Death of Mass Culture (premature report)

Posted: March 2, 2008 in Artistry, Culture

Randall Denley as a curious opinion column in The Ottawa Citizen called “The Death of Mass Culture.” Denley’s complaints are two-fold: (1) we no longer have a shared, common culture to which we all subscribe, and (2) the quality of the common culture to which we used to pay attention is no longer producing much of value. Let me consider his second point first. Denley writes,

The music industry has become obsessed with people stealing their products electronically, but the real problem is a lack of compelling talent. We lack major figures such as Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Each redefined pop music and drew vast audiences that crossed generations. Literally no one is doing that now. Few new singers today even have a hope of cracking music’s second tier.

I have no argument with what he’s feels is a lackluster music scene compared to giants of the past (handpicked with the considerable advantage of hindsight). Other mass culture offerings arguably suffer the same diminished worthiness. Why might that be? I have two ideas.

There is a demographic effect at work here not unlike what propels so many Kenyans into the top tier of long-distance runners. As described by Alberto Salazar in a Sports Illustrated article by Alexander Wolff:

[I]ronic circumstances … seem to cast the U.S. as a Third World country in distance running: “As big as we are, we have fewer people to draw on. In Kenya there are probably a million schoolboys 10 to 17 years old who run 10 to 12 miles a day. That’s how they get to and from school. The average Kenyan 18-year-old has run 15,000 to 18,000 more miles in his life than the average American — and a lot of that’s at altitude. They’re motivated because running is a way out. Plus they don’t have a lot of other sports for kids to be drawn into. Numbers are what this is all about. In Kenya there are maybe 100 runners who have hit 2:11 in the marathon — and in the U.S., maybe five.” [emphasis added]

Can we honestly say we have nearly equivalent numbers working diligently at music compared to, say, 1965? Most kids these days expect immediate gratification and don’t have the patience or long-term vision to spend the countless hours necessary to hone a craft. They would rather learn how to play rock music (sorta) from a video game. That was less true of kids in the past, and so from a demographics perspective, far fewer adults develop even modest musical skills such as being able to read music or play the piano at any level.

The other idea is that entertainment media are a gluttonous smorgasbord compared to 40 years ago. Then, there was no Internet, no video games, only three TV channels, far fewer professional sports (and sports teams), and movies stayed in theaters for months rather than weeks (if they’re profitable). Indeed, we have so much mass media competing for our attention that we’re inevitably ignorant of most of it. Who knew, for example, that there is now a sport for stacking cups? Stacking cups!! If in the past we could attend to, say, 8 of 10 categories in mass culture, that might be considered fairly comprehensive. Now, even if we knew even slightly about 50 of 100+ things, we are hopelessly uninformed to be able to capture the Zeitgeist or cultural moment except accidentally. We’re full-time consumers, which leaves little opportunity for thoughtful, reflective creation.

Denley identifies the problem of fragmentation himself:

In television, the wide proliferation of channels has turned broadcasting into narrowcasting. With so much choice, the market is fragmented. That doesn’t mean the shows are all bad, but they all face such competition that few garner numerically significant audiences.

Which brings me to his first complaint mentioned above. We simply can’t keep up with the volume of TV shows, music, best seller lists, blogs, movies, and everything vomited up by the Information Age. Hardly anything gets a wide audience anymore, even with our teeming numbers. So I’m lucky if I can talk to someone about my favorite show, band, books, etc. because it’s unlikely they know anything about my preferred entertainments. Further, the limited number of creative jobs could be offered to only the most creative and imaginative artists and practitioners. Today, with so much space to fill, competence no longer clusters around a few media outlets.

The notion of cultural literacy was first popularized by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in his book of the same name in 1988. Since exclusions always inspire heated debate, it’s obviously a mistake (though seductive) to assert specific cultural knowledge we should all share, and Hirsch has ironically fragmented his own focus by creating a diverse cottage industry of “things you need to know” by certain age milestones. Now that the information environment is blown wide open, it’s even more difficult to establish any canonical culture. For example, I was recently dismayed to learn that a 15-year-old music student of my acquaintance had never heard of Brahms or the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms). It’s apparently no longer taught even to those studying music. (Don’t even get me started about the number of people — not just kids — who think the sun revolves around the earth.)

As much as I might want to agree with Denley about the death of mass culture and bemoan the loss of conversational common ground, I think his report of such demise is premature and greatly exaggerated. It’s not that we no longer have a mass culture, it’s merely that those cultural mainstays of 1965 or even 1985 have receded to the background and become minority players in niche markets. We still have a common culture, but it’s no longer what it was, and it won’t stay what it is for much longer, either. TV is still probably the most democratic medium, but its fragmentation into a dizzying array from which to choose simply means that each show attracts its own increasingly narrow slice rather than a large pie piece.

