The ideas behind high culture, social order, knowledge of familiarity versus formal knowledge, perceptions of our environment, maturity, and significance all center around one broad, yet inescapable foundation, truth. While it sounds trite and clich to say that the human experience is validated through the quest for truth, it is nevertheless, I believe, the core underlying motivation in discussions of social commentary.
The readings for this week spanned across a number of diverse topics, but also centered around a certain theme of social construction, or social evolution. In his essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” Mathew Arnold emphasizes a connection between culture and governed social order. Arnold, who seems to have little objection to coming off as a priggish elitist, suggests that human survival, stability, and flourishing requires the defense of a cultural aristocracy who will protect the society from the infiltration of the Populace into politics, and thus anarchy and social destruction.
Leavis takes up this challenge in his essay, “Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture” by advocating a return to specialization as opposed to standardization, and a persistence to communicate with future generations in light of the pessimism of cultural recovery in an industrial age. MacDonald continues along these lines in his essay, “A Theory of Mass Culture” by examining specific examples of how kitsch has influenced, and debased various forms of high-culture. Hoggart’s essay also examines the decline of substance in mass culture as a frenzy of immediate gratification without consideration for the greater payoffs of contemplation and reservation.
Williams’s essay, “The Analysis of Culture” discusses what he sees as the necessary greater social context of what we understand as culture. Williams also believes that culture can not be removed from the immediate setting of surrounding social events, such that communication between generations is always stigmatized by an inevitable degree of disconnection. Generations can only hope to communicate a certain idea, or reflection of what their culture contains to one another.
This idea of relativeness in culture is also communicated in the essay by Lippmann. Lippman offers the consideration that our environment is a stage of events that occur as a result of, and are shaped by many people’s interpretation of the world. Lippmann suggests that there will always be a level of discrepancy between how we believe our environment to be and how it actually is. Without an understanding of this discrepancy we can not begin to explain why people do the things they do. Similarly, in his essay, “Thick Description: Toward An Interpretive Theory of Culture,” Geertz argues that culture is not a causal power, but rather an explanatory context upon which we interpret human events.
Park’s essay, “News As A Form of Knowledge” suggests that news is a unique kind of knowledge. Namely, it is a present knowledge. News is not the chronicling of events that history is. Nor is it the rational attempt at explanation that science is. Rather, news seems to be the communication of events that occur in the present that are outside the scope of the ordinary and expected. Carey’s essay looks at news, and social communication not necessarily as the sterile transmission of facts and figures, but offers a cultural perspective to communication, in that it is a ritual of sharing in communal relationship. Carey argues that our communications not only provide a representation of what our shared reality is, but that it also serves to actually create the environment we experience.
The last two selections for reading in the Storey text (the first by Hall and Whannel, the second by Gilroy) both pay particular attention to a specific component of popular culture, popular music. It should, of course, be understood that in this sense we are not referring to a modern genre, but rather a greater category of music for the masses. The essay from Hall and Whannel points out how popular music has had a trend of pandering to a young audience who is over-eager for easily digestible content. In contrast, Gilroy points out how popular music, particularly soul music, has been used in the past for communicating significant political ideas. While perhaps idealistic and offering less actual solutions than inspiring catchy choruses, soul music has been highly contributive in the movement of African-American Civil Rights.
It is to this area of modern popular music that I would like to discuss. While I believe that too much emphasis of “high-culture” can be ultimately detrimental to an elevated human society, I also believe that too little can be equally detrimental. My objective will be to examine the necessity for thoughtful expression in music, while avoiding the snobbish pitfalls of cultural condescension.
It seems to me that the new millennium has brought about very little in the way of significantly contributing popular music. A scan across the radio frequencies present one with a genre menu of pop, country-pop, punk, and rap music. Lyrics to modern music tend to focus at the worst on blatant hedonistic sexuality and animosity and at best a droning superficial proclamation of romantic love or friendship. Indeed, the pinnacle performance of this year’s Super Bowl half-time show was the performance by now notorious Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, of “I Bet I’ll Have You Naked Before This Song Is Through.”
Popular music has always been saturated by sappy love songs, and these have their place. Romantic love is a powerful and significant aspect of the greater human experience. However, it is not the only aspect. While in past periods such musical content has also been balanced by contemplative expressions of philosophy and politics, it seems that today listeners are hard pressed to find artists that make them think. Where have artists like Neil Young and U2 retreated to, or is it simply that they are a dying breed? Where are the artists that discuss social injustice as did Johnny Cash, and international politics as did the many musicians of the Vietnam era. Where are musicians like Rush and The Police that cause us to question our philosophical perspectives.
Although one can see a progression toward dilution, it appears to me that the new millennium has been a relatively distinct demarcation in the state of popular music. Even the overly-self involved attitudes of the ’90’s grunge scene were more questioning than the music today. At least Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain alerted us to the dangers of teenage depression and suicide. At least heavy metal artists like Metallica were angry about something. Today all we find among the new guard is an orgy of sex, cars, drugs, alcohol, and temporal romantic emotionalism. There are a few of the established artists from the last few decades that still produce music with some contributing message, but with the exception of a handful of bands like Coldplay, the industry seems to be void of up-and-coming artists with much at all to say.
Whether one assumes that culture (i.e. I will say good-culture, as opposed to high-culture to avoid its condescending associations) is the manifestation of absolutes, or simply necessary in facilitating social evolution, it is imperative that it not be abandoned. I am more optimistic than Arnold and Leavis, in that I believe that the masses can learn to appreciate to a degree the value of good-culture. It is for this reason that I believe that popular music should be recognized for its tremendous potential of communicating good taste. I do not believe that one has to water down good-culture in order for it to be received by the masses.
I simply believe that the ideas behind good-culture must be communicated in a non-pedantic way so that the society as a whole can understand the necessity of virtue. Furthermore, we really have no choice. Because of the powerful influence that the masses now have, if we desire to preserve good-culture at all, it will no longer do to simply give the answer, “Because I said so.” We must explain why virtue is better. We must, as Hall and Whannell state, “alert them to the severe limitations and the ephemeral quality of music which is so formula dominated and so directly attuned to the standards set by the commercial market.” Cultural aristocracy is going out the window, which I believe is a good thing, but the challenge now is to provide a baseline level of cultural awareness that will empower the people to choose the good for themselves.