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Who are the culture heroes of today?

When I was a kid, the culture heroes were Hollywood and TV actors, pop musicians, athletes and coaches, historical political and military figures, then I guess you could go down the list of fame and consider authors, artists, scientists and inventors . . . . that’s about it, I think.

Nowadays, we still have actors, athletes, and some historical figures—but it’s my impression that musicians are no longer “rock stars,” as it were. Sure, there are a few famous pop musicians and rappers at any given time, along with legacy figures like Bruce etc., but I don’t feel like musicians are culture heroes the way they used to be. To put it another way: there are individual pop stars, but just a few, not a whole galaxy of them as there used to be.

The big replacement is business executives. 40 or 50 years ago, you’d be hard pressed to name more than two or three of these guys. Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs, . . . . that was about it. Maybe the guy who owned McDonalds, and some people like Colonel Sanders and Crazy Eddie who advertised on TV. Nowadays, though, there’s a whole pantheon of superstar executives, kind of parallel to the pantheon of Hollywood actors or sports stars. Cuddly executives in the Tom Hanks mode, no-nonsense get-the-job-done Tom Brady types, trailblazing Navratilovas, goofballs, heroes, heels, the whole story. We have executives who some people worship and others think are ridiculously overrated.

That’s part of the point, I guess. Culture heroes and villains don’t stand alone; they’re part of a pantheon of characters as with Olympian gods or a superhero universe, each with his or her unique characteristics. We love (or love to hate) Bill Gates or Elon Musk, not just for their own accomplishments and riches but also for how they fit into this larger story. We can define ourselves in part with who we root for in the Tesla/GM/Volkswagen struggle, or where we fall on the space bounded by corporate normies like Bill Gates, outlaws like John McAfee, and idealists like Richard Stallman. And people like Martin Shkreli and Elizabeth Holmes are not just failed businesspeople; they’re “heels” who we can root against or root for in the latest business throwdown. The particular examples you care about might differ, but in whatever arena you care about, the ever-changing pantheon of execs at the top make for a set of story arcs comparable to those of Joan Crawford and other movie stars from the 1950s.

As noted above, we also still have actors, athletes, and historical figures. There have been some changes here. The “actors” category used to be some mix of movie stars, TV stars, talk show hosts, and sex symbols. These are still there, but I feel like it’s blurred into a more general “celebrity” category. The “athletes” category seems similar to before, even if it’s not always the same sports being represented. Similarly with the historical figures: we’re now more multicultural about it, but I think it’s the same general feeling as before.

Also, I feel like we hear more about politicians than we used to. Back in the 1970s you’d hear about whoever was the current president, and some charismatic others such as Ronald Reagan, and . . . that was about it. I don’t recall the Speaker of the House or the Senate majority or minority leader being household names. I guess that part of this was that congress had one-party control back then, which gave the party leaders less important as individuals.

P.S. The above could use some systematic social science thought and measurement, but I thought there’d be some value in starting by throwing these ideas out there.

P.P.S. Carlos reminds us that we had a related discussion a few months aga. I guess it really is time for me to move from the speculation to the social-science stage of the investigation already.

55 Comments

  1. “Game-changers” (in any field) are considered cultural heroes today, but the selections are inevitably shortsighted, since at any given time we don’t really know who has changed the game, which game the person has changed, whether it will stay changed, whether it needed to be changed, whether the new game improves upon the previous one, or even what the game really is in full. Thus many “game changers” fade into oblivion a few years after attaining fame. Since the focus is on “changing” the game, not necessarily on understanding it or playing it well, the next game-changer will displace the current one, and on and on, without much memorability.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      I wonder if this line of thought would shed some light on the sometimes insrutable phenomena of a certain newly former U.S. President.

      • I think it might. His supporters often claim that the reason liberals oppose him is that he’s a “game-changer.” But the concept is so muddy that he can do anything ridiculous or bizarre and have it be taken as game-changing.

