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Reference Over Reverence
Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is one of the worst books ever written. In short, the plot revolves around a group of kids trying to solve an elaborate riddle within an immersive online game to win controlling ownership of said game. It’s also a continual barrage of references to 70’s and 80’s culture, with the protagonist obsessively learning about all of the stupid cultural references that the game’s creator made. It’s a nonsensical book turned into an even more nonsensical movie, a slog of constant reminders that things existed without any actual evaluation of the contents.
Grotesquely, Cline decided to write a second book, which I have not and will not read, beyond snippets from Twitter.
The thing that grates about Ready Player One (and Two) is that both books pretend to be celebrations of culture, but are simply egregious examples of how a lot of people experience culture. Had Cline written them with self awareness of how empty it is simply cramming 48 references into every page, and that we have culturally grown more attached to being catered to than we are enjoying the contents of things, he could have become one of the more disruptive authors of the last 10 or 15 years.
RP1/RP2 are simply magnifications of a larger problem I see in how people enjoy and consume media. Referential comedy has been a “thing” that I was aware of since South Park and Family Guy - the idea that you could do jokes that were simply “hey, remember this? We do too,” and it sort of worked because I was 13 years old. The Big Bang Theory, a genuinely unwatchable comedy, amplified this to a level of cruelty that’s almost impressive - a show written to refer to things that “nerd culture” written specifically to be laughed at by the people who hate nerds, with a thin enough line of references to stuff like The Flash or whatever to keep people thinking it was quasi-legitimate.
Obviously this stuff predates everything I’ve mentioned - there have always been weird cult and clan politics situations between fans of Marvel and DC, but what’s changed is that people have increasingly become lists of the things they believe in with the hopes that these can create a large enough gestalt to make a good or attractive enough person.
I’ll put it simply: it doesn’t feel like anyone loves or hates anything anymore. People like it when they see something they recognize because they like it, and that’s good, because they “get” what they’re watching, regardless of whatever the actual thing is. Saturday Night Live’s arduous The Fly Was Joe Biden joke landed with people because there was a fly on Mike Pence during the debate, and I guess the fly was Joe Biden, all things that people recognize and thus can clap at, because they “get it.” Movies like Inception and shows like Lost have been created to have intentionally vague endings so that people can have endless, pointless debates, because people don’t want to watch and enjoy stuff, they want to be the smart person that watches the right things and understands them.
Game of Thrones was 390 seasons long and each episode was 49 hours, but people loved it because they could say they watched Game of Thrones and could discuss what might happen in an act of fiction that someone plausibly wrote the ending of. Plot points were entirely based around who they decided to kill next, and guessing who would die next was apparently part of the fun - not enjoying the actual show or the content of the show, but the idea that you watch the show and could then say to someone else “I too have watched the show,” perhaps listening to a podcast about the show where people talk about the show that they watched.
The core of so much of this entertainment is empty, because everything is understood through the lens of something else they remember, or something we can talk about the contents of. Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been anywhere near as popular if people couldn’t sit and overanalyze it - an intentionally obtuse and overwrought piece of media built to be put into a Wiki. The Avengers movies loved to hint at various things from the comics so that people would have endless (and oftentimes incorrect) conversations about what might happen, a thing that’s happened in comics but never quite at the scale the movies did. The new Star Wars movies created a human centipede of competing theories about what might happen, then proceeded to deliver one of the most incongruous and empty endings ever, which people loved because all of the people that they remember from the movies turned up. They were a trilogy, despite one very rarely informing the other, and liking The Last Jedi somehow became a referendum on whether or not you were sexist.
This is why “twists” are so popular - instead of telling a story, you put in another surprise so that the audience can say “oh, I didn’t see that one coming!” without thinking about whether it made a lick of fucking sense. Twists and whimpy signifiers that “get people talking” are just as bad - if not worse - than any Ready Player One reference because they exist to fill in the gaps where actual content will be. So many shows have become half-assed mysteries where the viewer is the detective, hoping that they can catch the plot in the act before the creator does, because telling a story is difficult.
This is why everyone wants to build an IP - they’re popular because people love recognizing objects and saying “I recognize that, I wonder what object I recognize will do next,” because it makes them feel smart, that they’re in the know, that they “get it.” It makes them feel smart and knowledgable. This replaces the need to tell a complete story - it’s “world building” and thus people are forgiving in the hopes that it can be explained later.
This has left us at a point that it is genuinely new and interesting when something is just fun. Spiderman: Into The Spider-verse should have been by definition awful, a collection of spiderpeople in one movie about spidermen, but was good because it was mostly about becoming a hero. You could reasonably watch it and not know what Spiderman was. And if you think I’m gonna correct this to spider-man, you are very much mistaken.
Felix Biederman put it well - that “…we [are] not just fans of things anymore, we declare our media consumption habits to declare the types of people we are…now. if someone doesn’t like something we like, they hate us, our way of life, and our identities.” By attaching so much meaning to what we watch, and how we enjoy it, and to whom we share our enjoyment (or distaste) to, we’ve entered a painful loop of being served media that makes us do the work for the creator.