Summing up the culture of 2021, in a headline

I assure you I didn’t read this story this morning, but the headline did grab me:


That headline should go into a time capsule — if people still do time capsules (actually, why would they, when Future People should be able to check out our times, digitally, in excruciating detail, the poor creatures?).

Talk about quickly summing up the ills and obsessions of our culture in 2021: “In an emotional finale, Bachelor Matt James breaks up with the winner over racially insensitive social media posts.” Admittedly, it doesn’t get everything in, but hey, give it a break! It’s just a headline. And for a humble headline, give it credit. It works in:

  • Reality TV. I doubt Future People will understand the current American affinity for this genre — at least I hope not, because I hope they’ll be smarter than we are — but it pretty much pegs our time. Putting it in the capsule as a way of saying, “No, we can’t explain it to you, but take our word for it — people actually liked this stuff.” You know, it’ll be like pole sitting seems today — stupid and pointless, but we knew people used to do it.
  • Emotion. It’s not just a finale — so don’t miss it! — but an “emotional” finale. Which, at least on paper, makes an attempt to explain Reality TV. It says, “People like this because it appeals to their emotions.” And I suppose that’s as good as any explanation. I mean, it certainly isn’t appealing to their minds. (By the way, the one word that seems out of place here is “finale.” That seems more like something people got excited about in a previous time, before streaming. I mean, I’m supposing there was excitement when the last episode of “The West Wing” aired. But I didn’t start watching it — and watching it and watching it — until years later. Oh, and remind me in a separate post to share my indignation over the series leaving Netflix…)
  • Intrusion into things that are none of our business. I really don’t get dating as a spectator sport, but boy is it popular. I really appreciate the coverage of actual news that Jeff Bezos has invested in at this newspaper, but there’s other stuff on my app that just occupies screen space — such as a weekly feature called “Date Lab.” Really? Why do I want to know how things went on a date some strangers had? How is that any of my business? Why is a staff writer spending time on this? And what’s the appeal to readers? Hey, I’ve been there. I actually did some dating, back in the ’60s and early ’70s, and it wasn’t anything I want to relive, even vicariously. But obviously, plenty of people do. Maybe that’s the appeal: Schadenfreude. It’s other people undergoing the awkward ordeal…
  • Race. Hey, if “racially insensitive” doesn’t pull them in in 2021, nothing will. Once again, I’m being optimistic — way optimistic — but it would be nice if that makes the Future People scratch their heads, wondering what all that race stuff was about. (Yeah, I know how unrealistic that is. I foolishly thought we had that sorted out back in the ’60s, then along came Trump, etc.)
  • Cancel culture. Whatever it was that was said, it caused this guy to “break up” with the person who said it. People who attend events like CPAC love talking about that, so it’s a definite audience draw.
  • Social media. Here I go being outrageously optimistic again, but maybe in the future they’ll look back on social media the way we look upon, I don’t know, telegrams. Or carving messages on stone tablets. Or pole-sitting. Maybe they’ll be over it. I’m hoping people will not only still know how to read, but will be into Long-Form Journalism or Dostoevsky novels or whatever.

Anyway, that’s what I thought when I saw that headline. So congratulations, headline writer. You encapsulated our times as neatly as a Nashville songwriter sums up country music in a song titled, “My Woman Done Left me and Took My Dog, and I’m Drinking My Sorrows Away.” No, wait, I forgot to work my pickup truck into that…

36 thoughts on “Summing up the culture of 2021, in a headline

  1. Bryan Caskey

    “You encapsulated our times as neatly as a Nashville songwriter sums up country music in a song titled, “My Woman Done Left me and Took My Dog, and I’m Drinking My Sorrows Away.” No, wait, I forgot to work my pickup truck into that…”

    This reminds me of the following song lyrics. If you can’t name this song, then you aren’t a legit country music fan…

    “Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song
    And he told me it was the perfect country & western song
    I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was not the perfect country & western song
    Because he hadn’t said anything at all about mama
    Or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting’ drunk…”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It’s familiar, but I can’t name it.

