Coronavirus is imposing severe restrictions on our physical movements but it is also occasioning an unlikely freeing up of creativity. Spotify bursts with original tracks, humorous and shoe-gazing alike, in a genre the LA Times’s Jody Rosen has called ‘pandemic pop’. Viral verse is doing a rare trade too, as the scribblings of amateur and aspiring poets make the news.
Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot threw together an impromptu celebrity cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ has been reworked in honour of Captain Tom Moore, the 99-year-old British Army veteran who has raised £29m and counting for the NHS with a charity walkathon.
The slickest and most innovative branding specialists are pumping out stream-of-consciousnesspabulum (‘let’s hear it for the blahs, the yaddas, the something-quirky-goes-here’) of the sort that groans across Facebook with every click of the share button. Professional creatives who privately disdain the boomer worldview of their customers are scrambling to capture those very instincts in expensively produced approximations of user-generated content — cosy bromides, vertical cameraphone shots, the lot.
These are the early markers of quarantine culture and they are a mess but a refreshingly democratic mess. BuzzFeed’s Tomi Obaro dismisses the ‘Imagine’ rendition as ‘the cover of choice for mediocre YouTube artists everywhere’ but that is what quarantine culture seems to be: a levelling moment in which the sensibilities of popular elites and the masses are brought together. Obaro may bemoan the video by Gadot and ‘an assortment of other allegedly famous white women’ but its mawkish tones appeal to the people: almost ten million Instagram users have watched the montage.
Quarantine culture represents a singular rift in the means of cultural production. For however long this moment lasts, the creative gatekeepers aren’t in control. They’re at home hitting refresh on ocado.com. Actors and singers, unmediated by the values and preferences of their producers and editors, are appealing directly to the tastes of consumers. On the other end of the creative machinery, with professional creators locked out of studios and offices, the content vacuum is being filled by amateurs with populist impulses.
It doesn’t matter if BuzzFeed thinks covering ‘Imagine’ is cringe. The Evian-carrier paid to tell you that is on the other side of town with an ever-growing to-Zoom list. Equally, it doesn’t matter whether the love letter to the NHS you tapped out on your phone while the kids played merry hell at your feet is McGonagall-worthy doggerel. The TV researcher who thinks so will have to put it on the news all the same when it goes viral. The physical dispersal of gatekeepers and the democratic power of social means established media are mediating less and relaying more.
Coronavirus has, quite by coincidence, given new life to the middlebrow sensibility. The American critic Terry Teachout once lamented the passing of the Age of Middlebrow, the post-war period when there existed ‘a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values’. Teachout cited the Ed Sullivan Show, with its salmagundi of high and low culture, as the epitome of middlebrow. Digital fragmented the audience into ever-narrower slivers of niche interest. ‘The information age offers something for anybody,’ Teachout rued. ‘Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody.’
Quarantine culture is a sort of reverse-engineered middlebrow, that lists back towards half-remembered commonalities like solidarity, neighbourliness and heroism and brings them to bear on our current crisis. From the fractures of contemporary culture, we are uniting ourselves around new-old norms and sentiments. The results are not intellectually middlebrow but attitudinally so. Where the old middlebrow aimed to improve our education, quarantine culture years to repair our souls, healing the fissures of a what we have abruptly realised is a shattered society. What quarantine culture most intimately shares with middlebrow is a cultivation of the collective. It longs for sodality, a new place for the individual in a revived community.
Quarantine culture may dissipate when we are set free from lockdown: the collective forgotten, the gatekeepers’ tastes deciding our palates once more. Or its impact could endure, making our culture less mediated and more egalitarian, closing the gap between creatives and the mainstream. We could produce more of our own entertainment and expect professional productions to more closely mirror our values and partialities. Culture could be wrested from the hands of those who shape it and moulded instead by us.