With all the charm and catchy tunes, it is easy to overlook that The Monkees (the show) and “the Monkees” (the band) represent a profound shift in contemporary culture and consciousness. The Monkees prophesied how TV would come to generate the reality to which the world conforms—the screen reality of which the world dreams, worships, and becomes. As media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said: “We become what we behold.” As the Monkees once sang, “I’m a believer!”
With a name that merged Darwin and pop culture, The Monkees were the early-stage evolution of the simulacrum — the copy for which there was no original. After all, the Monkees did not exist prior to the TV show, which ran from 1966–1968. The Monkees were actors and characters assembled to play a fictitious band invented for the show, a fake band that cranked out real hits and even toured for a brief period. The Monkees won two Emmy Awards and the Monkees sold 75 million records.
In the 2000s, the Monkees toured again, prompting Peter Tork to tell the UK’s Telegraph: “This is not a band, it’s an entertainment operation whose function is Monkee music.” Mickey Dolenz added: “It’s a misnomer to even call it a group. The Monkees was the cast of a television show. If you approach it with those goggles on, everything just makes so much more sense.” Of course, Tork and Dolenz are correct with regard to the music. But The Monkees show has a philosophical legacy that permeates popular culture and consciousness—a legacy seen in the power of TV and screens to transform reality into a mirror of television.
From TV to the White House
The Monkees and the Monkees showed how signs and symbols of the real generate the new real, what Jean Baudrillard called the hyperreal—a world of copies, clones, celebrities, replicas, reproductions, fakes, facades, spectacles, staged events, social media, and so on. It’s a hot media hyperreal, filled with hot takes and hotter tribes, all vying for recognition and domination on the stage of staged events, our world of endless entertainment and instant infamy. TV does not merely reflect reality, for reality reflects TV such that reality and TV are now the same thing, completely indistinguishable in the 24/7 spectacle of the internet. That’s our world today, online and off, the hyperreal world, and The Monkees saw it coming, no less than Disneyland, Las Vegas, Hollywood, or Silicon Valley, whose entire raison d’etre is to stockpile endless copies of the world made by and for the screens.
It’s no coincidence that The Monkees debuted the year before the first Super Bowl, a staged event for TV, now a massive spectacle permeating pop culture and changing the perceived destiny of cities. The hyperreal is the new real world, a reality-TV world writ large, leaping from the screens to streets, to suburbs, to skyscrapers, to the highest positions of corporate and political power. The hyperreal extends from the TV screen of the 1966 all the way to the reality-TV simulacrum taking the White House in 2016. Across 50 years, America and the world became the believer!
Barry Vacker is co-editor of Black Mirror and Critical Media Theory (2018), the first media/technology studies book about the series Black Mirror. Other recent books include Specter of the Monolith (2017), which presents a radical new philosophy inspired by 2001.