Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (Oct. 2002)
LIFE AGAINST DEMENTIA
by Joe Carducci
Anyone familiar with the roiling currents and tidal motion of American popular culture knows that the film and music industries are delivering less interesting work than ever. Melodies, rhythms, songs, voices, characters, stories and genres seem colder, more processed and, in general, received rather than inspired. There’s nothing wrong with referencing or even stealing plots or melodies as long as the stealing’s done by an artist or madman who revives them too, in some new personal way. But with the explosion of University film departments and rock and roll courses in the last two decades the American arts are filling up with professional careerists who better belong in business college, or law school.
The action film fell of its own overblown weight; you’d hardly know that it grew from such lean, tightly-scripted productions as Dirty Harry (1971), Death Wish (1974), Rocky (1976), First Blood (1982), and Terminator (1984). And whereas Jaws (1975) remade film marketing, Titanic (1997) threatened to remake the action film itself: fusing the male action film with the woman’s film takes another hundred million dollars and an additional hour in running time. The resulting summer behemoths trod the marketplace with such strong-arming confidence that the studios practically demand they be made without costly stars so as to pack in more explosives and effects and advertising.
The music industry’s dilemma was clear at this year’s Grammies. In a normal year Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS), would have slammed Republicans on non-Industry social policy grounds, but Bush got off easy this year as the country ain’t in the mood and Greene’s house was not in order. Big recording stars are lobbying in Sacramento to void the record industry’s exemption from the seven-year personal contract limit, and they want to own their own master recordings. And over all the bogus proceedings on Grammy night loomed the specter of the computer-software-hardware-internet juggernaut’s paramount killer app—free music. (NARAS is no longer Greene’s playpen due to sexual harassment lawsuit—a real Clinton Democrat, apparently.)
So the questions become:
- Have the media, which now dominate content, so divided programming into blindered marketing niches that’s they’ve cut the cords to our rich musical and film traditions?
- Has the evolution of Pop—its computer generated virtual musics and films—superseded any organic folk motion within our music and film traditions?
- Has the Organization Man of International Entertainment corporate culture proved incapable of recognizing and delivering music and film of the level that sundry Sammy Glicks and juke-box mobsters did for decades in their sleep?
- Has the music underground rejected all tradition but either the line of nihilism diagrammed by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces, or a backstop of kitsch (such vicarious ex-pat pursuits as French chanson, Exotica, Canto-Pop, J-pop)?
Sorry I asked…
We can’t be sure whether the current thin gruel might not be the only possible art deduced from the slim pickings of the last nearly thirty years. The teenagers just starting their bands and the twenty-somethings still prepping their first film will be the artists shaping what American pop culture will become. But they have experienced pop culture of little depth or personality their entire lives. What humanity persists in the art tends to be negative, reactionary traits: cynicism, indifference, contempt….
Radio was formatted in the early seventies and so ambitious recording artists quickly began to format themselves. An entire generation of willful rock bands—Ramones through Flipper—refused to format themselves. These were the last bands to have grown up listening to the cultural mix of pre-1973 radio and TV variety shows (not to mention walked through the high grade “amateur” musical environment Americans of all ages once experienced at County Fairs, Corn-boils, church socials, and school dances). But unformatted, these Punk bands were then, not programmed. Those that attempted to format themselves for hits (Talking Heads, Devo, X, Replacements…) ensured they would not be the bands that carried the torch forward; perversely, it would be the unprogrammed misses (Ramones, Avengers, Black Flag, Minutemen, Descendents…) that would launch a million bands.
Since the music left the South in the late fifties the natural grace of that early rock and roll has gradually dimmed, leaving a more studied rock music in its place. The British bands of the decade between 1963 and 1973 had studied the music, though you couldn’t say they were grounded in it. The American punk bands that formed before 1980 were the last to be grounded in this folk tradition aspect of rock and roll (though they were warped as well by that new Brit influence). Thereafter, even the most important bands (Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Tool, Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age, White Stripes…) are necessarily more conceptual in approach. It may be that our distance from the South of that day, and the input from today’s constricted media-driven musical environment might ultimately dry up the musicality of even bands that do not depend on the programmers of radio and MTV.
