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Why the 2010s Fired the Gatekeepers of Music, TV, and Movies and Gave You the Job
We stand at the dawn of a new decade, and I can think of no better example of our cultural evolution than this: 2010’s top-grossing comedy was Grown Ups, a film about Adam Sandler taking his boys on vacation and making a movie studio pick up the bill. Nearly ten years later, we were all talking about Todd Phillips’s Joker, a movie about a party clown who kills because he doesn’t get the laughs he feels he deserves. The culture at the end of the teens does not exclusively serve the bros in the same way it did at the beginning, and some of them are taking the news better than others.
When we look back years from now, we’ll see that this cultural decade didn’t start neatly on January 1, 2010, just as the ’90s didn’t really get going until Nevermind hit number one in 1992. We can argue that the teens began in 2013, when Netflix debuted House of Cards and made streaming a prestige proposition. Or it could have been in 2016, the calendar year in which David Bowie, Prince, American democracy, and George Michael all died. The culture evolved because the role of gatekeeper changed hands.
In 2010, we still depended on linear television networks and radio and traditional media to tell us what was worth consuming. But as the decade went on, as the streaming services expanded our options beyond our ability to choose, we became one another’s tastemakers via social media. Your Marvels and DCs and Disneys still had their teams of executives to protect and promote their bajillion-dollar properties, but we found ourselves sharing the smaller stuff. And because Twitter doesn’t reflexively cater to the straight white guy, the entertainment we hyped didn’t, either. Women, queer people, and people of color centered themselves in their own stories, and those stories resonated in new ways. Thus did Two and a Half Men give way to Atlanta and Mad Men to The Handmaid’s Tale. La La Land literally handed over its Best Picture Oscar to Moonlight.
It was the decade of the massive, empty blockbuster and the enduring, significant cult hit. The teens are bookended by the two biggest movies of all time, as 2019’s Avengers: Endgame overtook 2009’s Avatar as the top-grossing film in history. I’ve spent ten minutes trying to think of a second thing about Avatar, and all I’ve come up with is “I think some of them were blue?” Meanwhile, everyone remembers how that one lady mispronounced “Mailchimp” in season 1 of Serial. Game of Thrones’ $15 million finale ended with a whimper, and all we wanted to talk about was the Hot Priest’s goodbye on Fleabag. Taylor Swift released six number-one albums with the precision of military campaigns, but the song of the decade—Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” from 2010—never hit the Hot 100.
If there’s no one trend that defines the decade, it’s because there was simply so much stuff. It’s difficult to imagine today, but there was a time when a person was not oppressed by content. Someone would recommend a new television show to you, and your response would not be a weary, anxious sigh and a promise to put it at the end of an unmanageably long to-watch list.
As our television options grew, so did our TV time allowance. The binge watch is a by-product of the streaming age, but it took root at the beginning of the end of linear television. We’d hear how badly we needed to watch the critically acclaimed but low- rated Friday Night Lights or Breaking Bad, but we never got around to it until Netflix let us watch episode after episode with no DVR programming issues to intrude. Streaming allowed shows to roll out the way they had in the UK for decades—a handful of episodes whenever the creators felt like rolling them out—and the network model of 22 episodes per year immediately felt obsolete. We cut the cord, and now we subscribe to so many streaming services that our old cable bills feel surprisingly affordable.
The stars who blew up in the teens didn’t seem interested in playing it the way their elders did. Jennifer Lawrence made her movie debut in Winter’s Bone, broke out in the dystopian Hunger Games and the Philadelphian Silver Linings Playbook, and made stops in mop drama Joy and psychedelic-but-in-the-bad-way mother! There were two Armie Hammers in The Social Network, and though he gave the action-hero life a try in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., by the end of the decade he’d settled into well-chosen indies Call Me by Your Name and Sorry to Bother You. Jordan Peele got attention on Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, then spent it behind the scenes on the decade’s best horror movies, Get Out and Us. Kendrick Lamar introduced himself with a track about alcoholism and ended the decade with a Pulitzer Prize.
Popular culture is richer and more daring than it’s ever been.
The pop charts, solid and predictable only a few years ago, threw themselves into chaos. Billboard made a change to its singles-chart methodology in 2012 to reflect how young people consume music, so Internet trends begat massive and instantly forgotten hits like “Gangnam Style” and “Harlem Shake.” Lizzo finally got a number-one single with “Truth Hurts,” two full years after it debuted. Whether Lil Nas X will endure is an open question, but “Old Town Road” became the longest-running number-one single of all time, despite the fact that I’ve still never heard it.
The #MeToo movement forced Louis C. K. into the penalty box and Harvey Weinstein, God willing, into prison, and made it undeniable that new perspectives needed places at the table. The voice of the straight white guy who guided our culture a couple years ago is now just one of the voices in the chorus. And so as we end this decade, some of us conflate sharing with being canceled. Some of us complain about woke culture and wail about how we’re not able to say the things we used to be able to. This is, of course, nonsense; popular culture is richer and more daring than it’s ever been, more inclusive and more offensive at the same time. If the role of the gatekeeper began to pass from a guy in a suit to the rest of us in our pajamas, the world is a better, funnier place for it.
If you can’t handle that, all is not lost. Surely Grown Ups is streaming somewhere.
Dave Holmes is Esquire’s L.A.-based editor-at-large.