back to the future: on the virtue of artists having a sense of history

Pop culture thrives on being disposable; songs are played on the radio to be played into oblivion, forgotten and then replaced by another single. Successful movies are lucky to lead the charts for two, maybe three weekends, if that. TV shows often strive for the magic 100 episode mark, when they can be easily syndicated. Sports teams will change logos and venues to drum up interest.

Everything is disposable. And we accept this as a given, because the present is so fleeting and often ultimately unpalatable other than it’s the food that’s fed to a prisoner of culture–Stockholm syndrome, of a sort.

This is why someone like Adele is a great case study in the tearing down of the high places of pop culture.

21 took the country by storm a year ago, with “Rolling in the Deep” coming out three months before the record was released. It is still on heavy rotation around the country. The record itself was a veritable tour de force, garnering both popular and critical appeal, and Adele nearly blew her throat out in support of the record’s success.

She follows in a path of other artists who have attained legendary status–The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, U2 and even the Beastie Boys immediately come to mind–because they find their place not in pop culture, but in cultural history: they draw from the wellspring of the past to create something new in the present. The Stones and Clapton were the defenders of the rich history of American blues when they surfaced in the 60s. Dylan took from a vast spectrum of influences poetic and musical. U2 was successful in their own right, then they found rock and roll’s roots and released The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum and that sent them into the stratosphere. The Beasties started out with punk influence and ended up the vanguard of classic hip-hop and lace their lyrics with loads of pop Americana and cultural references, and their instrumental works are straight out of the 70s without being derivative.

I’m not saying Adele is at that level, but what I am saying is that her presence on the pop culture radar presents a challenge to the purveyors of cheap, disposable singles and paper-mache teen idols. Legitimate talent that recognizes its place in a narrative and seizes upon that recognition will necessarily stand out, and it will put to shame the star du jour and the industry which props her up until she is no longer marketable. This is why truly talented individuals will occasionally surface, but then be relegated: if the drone of top-40 radio is interrupted too regularly by a deus ex machina, the system is overturned. The Katy Perrys of the world won’t stand a chance. Nor should they.

The truly irritating part of this understanding is that if the market allowed for the truly talented on a regular basis, the market would be that much more rich and vibrant, and those who are involved pushed to be that much better. Not everyone is going to be Dave Brubeck and completely redefine a musical idiom, nor is everyone going to be U2 or Adele, but few recording artists are being pushed to be anything more than sexy. That is to say, the only difference between those in pop music and those in porn is that they often get the roles the same way while the latter needs to remain lewd to be profitable for a niche while the former often resorts to lewdness to regain the attention of a public which has moved on to the next bowl of pop gruel. And now, we have (un-)reality television to thrust long has-beens and burnouts back into the public (un-)conscience. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I imagine there is also a very delicate balance that must be maintained for the musician to be inspired without producing something that borders on obvious caricature. I’ve always said that if I can pinpoint exactly which acts influence a specific band or artist, said band is probably not worth my time. At the same time, there is the problem of drawing from too many sources and losing any sense of continuity or identity. Dylan is the only musical talent I can think of at the moment who could defy that problem.

Long story short, if we step back and take stock of the legendary musical artists we’ve had over 60 years of pop music, we’ll find that the ones who truly stand out are original while maintaining a sense of place in the lineage of those who have gone before. Like philosophers, they stand on the shoulders of giants (and you thought Oasis came up with that line!) Perhaps we then can rightly also say that all of pop music is a footnote to Elvis.

Respecting and understanding, yes, even challenging, the past is to make genuine impact in the present and create new possibilities for the future.


One thought on “back to the future: on the virtue of artists having a sense of history

  1. Couldn’t agree more with your analysis here, Brent. Part of the issue is in how art is being judged, not based on how it moves us, but how much money we are willing to spend on it. There is a timelessness associated with good works of art that is replaced by the temporal and fleeting in the pop crap that is substituted for them in today’s society. Thankfully, the internet allows for musical and visual works of art to be displayed and made available without the commissioning of “the man.” May we continue to encourage creativity so as to combat the destruction of our ever-shrinking minds.

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