The internet has changed culture in a profound way, but it’s been so obfuscated that often its impact is hard to fathom. In part, this is often because the usual cultural mainstays have identified it like a fart in an elevator, it’s unmistakably there, and it won’t shift, but it’s best off completely ignored except for the occasional wry glance in a culprit’s direction.
By this I mean to say that podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience average around 11 million listeners per episode and yet until racist remarks and a feud with the cultural mainstay Neil Young came to the fore – incidents which could be reported on conventionally – you wouldn’t have heard anything about it on outlets like the BBC or in broadsheet newspapers.
Now, the internet has pretty much subsumed conventional culture. A paradigm for this came to the fore when Bad Bunny was revealed as the most-streamed Spotify artist of 2021. Never has the divide between the internet and the mainstream been clearer. You could surf conventional radio waves for days on end without hearing his name mentioned let alone one of his songs, and despite this, he has received 9.1 billion streams. To put that into context, the current population of the entire world is 7.9 billion. Why then, does my mother seem to think that Bad Bunny is Roger Rabbit’s nickname?
A similar revelation broke earlier this year when Addison Rae was given a contract by Netflix believed to be worth potentially seven figures. When this news hit the headlines, a chorus of ‘who?’ rang out by those who haven’t succumbed to the craze of TikTok where she has a legion of followers numbering 86 million.
In this regard, much of the current cultural revolution has flown under the radar and the fact that we are living in a golden age has been lost. That is not to say that any of the above are creditable artists or creations, but they do represent the fact that culture has dispersed and within that vast spread of new forms and fads, some truly brilliant works of art have encapsulated the times and turned niches into masterpieces.
Nina Simone said way back in the 1960s, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” And the masterpieces below have done just that by purveying what is happening, nestling into them and making groundbreaking entertainment out of this damn mess. They might not have grabbed the world by the lapels and shook it like a Skoda over a cattlegrid in the way Elvis Presley did, but perhaps those days are over, and perhaps these artworks prove that might not be so bad. As the punks decreed: in art, let the individualism flourish.
10 masterpieces that define modern culture:
The Beatles: Get Back (Documentary dir. Peter Jackson)
The maths of a 45-minute album into a nine-hour documentary just doesn’t go, it’s daft. Pitch that in a meeting even 15 years ago and you would’ve been laughed out of town. However, now the term mind-numbing is an endearing compliment. In our busy dismal daily lives, Get Back is set to be a revolving tapestry of little hugs.
Recently, I was speaking to a mate about the joys of the cinema, and he said the main pleasure for him comes from turning off his phone, sinking into the darkened room and having two hours to himself. That is the benefit of Get Back. Fans probably won’t return to the full thirds all that often, but segments will no doubt be plopped on when you want to literally waste 15 minutes.
However, as John Lennon said himself: “Time you enjoyed wasting, is not wasted time.” People get different things from the show itself. It is set up for personal corroborations and that is the unobtrusive beauty of it—some will pore over the artistry on display, others will laugh at absurdities, and many will just use it to conjure up old memories, but it’ll always just be there.
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg (Album)
A minute into New Long Leg and it’s already flowing like the thoughts of a totally mad woman sitting on a chaise lounge in a flat watching daytime TV and looking out of the window, reporting every passing thought as the world goes by. That woman is Florence Shaw, and she propagates the depths of a literary odditorium akin to the uber-subtle subversiveness of Russian absurdists like Daniil Kharms who reflected Soviet hell with befittingly batshit meaninglessness.
Dry Cleaning’s barrage of near-maddening lyrics is reflective of the bombardment of information that we receive daily in this technological-info age. Or as Shaw puts it “Brain replaced by something.” The music is angular and the scatological remarks are splattered. The album flows like a news feed, pairing every passing thought from idle observations about the new formatting of The Antiques Roadshow with almost covertly candid quips of poignancy about relationships and longing. In the process, it transfigures some of the most banal things ever uttered in a song into peculiar strokes of originality that illuminate the world in a neon introspective hue.
Social media has had a huge impact on our lives, but no piece of art has reflected the fact that you can read about the firebombing of school in a 30-word tweet one minute, fritter away 40 seconds on a ‘satisfying foam video’ the next, then find yourself appalled by something Barry from Hull has said. These funny times have never sounded better than Dry Cleaning’s reflective brilliance.
