Reading the Room: The Magicians, BTS, and the Emotional Responsibility of Creating Popular Culture
Content warning for mentions of suicide. Also contains spoilers for The Magicians.
When companies do market research, presumably they get feedback from customers — what they like or don’t like, what they need, and whether they’ll buy products from that company again. I assume it’s not much different in the entertainment industry, because in spite of the connection to creative expression, it’s still a business.
Pop culture is by definition popular, which in the 21st century means it uses mass media to reach a lot of viewers, listeners, readers, often to the point where devoted fans and fandoms crop up, some of whom interact with creators on social media and at cons and fan meetings.
The aim for every creator, I assume, is to share their creative expressions, to evoke ideas, and to make things that people enjoy. And to do that you have to care, at least a little, about your audience. Perhaps some people create only for themselves and only for their art, but industries decide what counts and what doesn’t, so there’s always some audience, unless you keep your creations to yourself until you die.
Popular culture specifically depends on wide audience consumption and approval, which is why bad series finales, insulting character arcs, and stale or unbelievable plot lines are curious. When a show, or a movie franchise, or even a commercially successful band creates something that has its audience angry, scratching their heads, or vocally removing their support, it makes you wonder how things could have gone so wrong.
I don’t pretend to have an insider’s understanding of the entertainment industry or media conglomerates or their relationship with advertisers (and, incidentally, with the government), but, as I do understand it, usually they want to keep consumers around.
Criticism of most other industries is probably too consumer-focused (because consumers, including Millennials, thank you very much, don’t actually have much choice), but the entertainment industry is different. Focus groups exist, as well as critical reviews, but consumers generally spend money up front before they have a good idea whether they’ll like or hate a piece of media. You can return a shirt if it doesn’t fit, but you’ll never get the 86 minutes you spent watching Grizzly Rage back.
As Game of Thrones comes back for its last season, the question of considering the consumer is back in focus. Because George R. R. Martin, the author of the books, is notorious for not being particularly considerate of fans. But something also happened in the season four finale of the show The Magicians that has me seriously questioning the popular culture I consume. And it’s interesting that this is happening while I’ve also been reading reviews of BTS’s latest album and seeing Western media baffled by their success. What do these things have to do with each other? I’ll explain.
When the Magic’s Gone
The Magicians is a show on the SyFy channel, based on books by Lev Grossman, that centers on a university that teaches magic. The world-building is interesting, with references to various mythologies and pop culture, and magic is treated in creative ways that play with space and time. There are interesting women characters on the show, as well as queer characters who don’t seem like they exist for fodder. It had some weak plot moments, but enough to keep me around.
In the second to last episode of season four, Quentin, the central character of the show, gives a speech about how he loved the escapism he got as a kid from reading a fantasy book series (which he found out was based on a real place and was actually horrible). In his soliloquy he says, “Maybe I was better off believing it was fiction. The idea of Fillory is what saved my life. This promise that people like me — people like me can somehow find an escape. There’s gotta be some power in that. Shouldn’t loving the idea of Fillory be enough?”
It’s curious, then, that in the very next episode the writers decided to kill off Quentin in a sacrificial act to save his friends and to save magic.
Let me frame this in a different way. The writers, who just wrote about the promise of fiction being an escape one episode prior, chose to have a canonically queer (at the very least Quentin engaged in bisexual behaviors) character, who has a known history of depression and suicidal thoughts, established in the very first episode of the show, die and then appear in the afterlife thinking he killed himself.
Instead of being edgy, it ended up being yet another depressed perceivable-as-queer character dying without their queer relationship being explored or developed, with the last few scenes of the character’s life including a hacky attempt to rekindle a relationship with a female character with whom he had a negative, toxic, obsessive relationship. It negated the growth Quentin went through as a character throughout the show, and it felt a lot like yet another instance of queerbaiting. And it certainly didn’t provide the depressed among us with an escape.
The writers explained in this interview with The Hollywood Reporter that their reasoning behind it was that, in reality, death happens, often unexpectedly, and we don’t end up getting closure or to say goodbye to people we love. The survivors are just left to cope.
And this is true. This is absolutely true.
But we all know that. Death is the only thing that’s absolutely certain in our lives.
