Four questions for the fan of popular culture


Where is this going?

The VMAs last month left everybody and their mother writing disgusted posts, rehashing the sordid details concerning the train wreck performance given by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke. Thicke got off lightly, despite his very suspect vocal performance! There are those who have suffered far worse consequences after getting caught up in a ‘twerking moment that they weren’t equipped or prepared for. Just ask Caitlyn Heller, the singed poster of The Worst ‘Twerking Fail Ever. One shudders to think what may have happened if Jimmy Kimmel was not conveniently in the next room with a fire extinguisher!

At the VMAs the captivated public’s focus was instead directed towards Miley’s penchant for twerk culture. The word ‘twerk derives from the combination of to twist and to jerk. She seemed to have an urgent desire to initiate Mr. Thicke (a.k.a Beetlejuice) into “her” newly discovered world. To achieve this end she enlisted a giant teddybear, a detachable teddybear flesh colored leotard, one blue foam giant finger, and the assistance of six very healthy looking black ladies, who also donned teddybear hoodies, with actual teddybears on the back. Besides the really bad ‘twerking/poor taste, there was also a certain amount of implied pedophilia, as well as at least a few ‘isms….for those paying attention. And then there was her tongue!

For good reason Miley’s performance shocked America. Now, one could go down the road much travelled, which explores the reasons why Disney’s adolescent great white hope, who literally has everything, decided it would be “cool” to ape the subculture of a somewhat unrelated social group, who for the most part, literally have nothing. We could also ask how she convinced herself that this would be perceived as anything but inauthentic. It wasn’t like ‘twerkers all over the world were suddenly going to unite behind Miley Cyrus! Surely there were producers, managers or lowly minions along the way, who could have pointed out the extreme likelihood of this becoming the biggest VMA/‘Twerking fail of all time (soon to be upstaged by Caitlyn Heller and Jimmy Kimmel). More shocking still, Cyrus & Thicke rehearsed this performance on numerous occasions. Maybe those with sense in Thicke’s camp were preoccupied with preemptively suing the Gaye’s and so unfortunately couldn’t make any rehearsals? Meanwhile, Miley’s camp were obviously otherwise occupied…..

Rather than exploring Miley’s dilemma, that being an obvious lack of good sense and career advice, I thought it would be far more interesting to look at a much more common problem, which many artists are experiencing; This being, a total lack of content. Commercial artists habitually inhabit a creative and content void.

Though this issue is common throughout pop culture, for the purpose of expedience we will confine our parameters to commercial music.

Where is the Music?

Why do we humans “do” music? What is the point? What purpose does this serve? Where is this journey leading us? These are lofty questions, which have perplexed far greater minds than mine throughout history.

Music is part of the human psyche. It’s a phenomenon, which has been common to every known culture. The great cultures of days past, were deemed great, in no small part based upon others later observing the sophistication of their great works; Arts, Literature, Sciences & Architectural wonders. All is art and science when done well and taken to its natural conclusion. As humans we are often burdened with an inherent desire to excel at whatever we set our minds to. The music of Purandara Dasa, Bach, Bartok, Bird, Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Hendrix, Fela, Radio Head, and Dilla, though from different cultures, reveal the workings of the great minds, which created them.

Music is a living language, like English, French, Ebo or Mandarin. Though not a literal language, its notes, rhythms, dynamics and feel convey the musician’s message in an altogether different way, related more to the type of language that a mother might share with her newborn baby. Music exploits a direct link to our emotions, our bodies, our sub-conscious, and some might even say our souls, when utilized masterfully. The world’s greatest musicians to ever live were acutely aware of this.

So, if music is an essential part of who we are as humans (not unlike our need for intellectual, emotional, or sensory stimulation) is there really any debate regarding the importance of music in our present regiment of education? Is it possible for a young child to develop “normally” sans music education? Education could be a parent being strategic in choosing the palette of music they expose their child to, or a child being involved in some sort of music program where they learn the nuts and bolts of music.

Would either of these approaches lead to children more capable of problem solving, critical thought, appreciation of cultures other than their own, self expression, a higher level of intuition, a higher level of learning, longer attention spans, longer lasting brain plasticity, and establishment of the useful precept that hard work and regimental practice almost always result in success? Over the years all sorts of research has established beyond any doubt that certain musics can act as a catalyst to positively transform the lives of those that play and listen to them.

Has our recent relegation of music to the role of “soundtrack for visuals” already affected the development of an entire generation of children? Is it possible to incessantly consume junk food, with little to no nutritional content, and still enjoy a healthy life? Supersize me made the case that it is certainly not! It’s no secret, as evidenced by the recent VMA’s, that pop music has reached a base depth where one can only in the most abstract of senses still be regard it to be music. Much like a McDonald’s beef patty can only in the most abstract of senses be regarded to be beef, or for that matter food!

Whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, kids (and many adults) are shaped by their constant exposure to popular culture, as delivered via TV, The Internet, Radio, Mp3‘s, etc. The content that we populate these delivery mechanisms with today, influences the culture that we will find ourselves immersed in tomorrow. Therefore if a society desires a certain level of depth and sophistication from its constituents, it must provide for a certain level of depth and sophistication within this content.

Some would make the argument that such a stance smacks of elitism. “Some people just like their music “dumbed down”. What’s wrong with that? It’s just music!”, or something like that… I accept this argument, but I would point once again to the above statement;

“Therefore if a society desires a certain level of depth and sophistication from its constituents, it must provide for a certain level of depth and sophistication within this content. In other words, there’s enough room for an awful lot of variety out there. Music need not all be “high brow” or all “knuckle dragging”.

The fact is, as with many other things in today’s society, a certain amount of homogenization has taken place. There were once many types of music, each suited towards a particular social activity. Music for religious ceremonies, music for dancing, music for reflection, music in the pursuit of virtuosity, music for romance, music for meditation, music for the Blues, music for celebration, as well as various combinations, etc. Over many years, the music industry oversaw the homogenization of music, through its aggressive promotion of certain types of “commercial” music over other less “commercial” forms. Smooth Jazz over real jazz, Gangsta rap over Backpack rap, R&B over Soul, Boy Bands over real bands, etc. We eventually arrived at the point where one could no longer easily find certain types of music, or easily escape others. Cookie cutter Pop music now dominates all markets, cultures, budgets, and genres. Country and Rap now go together like burgers and fries, and in terms of content, this burger consists of 99% bun, .99% lettuce/tomato, and .01% G.M.O beef!

This is not to say that all music suffers from this alarming lack of musicality. I don’t want to paint a picture of musical gloom and doom. This world is a vast place, much of which escapes the daily influence of pop culture. Even within our culture there are many musicians out there who are creating incredible music, which I enjoy. However, if we were to look at commercial music as a whole over the last thirty years, I believe the content/creativity trend line, if drawn, would be in a near free fall nosedive presently! Lack of musicality is self propagating, since the less exposure one has to detailed music, the less one will be equipped to enjoy its inherent beauty, and thus the less the demand for such types of music in the future.