Reviewing Pop Culture in the ‘00s

Despite two wars and a day of real terror, we seemed determined not to keep it real.

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At the beginning of the Aughties, things looked dire for pop culture. With the decimation of the Twin Towers, we retreated into shock, making all sorts of promises we knew we couldn’t keep: Hollywood execs, declaring a desire to help in the war-on-terror effort, hovered behind closed doors at the White House. Clear Channel put out a list of songs that its 1,170 radio stations were banned from playing, from John Lennon’s Imagine to Rage Against the Machine’s entire catalogue. Irony was declared dead. Bill Maher got fired.

In the wake of a catastrophic national tragedy, we vowed to be smarter, deeper, more thoughtful, less vain. Celebrities were asked to sparkle less at the Emmys that year, and they complied. Flag sellers did a brisk business. Movie studios shelved—for the moment--films featuring acts of terrorism. We talked a lot about evil and evildoers; there was no room for cynicism in our cultural DNA.

And that lasted all of … two months. Punditry’s predictions that 9/11 would jolt us out of our national obsession with all things trivial proved to be wrong. Really wrong. If anything, the first decade of the first century of the new millennium proved to be a fervent embrace of all things shallow, as we frantically grabbed at those Warholian nanoseconds of fame. Our motto: I’m on YouTube, therefore I am.

This was the decade when we discovered that, yes, Virginia, you really could get plucked from obscurity and become famous for … absolutely nothing. Think Speidi, that rather unfortunate couple from The Hills. Think Jon & Kate Plus 8. Think Octomom. Then, don’t think.

The thing is, reality-TV shows have been part of our national Zeitgeist since the early ’70s, when the Louds allowed TV cameras into their home to witness the disintegration of An American Family. But in the Aughties, reality TV took on a particular resonance, dominating our lives in ways neither Andy Warhol nor Ray Bradbury could ever have imagined. It’s ironic that, in the face of a national catastrophe like 9/11 and the resulting fallout from two seemingly never-ending wars, we sought escape in reality. Except that “reality” became something open to interpretation. Consider Balloon Boy’s plaintive lament about his father’s fraud, “We did this for the show.” Or the hair-pulling match between the Real Housewives of Atlanta, where the frenemies from the ATL often appear to be reading lines from a script.

Convinced that you’ve got what it takes to make it in Realitylandia? Why crash the state dinner when you can hire a casting agent?