If there's a trend in popular culture in 2009, it's a defiant kind of creative optimism that's equal parts uncompromising and practical.
In Grant Morrison's Final Crisis, humanity saves itself by creating—on paper—superheroes. In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the director implicitly acknowledges the powerlessness of his fiction, but at the very same time demonstrates that its power is virtually limitless, that it can do whatever the hell its creator wants—even burn the assembled top Nazi brass to death in a French movie theater in 1945. And Metric's aptly titled Fantasies urges listeners, in the track "Gimme Sympathy," to settle for no less than "The Beatles or The Rolling Stones"—with the slickest, most polished new-wave sounds you've heard since 1989, no less.
One of the signature songs for 2008 is TV on the Radio's "DLZ": "Congratulations to the mess you've made of things," Kyp Manley's first line reads. Now, 2009, clearly, was the year when pop culture recognized its own futility and decided, fuck it, we haven't got a prayer anyway, so we might as well aim at the top.
A preposterous and contradictory attitude? Perhaps, but also vital—if you're not giving this your best shot, to hell with the odds, then why bother? Why should anyone spend their time, which is always running out, on your humble, modest, competently made piece of fiction, cinema, music, whatever?
What's new, though, is that, this time, it comes with the inbuilt realization that the odds at actually succeeding aren't terribly good—that the deck is stacked against it rather crushingly, in fact. Instead of delusions of grandeur, there's a refreshing sense of realism at work: Final Crisis reminds you you're reading a comic book about men in tights at its crucial moments; Inglourious Basterds rubs itself against reality so furiously for 150 minutes that it might as well be the sparks resulting from that causing the fire in the end; and Emily Haines' persona in Fantasies has no illusions that failure will be punished—the loftier the ambitions, the more severe the punishment.
You could watch Revolutionary Road and you could watch Away We Go this year, but neither film is complete without the acknowledgment that the director, Sam Mendes, went from one to the other in six months. They're two sides of the same coin, worst case and best case—your lofty ambitions might pay off, or they might kill you. And even the best-case scenario leaves the happy family at the end of Away We Go with a future that's utterly uncertain. But that's as good as it gets for us, so we might as well not worry about it too much. We live by striving, not by succeeding—at least as long as we still have to go at some point.
If nothing else, what these works have in common is their endorsement of unbridled creativity, and of thinking whatever the hell you want. With a blank, empty piece of paper, film, tape, canvas or whatever, the possibilities of what people can do are literally limitless, so there's no reason to be restricted by artificial boundaries like convention, tradition, logic, taste, and so on—these are man-made concepts that can be safely ignored, not laws of nature. Breaking with them comes with its share of great risks, but it's also the only chance we have to create something that will endure.
Or, to make a long story short: If you want to be pulled out of the swamp, you'll have to do it yourself, by your own hair.
Or, to paraphrase Emily Haines: Help, we're alive.