Hollywood today, courtesy of marketing science and Sammy Glick IV, offers CGI (computer-generated imaging) Potemkin villages and villagers for pulverizing in CGI thermidor for the boys, tearjerking emo-porn for girls, and nihilistic puzzle pictures for the sophistos. Generations of filmmakers have been destroyed by the Star Wars saga with nary a wobble in the force detected. (In my unrequited meetings with film producers in L.A. and N.Y. the life-size star-trooper models in the office corners never relax their guard.) More noxious influences on film narratives are tramping in from TV, music videos, advertising, videogames, pornography, and all the film deconstruction bonuses included on the typical DVD release.
Recently passing on through the obit pages have been American cultural figures such as Peggy Lee, Budd Boetticher, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Dave Van Ronk, Pop Staples, Katy Jurado, Ray Brown, Anthony Quinn, Waylon Jennings, Dorothy MacGuire, Harlan Howard, John Lee Hooker, Richard Farnsworth, Bernard Klatzko, Carl Perkins, Ed Roth, Hilous Butrum, Rod Steiger, Otis Blackwell, and John Fahey. Never mind the heftlessness of the obits in decades to come, Britney Spears may never die! The biotech nerds (not known for their ability to hear music) are forging new frontiers in unintended consequences.
Our meta-sentient pop culture has foreshadowed this immortality. The explosion of cultural choices via cable and satellite has reached critical mass via the web—it’s now become something different, a constant ambient hemorrhagic din. Kids watch Ozzie and Harriet and The Osbournes; the Randolph Scott rides again; Buster Keaton falls down and springs up again; and even the sword-and-sandal genre returns! We are either jacked by contemporary offerings (Survivor, Cops, Robot Wars, Dismissed…) or calmed by our immortal ghost culture (Lawrence Welk, Audie Murphy, Cheyenne, Father Knows Best…).
While it is true that a musical/societal syncretism such as Elvis Presley can never be repeated, it is also true that there are no longer coherent pop and social cultures from which a given Elvis might be launched from and against. The Fifties pop consensus was bisected first by generation (Frank v. Elvis), then by gender (Eastwood v. Redford/Welch v. Streisand), and then chopped into smaller and smaller fractiles (Russ Meyer, Roger Corman, R. Crumb, splatter films, death metal, lesbian romances, the Olsen twins, post-rock, abasement comedies, Daniel Johnston, Dolomite…). Instead of backwater geniuses being shuttled into the media spotlight for the benefit of a sincerely interested audience, the media turns its spotlight onto itself, in effect, for the amusement of a fallen, cynical audience. There was one Elvis; there are millions of Kim Fowleys. People lived vicariously through Elvis in that small part of their grounded lives they reserved for dreams. Today, American work-lives generally require no physical labor and this has loosed us to live in a veritable dreamland. And one can only laugh at a Kim Fowley as he chases his weightless dream.
The advertising industry runs on applied schizophrenia; its hacks work not to express themselves or even their clients, but to anticipate and produce what their potential customers might wish to hear, all the while serving their clients’ interests. It’s this wheedling Madison Avenue energy, not just its money, which fuels the media and increasingly the art itself. If there are great garage-styled bands now attempting to get heard on radio and cable, why is it we’ve been hearing garage-style in major ad campaigns for the Gap (Troggs), Powerade (Monks), Pepsi (Sam the Sham) and others for a year or more? Clearly there are sharper and more desperate minds in advertising than in programming. Still, you’d think that advertisers would be the most concerned about tune-out factor as listeners are already predisposed to bail to another station when the ads kick in; this is a measure of just how retarded programmers have become.