        Also, there’s an inherent (and unwarranted) assumption that game-changing is automatically good and “change agents” automatically heroic. That is, that there’s a “status quo” (or a “game”) that’s so entrenched and corrupt that anything you do to break it up deserves praise.

        Granted, there are eople who have brought about profound changes of practice and thought in their fields and in daily life. But in many cases, they didn’t set out to be game-changers; rather, they sought to do something well.

  2. John Williams says:

    One change I’ve wondered about is that the Decathlon used to be the big event in the Olympics, so that Bob Mathias, who won the gold in 48 and 52, was really famous. Similarly, being “muscle bound” was regarded as bad, so kids in the 40s and 50s were admonished not to lift weights too much.

  3. oncodoc says:

    It all depends on your age and your era. I was in residency and about 27 years old in the 1970s. My fellow residents and I watched the Watergate hearings intensely, rushing through morning rounds to sit in the residents’ break room huddled around the TV. Sam Ervin became a hero to us which would have been totally unpredictable a few weeks before then. Our athletic heroes were Dr. J and Steve Prefontaine. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson were our cinema star heroes; Scorcese and Coppola were our film-makers. Dylan and Bruce were making our music.
    A decade prior I had a different set of heroes. A decade later I realized that I had to create a positive experience in my real life and set about doing that , and in the doing stopped looking for heroes. I still like Dylan and Bruce, of course.
    Maybe heroes are things that only the young need and look for.

    • Dzhaughn says:

      Ah, Dr. J. It must have really hurt to be thrashed by a team from the sticks that started Walton, Twardzik, and Gross. (To be fair, them with Maurice Lucas.) The Blazers were totally heroes in Oregon then.

      Which reminds me that we might consider Weird Al Yankovic as a sort of second-tier cultural hero, as that nice piece from some New York Publication did a couple of years ago.

  4. Rahul says:

    Isn’t it about sheet quantity as well?

    There’s a lot more heros now than used to be?

    What about longevity? Do heros have shorter shelf lives now?

  5. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Re politicians not being cultural heroes, or even particularly important figures. From Scott Alexander:

    ‘In 1950, the American Political Science Association “released a call to arms…pleading for a more polarized political system”. The report argued that “the parties contain too much diversity of opinion and work together too easily, leaving voters confused about who to vote for and why”. Everyone agreed with each other so much, and compromised so readily, that supporting one party over the other seemed almost pointless.

    In 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, Democrats and Republicans were about equally likely to support abortion restrictions. That same year, a poll found that “only 54% of the electorate believed that the Republican Party was more conservative than the Democratic Party”; 30% thought there was no difference.’

    [Back to me.] If the public regarded politicians an undifferentiated mass, maybe it’s because they actually were. I guess you need the Goldilocks amount of polarization.

    • Jukka says:

      You don’t have to go that far.

      Granted, the perspective is European, but I just re-read Gunther, R. et al. (2002): Political Parties, Oxford. And right there in the introduction, they make a critical stance about a “race to the center”.

      This is not an isolated example; it was not too long ago when people (incl. political scientist) commonly complained that there were no differences between parties.

  6. Rahul says:

    Regarding the emergence of more business heros: isn’t the path to herodom shorter now? Ie you can easily imagine a Zuckerberg or Sergei Brin shooting to billionaire scale success by late 20s.

    That sort of meteoric rise seems lot harder in the past.

    The faster rise makes these heros more aspirational.

  7. Anonymous says:

    You are my cultural hero, Andrew! <3

  8. Phil says:

    I think there’s something here but I don’t agree with some of the details, especially when it comes to politicians. Tip O’Neill was a household name at about the level of the top politicians of the day — and for that matter Ted Kennedy was pretty famous too. David Stockman wasn’t a politician but we all knew his name. And not too long after that Newt Gingrich was on everyone’s mind for a while. As a high school kid I didn’t pay as much attention to politics as I did later, so politicians didn’t take up as much mindshare for me as they do now, but I would guess the average adult in, say, 1981, could name about as many politicians as an adult in 2021.