More importantly, the mass culture and conversation we share is characterized less by our entertainment choices than by our values. We value connectedness but are constantly at our electronics chattering away, and many of us can’t hold a meaningful conversation. We value security but are willing to cede our privacy to obtain a semblance of security. We value affluence and are drawn to paths that produce the most perceived bang for the buck (business degrees and lotteries). We value beauty and heap unwarranted praise on the genetically fortunate while paying obscene sums to transform ourselves into their image. We value family and insist on its sanctity even while we erode the very sense of community that fosters belonging. Most of all, we value the self-deception of righteous American virtue that allows us to turn a blind eye to the awful machinations of American corporations and government. That’s the mass culture that’s still thriving in America.

  1. presentpeace says:

    Cannon Fodder Culture

    In our seemingly distant past we valued truth and beauty and were questers for a cultural singularity of mind based on these noble concepts. Granted, lots of deserving artists were left out of the canon for pretty heinous reasons. Still, we had a canon, a center of meaning upon which to draw. Anyone who gazes upon this present cultural moment will be hard pressed to discover much of either one of these concepts in action, let alone some kind of cohesive cultural center, which may have been a myth all along.

    Unfortunately, it serves the aim of despots when the common culture is unmoored from anything meaningful. So the cliché, “If we don’t stand for something, we’ll fall for anything,” becomes our way of life as turning a blind eye becomes our only common reflex. There is little discernible truth in government endeavors and there is certainly no beauty in what we are allowing big business to do to the earth we need for our very survival.

    So we praise kids for stacking cups and speak in ESPN interviews with the superstar cup stackers of how their cup-stacking tournaments saved them from the evils of ghetto life by giving them something to do after school. (Does anybody notice that this “sport” looks like preparation for menial work at McDonald’s? If we must do menial, at least I’d like to see a house cleaning sport for kids that prepares them for independent living.) Tangentially speaking, Curtis Mayfield, a Chicago native, began playing the guitar at age 4, joined his brother’s band, and eventually developed a style of picking and a way of telling the very complex, gritty truth about seventies urban life that is both specific to the midwest and lyrically moving enough to making him a music legend. So that’s what can be accomplished after school. But we praise kids for doing next to nothing.

    And we dress them in camouflage and put dog tags on them, making the cognitive dissonance of then protesting a war nobody wants virtually impossible and preparing kids to be cannon fodder for our government’s greedy, misguided attempts at world domination. Still, nobody seems to notice this about the culture. When did it become cool for a so-called peaceful nation to put on the garb of war? When did it become cool to wear dog tags that signify body bags, the end of soldiers’ lives? We’re not in our children’s lives, but the government is. The fashion industry and Hollywood are. We’ve become disconnected from ourselves, each other, and everything in which we supposedly believe, including truth and beauty. How did we let this happen and, more importantly, how do we stop it now that this anti-movement has gained such momentum?

  2. presentpeace says:

    I couldn’t find the original ESPN video; but I found this video of that video. I apologize for the poor quality of it. Still, you’ll get the gist of things pretty quickly….

  3. Your description of a common culture, Brutus, while indisputably more real than what I consider culture,leaves no room for those who persist in defining “culture” according to society’s finest and truest artistic works. Creative achievements still exist among the detritus and will probably continue to do so, albeit in greater obscurity until human life is extinguished.
    Haven’t the most meaningful music and the most transformative arts always existed only along society’s margins?
    Appreciation of aesthetic beauty requires education, effort, and a soul attuned to wonders larger than any individual self. The finest, more enduring arts were always rare–rarely achieved and rarely appreciated.
    If popular people want to elevate stacking cups to a noble endeavor involving the full extend of an individual’s skill and quest for inspiration, so be it. But as with so many entertainments, count me out. I like to choose for myself, after working hard to keep an open mind and heart for timely discoveries.
    But stacking cups? Eating and/or drinking contests? Mud wrestling and even football–count me out.

  4. Brutus says:

    Kathleen wrote:

    Your description of a common culture, Brutus, while indisputably more real than what I consider culture,leaves no room for those who persist in defining “culture” according to society’s finest and truest artistic works.

    I’m certainly interested in high culture. But the focus of this entry is mass culture, and the launching point is Denley’s premature pronouncement of its death. High culture will endure in its enclaves, and mass culture will continue to morph over time. It’s a difficult road with high culture especially.

    I was reminded recently that most of Iraq’s cultural institutions were destroyed and looted in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. Although pleas were made to post guards to protect museums and archives, the U.S. military watched blandly as artifacts that had survived from the cradle of civilization were ruined and dispersed. How can one account for such heedlessness?

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