Column: The new basic

Alice King 13 November 2017

I am writing today in defence of anyone whose cultural preferences have ever been derided as ‘basic’. For anyone who doesn’t experience this on a regular basis, an elementary definition of basic would be that which is simple, manifesting itself in culture through aspects such as themes and characters that play into popular tropes, rarely challenging societal norms. For example, the Kardashians and their regime of salad-eating, working out, Instagramming and seizing the simple joys of family time and celebrity events, are emblematic of what people might consider basic.

As a bit of an aside, there is undoubtedly a sexist dynamic to basicness. How often do you hear straight men who would rather watch football than Gossip Girl or Britney Spears music videos being called basic? One of the least intellectually stimulating forms of entertainment there is, football is just about the most basic thing in the whole world, yet it reigns over mainstream interest, immune to scrutiny thanks to the dominance of patriarchal values and interests. In these terms, ‘basic’ if so often wrongly synonymous with ‘girly’.

However, over the last few years there has been a shift in the cultural tide concerning the very fundamentals of what is basic and what is not. I was first faced with this world-shaking reality when listening to The High Low, a podcast that I recommended in this column at the beginning of term. The presenters mentioned The Secret History, the Donna Tartt novel about an enigmatic group of classics students at an elite US college, and they highlighted how basic it is. Needless to say, I took it pretty personally, primarily because The Secret History has long held the top spot in my favourite books. But once I got over this brutal encounter with a view that challenged my own, I realised that yes, by contemporary standards, The Secret History is really, really basic.

What I mean is, it is the kind of book that the characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have loved. In fact, The Perks of Being a Wallflower serves as a fitting umbrella for this argument. In one sweep, it appropriates all of the staple cult classics, from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to The Smiths, all while resembling some sort of tribute to The Breakfast Club. Thriving on the idea that they live on an ‘island of misfit toys’, the characters in Perks were the Tumblr generation before their time. These aloof, radical ‘free spirits’ were probably wildly original and alternative at the time the book was written, but we have come to fetishize this elusiveness (as exemplified by its adaptation into a Hollywood movie in 2012). Not only that, but I think we have come to realise how trite and contrived the appearances of such characters often are. If you genuinely enjoy The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Morrissey music, that is different to incorporating them into your world because you think they’re kooky. The edgy crowd from Perks or The Secret History would now be the slightly desperate, alternative-for-the-sake-of-being-alternative crowd, and once it is obvious how someone is maintaining such a façade, it loses its intangible charm. It becomes basic.

In today’s arena of mass pop culture, once niche worlds consistently become commodities in the constant search for the new cool thing. As the masses flock back to the zeitgeist of the 80s or into the depths of contemporary alternative scenes, the previously basic worlds of the likes of the Kardashians and pop stars from the 2000s become a unique, ironic point of interest. Frankly I’m tired of tweets from people saying things like: ‘Help, I don’t even know if my obsession with the Kardashians is ironic anymore AaAhH.’ Because where does that leave those of us who know our obsession is not ironic and have loved them the whole time? Are we the most edgy or the most basic of the lot?

The fluctuation of the mainstream’s areas of interest in popular culture just acts as a critical reminder that basicness is a social construct, and you should enjoy the books, films and music that you actually like. From my point of view, we just need to remove the stigma that surrounds ‘simple’ products of popular culture. Because the more they are branded as such, the more they are stigmatised and ignored, the more they will become a cult phenomenon and we all know what happens to those twenty years later…