There were no shortage of memorable media moments in 2006 with movements in technology, entertainment and culture breaking new ground and rediscovering some old tendencies. We break down some of the highlights and take a look at the year that was through the lens of six pop-culture trends:
Right-Wing, Politicized Christianity in the Media
Not that this is a new trend, but it seemed in 2006 that more media vitriol was lobbed on the “Christian right” than usual. There were at least three notable documentaries released in 2006 that exposed the dangers in fanatical Christianity: Deliver us From Evil (about Catholic priest sex scandals), Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple (about crazy Jim Jones) and Jesus Camp. Then on television we saw “Christian” issues on full display in an angsty, liberal sort of way on Studio 60 and the Sunset Strip. But the worst media attention Christians received in ‘06 was not anything scripted or slyly edited together. No, we can all collectively cringe about the Ted Haggard fiasco—a man who seemingly had evangelicals on the right track, and who was recognized as such by Time magazine just a year earlier. But the media loved spinning this story, as with the Foley scandal, as yet another Christian/Republican leading an illicit double life. Far from feeling embattled or defensive from all this attention, Christians should take it as important lessons about how political power and Christianity do not mix.
The Year of YouTube
This time last year, YouTube was hardly a speck on the cultural radar. Today, YouTube is the culture’s most significant forum for indulgent self-promotion, populist media distribution and general buzz-creating. Aside from being a wonderful resource for seeing trailers, concert videos or the latest scandalous Rosie clip from The View, YouTube is also a place where everyday Joes can publish and promote their videos, free of charge (for now). What MySpace is doing for aspiring musicians, YouTube will likely do for aspiring filmmakers/actors/performers. That is, it will offer a “way in” via that most elusive aspect of the entertainment industry: exposure. YouTube is but another step in the rapid democratization of media—transferring it from the clutches of conglomerates to the paws of the people. Of course, the insane speed with which YouTube was coopted by Google demonstrates that the powers that be recognize the financial worth ($2 billion, in this case) in offering media platforms to wider audiences, even if the ultimate effect of things like this could very well undermine the top-down corporate structure.
The Citizen Journalist
One of YouTube’s most interesting uses in 2006 was as a pipeline of sorts for the wide dissemination of candid videos of scandalous things, captured on someone’s cell phone camera or PDA. Indeed, with incidents like the Michael Richards racist meltdown at the Laugh Factory, or the UCLA taser fiasco, or Britney Spears doing any number of things, the gossipy flammability of the online viral video community became apparent. The ubiquitous technology of mobile recording devices like cell phones, combined with the e-distribution opportunities of things like YouTube, have created in 2006 a perfect storm of sensationalized media. Essentially, everyone is now a member of the paparazzi, or at least the news media (Mel: you better watch what you say). There is nothing “newsworthy” that can be missed anymore, because everyone is armed with tools to record and propagate anything the least bit interesting.
In 2007, film and television started to get in on the “i” revolution. With the iPod movie technology, it became possible—and fashionable—to download movies and television shows ala carte, just as with music. And with the forthcoming iTV device, we will basically be able to view anything we download on regular television sets. Add to this the ever-more common Tivo-type technologies (which decontextualizes TV from network, night, sponsor, etc), and a veritable revolution in tele-media is underway. All of this is designed to let YOU pick where, what and how you view any given piece of television or film. The problem is that it also does away with things like commercials—the fuel of the television machine. And thus, if these “convergence” technologies foreshadow anything, it is the ultimate convergence of television and film. Think about it: if television shows become just a “one-time” commodity you can download and consume at your plasma-screen leisure, without ever having to “tune-in” at a set time of the week, how is it different than downloading a movie for your viewing-at-home pleasure? If the You-centric remote control technology two decades ago foretold a multiplicity of viewing options (the 200 channel “second golden age”), so these latest technologies could very well foreshadow the end of television as we know it.
Satire: Not the Refuge of Losers
It wasn’t long before Stephen Colbert became an ironic YouTube star himself. With his neatly pressed suits, thinned rimmed glasses, clean cut hair and ice cold stare, Stephen Colbert is the perfect fit on any cable news network. He’s got the look, the attitude and the swagger of a beltway insider but Colbert is no pundit—Stephen Colbert, at least the one that stars in The Colbert Report, is just a character and appears, not MSNBC, but Comedy Central. The real Stephen Colbert is actually a comedian who made his big break on the self-proclaimed “fake news” program The Daily Show, getting his own spin-off that out Factors even Fox’s most conservative segments. The show is a series of mock-commentary, guest interviews and pop-culture lampooning strung together with sharp graphics and bald eagle screeches. But at the heart of Colbert’s schict is sharp satire that pokes fun at everything from the vulnerability of “wiki”-truth and the politicizing of religion to the polarizing effects of pundits’ bite and America’s fascination with trivial celebrity gossip. Online newspaper The Onion, SNL’s Weekend Update and late-night monologues have long played upon the absurdity of pop culture trends and political goofs, but in 2006 Colbert made it cool—and entertaining—again. Just as cable news brought tensions between left wing liberals and religious conservatives to a boiling point, pitting the country in a red vs. blue battle (pretty much on every topic), Colbert came along showed us all how silly it was.
Dysfunctional Family Values
The dynamics of family have long-been a theme in mainstream entertainment—from primetime sitcom wackiness to serial daytime dramas and box office plotlines. Sure, 2006 was the year that Fox canned the brilliant Arrested Development, but it was only after a massive online petition campaign from a loyal cult following of fans that fell in love the Bluth’s, a ridiculous family whose absurd quarks made them each so endearing. A.D. was over-the-top and peppered with pop-culture satire, but at its core, the show was about how—even in the most comically tragic situations—nothing is more important than sticking together. It was with same appreciation for dysfunctional-yet-loving family qualities that audiences turned out for Little Miss Sunshine. The filmmakers themselves said that it wasn’t movie about “family values;” it was a movie about “the value of family.” And maybe that’s why the story of a family on the brink of breakdown (figuratively and literally) connected with a crowd that had grown jaded with family-themed entertainment. It was real; it was funny, and, in the end, it showed that just because we all have problems, the reason why we have family is to help us get through them.