An energy with a similarly desperate kick shoots prospective talismans of the zeitgeist, such as The Osbournes and mullet haircuts, through an increasingly dim popular culture and before the even dumber cultures of media, politics and the academy whose leading cement-heads can always be counted on to belabor the slightest of pop culture throwaways. We first saw this kind of mass impulse after Elvis’ death when his name and image became punchlines. The late-Elvis talisman continues to ward off the fear of being caught uncool, and naïve–it’s a default setting for the subhip. This double-dealing desperation to trump the hip has leaked into pop culture from advertising.
Still, the gravitational pull of the marketplace and individual artistic consciousness tugs at notions from all these cultural shards and remakes of them something akin to the old A-film or hit record that once offered something for men and women, girls and boys, hipsters and squares (Then, full-throated: John Ford, the Beatles, George Stevens, Led Zeppelin; Now, sotto voce: Steven Spielberg, No Doubt, Steven Soderbergh, Weezer).
Refusal to grow up was very nearly the defining characteristic of the boomers so it’s no surprise they might refuse to die. Their pop culture likewise appears immutable. Kids and young adults–those born in the seventies and eighties–have been keeping inherited styles like Hippie, Radical, Soul, Folkie, Beat and Bop alive. Alternatives such as Punk, Metal, Garage, and Rap date back to very nearly the same period. But that these styles survive does not make them vital. They each now exhibit the dementia of a played-out mind, no matter the condition of the body. And in youth-culture terms, when a style will not die, then the hollow posturing of the neo-neophytes within it tends to foreclose the use of that style’s original statements by any ambitious musician seeking to create something new informed by the best of the past–this past the only possible source of ammunition to fight a sterile present. So, while the emptied forms of these styles thrive (think reggae, punk, metal, blues, jazz, you name it), vital young musicians are discouraged from rooting themselves in these traditions because their high school nemeses are camped out within them. Again, this matters because these young players’ music will soon be what we all have to listen to. Garage might have been predicted as the most viable option to revive because, though it’s been bubbling under in collector/retro-pop circles forever, it’s been absent in the high school social universe.
The slow organic rise of neo-country since the eighties (Blasters, Panther Burns, Gun Club, Jason and the Scorchers, Souled American…) to the point that it has become a sturdy parallel economy augurs better for a musically rooted revolution today. Commercial C&W radio is as utterly irrelevant to this underground as commercial rock radio was to the Ramones twenty-five years ago; this can be a good thing if you’re patient enough to wait for Nirvana. The garage underground is probably more reactionary than the country underground. It’s an old scene that often cleaves to bad formless junk because it betrays no trace of pop, metal, punk or whatever gets their goat and so can’t sell-out to anybody and embarrass them. Luckily it has a great fanzine voice in Ugly Things, and the scene’s arbiters appear to be losing control of bands that deserve a wide audience, in the same way that the Gilman Street commandants lost control of Green Day. The Fat Possum label roiled today’s well-oiled blues industry simply by trolling the delta for seventy and eighty year old bluesmen–the last of their genus sadly. The city sophisticates of the blues didn’t immediately cotton to these rural eccentrics (R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough, T-Model Ford…); that’s how far from musical truth even music obsessives can drift when a subculture’s weakness inspires defensiveness.
Hollywood’s dilemma is different. Filmmaking is capital-intensive and it is art-by-committee of nominal adults. The old studio system was crippled by the Supreme Court’s 1948 Paramount decision that forced the divestiture of the studios’ theater chains. Then it was destroyed by the growth of television, and its history rewritten via the Auteur theory, which re-evaluated throwaway B-films at the expense of fussed-over A-films. It took until the end of the sixties for new production and aesthetic equilibriums to be reached. The unexpected successes of Sergio Leone’s westerns (released in U.S., 1967-8), and Easy Rider (1969) woke Hollywood up. But too soon after that, the pulpy seventies small film (The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, Night Moves, Rancho Deluxe…) had morphed into a comicy template hammered out by Rocky, Jaws and Star Wars (1977). The human scale satisfactions offered by time-honored Hollywood B genres were soon inflated with A budgets and A stars to the point at which 2nd unit directors, stunt coordinators and CGI-designers have become crypto-auteurs (Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Pearl Harbor, Minority Report…), when in fact there need be no actual auteur of any script. Here too, it may be that the films offered for two decades now have corroded filmmakers’ ability to deliver, and audiences’ ability to demand better work.