    Music, though…I think you’re right, there have been some big changes there. From about 1955 to 1975, music was a big part of the cultural shift or rebellion: “colored” music getting airplay on mainstream radio, Beatlemania, Woodstock…it was all part of the cultural shifts at the time, which included some youthful rejection of the social and moral structures of the 1950s. Music wasn’t just entertainment, it was part of the revolution. I think it started to lose that role in the mid-70s, swinging back toward just entertainment. I don’t mean there wasn’t still a social message in a lot of music (and there still is of course), but I don’t think these days you’re considered to be rebelling against the establishment just because you listen to a certain genre of music.At any rate, I think musicians now are just musicians, whereas previously many of them were associated with a social movement.

    Come to think of it, maybe that’s why we know so many CEOs these days: most of the ones we know — or at least the ones I know — are not just businesspeople, they’re major players in changing society. Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, and before them Gates and Jobs, these are all people (all white men, I note) who are responsible for companies that are changing society pretty dramatically. Hmm, perhaps people 120 years ago could name lots of industrialists too: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, etc.

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      Good points. I don’t think changes in society are the whole story–just consider all the superstars that haven’t changed society (most movie and TV stars, most rock stars, most sports stars)—but I agree that, when it comes to business stars, this has to be part of the picture.

    • Yuling says:

      It seems to me that it is the abandonment of metanarrative of a-single-rockstar-could-change-the-society in popular culture that distinguishes Bezos from his gilded age pioneers.

    • I think Phil is onto something, but it’s a little complicated. There was counterculture music, and then there was people capitalizing on the popularity of countercultural zeitgeist who were mainly entertainers, or artists…

      Consider the truly political musicians in the period 1960-1980: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, later Gil Scott-Heron, or The Clash and compare them to entertainers/artists: say Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, King Crimson, or The Police

      The entertainers/artists benefited from the political buzz at the time (they wore the long hair, the sexual revolution clothing, and such), while at the same time staying out of politics and appealing more widely for their general artistry or entertainment value.

      • jrc says:

        Yeah but The Clash were art school kids just like 2pac. Sure, they all grew up to become felonious art school kids, but really, they were all just entertainers. Punk and Hiphop lasted exactly until there was money in it, then the revolution got televised and the TV was just always on a commercial.

        Anyway maybe the key insight here is that since about 1950 (let’s say since Elvis), to be famous mostly just meant faking being a rebel. I mean, Punk turned into Glam Rock and hiphop just became a weird new expression of Yuppie values: conspicuous consumption; out-spending the next guy; giant dumb cars; silly over-priced suits; and large amounts of cocaine.

        Maybe if there was a change after Elvis it was Andy Warhol, who long before Trump realized you could turn a shitty version of middle-class aspirations into a faux-rebellious Yuppie empire, if you dressed it up as an “outsider” thing.

        I know the “selling rebellion” trope is old, but it still strikes me as a valuable explanatory theory here.

        • Well, aren’t you just saying the same thing I was, except maybe disagreeing with my classification of The Clash as “truly political” (and to be honest I wasn’t so sure that was right either, I just needed to pad out that list with some band from the later period).

          Basically the **popular** stuff was never political but it rode the coattails of political. I think we’re saying the same thing.

          There’s room for a reference to Huey Lewis’ “It’s Hip To Be Square” here.

          • jrc says:

            Maybe better is “Little Boxes”, which is an amazing song to sing to yourself on the BART to SFO when you go past Daley City, but is really only known because it was later used as the theme song on a faux-rebellious show about a faux-rebellious woman who ended up turning one surviving (if self-destructive) aspect of the American counterculture (low class, cheap drugs) into an industry patterned off Starbucks.

            Ugh they even used that song in a Zillow commercial. I shouldn’t have googled.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      > Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk, and before them Gates and Jobs, these are all people (all white men, I note)

      Given a broad enough definition of “whiteness”: Jobs’ father was Syrian.

    • jim says:

      “Hmm, perhaps people 120 years ago could name lots of industrialists too: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, etc.”

