You can get a sense of where a culture’s at by paying attention to its hits. What in pop culture is resonating with masses of people right now? This question isn’t only interesting to ponder; for Christians, it’s instructive for mission. Pop culture sensations have explanatory power—revealing the loves, longings, pain points, and paradoxes of the populace we’re called to reach with the gospel.
Surveying the pop culture landscape of summer 2023, four big sensations stand out: two movies (Sound of Freedom and Barbie) and two musical artists (Taylor Swift and Oliver Anthony). Each pair represents our cultural fragmentation in microcosm, its polarities indicative of widening cultural divisions.
I’ll consider each of the four “hits” first on its own terms and then as dueling “pairs” that, I argue, map onto contemporary cultural tensions.
We knew Taylor Swift’s Eras tour would be big. But few expected it would be so jaw-droppingly big that it would significantly boost local economies in cities the tour visited. Swift’s stadium-filling tour crashed Ticketmaster, netted big profits for bracelet makers on Etsy, and helped solidify Swift’s standing as the second-richest woman in music (behind Rihanna).
What made Eras such a zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon? One explanation is the tour’s career-spanning nature, covering 10 albums (“eras”) over 17 years and mirroring the coming-of-age years of many fans. My friend Brooke attended one of the L.A. shows and said,
I have, quite literally, grown up with her. I’m realizing now that at my darkest time, before I knew Christ and put my faith in him, her lyrics saw me. I was 15 when her song “Fifteen” came out. I have seen her evolve throughout the decades.
Swift’s brand of female empowerment, capitalist savvy, artistic versatility, and hard-working grit also makes her an inspiring icon to many—especially those who feel marginalized. Her “Taylor’s Version” rerecordings underscore her brand as a female artist taking back what’s hers from a powerful man (Scooter Braun) in the same way that she took back her voice from another powerful man (Kanye West) who literally stole the microphone from her. Swift’s “overcomer” resilience, even as she’s been under the tabloid microscope half her life, is part of her appeal.
Swift also knows how to build a meaningful fan community. From friendship bracelet swapping to LED wristbands making audience members part of the light show, the Eras tour tapped into our pent-up hunger, post-pandemic, for the irreplaceable magic of communal culture. I heard more than one person describe the concert as “a spiritual experience,” a place of “belonging” complete with strangers belting out songs in unison in a state of transcendent euphoria. In a culture of dechurching, Eras is an example of fandom filling the void of church-like community.
Christopher Anthony Lunsford goes by “Oliver Anthony” as an homage to his grandfather, who grew up in Depression-era Appalachia. A video performance of his working-class anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” became an out-of-nowhere viral sensation in August and launched the song to the top of streaming sites and a history-making debut atop the Billboard Hot 100. He was the first artist ever to debut at the top of the list with no prior chart history.
Why did this click with so many people? On one hand, the song’s blue-collar populism appeals for the same reason Rust Belt states have been tilting more Republican. Even though Anthony has said he’s aggravated by Republicans turning his song into a partisan rallying cry, the lyrics do target common conservative foils like big government and the welfare state. In a reversal that surely would have surprised Woody Guthrie, “Rich Men” shows how the working man’s protest song is shifting from a leftist genre to a conservative one (much to the ire of some).
In a reversal that surely would have surprised Woody Guthrie, ‘Rich Men’ shows how the working man’s protest song is shifting from a leftist genre to a conservative one.
But on the other hand, Anthony appeals simply because he’s authentic and unconcerned with political correctness. As Joe Rogan put it, “You can’t fake authentic, and [Oliver Anthony] has it in abundance.” He’s uninterested in being part of the entertainment or political establishments. It’s hard not to think of him as the opposite of Taylor Swift when he says, “I don’t want 6 tour buses, 15 tractor trailers and a jet. I don’t want to play stadium shows, I don’t want to be in the spotlight.” Anthony just wants to be heard—a troubadour speaking up for those who feel forgotten.
Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’
Barbie is the highest-earning movie of 2023 and already one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time. It broke tons of other records and launched a staggering number of memes, hot takes, and expressions of Barbiecore fashion.
Why was Barbie so big? No doubt the #Barbieheimer hype and viral memes played a large part in the success of both Barbie and Oppenheimer. And surely the six-decade history and global brand recognition of the iconic Mattel doll had something to do with it. But beyond the buzz, Barbie is an engaging, smart, something-in-it-for-everyone movie that mines laughs from the current cultural conversations around gender. It’s a movie of the moment.
While the film’s inherent contradictions can feel schizophrenic (more on this later), the effect is that audiences interpret its meaning as whatever they want it to be. It’s a blank canvas in the same way Barbie toys themselves are: they inhabit whatever fantasy narrative you want to construct. Is Barbie a man-hating feminist jeremiad? Is it a post-feminist critique of feminism’s naivete? Sure, if you want it to be. The film’s ideological vagaries give enough ammo to whatever hot take you want to argue—which no doubt added fuel to the marketing fire, making Barbie a must-see for those curious to see what the buzz was about.