Athletico Mince (Podcast – Andy Dawson & Bob Mortimer)
If Athletico Mince was pitched as a TV show it would’ve been shot down in a heartbeat by a producer pointing out, ‘Who the hell knows about the wall staring ways of Peter Beardsley, a pissed-up Acker Bilk, and the cultural intricacies of the blue-drink guzzling capital of Seaburn?’ As it turns out, an absolute load of daft kids do. Or at the very least, we get the joke regardless.
What started as a mildly football-themed podcast by comedian Bob Mortimer and renowned ‘some other bloke’ figure Andy Dawson, quickly became an oddity odyssey that explores a cultural niche that might be termed Pub Art. Thus, it seems strange to call the stream of (frankly) bullshit that is on offer transcendent but that is exactly what it is. Case in point of this transcendence is that there is now a legion of fans who keenly collect examples of unidents (unusual incidents) that occur in their lives and catching up for a campachoochoo has now become a thing.
In the past, you might have had punks or metal heads, but now the artistry has somehow become simultaneously more specific and yet less tribalist. As has often been pointed out by Mortimer, you don’t have to like football to like this loosely football-based podcast, you just somehow connect to the fact that ‘it’s your sort of thing’ and that is a very modern cultural feat. There is a comfort in the knowledge of a shared collectivism that there are other daft bastards out there floating about, which makes laughing alone on the bus worthwhile.
Joe Pera Talks with You (TV Series)
It’s bemoaned by a thousand lazy comics: ‘You can’t even tell a joke these days without offending someone’. Well, A) You can, and B) The fact you’ve just told a string of them in front of a full concert hall and film crew is the self-evident irony that you can still be offensive and accepted. And that is fine, in a way, edginess will always have its place and so be it. But ‘edgy comedy’ has ironically become the most blunt, dated and least cutting edge form around.
However, there is an alternative and innovative way to go about it and the kindly Grandfatherly comedy of Joe Pera is a beautiful example of this. His TV Show and accompanying YouTube instalments are an entirely new form of comedy—one that looks to comfort and relax and the only rise it’ll get out of you is when you go to pop the kettle on. It punches down at the destruction of old barns and that’s about it.
The comedy itself looks to appraise the poetry of nuance. It follows a choir teacher who walks you through his humble life like David Attenborough has managed to get the grand Homosapien to be complicit in his studious examination of their little quirky and comical behaviours.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (Docuseries dir. Andrew Jarecki)
True crime is one of the mainstays of modern culture. And quite often it sits in a weird hybrid realm of altered reality. Of course, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst is entirely nonfictional, but it doesn’t feel that way all too often. The most surreal element of all is that the subject, Robert Durst, seems to angle towards the fiction like a man determined not to make his own movie boring, as though he thinks he has been cast as the antagonist in a partly improvised script on-spec.
This is a weird trend in the modern age whereby reality TV not only blurs the lines but creates a platform for people to write their own stories. Durst’s story is a condemnable one and it highlights a nettlesome trend, but the way that HBO present this madness is so gripping that you can’t turn away.
Rather than voyeuristically look at the case, it captures it unfurling at the eye-level with unprecedented access to those involved. This is ultimate realism, and it means that there is no need to angle for a narrative or offer up a fictionalised overture, the human story takes care of that itself and it is unsettling and riveting in equal measure.
Stranger Things (TV Series)
The key ingredient that has made Stranger Things so beloved is the nostalgia on display. That is the single triumph of the show that sets it apart. This might seem like an oddity given that many of its fans surely can’t be pining for an era that they never knew anyway, but I’d argue that is not necessarily the case.
There is something about the nostalgia created by the Duffer brothers that allows anyone to revel in the reverie of reminiscence and enjoy the notion of a simpler time through the glossy-eyed innocence of childhood. That sense of escapism from the present is nothing new, there have been examples of it throughout history, but it is all the more pertinent now.
Nostalgia is a key part of modern culture and Stranger Things doles it out joyously. It reclaims a sense of adventure in an era where there are very few mysteries or open spaces to find them. And simple playfulness seems like a pleasure beyond the reaches of a present which, according to the headlines, is apparently dire.
Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming (Album)
Beyond nostalgia, there are certain elements of the past that have endured to be presented as new and bygone at the same time. The beauty of soul music is always timeless, and Charles Bradley was a star who just kept singing it. Often termed as revivalist in modern culture, that phrase seems like a misnomer for records like No Time for Dreaming, an album that shows certain strands of culture are simply too good to go away.
