Culture out of crisis: Fantasy is the new reality

Fantasy and escapism are completely human reactions when times are tough.

Bumper platform shoes, bulging crotches, heavy make-up, maximum camp and maximal lyrics.

Not something you’d normally associate with the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, nationwide miners’ strikes and the peak of the Cold War. Yet that was precisely the political environment from which Marc Bolan, Ziggy Stardust and other icons of glam rock emerged.

Likewise, Donna Summer’s iconic hit I Feel Love, with its futuristic production, emerged in 1977, a year when both New York City and Chicago experienced mass civil unrest.

While punk, anarchy and angst are well-documented cultural outcomes springing from disillusionment with the systems of power, fantasy and escapism are perhaps less acknowledged. However, if you squint hard enough, this alternate response to times of hardship is clearly evident, from the second summer of love as an antidote to Thatcherite Britain to Neo-Afrofuturism as a reaction to American racism in the late 2010s.

Fantasy and escapism could be dismissed as apolitical and self-indulgent, but it is a completely human reaction when times are tough: the need to escape from the limits of our bodies, physical spaces, families, societies, culture and, hell, the solar system. Sometimes we all need to cut loose and forget reality.

2020 has brought unprecedented social and cultural changes globally, and 2021 might well give us recession, unemployment, more social injustice and political turmoil. For some, escaping altogether will be the only solution. We can already see elements of this in some of 2020’s brightest and boldest moments in pop culture.

Two interesting alternative R&B singers who have embraced escapism and fantasy are Yves Tumor and Tierra Whack. Tumor (real name Sean Bowie) has created a shape-shifting genre-smashing album, Heaven to a Tortured Mind, with a bold and eclectic creative direction to match. Clearly he is a man in his own world, not the one we inhabit.

Likewise Whack, who shot to fame in 2018 from relative anonymity with her experimental music and video project Whack World, is starting to take her escapism even further. Her partnership with Adobe earlier this year, called "What Whack Wears", invited fans to embrace their inner fantasy and create original patterns or designs using Adobe Creative Cloud apps.

In pop, reggaeton Super Bowl halftime show megastar Bad Bunny created a Marvel-esque campaign for his critically and commercially acclaimed album YHLQMDLG.

In cinema, British actor Dev Patel stars in The Green Knight, released later this year and described as "an epic fantasy adventure based on the timeless Arthurian legend". It is telling that A24, one of the most trendsetting film studios (behind Moonlight, Mid90s, Uncut Gems and many more), is now financing a new twist on the fantasy genre.

Meanwhile in fashion, photographer Tyrone Lebon has begun reimagining luxury house Bottega Veneta with bombastic fantasy images, including hanging Lamborghinis and sun-drenched concrete basins, that have set Instagram alight.

A new generation of make-up artists have also started channeling their inner Salvador Dali, Leigh Bowery, Billie Eilish and everything in-between. The likes of Madrona Redhawk and Abby Roberts are choosing escapism as their primary form of expression in reaction to the world around them.

And musician and entrepreneur Akon has just announced how his $6bn futuristic Senegalese metropolis (aptly named Akon City) will look when it is completed in 2029. 

While fantasy may not be the only reaction to the post-Covid-19, politically charged world we are entering, expect to see it crop up within pop culture more and more and create a new reality.

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is co-founder of Soursop

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