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?
But the proletariat isn’t alone in seeking fame and fortune through the unblinking gaze of the reality-TV show cameras. Down-on-their-luck celebrities now seek redemption in reality, too. There’s Flavor Flav, classically trained pianist, co-founder of the most politically conscious rap group ever, doing a gargoyle-esque Sambo routine for VH1. Or Lil’ Kim, post-prison, post-plastic surgery, getting her ballroom on with Dancing With the Stars. And sometimes, for some celebrities, a reality-TV show signals the beginning of a long spiral into chaos. No one can argue that Being Bobby Brown did anything good for Whitney. Or for her career. (Take note, Jackson Family!)
With all that insta-fame came insta-scrutiny. If the Aughties brought us the democratization of celebrity, it also brought us YouTube and TMZ, where every little flub or mistake can be recorded for posterity, in perpetuity. Spend a night—or 20—with Tiger, and you might earn yourself a nice little paycheck, if you’ve got the sexting evidence to prove it. But the gaze works both ways: TMZ is synonymous with TMI, ready to record every little detail of your life, from DUIs to domestic abuse to botched African adoptions to bikini waxes to an overabundance of earwax. Incessant nosiness served up with an extra helping of schadenfreude.
If the Aughties heralded the reign of the reality show, “real” was a casualty, and we are the worse for it. We went into a war under false pretenses. Auto-tune meant that anyone could have a singing career. By the time T-Pain got his hands on it, it became an ironic tool, an inside joke. Contrary to our fervent declarations in the wake of 9/11, cynicism has seeped back into our national psyche.
This has been dubbed the Decade from Hell, and indeed, with the exception of the hopeful moment when Barack Obama was elected president, it has been a decade defined by loss: financial collapse, dying newspapers, natural disasters, global warming, the tsunami, Katrina, the bursting housing bubble. Creative folks left the planet in droves, from Miriam Makeba to the Godfather of Soul to the man-child who was once a little boy with a big voice and an oversized ’fro. Some say hip-hop died, and so far, nothing has taken its place. Sometimes great art comes out of great loss. But for that to happen, we’ve got to wrest ourselves from our long national nightmare and start creating. Until then, we’ll content ourselves, not so much with great art, but with great distractions.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.