House of Cards' Netflix Bow is Just Another Way for Pop Culture to Pretend it Unnerves Us
In TV the appetite for authenticity--on TV that means breasts, mostly, and fucks, and a coat of Philosophy 101 nihilism over the ostensibly secret desire to see a cool evil guy have rough sex with empowered women (life isn't black or white, MAN)--hasn't yet crested. So everybody's trying to make a Mad Men by clothing bankrupt ideas in expensive suits and wish-fulfillment antiheroes, instead of aping the unsuccessful, idiosyncratic groping toward decency that makes Mad Men so compelling.
In music--well, it's been everything since trying to make a competitor to the Beatles with haircuts and drug references. But the grunge and indie scenes are the closest analogue. Major labels saw that we liked bands that understood very particular kinds of alienation, so they sold us alienation until that became comfortable. Is Nickelback or Hinder singing about getting drunk because nobody cares threatening, a sign of some group modern society doesn't reach, or is it just a sign that people like to fancy themselves unreachable when they get drunk?
In music, thankfully, I think it's finally proved to be more trouble than it's worth. Indie rock is just about the only kind of rock that's left, and the line to blame fun. for selling out and not being The Format is still pretty short. People seem increasingly willing to take good music where they can find it. Of course, that might have something to do with the clout the erstwhile indies now wield; the big stars we've avoided excommunicating wouldn't have been considered stars at all in 1992.
However it happened, it's been great to watch music and music criticism escape the early-aughts Pitchfork narrative--if you like this band they've already released their best, most real music--and reach for something more expansive and less dour. Here's hoping my TV-columnist counterparts will get the same reprieve, eventually.
What's really bad about House of Cards isn't that it invented itself for us. It isn't that we're being observed so closely that producers of culture--Netflix or the major record labels--know exactly how to please us, even though they do observe us incredibly closely. It's that it lets us off the hook--bad "authentic" culture, from Vanilla Ice on down, lets us play coy by pretending that it unnerves us. Authentic culture usually does.