The Auteur theory seduced the independent film world from the start. Here, where the screenwriter’s contribution might’ve carried more weight, young directors succumb to a false imperative to direct and write their films, a la Bergman. But without a true writer’s sense of tragedy or comedy, these writer-directors (Tarantino, Smith, Jonze) are left with little but their own fandom impulses to display personal cult bonafides. Others simply puzzle up their narratives (Mulholland Drive, Memento, Exotica!…), using alleged formal innovation to disguise lack of content. Hollywood is a long, long way from Henry Hathaway, Henry King, Jacques Tourneur, Joseph H. Lewis, Don Siegel, Anthony Mann, ad infinitum it once seemed….
What is there left in this culture that can be built upon? Who is there to build it? I’m glad you asked.
Today a kid is drafted into extracurricular activities by boomer parents who can’t stand the idea of letting him or her roam around in this world that they made. After WWII when the sexes got back together and everyone was having kids, American culture was kid-friendly. You rode your bike anywhere you wanted so long as you got home by dinner. Other adults, parents themselves, would look out for you if you got near trouble. Now with parent or parents working, a kid’s time is booked up to keep him occupied and supervised until evening. Individual sports are becoming more common than team sports for boys, while girls are now pushed into team sports courtesy the Title IX diktat (volleyball scholarships crowd out formerly abiding wrestling program budgets).
The web, television, videogames and cell-phones are ubiquitous, and the post-scarcity fastfood obesity apocalypse is accommodated by the skate/hip hop fashion world of XXXXL sizes and the faux-biker pseud-culture of tattooed tubboes with fu manchus. In early 90s NBA-style, the older players hid balding pates by shaving their heads and bluffed the rookies into shaving off their own full heads of hair. The NBA young eventually turned the tables. There are always style options for a new youth culture, though even I hesitate to observe that hotpants and afros are the most obvious one for the NBA (sure enough, Madison Avenue’s there already). Today MTV’s music videos are larded with the fantasies of fat rappers, while its reality shows are stocked with the ripped abs and bared midriffs of model American youth. (These docs never show you the three hundred stomach crunches a day these poor desperate bastards perform–that might be too real, like a Warhol film.)
Boys skate, game or surf the web for porn; girls play soccer or politic amongst themselves. There’s plenty of fan interest in music and film but it has been failing to develop beyond simple consumer response or artless careerism. The sex-roles that rise from skate culture, hip hop, videogames, girl-world, Maxim, Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and MTV are the mook and the model, or the player and the whore. Girls may get something out of these roles, but at base they float the male fantasy that the dude-as-slob can get the hot chick in heels. This is culture, not life of course, but where might a youth-style go from here? The rainbow tribe bubbleheads occupy the more naturally androgynous hippie option, the snobs are still wearing black, and even cheerleaders have tattoos.
There will be some new equilibrium that settles around these challenges to the classic cultural venues from the web, videogames, and corporate oversell but it can’t be seen yet. But one can see already that the mass markets, the passive ubiquity of the web, and the aggressive ubiquity of the cell-phone has prompted a localist reaction that champions artisanship, literature, homemade culture, and lost media like 78 Victrolas, PXL-2000 cameras and 8-track cartridges.
