Posted tagged ‘sweet sixteen’

The Sign, the Note, and the World: What Art Form Speaks Most Clearly in a Cacophonous Time?

March 31, 2012

Welcome to thrilling Round 2 of the Spring For Music Great Arts Blogger Challenge! I am excited to have made it to the round of 16 and to check out the engaging company in this rarefied air. In DMV news, though I am happy to have discovered Cultural Tourism DC through this contest, we must all pour out a little liquor for Ionarts, which went down in the first round. I’m sure the crew over there can console themselves with the awesomeness of their blog, though.

The e-mail informing me of my advancement posed the following question, the answer to which will constitute my entry into the next round:

We live in an aggressively visual age; images dominate the popular culture. But which art form has the most to say about contemporary culture, and why?

Since I received this e-mail while I was drafting another e-mail to let its recipient know that I had texted a third person, a task that in turn was distracting me from my daily dose of document review, I do not know exactly how much our lived experience is dominated by images, rather than the endless roaring gusher of text that threatens to drown all of us, even when it is parceled out in tinier and tinier chunks.

But it is true that our popular culture relentlessly proffers visual images at us, because they can be taken in so quickly — a mere glance on the subway and we understand that Svedka is the vodka for you, if you are a robot, or would like to have sex with one. And just as we take them in, they can take us in — we understand that Svedka is also the vodka for me if I enjoy turning over in my head the idea of being a robot or having sex with one, which makes a slightly larger pool of potential drinkers of colorless, tasteless liquor.

Baby got plastic back!

I do enjoy visual arts, along with the other art forms that I will callously dismiss in answering this question. But with only images at their disposal, the visual arts can only go so far in making sense of popular culture’s onslaught of images. This is particularly true considering that visual art is presented in a distraction-free environment, giving it an unfair advantage over hardworking images like LOLcats and Beyonce publicity photos, which must compete with a plethora of other images to snap our eyeballs to attention.

No, we need something outside the realm of the purely visual to say something about, rather than to or instead of, popular culture. We need: popular music.

Why pop? Perhaps it will be easier for our image-addled brains to apprehend the reasons if I format them in a bulleted list:

  • Unlike images, which we typically try to avoid by averting our gaze (or using ad blockers), pop is something people seek out to avoid or enhance everyday experiences. People plug in white earbuds to shut out subway chatter or slip a mix into their beater’s CD player to make the open road more enjoyable. We millions, we embrace it, rather than shying away.
  • Pop songs have lyrical content, which definitely allows for something to be said. However, songs that “say something” typically are not very popular, because people don’t like to be scolded in musical form any more than they like being scolded in any other context.
  • Yet even when nothing of any great import is being said, the manner in which it is said often provides a window into the contemporary mood. The renewed-strength Top 40 is machine-tooled, AutoTuned, and relentlessly danceable — intricately structured to get you to surrender conscious thought for physical release. That’s certainly saying something about what’s going on now, with our appreciation for the little-understood miracles of technology and our emphasis on the perfectability of the body. Or take T-Pain, of whom I am a fan; the conscious choice to make his own voice blatantly false, through the miracle of pitch-correction software, and the way it shades all his narratives of poor decision-making and failed courtship, as if he’s ashamed of his own sincerity.
  • Over the past decade or so, pop music has been radically democratized. Anyone can make music for the cost of a decent mike and a few pieces of software, and get a worldwide audience in minutes by uploading to YouTube. This allows for reg’lar folks to participate in the pop music conversation, and sometimes to drive it. They can be in dialogue with the mainstream or outside it, and sometimes they move from outside to inside.
  • Nowadays people have taken to using these tools not only to create but also to break down and build up other music according to their own plan; in other words, to remix. Anything can be claimed as material by anyone; for example, rap songs that white people may be slightly embarrassed to enjoy get slathered with layers of ironic appreciation through the medium of the acoustic cover. Or a remix can be a response, or a lesson. And it can all be done within hours, and apprehended fully within minutes. Popular music is joyously responsive.

Though they provide many satisfactions, other arts don’t measure up along the Spring for Music-prescribed axis of appreciation. (Warning: Absurd overgeneralizations approaching!) Most films speak authentically only regarding what an executive thinks someone else wants to see in a film; for films that go beyond that standard, the industry builds copyright and commercial walls against anyone responding in the same medium. Theater is hampered by the small number of people who can actually see any given play, due to cost and scale. Though I have enjoyed the small number of dance shows I have attended, I have never found them to be saying anything other than “look how good this dancing is.”

And then there is classical music, the reason I write this blog. As noted earlier, if I had to choose to listen to only one genre of music for the rest of my life, I’d pick classical. But for the most part it’s walled off from contemporary culture: It doesn’t reflect things that are happening in the world, its presenters don’t draw connections from the music to anything current, and its consumers are largely preoccupied with escape rather than engagement, shunning even the most anodyne contemporary works for Best-Loved Classics on repeat.

Right now, the music is on an island, full of time-tested, indisputably great art that’s survived the increasingly furious flow around it of our dynamic modern culture. Nevertheless, the music’s position in the common mind has been eroded. I don’t know whether the erosion can continue indefinitely, but part of the point of this blog is to help build a bridge. I’ll keep trying.