The Cul­ture Is­sue

Esquire (UK) - - Style -

From on­stage din­ing (p150) to rock star whin­ing (p156), Esquire ex­plores the highs, lows and in-be­tweens of en­ter­tain­ment in 2017

Even as your eyes are skim­ming over these words, your brain is tug­ging at your trouser leg like an ex­citable Jack Rus­sell. “Hey!” It’s say­ing. “Hey! Yeah, you! You sure you want to read this? You sure there isn’t some­thing else you could be do­ing? Like read­ing a cou­ple of pages of the new le Carré? Or lis­ten­ing to that new LCD Soundsys­tem record? Or check­ing out a Mal­colm Glad­well pod­cast? How about book­ing tick­ets to the Jasper Johns show? Or sneak­ing in a cheeky episode of that new Mitchell and Webb com­edy? Or hey, there’s al­ways, you know, star­ing out of the win­dow of the train in a parox­ysm of in­de­ci­sion be­fore re­sort­ing to Face­book. Come on, you know you want to! Ooh is that a stick…?”

Wel­come to cul­ture in the 21st cen­tury, folks. As far as en­ter­tain­ment to be watched, read and lis­tened to goes, it feels like we’ve never had it so good, so cheap, and so of­ten. Of­ten, cer­tainly: a re­cent re­port by the In­sti­tute of Prac­ti­tion­ers in Ad­ver­tis­ing (IPA) re­vealed that adults are spend­ing al­most eight hours a day im­mersed in me­dia, helped in no small part by the fact that right now we’ve all got smart­phones burn­ing holes in our pock­ets (and — here’s hop­ing! — not si­mul­ta­ne­ously beam­ing can­cer into our thighs). We can con­sume cul­ture al­most any­where and at any time, so there are no ex­cuses not to be up on what’s on, what’s out, and what’s hot. (The re­port also found that for a large chunk of us, check­ing our phones is the first thing we do in the morn­ing and the last thing we do at night.)

De­spite the creative in­dus­tries hav­ing un­der­gone var­i­ous threats in the dig­i­tal age — Stream­ing! Piracy! Mil­len­ni­als! — there still seems to be a lot of cul­ture about in Bri­tain. Ear­lier this year, the Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­a­tion an­nounced that sales of books and jour­nals had reached a record level of £4.8bn in 2016. Last year’s “Mea­sur­ing Mu­sic” re­port found that in 2015, 27.7m of us at­tended con­certs in the UK, and de­spite con­tin­ued fall­ing sales in tra­di­tional for­mats, stream­ing ser­vices earned £251m in rev­enue, up from £168m the pre­vi­ous year (also, bonus chest-swelling fact: thanks to the likes of Ed Sheeran, Adele and Cold­play, in 2015 one in six al­bums sold across the world was by a Bri­tish artist). Ten years since pod­casts came onto the scene, 4.7m adults now lis­ten to one, while the last few months of 2017 saw the sec­ond big­gest ever au­di­ence for live ra­dio, with 46.68m lis­ten­ers recorded by mon­i­tor­ing body Ra­jar. And as for telly? Well, where do we start?

Prob­a­bly with Net­flix, which an­nounced this year that 100m peo­ple now sub­scribe to its ser­vices glob­ally (and about which David Thom­son writes in greater depth, be­gin­ning on page 112). But there are, of course, also the other stream­ing ser­vices vy­ing for our at­ten­tion, such as Ama­zon Prime Video right through to spe­cial­ist movie sites such as Mubi and Cur­zon Home Cinema, not to men­tion Sky, ca­ble and the tra­di­tional ter­res­trial chan­nels. Last year, John Land­graf, head of the FX Net­work in the US, the broad­caster whose suc­cesses have in­cluded Sons of An­ar­chy, The Amer­i­cans and Prison Break, caused a fuss in the in­dus­try when he pre­dicted that by the end of that year, 430 to 450 new scripted shows would have aired or streamed in Amer­ica, the most ever. (Ac­cord­ing to FX Net­works Re­search, it ended up be­ing 455.) This year, some are predicting it will hit 500.

Let us not for­get that with great choice comes great re­spon­si­bil­ity: with so many op­tions of ways to be en­light­ened and/or en­ter­tained, how do we know that we’re pick­ing right? At an in­ter­na­tional arts and cul­ture sym­po­sium at Soho House Is­tan­bul a cou­ple of years ago, the Bri­tish film di­rec­tor Mike Fig­gis gave a speech in which he railed against the del­uge of poor qual­ity en­ter­tain­ment that this era has seen fit to pro­vide: the on­slaught of ma­te­rial — or to use the word de­spised by any lifer print jour­nal­ist, “con­tent” — that com­petes for our at­ten­tion. “How do you help peo­ple find the good stuff and avoid the other 99.9 per cent of garbage that’s out there that will drag your at­ten­tion, drag your time?” he asked. “I know we’re liv­ing longer, but it’s still short, life.” Well Mike, the an­swer is you em­ploy some­one like me.