We all die.
We all know and love people who die.
We all will have to deal with grief.
It’s absolutely a part of being human. But I’m not sure what we learn from it in fiction.
To me, the creators sound a bit self-important and concerned with their own ability to create a surprising story arc to impress their friends than caring at all about their audience and how people use fiction, particularly fantasy/sci-fi, to escape and cope with how shitty reality is — a point that they make within their own show. Trying to turn standard hero arcs on their head may be an intellectual exercise that’s interesting for a creative writing class. It’s less interesting when you are writing a television show that more than half a million people watch every week.
And it’s certainly not something you write to make people feel something other than the bullshit pain we feel every single day of our miserable lives.
I don’t think I’m only speaking for myself when I say that we want art and media that makes us feel less alone. So maybe the writers have a point that showing other characters going through grief is a way to do that. But I’m not sure that’s why most people turn to fantasy television series. And I’m not sure what this does for anyone who saw themselves in the character of Quentin Coldwater.
We don’t all get success or joy or to be a hero or to travel to new worlds. We don’t get to have the romantic relationships we want. We don’t get magic. And so we watch fantasy shows and read fantasy novels because maybe in some small way they save us in those moments of escape they provide us.
And that’s not to say that you can never kill a character or that every ending has to be happy. But there’s a persistent idea at work here that you have to use pain to make art. One of the characters in the season finale even says expressly that magic comes from pain. And, lo and behold, the death of Quentin gives another character her magic back.
I have consumed a lot of popular media written to capture the males age 18–34 market, and it seems like men’s stories often use death as a plot point. The death of a woman fuels the male hero in many superhero movies. Death is part of most stories with gay characters. And most of these stories are written by men — though The Magicians has a mix of men and women writing for it — and it’s curious the way death is the go-to dramatic turn for revenge, vindication, or bravery, and not any of the the other ways that people suffer in life — fear of assault or abuse, the brutality of socioeconomic inequality, not being able to afford basic healthcare, having your children taken away by a racist immigration system, being ostracized from family or community, etc. — things people in privileged social positions might not think about.
None of my criticism is to say that men don’t suffer, but rather that suffering is often portrayed in a very specific way in popular media. The fact that Quentin was shown to be depressed, but not “crazy” or violent, was something that actually isn’t portrayed on TV all that often. But you still get the idea that depression is the only “brave” vulnerability that men feel comfortable putting into art. They could talk about the pressure of being forced to live up to a standard of masculinity (physically strong and shut off emotionally), feeling forced to be a provider in a society where work isn’t plentiful and wages are low, being encouraged to have a certain attitudes toward woman, and even how to deal with the pain of being ridiculed for being vulnerable.
I think we can learn things even from silly TV shows that we use for escape. I think there can be something valuable in mass media output. I think that it still qualifies as art. But if that’s the purpose, then at least let the plot carry a more challenging lesson, a lesson that exposes something new, a feeling that’s difficult to parse out, a message that isn’t commonly understood, maybe even an experience from the perspective of someone who isn’t a cishet white guy.
Which is all to say, there’s more to being human than dying.
The Aesthetics of Misery
I tend to think that we have a bias against happiness, against things that make us feel good. We think there is some fundamental value in personal suffering—in the West especially, you can probably tie this back to the Christian idea of suffering that gets folded into art, philosophy, literature.
Of course, other religions and traditions also have versions of suffering. The First Noble Truth in Buddhism is that there is suffering. But it’s not “you personally must suffer simply because you exist and are a faithless sinner,” and there’s a vast difference here. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is attachment to things, to the ego. And there’s an emphasis on the loss of ego in most meditative traditions, whereas Christian traditions double down on the suffering ego and assign personal responsibility disproportionately.
So we in the West like personal suffering in our art and in our popular culture.
The paintings of Vincent van Gogh are iconic, but he painted The Starry Night (1889) from an asylum and wasn’t successful during his life. Basquiat’s paintings are worth millions now, but he died of a heroin overdose, in part, his friends say, because he was struggling to cope with increasing success in an exploitative and extremely white art industry. There are countless examples of depressed, addicted, and otherwise mentally ill creators whose work becomes worth more after they die.
