Democratizing Culture Was a Mistake

On Taylor Lorenz's "Young Creators Are Burning Out and Breaking Down"

So I read Taylor Lorenz’s piece about teen creators yesterday. (Yes, I know I am behind the media cycle!) They're burnt out, they're anxious, they feel like their mental health is in decline. These are the symptoms of teens participating in the high stakes world of internet culture. This is what it’s like to be a teen operating in a democratized culture.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with my friend Charlie. We were talking about the unionization efforts Condé Nast—my instinct, and I'm sorry, I'm a pessimist—is that it won't work out. People outside the culture industries are easy to work up into a lather about the abysmal pay. “People go to Yale? And this is their starting salary??!” It makes no sense to people other than as some weird ritual abuse, a hazing if you will.

The thing is: this dynamic holds across all culture industries—not just those struggling financially due to the unholy duopoly that now controls media buys and advertising spend (Google + Facebook). We have to ask, “Why?” Artists and writers and curators and editors and journalists and fashion designers and models all see the same extreme inequality in pay. Some people take home eye-watering incomes, others crumbs.

Competition is fierce and grueling and long. The reality is: for every person who can't handle keeping up appearances in Manhattan on $25,000 a year, there is someone else who will. Each June a new crop of Ivy League graduates are chomping. A hoard of precocious creatives from Providence and New Haven and Cambridge descends on New York.

Clearly many have family money or spousal support or some other supplemental income that makes the poverty wages workable. This isn't so much a bug, as a feature. It is what social scientist Peter Turchin calls elite overproduction. There are only so many slots for “famous artist” or “famous actress” in the world. (And this panic is by no means only in aspirational culture industries—Ross Douthat had a good summary of the broader phenomena and how it affects college students last summer.)

Many would give anything for that social position. In cases such as Armie Hammer’s—they will even try to buy it… The problem is you can’t really buy fame and adoration anymore. It certainly helps, gives you a longer runway. But it’s by no means definitive. In the past when the culture industries were *gasp* gatekept, your dad might be able to bribe Harvey Weinstein or Rick Rubin or Anna Wintour to let you into their elite club. Today, everyone is competing for the attention of the demos. It’s a tired refrain: but with social media, everyone has roughly the same tools.

Even worse: everyone has the same status-seeking, hierarchically attuned monkey brain. I know some people will argue this is all due to capitalism. And that’s somewhat true. But the arts were simply gatekept by a different cast of characters in the Soviet Union. I don’t think socialism will solve this one. Maybe engineering a new humanoid species whose baseline instincts didn’t evolve from the other great apes?

I read somewhere that if your job is more appealing because of the perks than because of the salary, you're probably participating in elite overproduction. There are simply more willing martyrs than there are seats at the table (and in all likelihood, money to go around.) I’m not going to argue the perks aren’t good. The perks are good! Don't get me wrong! During the K-HOLE era, I was more than happy to take a modest fee in exchange for international travel and exclusive parties. The free dinners and booze didn’t hurt either.

But the biggest perks were, of course, the prestige and the access. You were written about in hallowed national publications. You socialized with the rich and famous. Most of all, you had peers who you respected and who respected you in kind. In a world where most people feel constrained, compromised, bored—you and your friends had a sense of purpose. For a brief moment, you felt like you had agency, that you were moving culture. For a brief moment, you felt like you owned time itself.

These are all half truths. Of course. But they help people with modest success rationalize why they’re still playing the game.

The current cultural marketplace, whether in high art or pop music, is the most brutal winner-take-all meritocracy ever experienced by man. To win the art market, you must court the favor of billionaires. To win pop stardom, you must court the favor of billions. For the teens of TikTok, this must feel like all the more daunting.

Is there even a model of sustained internet celebrity? There's no Vasari's The Lives of the Artists. There's no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The trends and interests of the masses are more fickle. They move faster. The experience of criticism is more immediate and cruel. The relationship with an audience is more visceral, unending, parasocial.

The best example I can think of for lasting internet fame may be the Kardashian-Jenner clan… Somehow they're still around after all these years. They navigated the rapids of reality television, influencer status, and traditional celebrity; cruising clean past the calamities of others. How? I can only presume it's due to their shrewd momager Kris Jenner, who has a preternatural sense of just how low, our money-grubbing culture will go—and these days, it's pretty low…

I’ve met reality TV producers in LA. They exist in the same eat or be eaten ecosystem I described above. They may be able to talk a Scotsman out of a penny—but not Kris Jenner. She started a tax shelter church in Calabasas. She began a website that sells the family’s gifted luxury goods. (Why give Depop the transaction fee?) Check out Kardashian Kloset: along with Kendall Jenner’s old Dickies, you can also purchase random merch some poor intern must’ve dug out of a storage closet. A hand fan in the shape of Kourtney Kardashian’s head? It's yours for $20 plus shipping and handling.

As I mentioned in a previous post: to keep the show going, the ladies have had to become chic NEETs, hidden from the public, except when living their Extremely Online lives. To play the long game of internet fame, you must renounce the earthly pleasures of spontaneity and synchronicity. You must embrace the reality that your daily existence is a media object for others to consume.

One teen from the article is quoted as saying,“I do worry about my longevity on social media.” The harsh truth is: probably not.

Few have the single-minded monastic discipline to keep the show going more than a few years. A friend once told me her grandmother used to say,”[REDACTED], never do anything wrong!” We would laugh at the absurdity of the advice. But in this instance, that would be my advice to the TikTok teens as well.

The problem is we're only human. And yet, in the paradigm of internet fame, you're more than human. You’re media, too. As soon as you fuck up, there is a new crop of fresh-faced teens, ready to take your place. Certain that they will be the ones to make it. Certain they will be the ones to master the contradiction.