House of Cards' Netflix Bow is Just Another Way for Pop Culture to Pretend it Unnerves Us
It's been nice to watch TV--fresh off House of Cards's Netflix premier--deal with the same questions people have been addressing about music since Napster or iTunes or Spotify, depending on which iteration of the issue you remember best. Specifically: Now that Netflix can create programming based on the programming we already like, are we short-circuiting some crucial part of the artistic process? Are we just being told what we want to hear?
The Creed of TV?
Broadly speaking, I don't think there's a very important difference between Netflix's viewer data telling it what we want to hear and Michael Bay's box-office returns; it's easy to overrate that last bit of precision in any model, the difference between "Netflix users like Kevin Spacey" and "Netflix users like Kevin Spacey types." What's really disheartening about House of Cards is something pop music has dealt with for decades: Not that we're being told what we want to hear, but that it lets us act like we're being told something we don't want to hear.
House of Cards is part of a genre that's rapidly taken over cable TV--the amoral HBO sex-and-power fantasy, featuring a guy with a novel job who is despicable but antiheroic. Done well--like any genre--you get art. (Personally I'm a Mad Men guy; feel free to be a Breaking Bad guy, or a Sopranos guy, or a Big Love guy, or whatever.)
Done badly you get something that's more insidious than self-evident junk like whichever CBS sitcom or police procedural you hate the most. You get junk that pretends it's challenging you. House of Cards--which is fun, obviously, since I finished it already--is filled with the easy pleasures of people who watch self-consciously Mature TV: Oh, they said fuck! Oh, I saw part of her breast! Oh, I like this guy, even though he's a bad guy! As if it's difficult, at this point, to make somebody with a pay-TV subscription feel for a hulking adulterer. It's fried dough, you're just buying it inside a Whole Foods.
Music has been dealing with this from the moment rock synthesized rebellion. Each new movement becomes obsessed with its own authenticity, until authenticity--every theoretically important post-grunge tic or hip-hop shoutout--becomes just as easy and important to fake as rebellion. We beat TV to the grunge wars by 20 years; hopefully they'll find the example Creed set a useful one.
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.