Keeping Up with Pop Culture: Play or Project?

I had three months of time and tons of projects to work on. Learning shorthand, formalizing my personal finance spreadsheets, completing a summer course in philosophy, and catching up on all the new TV shows I’d missed during the year.  I loaded each project into my task manager, and as I organized them I noticed that they divided naturally into a couple categories. The philosophy course, the books to read: new knowledge that I wanted to consume. The shorthand, the formal logic lessons: new skills I wanted to learn.

But Orange is the New Black? Breaking Bad? What was Netflix doing on my to-do list?

It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about how they “need to” catch up on a new show, listen to a new album, or read the latest news articles. We want to keep abreast of popular culture trends and know what’s going on in the world. But when does our desire to stay on top of current trends become an obligation, an actual project to do? Mike Rugnetta, host of the PBS Idea Channel, made a video on this topic in 2015. He begins it by asking, “What if all work and no play is exactly what happens because everything that you think is play is also work?”

In the video, Rugnetta explains the theories of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who argue that producers of media (TV executives, video game developers, etc.) hand down culture to the masses (us), and that we’re expected to have at least some familiarity with most of the content produced for us. So even though video games, movies, and TV shows are made for us as entertainment, they begin to take on some of the same cultural obligations as work. Think about it this way: you may not be obligated to watch every minute of the Star Wars movies, but if you have no idea who Darth Vader is, people will give you some weird looks. The horrified looks people give you when you haven’t watched is a bit soul damaging as well.

When does our desire to stay on top of current trends become an obligation?

This is how I ended up with a dozen TV shows on my summer project to-do list. Seriously, I sat down at the beginning of the summer to plan out how many episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race I had to watch every day in order to make quota. To a certain extent, this is a Heidi Problem. I’m generally not happy unless I have a project to work on, and I’ll happily import goof-off activities into my to-do list if it means I get to check more boxes complete. But even if you don’t formalize it the way I do, how many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of “Ugh, I need to catch up on that” or “I should really watch the new season so I can talk about it with everyone.”

There’s something to be said for keeping up with pop culture, but only as much as you really want to. I didn’t finish Breaking Bad until this summer, three years after it finished. While I loved the show, watching it so late meant I missed out on the hubbub of everyone else finishing it together. And for me at least, getting some familiarity with the theory behind why I felt obligated to plow through TV shows (that I didn’t even like that much), helped me to let go of what was really a pretty silly item on my to-do list. Entertainment should be a time for us to relax and unwind, not a project to finish. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take recommendations from others, or check out the hot new show that keeps coming up on Netflix. Just make sure your recreation doesn’t become its own job.