      Rockefeller & Standard Oil fueled the new industrial age -> Edison, Ford, Carnegie

      Gates & Windows fueled the digital age -> Page, Brin, Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk

      Musk & SpaceX/Tesla -> ?, ?, ?

  9. Peter Dorman says:

    In the OP, Andrew writes, “Culture heroes and villains don’t stand alone; they’re part of a pantheon of characters as with Olympian gods or a superhero universe, each with his or her unique characteristics.” This puts us into Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle territory. Debord was riffing from Marx’s starting point in commodity fetishism, speculating that these individual receptacles of alienation assembled themselves into an entire ecosystem, a parallel world that, while entirely imaginary, became the meaningful context in which people live their lives.

    Personally, I think there’s something to this, although (of course) it’s not so clear as Debord presents it. (Not that anything Debord wrote was clear.) The objective world is intermingled in complicated ways with the shared subjective one(s).

    Regarding business exec’s in particular, I think their status in the ecosystem of representations is tied to their products. Warren Buffett’s lifestyle is a reflection of his unglamorous investment strategy, Elon Musk is the Tesla, daring and elite but plotting to conquer the world, etc. The transformation of CEO’s into culture heroes is tied to the mythologies of the business activities they’re connected to.

    If Andrew is right about the rise of business culture heroes, it probably has something to do with our changing relationship to consumer goods and services. Here I suspect we are seeing the cultural reflection of the marketing shifts that began in the 1960s after two decades of expansion of rather generic mass produced goods in countries like the US. There was a thirst for quality and individuation. (“I have just one word, and the word is plastics.”) Businesses and advertisers retooled and supplied a plethora of mass/niche products with carefully crafted auras. If people attribute more outsized personality to CEO’s and entrepreneurs today, it may be because they attribute more personality to their iPhones, Prius’, software platforms, and so on. (Or in Bill Gates’ case, a monumental lack of personality, which also applies to Microsoft, and has been an aspect of its selling point.)

    • Andrew says:

      Peter:

      Yeah, good point. For example, back in the day we used to eat cheese that came out of a green can (see here for a hilarious comparison), now our food is much more niche. I mean, sure, I’m a lot richer than I was as a kid, but I don’t think it’s that. Still . . . in the 70s, we consumed music of mass popularity (The Eagles, etc.), now music is more niche. But The Eagles were big stars, and as we discussed in the earlier thread, there just seemed to be room for more major rock stars back then. Same with TV, I guess. Mass medium gives you mass stars. Business leaders are a different story because they don’t have to be on TV or the radio to get attention; they just get in the news somehow or otherwise become famous.

  10. Dzhaughn says:

    Elon Musk stands alone these days, not that I entirely approve. But here’s a guy who didn’t waste his billion dollars from PayPal. He builds awesome cars and spaceships, laying waste to massive stagnant bureaucracies in doing so, when They said it couldn’t be done. And makes billions more! Lives with a rock star! He is living a boy’s dreams.

  11. Jonesy says:

    Lots of people have noted the demise of ‘public intellectuals’, a class of celebrities that used to be quite prominent, e.g., Bertrand Russell, H. L. Mencken, J. K. Galbraith, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and more.

    Then there’s the persistence of some celebrities in public memory long after they’ve passed, e.g., the cults of Marilyn Monroe or James Dean.

    The rise to prominence of entrepreneurs and business types since the 80s reflect broader economic and social changes associated with the stealth rise of neoliberalism and the ‘gee-whiz’ hype driving innovations in information technology. That guys like Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg could make enormous amounts of money from garage tech has had the impact of a cultural nuclear bomb.

    That said, it’s useful to note cross-cultural celebrity cultures, e.g., China’s promotion of ‘state’ heroes throughout the Mao years (see Edwards, Celebrity in China). That’s changed with the shift to post-Mao market capitalism so the likes Yao Min, Jack Ma and Wendi Deng are celebrities.

