It's Time To Get Offline 1: Documentaries
Another scream into the void
People love documentaries about our recent past culture. So much so that it’s become a very bankable asset to streaming services that need to fill their libraries. The Last Dance was bought by Netflix for an insane amount, Netflix also paid gaggles for the Kanye West doc Jeen-yuhs, HBO teamed with Bill Simmons to do a bunch of music films featuring Alanis Morrisette, Woodstock 99, and Robert Stigler, the manager behind the BeeGees and Saturday Night Fever. There’s also a Tony Hawk documentary that premiered this week. Apple TV+ produced the great Velvet Underground doc last year and is preparing for a multi-part Magic Johnson docuseries. There’s been Biggie docs, Wu-Tang Clan docs, Stretch & Bobbito, Video Music Box, Rick James. We are in the great arms race of pop documentary films about the recent past.
Is this new? Not exactly, but the amount of them being made (and the amount being paid for them) is very much new. It’s absolutely a by-product of all these disparate streaming services that need a fuller library but there is something to the docs that are going unsaid but is being implied throughout. The best example of what I mean is in Amazon’s new Phat Tuesdays docuseries. For the uninitiated, Phat Tuesdays refers to a black comedy night started by comedian Guy Torrey, that would put on the hottest black comics of the 90s while they were still up and coming—guys like Chris Tucker, Bill Bellamy, Luenelle, Nick Cannon, etc. It coincided with Def Comedy Jam and the revolution of “hood comedy” into the mainstream, a tru cultural shift as the kids like to say. And throughout the show, the talking heads who were there and part of it say the things that talking heads in documentaries say:
“There was just nothing like [blank] and there never will be again”
“This was before cell phones and Twitter, so it spread through word of mouth”
“I don’t know if something like [blank] could even happen today”
“The first time I saw [super famous fuck] I knew [they] were gonna be big, the audience just went crazy for [them]”
But the underlying “theme” is that, if you weren’t there, you missed out and you’ll never have anything like it again.
A question that’s long been on the minds of writers, thinkers, and artists alike today, is whether or not we can ever have a new cultural happening. Have we officially tapped out on the bounds of human creativity and everything from here on out will be a retread. This is a big thing with the writings of Mark Fisher, who has posited that music stopped inventing by the end of the 90s and instead just reinvented what came before. Hip-Hop was invented by black youth in the Bronx in the 70s and 50 years later there doesn’t seem to be anything close to a completely “new” genre. I like glitchcore and hyperpop, but again that’s an obvious variation of what came before. The theme in every pop culture documentary or oral history comes down to the same idea: every important cultural event started as a local scene by an artistic community. Phat Tuesdays isn’t a particularly exciting documentary but it’s most notable at a snapshot of this community of black LA transplants who couldn’t get a foothold in a white industry so they were able to make something for themselves that thrived. This is where the problem of today truly comes in. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the internet or social media, it’s a great place to build community all over the world. But with that ease of use and automatic connection, it has highlighted are worst instincts, which are laziness, cynicism, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and a host of others.
Can you really build a scene through the internet? Technically yes, and plenty would argue that social media itself was the next great cultural movement. People much younger than me are certainly as invested in a YouTuber or an Instagram star the way I was with Roc-a-fella records or Lupe Fiasco or something. Maybe that is good enough, but I do believe there is something to building things with other people in person, and the ways in which a bustling real-life scene is not only about the art being made but the people who support it, the fashion birthed out of it, the tangential art around it, the language and slang, everything. What bothers me most is how many are content with living in the past, sitting idly as the industry is remaking the music, remaking the movies, the TV; reliving a past you were never part of rather than doing something about the future in front of you. It’s like this societal numbing that’s happening where creating an online persona built around how rappers dressed, acted, and talked in the early 90s is a good enough makeup for the way our actual lives are circling the drain; where documentaries act as the chewed up morsels being dumped in our mouths by our mama birds in charge.
But this isn’t just about the documentaries, there’s so many more examples of the past being sold back to us as though recreating it makes up for not being able to do your own thing. Being online all day saps you of energy and it distracts from a real life, and there are times when that seems better, especially with how the cost of everything has gone up and wages stayed the same. You can’ create in a hopeless world, it’s true. But this can’t be the alternative can it?
I doubt any young people are reading substacks from writers in their 30s but to any that might, I believe in you and your little crew of dumb creative friends to build a new scene. It’s thankless work but if it succeeds you’ll all be legends, and then some day a bunch of people will try and live vicariously through your lives.
If you want to send any questions, concerns, hate, or advice, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading, show your appreciation by donating to the college fund here.