Females are still evolving under new pressures and opportunities. When sex, the orb around which the female psyche’s one abiding question revolves, is decoupled from reproduction as it has been since the pill was introduced in 1960, then new things begin to happen:
1) That existential question shatters into dozens of leading questionlets about mere sucking and fucking, fueled now with venal status-seeking consumer agitation,
2) Girls’ behavior to each other gets more contentious, and this anxiety might be expected to prove better for art than the traditional female code, or more recent willed solidarities,
3) And fashion, once mere social coloration, becomes instead an index of this new hysteria. When such hysterical energy is ideologized, as most everything is in this world of college grads, female artists are wont to overshoot their mark yielding work that loudly postures politically but won’t declare its art. (Art is not a hammer; a hammer is a hammer.)
Male culture seems to be either in denial about its nature (Emo, Pagan, Rave) or wallowing in it (the rest of ‘em). New options for females tend to allow males to sink into their worst impulses (see ghetto social breakdown or Maxim for this in extremis). Only the male board-sport culture seems to be creative within this confusion. After the U.S. team swept the Olympic Halfpipe event, silver medallist Danny Kass was breathlessly prompted by NBC to describe what he expected from his moment on the podium and he responded with pitch-perfect new-male bravado, “I guess I’ll try to cry.”
Women’s tennis might be the most interesting female subculture at the moment. Beginning with Martina Hingis it’s burst into a new upgrade. The Williams sisters are plenty girlish, even as they unload a wild new power onto the game. Those following are less flamboyant and all business for this new game having been secured. (The soft-focus Kournikova game never arrived.) Women’s figure skating is too trapped inside its aestheticized erotic fantasy world to break out into anything new (back-flips, etc., are illegal). Reigning billiards champ Jeanette Lee is literally the Frida Kahlo of the pool table and therefore unfortunately probably too like a forbidding Pain Goddess to become a standard for young girls. The young black women lately raging through MTV’s reality programming (Real World, Road Rules) may mean more than Richter scale abuse, or maybe it’s just racist misogyny at MTV.
But the young must work in and around a male dementia of beer ads, “Jackass,” Emo, Metal, Anime, WWF, games, gangsta-rap, Hefner, Guccione, and Flynt, and a female dementia of Alanis Morissette, Mariah, Melissa Etheridge, Enya, Eve Ensler, Louise Erdrich, Lifetime, Le Tigre, and Sex in the City. And so many of the young attend college now that urban bohemias no longer collect idiosyncratic rule-breaking drop-outs so much as they endure annual graduating classes of operators who have already interned halfway up the bowels of the Man. Recent American low-rent drop-out bohemias in Williamsburg, the lower eastside, Wicker Park, Silver Lake, and the Mission were set upon and consumed by dot.com yuppies, design students, starter execs and trust-fund babies as if by swarms of locusts.
We can cheer ourselves by supposing that the worse it all gets the greater the opportunity for some 21st Century Elvis. But can these rookies hit the efus pitch?
When Norman O. Brown wrote Life Against Death in the fifties he was trying to redeem the narrow protocols of Marx and Philosophy by insisting they contend with Freud. This he did under the pressure of an American culture unnaturally coherent due to the collective effects of the Depression and the War. But with the sudden de-mobilization that followed WWII we got a real revolution, though it did not come wearing the clothes that frustrated intellectuals expected. The GI Bill (1944) began the destruction of in loco parentis discipline at colleges via the horde of smoking-fucking-killing jarheads come to learn, and the boom in suburban life began to let the air out of the old urban tribal patterns.
Brown’s book remains important, but today his subtext of sexual frustration is of course dated. His End of Repression that frees Life to become as Play, became co-ed Hillary’s search for more ecstatic modes of living and Charles Manson’s free-love/creepy crawl a long time ago. Today we stand in the ruins of real existing Liberation, where, as Camille Paglia has noted, regression rather than repression seems the greater threat. Post-war Academic rebels took one look at Stalin and turned inward. They sought to rationalize and neuter sex so as to have a lot of it. So now an ideologized school nurse pushes safe sex to sixth graders. A century after Gauguin, radicals still dreamt of an escape from Judeo-Christian strictures. Instead they merely laid groundwork for the thorough commercialization of now de-contextualized sex in popular culture. Because, of course, to the trusty teenage mind (the male one anyway) this all translates as porn and blow-jobs all around! And there was nothing, NOTHING!, Madison Avenue more desired than the cultural license to jack directly into the factory-wired Pavlovian sex drive of its subjects.
