Kendrick Lamar Wears the Pants: or, the End of Mass Culture and the Rise of the New Canon

Kendrick Lamar Wears the Pants: or, the End of Mass Culture and the Rise of the New Canon

by Camille Pirtle

In his collection The Nineties, essayist Chuck Klosterman dissected the cultural touchstones of the titular decade, from O.J. to Y2k to Pulp Fiction. It's an enjoyable, intelligent read, and it's also one-of-a-kind, the type of book that can never be written again. In the final piece, "The End of A Decade, The End of Decades," Klosterman argues that the '90s are the last decade that will be thought of as a decade at all, and not just a loose collection of years. I'm inclined to agree with him on this theory; since the turn of the century, our definitions of decades have become much blurrier. When I think about cultural events of 2003, for instance, they don't seem to be situated in a wider '00s landscape (what do we call this decade - the aughts? the early 2000s? The denigration of decade names is a good example of this phenomenon also). Instead, they seem to exist on their own, or in the history of a subculture, or to not be culturally significant at all. Mass communication is dead, and, with it, mass culture.

The descent and eventual destruction of mass culture in some sense was slow, but when it was over, it was over, and there were no questions about it. In 1990, the circulation of daily newspapers reached their peak (around 60 million on weekdays), reaching about a quarter of the population. With the advent of the Internet, this number plummeted, to a third of its former size in 2020. Even considering the rise of online publications, it remains clear that fewer Americans are reading major newspapers.

Meanwhile, the variety of options has increased. In 1990, there were maybe five or six newspapers widely considered credible, from the moderately conservative Wall Street Journal to the moderately liberal New York Times. Now, there are widely popular news websites catering to both the far right and far left, as well as to Gen-X hipsters, millennial fashion influencers, Gen-Z hip hop heads and everyone in between. This is not even including social media; while a publication like the Post or Politico is one controlled, edited stream of news, while Reddit or Instagram is user-driven and thus comprised of thousands of streams, mostly untouched by fact-checking or empirical data. Social media has seen a meteoric rise comparable to traditional newsmedia's abrupt fall, and many Americans now receive a portion, if not all, of their news from unconventional sources. These sources are not only less objective, but more diversified, meaning that each person receives a different combination of news on a different set of subjects.

This phenomenon is not limited to journalism, but also applicable to art. Klosterman often writes in The Nineties and his other work about the long tradition of seminal films that were viewed by a large portion of the nation, then considered and written about by critics (he argues that this existed since the advent of accessible cinema, and ended with Pulp Fiction). This was easier in the '90s, when only a couple hundred films had theatrical releases in a year; now, that number is over two thousand, and encompasses movies on TV and streaming services as well. Our understanding of film has become more rarified, with more options encouraging more diversity. Klosterman was easily able to tap '90s touchstones from Titanic to The Matrix that virtually anyone who lived in the decade would now, whereas now (outside of multimillion dollar franchises - see Avengers of all shapes and forms) there are very few films that apply to everyone. It's not that there is no modern canon, but in fact that there are many; Midsommar and Mother are to horror fans what Booksmart and Bottoms are to proponents of the off-beat comedy, but these subcultures would rarely have intimate knowledge of each other. I challenge anyone to try to find a modern non-franchise movie that more than half of people recognize the title of, much less all.

Mass culture's final frontier has taken an unlikely form: music. Though on surface there is no art form more diverse or divisive, the musical landscape has yielded perhaps more modern classics than any other field. From Kanye to Taylor, Billie Eilish to Bad Bunny, the propulsive, often controversial celebrity of musicians have kept them - and their work - relevant. While film, television and journalism are the products of teams largely absent from the public eye, the creation of music is both individualistic and highly visible; each new album drop gives us the ability to reconsider the artist and their trajectory, their successes and failures, even their value. Though we may deny it, consumers love the spectacle of the music industry, and that pleasure drives their pertinence.

The clearest success of music in recent years is Compton, California's Kendrick Lamar. While his peers either veer too much into the commercial or niche, Lamar has stayed squarely in the center, producing four well-received albums in ten years, two of which (2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and 2015's To Pimp A Butterfly) are often cited near the top of lists of the greatest records of all time. Controversy seems unable to touch Kendrick; his personal life is dull (he's been dating the same woman since they were both teenagers) and he is popular with both the white political left and younger rap fans of all ages. Obama had a well-publicized, hip-with-the-kids passion for him, and Kendrick wrote tracks for the Black Panther soundtrack. He remains a unicorn, a huge celebrity who has almost no critics. In a largely substanceless modern culture, Kendrick Lamar wears the pants. He's cracked the code.

In the lieu of traditional mass culture, consumers have sought alternatives. The rise of fandoms in the early twenty-first century, propelled by the Internet, has further disseminated popular canon. Many fans stick to one genre of film, TV or music, and they are hardly known outside of their group. For instance, anime is a huge business, yet ask any non-believer and they would likely be unable to name a single series. There are millions of Swifties globally, yet the average person could probably only name a handful of tracks. The filtration of culture from its devotees to mass society is a thing of the past.

We live in a decadeless world, a world devoid of mass communication or modern canon of any kind. And yet, we still have culture. It's not shared as it used to be, but it is still consumed, and in fact its division has allowed for more diversity and choice. There will never be another book like The Nineties about our current era. But maybe that's okay.

This article was written in the spring of 2024, in Chicago, Illinois. It is previously unpublished.