Alejandro Monteverde’s ‘Sound of Freedom’
When Margot Robbie’s memento mori quip “Do you guys ever think about dying?” suddenly kills the dance party mood in Barbie, she may as well have said, “Do you guys want to get popcorn and watch a child sex trafficking movie?” But that’s exactly what audiences did this summer—in droves.
As opposite in tone and texture from Barbie as a film could possibly be, Sound of Freedom nevertheless emerged as this summer’s other breakout hit. From the Mexican Catholic director Alejandro Monteverde (who released the anti-abortion film Bella in 2006), Sound of Freedom stars Jim Caviezel as Tim Ballard, an activist whose Operation Underground Railroad nonprofit rescues children from sex trafficking.
What about Sound of Freedom made it a huge hit? Part of it is the rising tide of faith-based entertainment generally—a combination of growing religious demand for trustworthy values on screen and a genuine improvement in the genre’s quality. Freedom comes from Angel Studios and utilizes the same “pay-it-forward” peer-to-peer marketing that helped make The Chosen a hit in its early seasons. If you saw Freedom in the theater, you no doubt stayed in a riveted audience to hear Caviezel (a hero of the faith-based-movie audience) deliver a rousing post-credits pitch to make the underdog film this generation’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The film—which was a huge hit among Latino audiences—was a flex for conservative faith audiences who often feel ignored or condescended to by Hollywood. Freedom was the David to the Goliaths of big-budget franchise films like Indiana Jones 5, Mission Impossible 7, and Transformers 7, and David prevailed (Freedom’s $180 million haul is higher than the earnings of each of these IP-driven films). As they did with Oliver Anthony, right-leaning audiences cheered on this outsider film as an unstoppable uprising against elite gatekeepers.
Swift and ‘Barbie’ vs. Anthony and ‘Freedom’
What cultural rifts are represented in the pop culture spectrum that has Taylor Swift and Barbie on one end, and Oliver Anthony and Freedom on the other? Here are two observations.
1. ‘Indie’ Insiders vs. Underdog Outsiders
“Indie” used to describe the avant-garde of cultural works that didn’t play by establishment rules in Hollywood. Indie films and music emerged organically from Brooklyn hipsters and Silver Lake socialists, not Century City suits. Not so anymore. In the world of woke capitalism, “indie” has been fully absorbed as a lucrative subsidiary brand of the entertainment establishment, such that the formerly countercultural “indie spirit” has become synonymous with the mainstream spirit of the age.
The formerly countercultural ‘indie spirit’ has become synonymous with the mainstream spirit of the age.
This merger became obvious, for example, when Taylor Swift (pop mainstream personified) released a pandemic album (folklore) anchored by collaborations with indie darlings Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner (The National). It’s also become obvious in the growing overlap between the films awarded by the mainstream Oscars and the (ostensibly “indie”) Independent Spirit Awards, which have overlapped in their choice for best film seven times since 2011 (including last year with Everything Everywhere All at Once). When the entire Hollywood establishment gets behind your movie, it becomes hard to claim descriptors like “indie,” “renegade,” “daring,” or “anti-establishment.”
The success of Barbie illustrates this. The film’s director (Greta Gerwig) and cowriter (Noah Baumbach) built their reputations as indie film darlings. Just watch their 2012 black-and-white film Frances Ha, which starred Gerwig and was written and directed by Baumbach. Distributed by the Independent Film Channel, Frances Ha has become a “mumblecore classic” that captured the zeitgeist of peak hipsterdom circa 2010. Fast forward to 2023, and Gerwig and Baumbach (now a couple, with two sons) are the creative duo behind one of the most mainstream blockbusters of all time, produced by one of the world’s biggest consumer corporations (Mattel, Inc.). Barbie makes clear that the merger between indie and mainstream Hollywood is complete.
The movies and music that can lay viable claim to descriptors like “anti-establishment” or “against the grain”—the ones that truly challenge establishment orthodoxies—are increasingly coming from conservative and faith-based creators. Last year’s What Is a Woman? documentary, for example, was anathematized by Hollywood and blacklisted by critics simply for giving expression to a dissenting view on mainstream trans ideology. Dissenting views used to be the domain of leftist indie art. Now it’s the conservatives creating the disruptive, trouble-making works.
Sound of Freedom and Oliver Anthony are examples of this. It’s not that they’re breaking new artistic ground. But if “countercultural” is defined as that which is marked by “values and mores that run counter to those of established society,” then Barbie and Taylor Swift certainly cannot claim to be countercultural, while Sound of Freedom and Oliver Anthony possibly can.