The young remain victims of a dementia locked into our culture by the continuing demographic power of the baby boom. Brown was not entirely wrong, but his subtle turn was bested in the real world of the sixties boomers by scoundrels like Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey. These two have recently been unmasked as having in the main, simply projected their own sexual self-loathing out onto the naturally occurring social equilibrium of the less pretentious–those de-mobed out of war into adulthood who raised the many children of this baby boom out of a kind of inspired relief that the killing was over. Mead and Kinsey, et al., would catch the zeitgeist of these children—a new class, one insulated from the imperatives of war and privation, but lost in an accelerating virtual world of pop culture and pop philosophy, and looking for a new criteria in which to best their parents (today all but officially referred to as “The Greatest Generation”).
Much was wrecked, but the radicals still lost because American culture is a moving target; it is alive, reparative and evolving. In a richer musical culture teenagers in their garages cooked up amazing music. Today it’s more likely to take twenty-somethings to have a shot at that. But that was the case twenty-five years ago with punk rock too, despite all its romantic talk of The Kids. For film, the low overhead of digital home computer post-production and the proliferation of cable and satellite outlets plus internet dispersion bodes well for a renaissance. And DV has already opened up the film festival snobs to video productions they’d have rejected out of hand just five years ago.
Radio and the major record labels ignored punk when the Ramones began in the mid-seventies and throughout the eighties. Nirvana’s breakthrough in 1991 was in no small part due to the arrival in Hollywood of Sony, BMG, and Matsushita—foreign capital and personnel from smaller national markets that had long made popular successes of American as well as British punk music. Today, after decades of corporate consolidation the market seems to be saying we’re due for a period of divestment if not actual trust-busting. (AOL bought Time-Warner just a year and a half ago and now separated out, AOL’s market value is less than zero.) If the markets and/or feds turn on these culture cartels (AOL/Time-Warner, Vivendi Universal, Disney-ABC, Viacom-CBS, News Corp-Fox, Sony, and Bertelsmann) it won’t be pretty; it’ll be beautiful. The radio/concert promotions behemoth Clear Channel SFX is the likely first target of any government action. They have more clout and fewer friends. (AOL/Time-Warner, Vivendi Universal, Bertelsmann, and Clear Channel SFX have each ousted a COO, CEO, or Chairman recently.)
The market is squeezing waste from the bloated entertainment sector, and man, ain’t there a lot of it! This squeeze is from all directions: from Shareholders to pirates, from the Web to the War, from Artists demands to Audience rejection. The revenue effects of format revolutions (CD, Video, DVD, cable, satellites) and a mini-baby boom which juiced the teen pop and teen film markets led to outsized profit expectations which amplify the present despair. There is probably one more format change left for both film and music before its all delivered by wire or satellite. From that point the economics will be more easily rationalized: rewards paid out on merit after the fact rather than in upfront advances, which lead to trying to make killings on new talent to pay for the bath they take on veteran talent (Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen…).
In the end these corporations will have to radically restructure themselves to cut the costs of developing, producing and delivering music and film. The large corporations that bought into Hollywood over the last twenty years have made half-hearted attempts before, but that was about debt service after the purchase. Now it’s about survival: whether Wall Street judges the entertainment industry as something worth holding. And money moves faster than ever. Wall Street’s (and Bakunin’s) “creative destruction” never sounded more rockin’! Any resulting opening of the culture structures will beg for new musicians and filmmakers with better to offer. We’ll then know if we still have it in us.
©2002 Joe Carducci