      Of course, I don’t claim to be “a legit country music fan.” Or at least, while I have all proper respect for Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, I am in no way a CURRENT country music fan.

      I can only think of one country music song in the last 30 years or so that I really liked, and even went out and found and downloaded and burned onto a CD to play in my truck: Brand New Girlfriend, by Steve Holy (and I had to look up his name to put it here).

      I liked it because it cracked me up. I remember the first time I heard it, while I was driving to Greenville one day years and years ago. I only heard it because, when I’m in a radio market I don’t know well, I sometimes have trouble finding anything but country.

      It took me by surprise. It started out in a standard country manner, quietly and sadly telling about how the narrator’s girlfriend was leaving him. That tone continues through these lines:

      So, i, i picked up what was left of my pride
      And i put on my walking shoes
      And i got up on that high road
      And i did what any gentleman would do
      I, um…

      And then it bursts into joyful exuberance as the tempo picks up and he sings:

      I got a brand new girlfriend
      We went and jumped off the deep end
      Flew out to LA for the weekend…
      And so forth. But you probably know it.

      I just liked that it was having fun with the genre. Also, in the narrator’s joy, he gets comically inarticulate:

      Playin’ kissy-kissy, smoochy-smoochy
      Talkin’ mooshy-mooshy bout nothin’…

      Anyway, that towers above anything else in the genre in recent decades. I suppose that my far-distant second choice would be the one in which the girl gets even with the guy by keying his truck.

      Let me go look that one up… OK, it’s “Before He Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. I suppose it’s sorta the li’l ol’ gal’s side of the same theme. Only darker. Like, way dark. I mean, she keyed “his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive.” Very sad story.

      Of course, the guy had it coming, right? He was a complete scrub.

      That one was a huge hit, near as I could tell, and I’m sure y’all remember it. More so than the other one, I think…

        1. Norm Ivey

          Late to the party. I can’t make that list for you, but I can give you a list of 10 21st Century Songs worth listening to more than once.

          1. The Nail by Sarah Shook and the Disarmers–this is my current favorite artist, and I could have picked any number of her songs. Solid old school honkytonk music about drinking, good love gone cold, and despair.
          2. Redneck Woman by Gretchen Wilson–what happened to her? She blazed onto the scene and then disappeared. Good track.
          3. It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere by Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet–it’s funny how songs that would have been rock 40 years ago are now solidly in the country camp.
          4. Listening to a Prayin’ Man by Trent Jeffcoat–local from Lexington with just a couple albums to his credit. Terrific baritone voice. I don’t think he gets the attention he deserves, even locally.
          5. Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker–I’m cheating a little on this one, but Darius didn’t record it until 2013, so I say it counts.
          6. I Drive your Truck by Lee Brice–I don’t care for what I call Bro Country–songs about trucks and tractors–but this one is different. Pulls at the heart strings more than a little.
          7. Live This Long by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard–Willie still cranks out an album a year. Unbelievable. This one has humor and heart.
          8. I Remember Everything by John Prine–last song he recorded before he died and painfully fitting. It’s weird how you can miss someone you never met.
          9. Merry Go Round by Kacey Musgraves–this is another artist that I could have chosen any one of several songs. Saw her in concert, and the crowd was not what I expected at all…
          10. Highway Queen by Nikki Lane–another regional artist (Spartanburg) that has captured my attention. The number of regionals on my list is a direct result of streaming. Access matters. This album has an captivating photo on the jacket.
          11. Ain’t Afraid of the Devil by Chris Compton–bonus track by an artist from Columbia. It’s on his 2018 Furtherville album.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Very impressive list. I’ll have to give them a listen.

            And yeah, it’s true to a great extent that “songs that would have been rock 40 years ago are now solidly in the country camp.”