For Christians, the temptation is to oversimplify this dynamic, however. Even as it’s true that theologically orthodox works of music and media aren’t likely to get the blessing or financial backing of today’s entertainment establishment, the mantle of “countercultural” shouldn’t be wielded as a weapon as much as a quietly accepted reality as we plod along in culture making.
Let’s not build marketing for films like Sound of Freedom around narratives of martyrdom and censorship (“The movie the radical left doesn’t want you to see!”). Let’s just keep making them, and making them well, and getting them in front of audiences of both friends and skeptics. For a counterculture trying to get heard, quality and truth-telling are more crucial than culture-war PR.
2. Widening Political Divergence Between Men and Women
One of the things that made Barbieheimer such a boon to the summer box office is that Barbie and Oppenheimer appealed to different audiences, especially along gender lines. Barbie’s opening-weekend audience was 69 percent female, while the crowds flocking to see Oppenheimer were 62 percent male. Barbie’s second-weekend audience grew to 71 percent female, as groups of women and moms with their daughters flocked to see it while dressed in pink.
This “women’s multiplier effect” and cross-generational appeal helped fuel the success of both Barbie and Swift’s Eras tour. In Barbie, women found not only nostalgia but validation—epitomized in America Ferrera’s “impossible to be a woman” monologue midway through the film. In both Barbie and Swift’s Eras tour, women and girls felt seen.
For men, Sound of Freedom likely resonated more. While Barbie skewered the “patriarchy” and mined laughs at the Kens’ expense, Freedom presented a tale of male courage and strength wielded for good. Caviezel’s protagonist is a fatherly protector who ventures into dangerous situations to rescue abused children from predatory villains. His stoic resolve to get the job done isn’t “problematized” by discourses about colonialism or patriarchal savior complexes. It’s celebrated as a commendable, if imperfect, effort to address an injustice. Meanwhile, in speaking up for the “young men” America “keeps kickin’ down,” Oliver Anthony’s hit resonates at a time when the modern male is struggling and masculinity is maligned.
If it seems audiences for Barbie/Swift skew left politically while the fans of Freedom/Anthony skew right, part of this no doubt has to do with gender. After all, the gender divide in political affiliation is growing in America (among other nations), particularly among young men and women. Young men are becoming more conservative while young women are moving in the other direction. Does this partly explain the polarities we’re seeing in pop culture hits? Probably.
But more important than how it plays out in pop culture, this ideological divergence between men and women will have significant fallout in homes and communities. Current troubling trends like delayed marriage and plummeting fertility rates will likely be exacerbated by this growing gender polarity, as tensions play out in dating, marriage, and families. With wide-ranging implications, it’s a dynamic Christian leaders should monitor closely.
These pop culture artifacts reflect dualities within culture, but they also reflect dualities within themselves. As we scroll, swipe, and consume pop culture in this overstimulated age, we increasingly don’t seem to mind (or even notice) the contradictions in what we “like.”
Alan Noble touches on this in Disruptive Witness, when he writes about a “lifestyle of distraction”:
A natural consequence of being mentally engaged all the time is [that] it is easy for us to live with internal conflicts and contradictions with little cognitive dissonance. When confronted with a deficiency in our ethical code, it takes no real effort to ignore it. . . . Our default response to cognitive dissonance is to simply do something else. The rhythms and practices of our modern world militate against reflection.
The concept of Taylor Swift’s Eras tour is the chameleonic, genre-hopping nature of the artist’s album eras. But rather than getting dizzy as they follow Taylor through a menagerie of genres (from country to pop to indie-folk to 80s retro), Swifties relish the wild three-hour ride through Swift’s eclectic “evolution.”
Barbie is similarly disorienting and yet at ease in its contradictions. By design, Gerwig’s film doesn’t resolve paradoxes about gender and refuses to take clear sides on (or offer committed answers to) any of the questions it raises. The “messy contradictions” of modern identity are embraced in these works as badges of authenticity rather than as warning lights of anthropological vertigo.
The ‘messy contradictions’ of modern identity are embraced in these works as badges of authenticity rather than as warning lights of anthropological vertigo.
On the surface, Sound of Freedom and Oliver Anthony may seem strikingly different; they offer moral clarity rather than confusion and contradictions. Truth is framed as something straightforward, with heroes and villains clearly delineated. But Caviezel and Anthony have both been accused of perpetuating conspiracy theories, which somewhat undermines their credibility as lodestar truth-tellers in a world of lies.
If there’s one big takeaway from this summer’s hits, it’s that contemporary culture is fragmented and at war—not only with “the other side” but also with itself. Without a solid biblical foundation upon which to build coherent works, a culture is bound to produce discordant spectacles that may strike a chord with certain audience segments, but fail to harmonize meaning in any lasting or universal sense. Into this chaos, Christians should strive to be voices of coherent truth and consistent conviction, creating transcendent works of culture that don’t just play well with one side or the other but that speak gospel truth fearlessly to all sides, come what may.