And so every time you see van Gogh’s cypress trees on a tote bag, you’re seeing the commodification of pain. I’ve seen this described as fetishizing mental illness, and there might be something to that.
There has to be a balance somewhere in all of this.
Creative expression can and should be personal, especially if you want your audience to relate to it more than just superficially. Of course that creative expression may be a manifestation of personal pain, but when you make things for large audiences I think you have a responsibility to keep those audiences in mind.
In the very obvious capitalistic sense, you have to sell your product and hold onto an audience or fan base. I imagine that must stymie bestselling authors and screenwriters and pop music writers. It might be why all Grisham novels are kind of the same, why superhero movies have the same recycled plot, why trendy pop music sounds similar. It’s what sells and what audiences come to expect.
So how do you provide escapism and entertainment and still bring along the honesty and reality of whatever made you want to create in the first place? People dismiss popular culture as silly and frivolous when it makes people happy. In general we seem to think sad things, dark things, are more artistic, smarter, more intelligent, better.
But that’s just not true.
If you create something to make people feel better and it doesn’t seem “real” enough for you, then that’s a problem with the world and not with your art. We expect the world to cause us pain, not just because we die, but because we suffer, because there is suffering. We value the honest expression of suffering because we’re taught to cover it up, to not talk about how we feel, to keep our heads down and work, to not rock the boat.
But there are ways to do that without alienating your audience and making them feel even worse about the world.
The Magic of BTS
Making accessible but real art, while understanding your audience and providing escape makes me think of BTS, who just released a mini album that has come up against mixed reviews. The aesthetic of the album, Map of the Soul: Persona, itself is pink and hearts, and the songs cover things like: the fact that material success doesn’t fill the holes inside you and that support of other people are the thing that gives you true feelings of home (HOME); that your dreams are valuable and we’re all in it together in this universe (Mikrokosmos); that the labels other people try to force you into don’t matter (Dionysus).
And in the most personal of all the songs, Persona, RM explains that he’ll never know who he is, that he often thinks he isn’t good enough, that all the stupid things he’s done are part of him, that he’s still a work in progress in this inevitable march of time, but that while he’s here and able and famous, he wants to be a pillar of support for others.
And, yes, it’s pop music, so there are songs in there about love, but BTS isn’t selling that kind of fantasy. They’re realistic. They talk very openly about their internal struggles. They say that happiness isn’t an endpoint, but that in life you’ll also have struggle and strife, and the best place to find love is within yourself. They also often say that if they can ease your pain and provide emotional comfort, they will try to do that with their music. And if you’ve never been saved by music, that might be hard to grasp.
Of course, at the same time, BTS is trying to break into the Western music markets. They’re selling millions of albums and topping charts, all while telling its audience that struggling is okay, but you have an inner strength and that means you’re valuable to the world. And they say this to an audience of mostly women (and mostly young women) who are told by mass media and advertising (and in every culture I’m aware of) that they have to look and act a certain way, but they’ll still be socially, economically, and physically punished somehow, and they need a man to love them and validate them anyway.
BTS manages to have both a supportive, non-misogynistic message and make happy, uptempo dance tracks, and somehow people who aren’t fans, who aren’t in that target audience, don’t get it.
In Rolling Stone’s review of Map of the Soul: Persona , the critic wrote, “they’ve done nu-disco, electro-pop and rap-rock before, but it’s been zippier, fiercer, grimier.” Pitchfork complained that the album is too self-referential (which is mostly a way of saying it was made for BTS fans who know their previous work). The Guardian and The Independent said it sounds too much like current pop music — twinkling, grandiose, not groundbreaking, and too much like “the BTS brand.”
I don’t want to get into the musicality of the record, but I do want to compare it to the more favorable review that Pitchfork gave BTS’s previous album, Love Yourself: Tear.
“These [themes] all come to a head on the foreboding lead single “Fake Love,” characterized in full by a lyric that roughly translates to: “I grew a flower that couldn’t bloom/In a dream that can’t come true. … ‘Tear’ isn’t as ambitious or stunning or tragic as Wings, which gave each of the seven members a solo turn ranging from lounge-ready piano balladry and symphonic, single-spotlight melodrama to brooding alt-rap with “Blood Sweat & Tears” as its ideological and aesthetic centerpiece.”