            I don’t know that it’s definitely “rock,” but the styles and tropes of rock ‘n’ roll have been appropriated by “country” musicians.

            If you’re going to give me country, give me Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.

            Of course, these genres are closely related, through rockabilly and in other ways. I don’t know how much of a distinction Sam Phillips saw between Elvis and Johnny… or Jerry Lee or Carl…


  2. bud

    Some reality shows are quite good. The Amazing Race, Naked and Afraid and Tough as Nails are very good. All much more interesting than the wretched West Wing. Sorry Brad but being all judgmental about other people’s taste in television is not constructive.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, people tell me that, and I’m glad they enjoy it.

      But I cannot.

      You know what bugs me the most? All the phony, trumped-up drama, all the breathless, “Will so-and-so advance to the next level?” suspense. As though it truly, profoundly matters.

      If you want to have a game show, go ahead. Play the game. They can be fun, like “Jeopardy” or “Password” — that was pretty good. But don’t act like your life is at stake….

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And, I confess, it always makes me feel bad when I tee off on these shows, and someone tells me he or she likes them.

        I feel like a jerk. Maybe I AM a jerk.

        They’re just a major turnoff to me…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And I AM a jerk, in this respect.

          I think one reason why other people enjoy things like that — and to some extent, like spectator sports — is that they’re capable of feeling joy or sadness at strangers’ triumphs and failures. I think maybe they’re more generous than I am. More empathetic, anyway, and that’s admirable.

          I see contestants getting all emotional about whether the judges rates them highly on some game, and I get to thinking, “Oh, cut me a break…”

        2. Barry

          I actually like The Amazing Race quite a bit because it forces people to work together and I love watching them explore interesting places around the world.

          My 13-year-old daughter loves Survivor and Kids Baking Championship.

          during the pandemic she watched about 15 seasons worth of Survivor. she loves the strategy and she makes fun of some of the things they do

  3. Barry

    From what I’ve read, Fox News has been whining about the decayed culture as expressed by the Grammy show the other night. Ironic coming from the outlet that has popularized news commentary by the short skirt wearing hosts in the middle of the day.

    They were so disgusted by it that they’ve aired clips from the show hundreds of times since it aired. LOL. I just know their predominately white, male, over 65 audience is disgusted by those frequent displays of flesh that Fox is airing over, and over, and over………

    I always get a kick out of Fox News fighting the culture wars. The private lives of many of their on air talent reads like a real life 50 Shades of Grey (Multiple affairs, multiple divorces, mistresses, etc).

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Then again, I’ve never once watched the Grammy’s so I couldn’t tell you much about them other than they’re for music. I’m guessing our man blog music man, Phillip Bush is more Grammy-savvy.

          1. Barry

            That’s the odd thing about it

            I think the most pub the Grammys will get is when Fox News and right wing media cover it ad nauseam as if church groups, the boy scouts, nursing homes and families get together to watch it each year.

            1. bud

              Saving Private Ryan top 5???? Wow! That was nothing but an over produce episode of Vic Morrow’s Combat. Not that it was completely terrible but really it was pretty mediocre. Perhaps the worst movie Tom Hanks has ever been in.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                Yeah… I’m just going to toss that out to the group rather than argue with you.

                It was rather extraordinary, not only in terms of writing and acting, but the amazing direction of battle. I remember reading at the time that it caused combat veterans to have flashbacks — which is not a good thing, but it testifies to the astounding level of realism. If you’re going to watch a movie about war, you should get a clear, unromantic idea about what war is actually like. And this movie did that better than anything that went before it.

                Then, of course, there were the technical touches that subsequent films copied — the discoloration of the picture into greens and blacks, the handheld camera work.

                But I wasn’t going to argue…

                1. bud

                  The hand held camaraderie was a terrible Gimmick. It’s been in a few other films but thankfully hasn’t really caught on. Hanks did his best to make an otherwise forgettable character somewhat ok. The story itself was sappy. Just don’t see it.