I write and edit the Cul­ture sec­tion of Esquire which, if you’re a reg­u­lar reader, you might know usu­ally lurks be­tween the Style sec­tion and the full-length fea­tures (not this month though: it’s the whole is­sue!). Get­ting paid to con­sume cul­ture is pretty dreamy, and there’s not a mo­ment when I trot off to a 10am film screen­ing in a pri­vate cinema with squishy seats in a posh Soho ho­tel when I don’t give a thumbs-up to the Big Guy, but if you find the bar­rage of cul­ture a lit­tle too much, take it from me that I know how you feel and then some. (I re­cently came back from hol­i­day to find 81 books on my desk sent to me by pub­lish­ers for pos­si­ble in­clu­sion in this mag­a­zine which, if I’d read them all at a rate of two min­utes per page, and as­sum­ing an av­er­age book-length of 300 pages, would have taken me 34 days not al­low­ing for sleep or meals, or for the fact that one of them is Si­mon Schama’s Be­long­ing: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900 which is 800 pages long and would take a day and night on its own.)

Like you, I’ve had to make a call about what to in­vest in, but with an added nag­ging sen­sa­tion of it be­ing my ac­tual job to know this stuff. To stick or not to stick with Game of Thrones,

de­spite the threats to the creative in­dus­tries — stream­ing! piracy! mil­len­ni­als! — there still seems to be a lot of cul­ture about

plough­ing throug hth em id-run quag­mire in or­der to en­joy the heady delights of the re­cent sea­son six and be armed and ready for next year’s sea­son seven? (I have to con­fess that, like my Ram­say Bolton-shtup­ping GoT name­sake, I didn’t make it past se­ries five.) To be a true cul­tural afi­cionado, don’t you have to have watched all of Break­ing Bad? The So­pra­nos? 24? House of Cards? The West Wing? The Wire? Home­land? Six Feet Un­der? Lost? The Amer­i­cans? The Walk­ing Dead? If you can say you have, have you also con­sulted a health pro­fes­sional about your lev­els of Vi­ta­min D? (In my case — and with the ex­cep­tion of The So­pra­nos, which I would hap­pily watch once a week, and The Walk­ing Dead which I’ve never seen so as far as I’m con­cerned An­drew Lin­coln is still Egg from This Life — the an­swer is I’ve seen, er, some. And I keep Vi­ta­min D pills in my desk drawer.)

We’re all feel­ing the strain. Van­ity Fair’s cul­tural critic James Wol­cott, who used to fo­cus solely on TV, voiced his con­ster­na­tion about the tele­vi­sual cor­nu­copia in de­li­ciously florid fash­ion in a piece that ran in the De­cem­ber 2015 is­sue of that mag­a­zine: “Were I to re­sume TV re­view­ing as a ded­i­cated en­deav­our,” he wrote, “I would have to set aside my Cap­tain Video hel­met of yore and ac­quire six sets of aux­il­iary eye­balls ten­drilled to Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pri­vate server just to keep up with the kalei­do­scopic bom­bard­ment of too much cre­ativ­ity for one mor­tal mind to han­dle.”

Even those who stand to profit from this bounty are show­ing con­cern. Af­ter hav­ing de­clared 2016 the year of “peak TV”, FX’s John Land­graf then re­vised his pre­dic­tion to say that the vol­ume wouldn’t start to de­cline un­til 2019, and that that was no good thing: “There is so much US tele­vi­sion [that] we’ve lost much of the thread of a co­her­ent, col­lec­tive con­ver­sa­tion about what is good, what is very good, and what is great.”

Not only are our crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties dulled by the on­slaught, but this ex­cess of choice it­self could be less of a gi­ant leap for mankind than we might think. In a pa­per snap­pily ti­tled “The tyranny of choice: a cross-cul­tural in­ves­ti­ga­tion of max­i­miz­ing-sat­is­fic­ing ef­fects on well-be­ing” pub­lished in 2012 in the jour­nal Judg­ment and De­ci­sion Mak­ing, psy­chol­o­gists Arne Roets, Barry Schwartz and Yan­jun Guan looked at how the pro­lif­er­a­tion of choice in all ar­eas of life had af­fected hap­pi­ness. They iden­ti­fied three prob­lems: ini­tially, we feel bur­dened with the in­for­ma­tion-gath­er­ing re­quired be­fore mak­ing our choice; next, be­cause of the higher ex­pec­ta­tions prompted by such a wealth of op­tions, we are more likely to feel dis­sat­is­fied with our se­lec­tion; lastly, be­cause we’re aware we were given such a wide choice in the first place, we feel that the fact we have made an “in­cor­rect” se­lec­tion can only be our own fault, and are swamped with re­gret.

