching for some as-yet undiscovered statement contained within the movie that says something profound about culture and society. That’s the stated mission, anyway, but for all intents and purposes these outlets are just upscale content farms, milking the same piece of entertainment for all it’s worth.

When something new is released, any site with an entertainment section will review the “text” of it by attempting to answer two questions: What is this thing trying to do or say? And how well does it do that? These reviews are valuable, to be sure, and a good writer can cram a lot of insight into a single review. This is where the paths start to diverge: most outlets are perfectly happy to talk about a movie once or twice and then move on. But for some outlets, that’s not enough, so after they’ve covered the text of the thing, they move on to the subtext: what the thing could mean. Since subtext is subjective, this is sometimes fallow ground; most readers aren’t terribly interested in five different interpretations from five different writers about the same source material.

By this point, the wheat is fully independent of the chaff. The thing has been examined from every reasonable angle, and any further examination would take so long that by the time it’s ready to publish the thing will have faded from public consciousness anyway. Most outlets are content to let that process run its course; after all, if the thing is really that culturally relevant or important, they can always revisit it later. But some outlets erroneously regard unique page views as evidence that a culturally significant moment is underway: people keep talking about the Snyder Cut of Justice League, therefore Justice League must mean something, therefore we have to keep covering Justice League. It’s how we end up with shit like this:

It’s all there: the examination of the text, of the subtext, and of the context (what this movie means for us or says about us right now). Taken together, they provide a handy pretext for continuing to talk about Justice League.

This discussion is not being driven by actual people, but by the outlets whose job is to cover what people are talking about. Put another way, people are talking about Justice League, so The Ringer talks about Justice League. People read about Justice League because The Ringer is talking about Justice League, so The Ringer keeps talking about Justice League. Now The Ringer’s readers have no choice but to read about Justice League because it’s all they see whenever they visit The Ringer, which leads The Ringer to believe that there is a boundless appetite for Justice League coverage, and they are more than happy to keep serving it up. Then another site takes notice of how The Ringer keeps talking about Justice League, so they decide to write about Justice League, and before long Justice League is everywhere, which leads the average person to assume that Justice League must be of some particular import — otherwise why would everyone keep talking about it? — so then they start talking about Justice League. Eventually their friends get sick of hearing about Justice League, so they start trashing Justice League, which spreads to their friends, and before long, The Ringer notices this backlash and dives back in to examine the backlash to Justice League, and the cycle begins anew.

The Ringer will say they’re just covering what people are clearly interested in reading about, but the truth is, they’re banking on this cycle taking place so they can continue to churn out article after article about it. A single piece of entertainment can impact culture writ large in a nearly infinite number of ways — which means an outlet with a large enough staff (like The Ringer) can squeeze five, ten, twenty more articles out of the same topic.

And make no mistake, that is ultimately the point: to supply readers with an endless stream of content to mindlessly consume. But sites like The Ringer also don’t want their readers to be aware that they are mindlessly consuming content, because people who read The Ringer like to believe they’re above drivel like Entertainment Weekly. The Ringer wants their readers to think they’re doing the hard work of remaining plugged in to the zeitgeist. Thus, the bulk of their content is about convincing their audience that this thing Is Having A Moment or that it’s something We Need To Talk About. And when they can’t drag a current pop culture moment into their cycle of endless content, they resurrect an old one in an effort to manufacture that which once occurred organically. They’re doing it as we speak with Shrek:

Shrek Is Having A Moment. Also, We Need To Talk About Amy Adams:

I don’t know how many unique views these articles have racked up in the past three days, but if it’s a lot I am certain that this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from The Ringer about Shrek and/or Amy Adams. The Ringer gets away with this because they treat the subject matter as something important that must be discussed, as though it would be an abdication of journalistic standards to not cover cultural touchstones like, uhhh…The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

I literally ran out of space for all the screenshots of articles on The Ringer about this show. There’s precaps, there’s recaps, there’s instant reactions to each episode, there’s not-instant reactions to each episode, there’s an “Exit Survey” (?), there’s an “Entrance Survey” (????), there’s thinkpieces about what the show means for television, what it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the Marvel Television Universe, for the Actual Fucking Universe. They wrote more about one (thoroughly mediocre) show than most outlets publish in a month, and for what? The show is not any better or more important for having been the subject of such exhaustive coverage. It will not endure in our cultural consciousness any longer than it was going to in the first place. It was, like almost every TV show, a mostly forgettable show, but that’s a good thing. We need mostly forgettable shows in order to recognize when a truly good one comes along.

The Ringer isn’t the only outlet engaging in this practice, and I don’t mean to single them out. (Idea: “Singled Out” month next February — review every episode of “Singled Out” and reevaluate its cultural impact vis-a-vis dating/reality TV/love/Jenny McCarthy???) But it is among the most successful: Spotify bought The Ringer for more than $200 million last year, which does not augur well for the future of journalism or pop culture.

The Ringer has a huge staff with a ton of talented writers who are capable of doing really good work (and have done so in the past) about unique, interesting ideas. But fewer and fewer of those unique ideas seem to make it to the site lately, and the days of “One for them, one for you” appear to be long gone. Now it’s five for them, one for you; soon it will be 10 for them, then 20, and the feedback loop in which we find ourselves will just get bigger and bigger, until there’s no room for anything except The Paramount+ Mid-2000s Television Rerun Pre-Recap Precap Exit Survey, Part 1 (of 12): What Last Week’s RePrecapCap Means for Future Paramount+ Reruns.

The irony of it all is that in the internet age, there is often an inverse relationship between how much something is discussed in the moment and its long-term durability as a cultural moment: there is no quicker way to ensure a pop culture moment will never become A Thing than by actively trying to turn it into A Thing. And because we fail to understand that, the conversation about pop culture will continue to focus primarily on what it knows best: the conversation about pop culture.

Cultural touchstones become cultural touchstones because, for whatever reason, we have collectively decided they’re worth remembering. Rocky Horror Picture Show has endured in the pop culture consciousness for almost 50 years because it was almost universally ignored when it was first released. The Room became a cult classic because it was released to zero expectations and then hilariously failed to meet them. If either had received the same amount of coverage as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Justice League, or Tom Goddamn Holland lip syncing Rihanna, they’d be all but forgotten by now.

If you like something, go ahead and like it, but like it for what it means to you, not for what you think it should mean for everybody else. Don’t try to give it cultural significance — that’s not your job, and it’s not up to one person to decide anyway. Just let the thing exist, and cherish it while it’s just yours and nobody else’s, because one day it could belong to everyone. And it might feel good to say you were there first, but I promise, part of you will wish you could go back to when you had it all to yourself.

Unless it’s Tom Holland lip syncing Rihanna. You can keep that one.

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