August 22, 2010

Will pop culture be remembered only for its decadent phases?

In higher culture, we remember the works made during a vigorous, youthful hey-day than later works that are more overly ornamented and perhaps a bit too self-aware for their own good. Virgil has outlasted Ovid, Michelangelo Boucher, and Beethoven Stravinsky. I'm talking about people who are casual consumers up through the most erudite, not some niche group that tries to shock or stand out by telling others that Bach was a wimp and Mendelssohn was a giant.

Popular culture that lasts is very recent because it took industrialization to make mass production possible and to make prices affordable to a mass audience (through division of labor and competition among producers). So there's a lot less data to look at. Still, I wonder if we won't see the reverse pattern, where it's remembered more for its flabbier stages. Things that we hold in high esteem we remember for their greater qualities, since remembering their flaws would make the grand seem less elevated. But things that we hold in disregard we remember for their damning qualities, since remembering their strengths would dignify something base.

I ask this because I decided to get out of my popular music comfort zone and start exploring jazz. After some basic reading around and sampling songs on YouTube, I found that I like the ragtime through hot jazz era of the '20s and early '30s, that big band and swing is OK but too overwrought, and that with bebop and after it left planet Earth, while also spawning some really soporific background music. That's just a vague impression, but the styles are so different that it doesn't take a lifelong familiarity to have a pretty strong judgment.

So off to the used record store I went to pick up a few CDs -- and found almost nothing. There was a greatest hits by Scott Joplin, but I'd already heard most of that in high school (that was my one experience with pre-'30s jazz as a teenager). Fortunately there was at least one other collection there that I picked up, a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and King Oliver from 1923. It sounds pretty good, but not quite as make-you-get-up-and-move as the songs I sampled from his Hot Five and Hot Seven band of the later '20s. There wasn't even that much big band music available. Almost everything was Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, etc. on the one hand, and a bunch of Harry Connick Jr., etc. on the other.

All of the carefree, fun-loving, don't-force-it stuff has been forgotten. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, since while reading around very few of the names from the 1890s through the early 1930s rang a bell, whereas just about all of them from the mid-'30s onward I'd either heard of or knew some of their songs. How odd that the common understanding of jazz derives from what came after The Jazz Age.

Movie buffs may keep an appreciation for periods of grand activity -- Hollywood's Golden Age and its silver age of roughly the mid-'70s through the late '80s -- but if you look at what's on offer for new DVDs, in the used section of a record store, or on an illegal filesharing service, not to mention what movies people refer to on just about any corner of the internet, you'd think that these eras never existed. No one's memory appears to go back farther than 1993 (Groundhog Day). I'm not talking about fleeting gossip related to what's opening this weekend. I mean any discussion of movies or Hollywood whatsoever.

And don't even start me on rock music; I've covered that enough before. The whole lifetime of the late '50s through the very early '90s has vanished from the common culture. Instead, our understanding of "rock music" has come to mean alternative / emo, indie, and singer-songwriter music, which are all as far away from rock as bebop is from Dixieland. Just think: in 50 to 100 years, will "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath be forgotten, while "Du Hast" by Rammstein spring to mind when people discuss the long-ago genre of heavy metal?

I don't read popular lit, so I couldn't say whether this pattern holds up there or not. I'm talking the kind that doesn't aspire to lit lit, as a bunch of sci-fi does, but to thrillers, mysteries, etc., what's disparaged as genre fiction. Is this remembered more for its decadent than great works?

TV it's hard to guess about. Some say it's in a peak period right now, so we'll have to wait until it goes into its overly busy and too-serious phase. Other things to think about?

1 comment:

  1. In what sense has Virgil outlasted Ovid?


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."