So you have these male music critics who didn’t really like the album and try to explain it by saying that the arrangements were too convoluted, that their music isn’t ambitious, and the album is safe. And, well, maybe.
But maybe there’s value in creating something that’s comforting to people. Maybe there actually is something interesting in taking your old music and reworking it because you are different, because you have grown and changed and you want to share that growth with your fans who have grown with you.
BTS always mentions their fans in their interviews, in acceptance speeches, on social media, and it never sounds like obligatory lip service. They know they’re successful because people like their music, like them, and they clearly also want to sell a lot of albums and make money. But they show a level of care for their fans that’s maybe only rivaled by Misha Collins.
They clearly say that if you can feel better about yourself and the world by listening to us, and we can ease your pain just a little by sharing our struggles, then that’s what we want to do.
And so maybe their message of self love and finding yourself, even if it’s through feeling love for a musical group you don’t personally know, is more worthwhile than a grittier sound and brooding lyrics.
Maybe Dying’s Not a Great Adventure
My point is that if you’re going to write about suffering and personal angst in your music, TV shows, books, and films, then do it responsibly, do it in a way that shows you also care about your audience. As a good example of what I mean, the band Epik High wrote an entire album about insomnia that was released earlier this year — and if that’s not a relatable form of suffering, then I don’t know what is. I saw them (twice) on their latest tour, and I can tell you there is something truly cathartic about standing in a room with 1500 other people singing, “Do you get lonely? Sick with anxiety? Can’t trust nobody? Well, same here.”
Epik High put on one of the most fun shows I have ever been to, while also writing serious music about the dark thoughts you have at three in the morning. They also talk about their fans and interact with them in a caring, familial way so that you feel like you’re on this bullshit life journey with them, and not having them dictate to you how to feel.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t also mention Jeff Tweedy in this. In his autobiography, published last year, he says that his superpower is being willing to be vulnerable in front of people. But at the same time, his music isn’t necessarily personal in an autobiographical way. It’s emotional in a way that’s relatable, and you feel from listening to it that Tweedy has struggled. But he’s also actively trying to write songs to make a living, and he’s brilliant at writing songs that create a mood that you can project your own struggle onto — like a good writer of fiction can do. Coincidentally, his band, Wilco, has a song where the chorus is “Are times getting tough? Are the roads you travel rough? Have you had enough of the old? Tired of being exposed to the cold? Stare at your stereo. Put on your headphones before you explode, oh, oh, oh, oh. Wilco, Wilco, Wilco will love you, baby.”
And maybe offering some combination of harsh reality and hopeful support is a better creative option than saying: Yes, everything’s terrible, have you considered death? Because, yes. We sufferers always consider death. We don’t need you to tell us that it’s there.
Death isn’t edgy. Look at the hellscape we live in. The way profit-driven business interests influence political decisions has been blasted out into the open via a corrupt regime, and no one really cares, either because that’s the way it’s always been done or because we simply don’t punish organized crime or the wealthy, and we’re probably all going to die in cataclysmic environmental disasters in the next 50 years anyway.
So let us have some escapism.
I would love to be able to create things for people for a living and help make people like me feel less alone. Of course, I don’t have an audience, but if I did, I like to think I would try to listen to them and learn about them.
Trying to make art for mass consumption is still making art, and the sad, lonely, maybe mentally ill artist in the room who has no responsibility or care for his audience is a myth that’s worth tearing down. Otherwise, you’re George R. R. Martin saying you don’t owe your readers anything. And, to be fair, he really doesn’t. He sold himself to HBO, they’re finishing his story, and that’s fine.
Wilco and Epik High and BTS don’t have to make anymore albums. The Magicians’s writers can kill off whoever they want.
I’m just saying that maybe creators should read the room a little better.
It’s awkward to see creators profiting from fictional suffering without providing any kind of support for their audience when the healthcare industry, the energy industry, industrial agriculture, the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, et al. are literally profiting from real tragedy on the daily.
I’m not saying everything has to be happy, that would be insincere, too, but I am saying you should consider caring about your audience.
Maybe we don’t need another queer character dying sacrificially or a gritty experimental pop album.
Maybe we just need people who understand.