Of Christmas, Culture, and Consumerism Pt. 1

December 8, 2008

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.”
– Ecclesiastes 1:9

“If the music’s gotten boring
It’s because of the people
Who want everyone to sound the same”
– Chickenshit Conformist, Dead Kennedys

The holiday season is upon us. Typing that phrase, incidentally, put me in mind of swarms of locusts pouring down onto a field. I may be a bit of a curmudgeon. Generally, I really do enjoy this time of year. The weather is cold, the air is crisp, and life feels fresh, with every snowfall comes a new chance to make tracks. People seem friendlier, and as much as I hate to admit it, some of those carols are a sleigh full of fun. I’ve got several stuck in my head right now, jostling around for my attention; so far, “White Christmas” seems to be in the lead. But with the holiday season comes constant commercials aimed at making your family love you through toys, cars, and gift cards. We get O’Reily screaming about the secular War on Christmas (an argument that loses legs when you realize that Sam Harris has a Christmas tree). We are inundated by tacky store displays and threats from talking heads that we can either go deeper into credit card debt and buy more presents, or let the economy slip further down the hole. And, to kick the whole thing off, we get a wildly expensive parade on Thanksgiving, when the Macy’s store marches beloved corporate icons down the street while horrible pop groups lip sync along to abbreviated standards on floats sponsored by candy companies and tooth paste brands.

My favorite part of this annual event has always been the performances of numbers from musicals, since I’m a sucker for show tunes. This year the CBS broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade aired two Broadway numbers. One was the eternally annoying “Grease Lighting” from Grease (hell is other people dancing on cars) and the other was a sugary number from Mary Poppins. I can’t help but think we’ve seen this all before.

Broadway seems to have been hit hard by a lack of truly vibrant, powerful new musicals. Watching the Tony Awards the past few years has been thoroughly disappointing, as most of what I’ve seen are reproductions of Disney movies and revivals of old stage classics. The standards are great, don’t get me wrong, but when the only new musical of recent years to really get me excited was the grim Grey Gardens (which is, as it turns out, based on a documentary of the same name), one has got to start questioning where the creative types have wandered off to. I’m hardly an expert or even a devoted amateur when it comes to the history of Broadway, so it may very well be that this has always been the way of things. But in any case the trend toward sameness and repetition I’m talking about isn’t just happening on the stage. It seems systemically pandemic in our culture.

The most successful touring bands of today are rock and roll dinosaurs. The Rolling Stones have been going at it nonstop since their inception, and I will admit A Bigger Bang, their most recent album, had its moments, but I don’t think anyone would dissent if I say that they are well past their creative peak. It isn’t just the Stones, though. Rock bands that broke up decades ago are reuniting and touring, bringing in the big bucks. A few years ago I saw Black Sabbath play at OzzFest: Ozzy botched a few lines of Paranoid and after the cocaine rocker Snowblind laid a finger to the side of his nose and wistfully reflected that “Ah, those were the days.” Led Zeppelin were back last year, gods bless ‘em, and might be recording new material without Plant on board. The goth grandpas Bauhaus have been spotted opening for their musical offspring Nine Inch Nails and released an unsuccessful, uninspired new album. The Sex Pistols, whose greatest strength might have been their volatile one album/four year life-span, have come back for reunion tours several times in the past decade; at least John Lydon has been quite honest that it’s been all about the money. The Dead Kennedys are touring without Jello, and the Germs have gotten an actor to play the enigmatically tragic Darby Crash on stage.

Look at the movies. The silver screen has been flooded with remakes (I Am Legend, The Manchurian Candidate) and new additions to old franchises (The Dark Knight). Now, I’m not bringing into question the quality of these films (I could, but I won’t). What I am asking is why so much of our culture seems recycled and repetitive. Hell, even the comics pages of newspapers are clogged with geriatric legacy strips who long ago lost their creators. It’s something that has bothered me for some time, but I’ve only really wrestled with it for a few weeks, starting on Thanksgiving morning when I grumbled about how goddamn much I hate Grease.

Since then I’ve begun to think that this sad state of affairs has been a long time coming.

I’m of the mind that the most important thing to happen in the West in the 20th century took place around the end of World War 1. It wasn’t Tzara’s Dadaist manifesto and it wasn’t the rise of fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany. Shortly after the end of Great War, records first outsold sheet music in the U.S.  For the first time in the course of human history, more people were listening to music that was captured at an earlier date and mass produced, rather than playing it themselves. Before then, the top songs had been written by the sonic craftsmen of Tin Pan Alley and published for piano and sing alongs at home and in bars. When you wanted music, you made it yourself, or went to see someone who did. But with the advent of affordable home audio systems and the proliferation of recording technology, it became easy and inexpensive for people to listen to the professionals over and over again. It was the first time we turned our collective back on a culture we helped create, and instead payed someone to take care of it all for us.

And now look how far we’ve come. A few handful of companies control the film, music, television, and news industries. We are less involved in and more distant from our culture than ever before. Can we even say it is ours anymore? The only time we participate is when we line up at Walmart or download off iTunes, because even our digestion of the material we are paying for is increasingly inactive and passive. Music serves as a soundtrack, as background muzak for our day to day lives. Movies are so mundane that we walk in for a couple hours of escapism and walk out without ever pondering what the film is actually saying, assuming it is saying anything at all. I suppose this might be inevitable in a world that favors specialization, where factory workers perform the same repeated tasks over and over again for hours each day, office staff fill the same forms out with the same series of identifying codes a hundred thousand times until they retire, and areas of academic study are increasingly concentrated and insulated. We can’t be blamed for not exerting energy or talent on things as unnecessary as culture, can we? How much of this is out of necessity, I don’t know. But it’s become increasingly clear that, just like the Industrial Revolution left the working class impotent and destitute, our own Consumerist Revolution has left us voiceless and soulless. Two things are happening, and have been for a while now:
1) Our control over our culture slips more and more until all we can do is “vote with our wallets” and we begin to lose touch with what shapes our views and values. A loss of control over culture is a loss of control over how we think.
2) What the executives who finance our culture consider marketable is increasingly narrow. Music sounds the same, movies are more and more modeled after the same Bruckheimer blockbusters and Chick-Flick cookie cutters, the novel continues to be reduced to a few sad cliches and sellable genres, et cetera et cetera.

