The End of Culture

Spotify, Ships and Star Wars...

It’s easy to believe that we might be living at the end of culture.

I was struck by the sensation recently when I saw an advertisement for a new Willy Wonka 'prequel' film, a rebooted series of Frasier that seems to feature Rodney from Only Fools and Horses (or "Nicholas Lyndhurst," as he’s known to friends), and I heard that Taylor Swift had released her Grammy-winning 2014 album ‘1989’ again, only for it to become one of the biggest sellers of 2023.

I’d only just gotten over Disney making three new Star Wars films that were essentially the old Star Wars films with some of the old actors playing their old characters and some new actors also playing the old actors’ old characters, just with slightly different names, genders, and ethnicities.

Speaking of Disney: every week it seems there is a live-action version of one of the animated films I loved as an infant, kicking up some sort of media scandal over casting and representation, when the question I’m far more interested in asking is, ‘Why can’t you leave my childhood alone and come up with something new?’

I was gigging recently; I’d stumbled unwittingly into what I expected to be the usual near-empty restaurant I’ve come to cherish on a Thursday evening when I can’t really be bothered leaving the house.

To my horror, I found that the owner had rented the entire venue out to the pupils of a local sixth form college for their Halloween social.

Halloween in Great Britain feels like a nice metaphor for what now seems to be happening in culture at large: it’s a shiny American reboot of a pagan English festival that I don’t remember any of us asking for.

And, on this particular Thursday night, it meant that Dracula, the Little Mermaid, Lara Croft, and all manner of questionably attired nurse, police officer, and MI6 agent had converged at my feet, expecting me to entertain them.

It was like a post-modern swarm of pop-culture references had arrived to drink the bar dry of flavored gin, eye-up each other, and then vomit unceremoniously outside in the smoking area.

What I was struck by, beyond the costumes, was the songs these 17-year-olds requested.


Elton John.


Almost nothing that had been released in the last ten years.

Which was music to my ears (and, shortly, theirs) because I was eerily familiar with everything they asked for.

I couldn’t help but think, though, that sixth-formers in 1975 probably wouldn’t have been asking for the biggest hits of the 1940s at one of their socials.

I’ve got a couple of pet theories that I think help explain the phenomenon, in terms of music anyway.

The first is that the internet has siloed us so far into our own musical niches that we now have very little in common.

There are 60,000 new tracks uploaded to Spotify every day (approximately a new song every 1.4 seconds).

This means that there is so much music available at the touch of a button - so many artists, genres, sub-genres, playlists, lo-fi cover versions, samba remixes - that music lovers quickly find themselves in a self-curated corner of the sonic landscape.

Not only that, but they are kept there and constantly reinforced by an algorithm that gives them more of what they like.

Gone are the days when you could only listen to what was on the radio, or sold in HMV (even typing the letters HMV fills me with a painful nostalgia).

Though our musical diet was far more gate-kept and limited pre-streaming, it did mean that the same songs could touch all of our lives at the same time.

Now, given the relative deaths of radio, and the charts in general, we aren’t sharing the same music.

As such, it’s no wonder that when a large group of us get together in one place, the only songs we know will push everyone’s buttons at the same time are those huge, monolithic musical touchstones from the age before the internet really took over.

They’re the only songs that generations still have in common, barring a few major, major hits every now and again from the likes of Sheeran, Cyrus, Swift, and Adele.

The other thing I try to do when feeling depressed about today's reboot, sequel-prequel culture is to bear in mind the Ship of Theseus.

The Ship of Theseus is a famous philosophical thought experiment that raises questions about identity and change. Imagine you have a ship called the Ship of Theseus.

Over time, as parts of the ship become old and worn out, you replace them with new, identical parts. Eventually, every single part of the ship has been replaced.

It raises a few important questions: is the ship you have now still the Ship of Theseus, given that none of the original ship still remains?

If so, why?

And, if not, at what point in the gradual process of replacing its parts one by one did it become a different ship?

What it reminds me is that it’s almost impossible to appreciate cultural shifts and changes when you’re living through them in real-time.

Though it feels like nothing seems to be changing, that we’re constantly surrounded by reworkings and reimagining of the past, we mustn’t forget what Heraclitus pointed out in the 6th Century BC: that the only constant in life is change.

I think there’s probably a fair chance that, in a few decades, we’ll look back on the 2020s and we’ll see it in sharper focus.

And perhaps these changes are just happening in places that I haven’t thought to look.

In the age of new media, independent music, YouTube, Twitch, and the world of the Podcast, perhaps cultural change happens slowly and quietly in dark corners where nobody seems to be looking, until, suddenly, the whole world is.

Perhaps in 40 years I’ll understand what the 2020s were all about the same way when, if I think about the 1970s, I immediately conjure images of glam rockers, punks, and Pink Floyd.

Or maybe once you reach a certain age you just can’t keep up with it anymore.

Maybe, for my parents, nothing has changed since the 90s the same way it sometimes feels to me like culture ended in about 2010.

Maybe I just have to accept that the groaning, mossy planks of wood in my conceptual boathouse will always, to me, be the same Ship of Theseus, no matter how often the parts are chopped, changed, and rearranged.

Who knows.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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