                1. bud

                  Tots Tora Tora
                  Jojo Rabbit
                  Apocalypse Now
                  Kelly’s Heroes

                  That’s off the top of my head. Could be 5 different movies tomorrow. So don’t hold me to this.

                  1. Bryan Caskey

                    Gettysburg is good. My favorite character in that is Gen. John Buford, closely followed by Col. Josh Chamberlain.

                    Buford’s Best Part:

                  2. bud

                    Some others
                    Warhorse (I give it higher marks than it probably deserves sincere I’m a sucker for animal movies)
                    Casablanca (perhaps not really a war movie but some war movie elements)

                  3. Brad Warthen Post author

                    Those are all good, each in its own way. I haven’t seen Jojo Rabbit, but everything I read about it sounded good.

                    But you know, we all can find reasons to criticize things that thoughtful people regard as masterpieces.

                    “Apocalypse Now,” for instance. So much of it is great, but it’s uneven — as you might expect from something that was so ambitious, and so fraught with problems in its creation.

                    A lot of the stuff that people love most — Robert Duvall’s cartoonish colonel, for instance — are among the weaknesses. Hey, I love watching Duvall; his performance is brilliant in its wild absurdity (“Charlie don’t surf!“). But it’s in a different tone from the movie as a whole.

                    For me, the film is at its best when it sticks closely to its source material, Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” The lonely quest, deeper and deeper up the river into hostile and uncivilized territory, in search of an enigmatic figure whom the narrating character has been sent to find and deal with. It’s a heavy, introspective story, fraught with all sorts of meaning. I think it was brilliant to use that story as a way of talking about Vietnam.

                    The last half-hour or so is particularly good, as Willard arrives and finds his man. (And not just because of Dennis Hopper’s wonderful demented photographer.) And it’s great because you’re finally getting to the object of the quest.

                    But segments like the Duvall part distract from that. In terms of the plot, it’s a distraction — a long parenthesis in an otherwise coherent statement. When Willard and the sailors on the PBR finally leave the air cav unit behind, the plot finally resumes. Again, we experienced the contemplative dread of the story…

                    Of course, people speak of the unevenness of other masterpieces in various arts — such as the jarring shifts of tone in Huckleberry Finn, from low comedy to deep tragedy. I see those “flaws” — but I still think it’s the best thing in American literature.

                    The shifts in Apocalypse bother me more, though. Particularly coming from the guy who directed “The Godfather,” which is one of the most perfect, unmarred films ever made — a glittering jewel. “Saving Private Ryan” is a close competitor in that regard. Whether you like the story or not, the film is pretty much flawless, as representative work of a talented director at the height of his powers…

                    1. Brad Warthen Post author

                      I say “pretty much flawless” rather than simply “flawless” because you can always find something to complain about.

                      For instance, Capt. Miller’s small group walks closely together as they move through enemy territory, so they can interact with each other in discussing the mission and whether it’s worthwhile. They’re violating two things here: Enlisted men debating with an officer is bad for discipline, and they should be farther apart, in skirmish formation, so that it’s harder for a weapon such as the German machine gun they soon encounter to mow them all down.

                      But they do those things because it’s a MOVIE. They’re not discussing the mission for each other as much as laying out their thoughts for the audience. And the openness is made plausible by the fact that these men have been through a lot together, and the circumstances are now extraordinary: They’re not Miller’s company, with its formal structure. They are a carefully selected group of individuals with an unconventional mission of unusual danger. (And we DO see discipline break down, before and after the machine-gun incident).

                      And you have them walk close together because you can’t get them all in the shot otherwise, and you need them to have that conversation as a way of explicating the purpose of the mission to the audience…

                  4. Barry

                    I really liked Dunkirk.

                    I second Casablanca. It’s my all time favorite movie. My favorite actor in the film is Henreid.


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