When art springs organically from the people who are enjoying it, it not only allows for the expression of their long held traditions, but encourages and inspires new ways of thinking. Art is a language that allows us to explore the abstractions of the human experience, not only to communicate them. Look at how African American slave songs, worker shouts and  gospel hymns, reinterpreted the same white bible myths used to justify slavery and turned them into a grape vine for the underground railroad. Or how the folk scene of the 60’s birthed revolutionary movements while rock music was breaking the boundaries of what pop music could do, thanks to the noise experiments of Jimi Hendrix and John Cale. Or how in the late seventies, working class youth in the U.K. threatened the foundations of their civilization by picking up guitars, learning three chords, and forming punk bands. Bakunin once wrote that the passion to destroy is a creative passion. This is true, but when you are made powerless and voiceless, the passion to create is a destructive passion. It disobeys orders, it refuses to know its place, and it demands to be heard. Creating is a radical act. If you own the culture, you own the terms and the means by which and with which that culture can be criticized. Right now the ruling ideas of the day are the ideas of record labels, Hollywood executives, and media empire moguls like Murdoch.

This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.

This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.

Because those who own the art industries treat creation primarily as a business, culture plays by a very different set of rules than we might otherwise want it to. The standard by which art is judged is all about profit margins. Whereas we might be drawn to create and promote art that expresses our evolving experiences and views, a business is more interested in making money and maintaining stability. Record execs have become less and less entrepreneurial, instead sticking to what works and demanding bands to produce singles that follow the model of their previous successes. It’s no wonder people of all ages are turning to concerts from times gone by when today’s radio ready music is so wilted. The comic syndicates would rather preserve their spot in the papers by recycling The Peanuts or hiring a committee to produce ancient Archie and Blondie mummies, rather than support a new innovative artist’s idea and risk handing precious print inches over to their competitors. It’s the same everywhere. When change does happen, it almost always comes from the bottom up, and is then reworked and repackaged when it is handed back down, usually the merit is bowdlerized away by the time it hits a chain retailer’s shelves or the airwaves, or the dead tree press.

And so what we need is a change. We have got to take our society back. What we need is a revival of organic, grass roots entertainment, coupled with the bravery and self confidence to be honest and original. Things seem grim. Fortunately, there are reasons to stay hopeful about the future and examples from the past that shed light on what we have to do.


6 Responses to “Of Christmas, Culture, and Consumerism Pt. 1”

  1. Great post, though it may get knocked off its tracks by the mention of: YouTube, iTunes, User-Generated Content. Because your frame of the culture industry is pretty 20th century, isn’t it? Hollywood movies, analog newspapers (they’re dying, as TOC or HuffPo’s media page or BuzzMachine know), big record labels.

    Have you read Clay Shirky’s essay about how TV was to the post-World War II generation what gin was to the post-(First) Industrial Revolution? A tonic for the nerves that sucked creative energy from society? And how the fledgling UGC movement marks the beginning of the end of consumer culture, at least for many of us?

    Your analysis of how sucktastic US culture is makes me applaud piracy. If we can put Hollywood out of business, in terms of both film and music, then we’re back to watching what we the people can create – back to the bars and the live shows featuring people we discovered on YouTube and the like, and through, maybe, local social networks.

    It’s early here, this is rushed, and I’ve got to run. But again, a great read. The epigraphs contrast beautifully, the image makes me want to go on a month’s writing strike to make only songs (I know 3 chords, after all), and the whole thing makes me want to go further by writing scripts and filming them (I’ve got an HDcam, after all).

    And oh: Musicals rock. My Fair Lady and An American in Paris will go to my desert island.

  2. That Shirky article is here.

  3. spgreenlaw said

    Yeah, I definitely didn’t tackle the amazing new possibilities out there and how the old models are beginning to fall. It’s all exciting stuff that will probably be addressed in part 2 of the series. I’ve begun to write it but I have a lot more research to do before the piece comes even remotely close to being finished.

    I’ve seen that Shirky article somewhere before, but I didn’t get around to reading it. Thanks for reminding me of its existence, I remember being intrigued by the premise when I first heard mention of it.

    As far as musicals go, I was raised on (and to this day love) My Fair Lady. My favorite will always and forever be Les Mis, though. There’s just something about those young student revolutionaries that gets me excited.

  4. Justin said

    If you haven’t, you should certainly read “The Pirates’ Dilemma,” which has a site at http://www.thepiratesdilemma.com.

    There’s also a few TED talks on how school and the law inhibits creativity, here and here respectively.

  5. Hannah said

    Absolutely wonderful. I did happen to grow up in an environment where singing and making music ourselves was the norm, and I am just now coming to realize that that is unusual. A sad state, no?

    I happen to be partial to Man of La Mancha. However, Les Mis, the first musical I decided to memorize the songs of, will always remain dear to my heart.

  6. Very good post. Hope to see more great posts in the future.

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