C ulturally, the breakdown of traditional financing models has been by turns exciting and distressing. The amount of music being created—and heard, albeit by more and more splintered audiences—is breathtaking. And because this music found us via blogs and social networks, rather than through traditional baksheesh-driven major-label marketing schemes, it felt more real, somehow. Indie rock and hip-hop returned to the garage; a lo-fi aesthetic became a symbol of authenticity. Thousands upon thousands of bands were able to reach loyal audiences, and make a middle-class living, by using social media and digital downloads. The freshest sounds belonged to Brooklyn bands like Matt & Kim, MGMT, and the rapper Kid Cudi, whose instantly canonical stoner anthem “Day ‘N’ Nite” sounds like it was produced in a narcotic haze in the then-23-year-old’s Brooklyn apartment. The song banged around the web for more than a year before it finally made it to MTV.
Rap always extolled the hustler life, but it was preppily clad Kanye West who mainstreamed it. His 2004 concept album, The College Dropout, started mad beef with, of all people, university-degree holders, as on “Graduation Day”: “You get the fuck off this campus / Mutha what you gone do now?” It was a touch harsh, but he wasn’t wrong to ask. The label system, meanwhile, launched fewer and fewer true pop stars. For every Lady Gaga there was a Justin Bieber, who essentially self-launched via YouTube and is now getting Debbie Gibson–level adulation at malls around America. Prepacked pop stars like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still big among the tween and teen set, but even they felt like a rearguard action.
Movies had a tougher time adapting, if only because the technology for video wasn’t quite as cheap yet as it is was for music. As a result, it was a relatively barren decade, compared with the indie-film boom of the nineties. The indie movement, lacking inspiration, became increasingly solipsistic, twee, ripe for parody. Studios bet big and won, mostly, on high-concept blockbusters like 2012 and the Spider-Man series, proving that there is still a place for mass culture. It was just not a very interesting place. But green shoots of hyper-low-cost film production, particularly the New York–based “mumblecore” movement (see Joe Swanberg’s talky Hannah Takes the Stairs), revealed the potential for exciting DIY filmmaking—as long as you don’t need to see shit get blown up. By late 2009, the $15,000 Paranormal Activity, which itself evoked the $60,000 Blair Witch Project at the decade’s beginning, broke $100 million in revenue, showing that the decline of fat-cat Hollywood is bad news mostly for … fat-cat Hollywood.
In TV, the decade’s biggest, and perhaps sole, truly mass cultural phenomenon itself drew on an open-source model. The American Idol format, which launched in the U.S. in 2002, brilliantly recast the decade’s governing tensions as pop culture. Simon Cowell played to perfection the Establishment pantomime villain (as the British like to say), brutally asserting his insider’s prerogatives as he put down or elevated his favorites. The savviest contestants, like wacky-haired Sanjaya Malakar, ignored Cowell and played to the crowd, which, of course, had the final word. The crowd, in turn, voted in numbers: 65 million votes for the 2004 finale. In TV, as elsewhere, the middle could not hold. Lowbrow and high(ish)brow thrived. HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire, two of the decade’s best series, wove broad suburban and inner-city tapestries of life in the time of the hustler. Their anti-heroes killed without compunction, even as the camera prompted us not to judge them. It was just bizness. Mad Men’s Don Draper was Gatsby recast as a mid-century adman, working the ultimate hustle: His entire life was a lie. The women of Desperate Housewives waged psychological warfare on their neighbors against a setting of prefab pleasantness. Here, as elsewhere, the veneer of society was a very thin one.
Fashion, like TV, abandoned Establishment notions of taste, almost en masse. Designers had no choice. Consumers were increasingly ignoring traditional arbiters like women’s magazines and the trap of fashion cycles and seasons. Lucky magazine, founded in 2000, got everything right except the platform (it should’ve been a social network), providing options instead of issuing diktats. Forever 21 led the movement toward disposable clothing and made a mockery of spending $2,000 on an Ann Demeulemeester frock. Where money was being spent, it went for nose-thumbing nouveau richery: $3,000 Balenciaga handbags, diamond-studded cell phones, not to mention absurdly excessive bouts of obviously fake plastic surgery (the point was to look like you had very expensive work done, not to hide it). Flush with fast cash earned from real-estate speculation, cell-phone monopolies in sub-Saharan Africa, bank scams in Dubai, and insider deals with Vladimir Putin, new money flouted conventional taste by dressing itself up in Versace, Gucci (which Tom Ford brilliantly took from the boutiques to the streets; he famously touted his men’s cologne as smelling like the sweat off a man’s balls), Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, and reconstituted Pucci. Arrivistes who once used to launder their images through Calvin or Ralph now proudly wore hooker heels as a sign of contempt for the old order. Lower-middle-class kids, copping the “chav” look from the U.K., rocked Burberry plaid or spent hundreds on Ed Hardy, truly the most godawful fashion trend since Zubaz. The point was, you wanted to look like a pimp or a ho. You were a hustler.
I s all this good or bad? Depends where you sit. If you’re reading this magazine, meaning you’re capable of maintaining your concentration for more than 140 characters, it’s probably bad. But the world that took shape during the aughts is potentially a very exciting, democratic one. As recently as 1999, Nicholas Lemann could attack the Scholastic Aptitude Test as a tool used by the meritocracy to secure its status as a new oligarchy. That can no longer be a fear. The Internet has rather definitively leveled the playing field. This does not mean that everyone has an equal chance. But it means that the traditional perquisites of the Establishment to determine who is and isn’t let in no longer hold and aren’t really that interesting to boot. The fear now is that no one is in charge. That we are all adrift in a vast, roiling sea, the contours of which none of us can fully discern. What we do with that fear is up to us alone.