lowered expectations

there was a time when "pop" used to simply be short for "popular". what was "popular music" 60 years ago is now called "standards," 50 years ago is called "oldies," 40 years ago is called "classic", and, in an increasingly predictable cycle, 20 years ago is called "this year's trend".

in this same law of diminishing returns, the very meaning of the word "pop" has become as diminutive as its length. it's now looked upon (often rightfully so), as purely cheap, instant gratification. there's something to be said for that once in awhile, but as a steady diet it's more than unsatisfying; it's harmful. in the past, even such pieces of supposedly useless confectionery were crafted with enough care and skill to end up becoming longtime favorites. i don't see this happening in a world where success and failure are measured in incredibly short-sighted increments, such as "i won fifty bucks in the lottery this week" or "the company did well this quarter."

a recent slate article reports "the six major studios...actually took in more money from their movies in the first half of 2005 than they did in the same period in 2004." however, the long-term truth of the matter is that "the regular movie audience has been so decimated over the past 56 years that the habitual weekly adult moviegoer will soon qualify as an endangered species." and this despite the facts laid out in another slate article about rampant overspending on movie advertising. everything is about the short-term, making a big splash, getting to the top ten, and hoping it pays off later.

in a recent popmatters interview, joey goebel, author of torture the artist, assesses that pop culture's "virtues lie in the occasional bursts of creativity and originality that seem to slip through the cracks." i've never found this to be more true than today.

culturewars.org sums up one of john carey's points from his book what good are the arts? by saying, "to be taken right out of one's culture would be to go mad." to me, this implies that "culture" is like its biological namesake, what yogurt is grown from; something naturally evolving and necessary to human beings. this might be true of the majority of human cultures, but most western popular culture seems unnatural by comparison. it exists because of marketing and consumerism, twin beasts which feed on each other with little care for the nutritional value of whatever is being marketed or consumed, just so long as the process is happenning.

the unnatural becoming seemingly natural begins fairly early in the life of the average american. gene van tassel sums up a 1994 article from the journal of instructional psychology, saying that before even entering school, children have learned information "in a natural way without the formal structure and discipline that reside in most schools." in other words, children are pretty much born open-minded. once there, "they learn to pass tests and earn a diploma, but fail to use their education for their personal growth. in addition, they leave school unprepared to cope with the increasing complexity of the world in which they live." basically, the majority of students are dumbed-down as they pass through a restrictive and uninspiring educational system, in order to prepare them for the drudgeries of life. our brains are essentially repeatedly exposed to a series of controlled environments that stifle creative thought.

the exceptions are those who are deemed "creative types"; artists, musicians, writers, and others with a similar approach to expression. even their initial efforts are often dissuaded rather than encouraged. if these people fight hard enough to do what they do, and eventually recognized for their creativity, they're still looked upon differently, almost like society's idiot savants. and still, these people are expected to fall in line in their own way. the assessment that "creativity comes from creative types" is one of at least six myths about creativity. i agree that anyone is "capable of doing some degree of creative work," but we're discouraged from being in that frame of mind from an early age. and by "creative work" i'm not only talking about the "creative types" mentioned above, i mean anything remotely "thinking outside of the box." how sad that even the example i've resorted to using is basically a catchphrase used chiefly in the marketing and advertising fields.

composer sir peter maxwell davies, while perhaps weighing in from a more conservative side than i would normally tend to agree with, makes some good points in his 2005 lecture, will serious music become extinct?. "all of us are being educated to become good, docile consumers, so that we become incapable, or perhaps just unwilling, to question the status quo...pop music has become a big business beyond anything ever imagined in the musical world, playing its part in drugging constructive, creative thinking."

when many pop fans professed not to "understand" the radiohead album kid a, one frequent response was "i guess i'm not smart enough to like it." several music critics attacked it as a pretentious, self-conscious "art move". to these people, the band was previously following a clear musical and popularity trajectory, and this break with convention was immediately suspect. as much as the band has been lauded in some circles, they've also suffered much ridicule and a reduction in sales.

on the other hand, whether they know it or not, people are simultaneously so starved for innovation, they'll take it wherever they can get it. some people are calling the recent r. kelly song and video an "operetta" and heralded as a multimedia event. i honestly applaud r. kelly for trying to do something different, however, i think the chief differences between his mini-opus and most commercial r&b are almost negligible.

it's no wonder people's views and reactions are skewed, with muzak or tightly-formatted pop and adult contemporary stations being piped into many businesses. the vast majority of music that comes at the average person on a daily basis hasn't changed for the past 25 years. the same few rigid definitions of music exist, and anything outside those are a frightening or unknown prospect for most people. music is expected to fulfil the same function as scenery, being fairly enjoyable but essentially unimportant and certainly not requiring any attention or thought.

if a criticism of more unusual or so-called cerebral arts is that it's made for other artists, i think the criticism should be directed at the culture that kills the open-mindedness and creativity inherent (to some degree) in each of us. if people were encouraged to explore their own creativity, they'd have an easier time understanding others' expressions.

the title of this post comes from a classic mad tv series of spoof ads.