“These prob­lems have be­come es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in con­tem­po­rary west­ern so­ci­eties,” write the au­thors, “where peo­ple are over­whelmed by near-un­lim­ited op­tions in all do­mains of life[...] peo­ple in west­ern so­ci­eties feel in­creas­ingly uneasy about their life de­ci­sions be­cause they are un­sure about whether they are mak­ing the right choices, and this ‘ex­cess of free­dom’ has re­sulted in a dra­matic in­crease in peo­ple’s dis­sat­is­fac­tion with their lives and even in clin­i­cal de­pres­sion.”

Of course, the pa­per wasn’t talk­ing specif­i­cally about tele­vi­sion, though the model cer­tainly ap­plies; it seems equally per­ti­nent to dat­ing, shop­ping, or de­cid­ing which res­tau­rant to go to on a Thurs­day night. But as it hap­pens I’m still wak­ing up in a cold sweat over the fact that two is­sues ago I plumped for writ­ing about Tim Roth as a mid­dle-aged­man-cum-se­cret-badass in the Sky At­lantic se­ries Tin Star over Ja­son Bate­man as a mid­dle-aged-man-cum-se­cret-badass in the Net­flix se­ries Ozark (I only had room for one!) and the last thing I’d want is for my in­abil­ity to se­lect the very best mid­dle-aged-man-cum­se­cret-badass on TV in a given month to drag you down with me into a de­pres­sive spi­ral.

But the real sad­ness of all this all-too-avail­able cul­ture is not that it fraz­zles our brains, or hoovers up our monthly data plans, or stops us of­fer­ing our seats to preg­nant ladies on the tube (se­ri­ously peo­ple, look up once in a while!), but that one of the most fun things about con­sum­ing cul­ture — be­ing able to talk about it af­ter­wards — just isn’t pos­si­ble. How many times have you asked or been asked “Have you seen The Left­overs?” or “Did you lis­ten to S-Town?” only to be told, “No, we’re giv­ing Mr Robot a try,” or “Right now, I’m ac­tu­ally read­ing War and Peace.” (Ha! Just kid­ding.) Even if we have watched the same shows, or lis­tened to the same pod­casts, or read the same ar­ti­cles, we’re un­likely to have done it at the same time. The water-cooler mo­ment is of­fi­cially dead, and we’re stag­ger­ing around with our arms out­stretched try­ing to reach each other — which, if I’d ever seen it, I might be able to turn into a pretty neat-o The Walk­ing Dead anal­ogy — but we’re no longer able to make a con­nec­tion. For what it’s worth, the IPA sur­vey that an­a­lysed how much me­dia we con­sume daily also noted that we’re spend­ing more time at home, and alone.

But, of course, I still have a job to do and you still have needs to be met. So fol­low­ing this ar­ti­cle, you’ll find a se­lec­tion of rec­om­men­da­tions of things hap­pen­ing be­tween now and the end of the year that, in this heav­ily crowded cul­tural arena, are still a worth­while use of your time. (And hey! Why not in­vite a friend?) Be­cause de­spite the over­whelm­ing flood that Mike Fig­gis de­scribed — and if you can abide the stretched anal­ogy — there are still times when you come across the cul­tural equiv­a­lent of a cat cling­ing to a float­ing re­frig­er­a­tor that can bring you great and un­ex­pected joy. In my 10 years of do­ing this job, there have been plenty of high­lights, among them hear­ing the tran­scen­dent beauty of Bon Iver at St Giles-in-the-Fields; dis­cov­er­ing the sim­mer­ing in­ten­sity of Evie Wyld’s de­but novel, Af­ter the Fire, a Still Small Voice; and the part-hor­ri­fied, part-de­lighted squeals of a room full of male film crit­ics catch­ing their first glimpse of Magic Mike.

Hope­fully, you might find a few bedrag­gled kit­ties here, and where the ma­te­ri­als were avail­able they have been read, watched, lis­tened to and re­searched in or­der to spare you a lit­tle bit of “did-I-choose-right?” brain-fry, and just as long as we ig­nore the fact that they are con­tained in a mag­a­zine which is it­self just one of the “con­tent plat­forms” (hell’s bells!) in your life which is cur­rently com­pet­ing for your at­ten­tion. But, of course, one thing I can in my ca­pac­ity as a cul­tural lock-keeper tell you that you re­ally don’t need to be spend­ing any of your time on right now is read­ing this piece. Which wisely, at this point, you’re not.

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