Bradley’s story itself mimics this motion. For years he lingered in musical obscurity as a weekend singer who the spotlight always seemed to sidestep. However, with soul surviving (along with other classic genres) and many of the early heroes falling, there is a cause for that spotlight to search for a new infusion and Bradley was waiting after nearly 30 years of practice in the shadows to deliver his honed explosion of experiential passion.
This polishing of the past often comes off as a shoddy pastiche in modern times, and it lacks the nuance and hiss of settled dust or the sincerity that comes with being part of the current zeitgeist. However, Bradley is one of many artists who have done it right and not skirted the hi-fi ways of today. Instead, along with the brilliant Menahan Street Band, he embraced stereo developments to deliver a record that unapologetically adds a squeeze of cutting satsuma into the Old Fashioned of soul.
Sightseers (Movie dir. Ben Wheatley)
It is an unspoken law of the universe that should you pass an occupied caravan at any given time there will be people in there either ‘doing it’ or bickering—you can’t be sure which, but no intermediate state is known to exist. It is Schrödinger’s principle of the ambulatory holiday. Inside those Fiberglass vacations, people will either be fighting or f—king. There might not be any proof but that’s a scientific fact. It simply fits both like Sunday’s frozen pitch fits a Thermos flask.
In the past, that comical observation might have made up a quick throwaway gag, but with Sightseers it took a dark turn and enamoured, well, quite a small legion of fans, in truth. This is another element of modern culture that might not seem like a great thing on the surface, but when you dig into it, you realise it’s not all that bad. You see, it might seem strange that I am dubbing Sightseers both a masterpiece and little-known in the same sentence, but there is simply so much culture these days that obscure gems are the norm.
This expanse of art allows for more unique forms to be developed. Unlike a lot of comedy, Sightseers prides itself, on not having to be for everybody. Thus, it provides a truly original dollop of comedy which is highly relatable to a small pool of people. It’s abundant with unspoken laws of the universe: Those who walk with a stick at an age before it is medically necessary will inevitably be a tory wanker, hen-do encounters will always reap untold havoc, and, contrastingly, the rather more pronounced universal truth—violence only begets greater violence. These are scientific facts, but they might not be known to everyone. They’re known to me and my kind, however, and we’re laughing our caps off.
The Responder (TV Series)
The Responder starred on the BBC and that makes it a highly notable entry amid this list. It represents the moment that mainstream outlets are getting to grips with the wider trends of streaming and other cultural outlets.
The show depicts Martin Freeman as a copper – whose brain has been fried by stress to the point that it is about to turn abstract and shift his features around his face like a melting Picasso – in the middle of a bent drugs fiasco. It’s a classic premise but the beauty is in the way it gladly grasps a sense of environment. Liverpool itself is pretty much the key character of the show and all the quirks and quacks that come with it.
It’s thrilling and it’s brilliantly written, but it is also beautifully uncompromised. In the past, the subtle critique of the conservative government might have been downscaled and colloquialisms might have been edited. But with 100,000 competitors, originality is key to standing out, and The Responder is a mainstream triumph of cutting-edge storytelling. It couples the sensibilities of the sure-fire entertainment that these old outlets know so well, with the freshness of individualistic voices. Hopefully, it heralds a new era for the mainstream.
Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (Album)
Arctic Monkeys’ debut now seems almost like the first masterpiece of the internet age and the last of the old, sitting somewhere on the precipice of culture in transition and sermonising it on the wing.
The requiem for consistent youth culture was ultimately served up when everything moved online. There was no longer any need to conform to that which surrounded you or to seek out a niche of your own. The internet came along and blurred the milieu of culture-defining microcosms and dispersed them into the insignificant macrocosm of the world wide web. And it’s not that little fads or pockets of sub-genres didn’t exist in the ’00s, it’s just back then if you were deep into Dutch Gabber or an early convert to krautrock then you wouldn’t find many people to talk to about it.
Now you can log online, surf the lonely highways, and eventually find any number of keyboard chins to wag, which is all well and good on paper, discovering the ridiculous joys of music in its rich and varied guises is what it’s all about, but it has actually led to scenes becoming increasingly marginalised. Youth culture has broken up and moved online, resulting in once-treasured venues closing, longstanding publications going out of print, and musician’s pockets to feel the pinch. That is the ying and yang of modern music, but thankfully the internet preserves these old moments too and emerging generations are still discovering the adrenalised joys of its last hurrahs.