Critics lamented The Hunger Games: “Children murder one another in a multitude of gruesome and memorable ways,” the LA Times reported in March. I understand that teenage boys need their violence fix, yet the widespread appeal of such a gory film irked me. Comparing The Hunger Game's story of a fictional, impoverished America with the current reality of economic decline got me thinking: could pop culture get its inspiration from (and even mirror) the financial world?
The dot-com bubble hit its climax on March 10, 2000. Constant production of in-demand technologies allowed salaries to adjust to inflation, resulting in a constant equilibrium of supply and demand. At the same time, Faith Hill's “Breathe” topped the music charts, which wasn't too much of a surprise – the song talks about keeping things exactly as they are. The economy was doing well, national prospects were bright, and the state of higher education couldn't have been better.
“I can feel the magic floating in the air,” Faith Hill told her happy audience. Furthermore, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was the most watched show on television from 1999-2000 per the Nielsen measurements; a stat which added on to the floating magic mentality. National expectations were high, and the rewards on Millionaire were even higher: the goal was to preserve the moment exactly as it was it. As Hill sang, “There's no need for words right now.” We've got this.
The dot-com craze faded in 2001. AOL merged with Time Warner; formerly glorified providers like NorthPoint and JDS were members of one of the top three corporate bankruptcies in American history. Survival of the fittest became reality; aptly named Survivor topped the Nielsen ratings that year and Destiny's Child lamented the difficulty of earning a living and the absurdity of taking out loans over your limit in “Independent Women.” “If you're gonna brag make sure it's your money you flaunt.” Their plea fell on deaf ears. Things stabilized by 2002, allowing Friends to be the most watched show; Millionaire was syndicated. Pop culture going hand in hand with economics was no longer a coincidence.
The U.S. housing bubble began to pop by 2005-2006, eventually bursting in 2007. The five stages of grief theory became a reality as denial of economic downturns became the latest fad: the stock market peaked in 2007, after all. “Crank Dat Soulja Boy,” with its opaque meaning and even more incomprehensible lyrics (“I'm bouncing on my toe/Watch me super soak that hoe,”) was popular during that time, a perfect example of the confusion sweeping the nation.
A pronounced decline of the market followed later in 2007, and anger, the second stage of grief, was evinced by OneRepublic as they realized that it was too late to apologize for former economic misgivings. As stage three, bargaining, set in, Alicia Keys tried to revive a failing relationship in “No One” the same way economists tried to revive the market. Declarations of a looming “depression,” in theory and in economics, soon followed. By October 2008, in the middle of the fourth stage/the acceptance stage, Lady Gaga tried to keep a poker face before and during the great meltdown. Any sign of hope was taken as gospel. Rags to riches Slumdog Millionaire was hailed the “feel-good film of the decade.” The market reached its bottom in March 2009, yet OneRepublic made another healthy prediction that things weren't going to get better in “All the Right Moves”, as the lyrics (intentionally?) tried to speak for the greater populace: “Everybody knows, everybody knows where we'regoing / Yeah, we're going down.”
It worries me how cynical culture has become, even outside of the music world. Today, shows like Teen Mom glorify a former social taboo, movies like soon to be released The Queen of Versailles take jabs at the American dream, and world leaders tell us that the “private sector is fine.” The confusing lyrics of Nicki Minaj's songs are gaining momentum, and television shows about trying to recover from 20 years of parental financial support yet also trying to make your own way in the world (for example, HBO's excellent Girls) are on the rise. Confusion is a daily occurrence, and taking baby steps toward self-sufficiency is becoming a new norm. Are we slowly going back to stage one, denial?