Older generations constantly repeat the tired mantra “kid’s these days don’t know the value of a dollar” and while I’m not quite old enough to tell tales of “Walking to school uphill…both ways!” I am old enough to remember a time when attaining entertainment involved spending time, effort and money well beyond pressing “Download” or “Stream” on a laptop.
Similarly, it is common for people to hit their late 20’s and start dismissing the movies, music and culture of teenagers with statements like “Back in my day…” or “You kids don’t even now what REAL _________ is” (insert desired genre of music). For the first time in pop culture these two patterns are intimately linked with one (not paying for media) directly causing the other (exceedingly low standards for entertainment products).
Matt Robinson hosts the monthly podcast “Get Up Off This” (a spinoff of Jensen Karp’s “Get Up On This”) on Kevin Smith’s SModcast network dedicated to illustrating this “lowering of the bar” for pop culture or, as Robinson says “Taking stuff that should be a C and grading it on such a curve that people think it’s an A-” While some of these perceived lowered expectations can be attributed to changing tastes and the generation gap, at least some of this shift can be traced to the idea that this is the first generation to have never paid for almost any kind of entertainment.
To put this idea in perspective, think about being a Hip-Hop head in the 90’s (get your Timberlands, Cross Color Jeans and Champion cone head hoodie because we’re taking a trip). If the average teenager wanted to hear new music, he had to listen to a major urban radio station when they were playing rap songs (probably sometime in the midnight to 4am neighborhood), then if he heard a song he liked he had to get lucky enough that the DJ would say the artist/title, at this point he had to procure the money to buy the album ($10 for the cassette/$15 for the CD), get transportation to a record store (remember back to your teenage years, money and transportation where not particularly easy things to get your hands on) and hope that the album was released and in stock when he got to the store. Also, for Hip-Hop, Heavy Metal and Alternative fans this whole process was further complicated by the dreaded “Explicit Lyrics” sticker that would prevent some stores from selling the album to minors. In these cases the young consumer would have to get mom or dad to buy the album for him (unlikely), get an older friend or sibling to purchase it (and they might take a commission on the transaction) or find a “cool” record store employee that would sell it to them (a time consuming process of sometimes embarrassing trial & error).
By the time the kid gets the shrink wrap off the CD (another unnecessarily complicated task) he’s invested so much time, money and effort into the process that his expectations for the project are sky high. In the best case scenario in the 90’s this amount of effort paid off (Dr. Dre, Wu-Tang, Nas), but in other cases it turned out to be a massive waste of time and resources (Vanilla Ice, Skee Lo, Ma$e).
Compare that scenario to today when a typical music fan hears about a song/artist/album/mixtape on a music blog or twitter and can read the artist’s biography on Wikipedia while simultaneously downloading their entire catalog for free within minutes. If he likes the artist he can become an authority on his music in a matter of hours and if he doesn’t like what he hears he can delete everything from his hard drive with a few key strokes and move on having lost virtually nothing. In this case the fan has nothing invested so his expectations are automatically lowered to the point where when they stumble upon fairly talented but pretty unexceptional artists (Mac Miller, Odd Future, Macklemore) they automatically elevate them to icon-like status.
While the music example is most easily illustrated, the same holds true for movies and television. Pre-Internet movie viewing was a production (getting to the theatre, buying tickets, dealing with sold out shows, trying to get into R-Rated movies, etc.) that automatically raised expectations compared to todays’ youth that can effortlessly stream even the newest releases to their iPad with little effort and no money. On another note, television has been a mostly “free” experience (paying for cable and being subject to advertising is a different process than the direct pay-for-what-you-get seen in music & movies), but there was a commitment required to be in front of a TV when your favorite shows were airing and you had to sit through commercials to get to the desired content. This effort has been completely removed from the equation by streaming services that allow the viewer to watch shows whenever/wherever they want with little to no commercial interruptions. So again, with no “skin in the game” the viewer’s expectations are lowered to the point where movies like “The Fast & The Furious” and “Twilight” become cultural touchstones and shows like “Lost” stay on the air for close to a decade.
This argument can be further illustrated with a culinary example. If somebody is sitting on their couch and their roommates come back from a BBQ with a leftover hamburger the person eats that burger with whole different set of expectations and standards then if they got dressed, drove to a steakhouse and ordered the $40 top sirloin burger. Since the advent of the internet pretty much all media has become the “BBQ leftover delivered to you at home” burger and this generation of consumers has overwhelming lost the palate to appreciate the higher quality steakhouse burger.
Also, while this generation seems to be consistently lowering their standards for music, movies and TV (aka the FREE stuff) their expectations for things that are still expensive are constantly rising. The youth’s standards for console video games (the kind of titles that most people don’t have the knowledge or computing power to bootleg…yet) are incredibly high. The demand for quality in RPG’s, first person shooters and yearly sports titles is so high that companies have to work with multiple development teams and continue to pump millions of dollars into providing a gaming experience far more advanced than what was available just a year or two ago. While there is a pretty low standard for mobile games (note: Many are FREE and almost all cost less than $5) it will be interesting to see where this trend goes if downloading/pirating console games becomes a possibility in the near future.
On “Get Up Off This” Robinson traces this general “lowering of the bar” to the late 90’s and the advent of the TRL generation that celebrated rap/rock hybrids, dirty south Hip-Hop, boy bands, pre-packaged female “singers,” high school rom-coms and mediocre comic book movies. While I agree with that sentiment, the fact that this is the exact same period as the debut of “Napster,” widespread file-sharing software and affordable computers that could handle large amounts of media entering most households is not purely coincidental.
Maybe your little brother doesn’t understand “Real” Hip-Hop, Dance Music, Metal, Rock, R&B, etc. because he never had to put forth any time/effort/money to listen to it…or maybe we’re just getting old.
-Angelo (Twitter: @Mr5thRound)
*Check out “Get Up On This” on Smodcast.com, iTunes and Stitcher every Tuesday at 1pm PST (or anytime as a free download…hopefully that doesn’t lower your expectations too much) and look for “Get Up Off This” once a month through the same outlets.