The Pop-Culture Lesson of 2020 May Turn Out to Be Empathy

The entertainment industry has begun taking a long overdue look at its many shortcomings

Dixie Chicks, photo by Robin Harper

Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. Today, he tries to make some sense out of the first six tumultuous months of 2020.

Music, Movies & Moods with Matt MelisA pandemic. Social unrest. An economic crisis. Just one of these three issues on the scale they’re occurring at presently in our country would be enough to cast serious doubts about our collective future. It’s difficult to look to tomorrow with confidence, not knowing when it will come or what it might look like. I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks trying to think about albums and songs and mid-year reports. That hasn’t been easy. In a land where tens of thousands of loved ones have been lost to illness, the pain of injustice continues to writhe in the pit of our hearts, and parents are watching stacks of unpaid bills grow even quicker than the children whose well-being they’re charged with, mid-year lists don’t seem all that important. They probably never were.

I still like to think that albums and songs matter, though. I like to believe that people can still turn to music — be it for joy, escape, consolation, solidarity, or understanding in a world where these things may seem entirely absent. While I’m unable to write or perform a song capable of offering any of those gifts, I will say that I’ve never been prouder than in 2020 to be a small part of our industry. I’ve witnessed hundreds of artists and millions of fans donate their time and money to encourage each other and to raise awareness and funds for noble causes, like our own Instagram festival in tribute to the late John Prine. I’ve seen Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama collaborate with their fans on their latest projects, Beyoncé record a commencement speech, Neil Young host regular fireside chats, and revered artists like Run the Jewels and Public Enemy fuel the fires of protest with mobilizing jams just when the powers that be hoped the flames of Justice were beginning to dampen.

I’m barely scratching the surface with these examples.

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While an administration and certain governors and mayors have ignored health guidelines and rushed to reopen an economy in the hopes of saving their own political skins, many of our favorite artists have told us to stay home and come back out to see them in 2021. Small clubs and movie theaters have weathered the economic storm and done their best to survive while their doors and ticket offices have been shuttered. Incidentally, my favorite art house haunt, the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, kept their entire staff on paid leave for more than two months during the initial lockdown. (Some heroes are the ones who sign our paychecks and lose sleep and tears at night at the thought of losing a single employee.) Call it a free-trial campaign if you will, but several streaming services and networks have kept our queues full at no additional cost, knowing that a movie or television show can, if nothing else, take our minds off things for a couple hours when stuck inside.

We’ve also seen a sudden rise in awareness when it comes to racial injustice. The George Floyd murder may well go down as some of the most world-shaking footage ever captured on camera. Unable to ignore the terrifying, broad-daylight lynching of a black man, audibly begging a white police officer for breath, millions have taken to the streets in peaceful protests, and many millions more, including those of us in the entertainment industry, have paused to reflect on our own shortcomings. As monuments celebrating traitorous men who once fought to the death to maintain the right to own and terrorize other human beings have been torn down or removed, we’ve seen another relic of our shameful history — the beloved film Gone with the Windnow tagged with a disclaimer that explains that the value system and heritage depicted in the film are from a time and place not nearly far enough in our rearview mirrors — that the society they represent should be as abhorrent to all Americans as The Third Reich and other base moments in human history.

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Additionally, we’ve seen Tina Fey and Bill Lawrence, the creators behind comedy juggernauts 30 Rock and Scrubs, respectively, ask that streaming services remove episodes of their series that incorporated blackface. While it likely makes you cringe that hit network comedies in the 21st century still employed minstrelsy for laughs, one thing we can appreciate is that only the shittiest people — as is the case with Gone with the Wind — are crying “censorship” or “cancel culture” over these requests. The same goes for the recent news that veteran country acts Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks have chosen to change their groups names to Lady A (with some problems) and just The Chicks, respectively. And that’s what’s different here. Rather than making reasonable changes only after being backed into a corner by social outrage, these companies, creators, and artists have largely made these improvements in the spirit of, well, doing the right thing. It’s as if all of us being locked up, struggling to pay our bills, or forced to see the same videos of racially charged murders has suddenly given us a shared case of empathy.

While living in a democracy can be necessarily uncomfortable at times, 2020 is slowly turning into the year where we are finally agreeing, as a society, that our art and pop culture should not harm others or champion the ugliest parts of our nation’s history. These changes and others — like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reversing his league’s attitude towards players kneeling during the anthem and NASCAR barring the Confederate battle flag from its venues — have been easy so far. And that, again, might be the best takeaway from the first half of 2020. Even a year or two ago, these changes likely wouldn’t have happened due to the outcry of, yes, outright bigots, but also ordinary people who have never taken the time to think what it must be like to live in a society that constantly reminds you that you once were, and in many ways still are, considered and treated as less than.

Yesterday, the Dixie Chicks announced their name change, and Disney released a statement regarding their plans to reimagine their popular, but problematic, Splash Mountain attractions. They’re small steps, but the right ones. The decisions that need made in the future will no doubt get more difficult and meet more resistance; they’ll require more thought, and sometimes we’ll overstep the mark or come up shy. That’s what progress looks like. However, we might finally be in a place where we can listen and weigh in on those issues with the best interests of all Americans at heart.

It’s long and painfully overdue.


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