  12. somebody says:

    it is my understanding that that fella who faked his minecraft speedrun is a cultural hero

  13. Michael Jetsupphasuk says:

    I wonder how much of this relates to decentralization of media, which Andrew and others here have alluded to. With stuff like Spotify people are more able to discover their personal music tastes rather than relying on radio like before. Similarly, with the internet there’s a lot of freedom and access to follow the things you like and care about. So Silicon Valley types are free to read about people like Peter Thiel or Marc Benioff or whoever while everyone else can ignore them. More access to different information sources may also partially explain the rise of more diverse political figures like Trump or AOC.

    Also, as a relatively young person I was surprised to hear that there’s been a recent rise in popularity of business executives. But this wouldn’t be a new phenomenon right? If you go back further than 50 years you’ll get the age of Rockefeller and Carnegie who were pretty popular in their time I think? Which then makes me wonder if there’s a relationship to the wealth of these business executives and their popularity.

    • jd says:

      Agreed. There is more diversity in type of and access to entertainment in media. We aren’t all watching or listening to the same few (relative to today) things. Seems like it would promote a lot of niche cultural heroes.

  14. Dale Lehman says:

    So, how does all this relate to the “scientist” as hero, that Andrew recently blogged about?

    It is somewhat debatable whether music stars are no longer cultural heroes and whether they have been replaced by business icons. But, I’ll accept that it is at least partially true. Sports figures still fit the role, and I’d argue that politicians do as well (at least since the 2016 election). But we also have scientists striving to join the ranks. Isn’t this all a sign of the scarcity of time and attention, and the attendant monetization of eyeballs? I see much of this as technologically driven – as attention gets pulled in more directions, the value of the “superstar” increases, whether that be in business, politics, science, athletics, or music. If music is the exception (which I have doubts about), then why is that one different? Otherwise, the same forces are at work in all of these areas. We had cultural icons forever – fewer in the 1950s and 1960s, and those were greatly influenced by the development of television. But with fewer channels, fewer icons. Now, with many more channels, many more icons, each with their own niches. Fragmentation is the word that comes to mind, and what could have been a force for good in the world, seems increasingly to be the opposite.

    • Michael Jetsupphasuk says:

      Dale:

      Now that you mention it, I think I agree with you that the question of music stars not being cultural heroes is questionable. To Pimp a Butterfly was not too long ago and it was definitely widely popular, political, and culture-shaping. So I think Kendrick Lamar has some claim to being a “cultural hero”. And regarding Andrew’s point that it’s not about individuals really but about how they fit into a wider picture: “We love (or love to hate) Bill Gates or Elon Musk, not just for their own accomplishments and riches but also for how they fit into this larger story.” I think that’s also true with music? Some people love Taylor Swift, others hate her music and how it has arguably shifted pop music. Similarly, some love Drake but hate how he’s moved rap music to more of a singing/rap blend. In the country/americana/folk genres it seems like people like Brandi Carlisle and Kacey Musgraves are moving it to a more progressive territory. And they’re both very popular. So yeah I think there are still culture heroes in music but they may be a bit more de-centralized and exist within their respective genres.

    • jim says:

      Dale Says:

      “Fragmentation is the word that comes to mind”

      Yep. Like the brewing industry. 20 years ago, Bud, Miller, Coors. Today it’s hard to find these labels in the proliferation of multicolored and wildly designed microbrew cans and bottles.

      • Change 20 years ago to maybe 35 years ago and you may be right. But the first “craft brew” boom was just slightly before the Dot Com boom I think (1985-1997 or so). https://www.statista.com/chart/10280/americas-brewery-boom/

        funny how much the brewery graph looks like the COVID graphs.

        • jim says:

          “Change 20 years ago to maybe 35 years ago and you may be right.”

          Your chart shows the big boom in craft brews was after 2010, doesn’t it? So changing 20 years to 10 years seems more accurate to me.

          The chart is consistent with my experience. I’ve been drinking Sierra Nevada, Ballard Bitter & Pete’s Wicked Ale since the early 90s. But the major radiation that populated grocery stores was relatively recent. Back in the 90s, microbrew was a Bohemian thing. Now microbrews are in every cow town across the west. From Seattle to Salt Lake on the interstate I bet half the towns have microbrews now. The Thriftway just up the street probably carries 200-300 different beers today, many only in single cans or bottles, up from maybe 30 twenty years ago. Even WalMart has microbrews.

          • Daniel Lakeland says:

            The first wave of the craft brew epidemic hit in about 1985. By 1997 we had managed to flatten the curve but by 2005 the second wave hit and only the social distancing induced by COVID has been able to slow the growth .

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Going back further, what about Blatz (“It’s Blatz, Blatz, Blatz, Blatz, wherever you go”) and Stroh’s (which I believe is having a resurgence).

        • jim says:

          What was in they said about Olympia beer? “it’s the water, and not much more” :)

          Yeah really there was a lot of beer diversity in the past. Remember animal beer? :) Or Schlitz? I never drank blatz but I drank some Stroh’s.

  15. Ricardo Segurado says:

    I don’t think you’re right, I think kids have plenty of cultural heroes, particularly in LGBTI rights, that anyone older than Generation X just doesn’t have a clue about.

    Here’s a sample of names that even I know, just from 2 minutes googling:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/02/lady-gaga-born-this-way/618000/

    https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-55931894

    https://variety.com/2020/music/news/billie-eilish-anti-trump-speech-dnc-democratic-national-convention-watch-video-1234740733/

  16. Martha (Smith) says:

    Off the top of my head, some “culture heroes” I remember from way back when:

    Dwight D. Eisenhower
    Henry Ford
    Perry Como, Roy Rogers, Kate Smith, Rise Stevens, Lawrence Welk, Jan Peerce
    Al Kaline, Gordie Howe
    Spike Jones, Bob Hope, Groucho Mark

  17. Tom says:

    I’ve got two thoughts on this: (i) are we looking for cultural heroes in the wrong places (ie are we old and stuck in our ways)? Cultural heroes are more likely you-tubers or the like – the medium for culture has changed but I still find myself going to what I grew up with. (ii) there is a return on investment for cultural heroism and it takes time and effort to carve out a place in culture – why would a record company (for example) do this when they can sell the output from a talent show (essentially karaoke) to huge numbers of consumers and then do the same again with another bunch of people the next year. There is a huge pool of people who can sing pretty well and there are a lot of songs to sing again.

  18. Luigi Leone says:

    The managerial hero was already identified in Alasdair MacIntyre “After virtue” (1981). Marcuse discussed it as well before, in the One dimensional Man”. Adorno and Horckheimer similarly mentioned the new hero even before. It appears philosophers are good at identifying sociological and cultural trends; thus, it seems social science research would not add much.
    Best

    • Andrew says:

      Luigi:

      That’s cool that philosophers have noticed these things, and I wouldn’t want to make great claims for the relevance of my offhand introspections and theorizing. But I think you’re going too far to say that social science research would not add much. I think the managerial hero of 2021 is a lot different from the managerial hero of 1981 or the managerial hero of 1941, and some measurement could add something beyond pure qualitative theorizing.

  19. Graham says:

    On the politicians being household names bit, Neil Postman wrote the book on political media: “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. I remember reading it in undergrad during the 2016 election and being blown away by how good it was. I still think about it a lot.

  20. jim says:

    Also: gaming, Pintrest, Facebook, Twitch….

  21. Dan F. says:

    Computer games have taken over the cultural universe.

    The cultural heros of youngsters start with Youtubers. Videogame commentators like Vegetta have tens of millions of followers. As is characteristic of such heros the attraction of these cultural heros is completely incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 25.

    As for music, you probably aren’t listening to Kondzilla, but a lot of people are. In North America and Europe the rock revolution was already replaced by the rap revolution, but that’s already the past and the new music revolutions are originating in other places, like Brazil or India. As with cultural heros, no much of anyone over 30 gets the new musics – only those music obsessed sorts who listen to everyting – when they are even aware of them, which is hard unless one has teenage children.

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