Monday, December 07, 2009

Essay: The frustration of living in the culture of the stupid

Here me out, I'm not trying to suggest that everyone is dumb. Well, maybe I am? I don't really know. However it seems impossible to escape the vast stupidity that seemingly rules today's culture. I often find myself unable to consume any mainstream media without the instantaneous urge to stick knives into my head. What happened to patience? Why does every aspect of a 21st century dweller have to consist of instant gratification?

This example may be out of the scope of this blog, but bear with me. I happen to be a huge fan of the first Star Trek movie. Not the newest one that just came out, but the 1979 original dubbed 'The Motion Picture'. This film is critically panned for being drawn-out and over-long. There are many sequences that do truly take their time and pass without a word of dialogue. Even the so called 'real' Trek fans usually describe this film as one of the worst made. I don't get it. If they had any sort of attention span they would see a beautifully shot film that asks questions of a larger and more important nature then anything else in Trek cannon. Yes it's slow, but in its pacing we can really absorb and seriously consider the epic visuals presented before us. Now, compare this to the recent 2009 film. This is a break-neck pace film that moves along so quickly that there is no chance to even blink let alone think. The characters spend the entire running time of the film in constant peril. The good guys are clearly defined and the bad guys are clearly evil. Despite the absurd time-travel plot lines, there is absolutely no chance that even the dumbest viewer will get lost. Your hand is held and your senses are under constant stimulation.

The reason I use this example is this... It really seems to me that our culture has become irreversibly stupid. I'm currently working on a video review of Tales From Topographic Oceans for the Vintage Vinyl series that we began last week on the blog. I usually do extensive research before embarking on such a piece. I try to gather as much criticism as I do praise for the albums I review in order to provide proper evidence for my thesis and answer rebuttals before they arise. There is no shortage of criticism surrounding Tales, unsurprisingly. This was an album larger viewed as a miserable overblown pretentious waste upon its release. The basic gist of all critique against the album , then and now, can be summed up in the following quote from a certain review: "Two albums full of aimless noodling, pointless soloing and pretentious lyrics that will test the patience of any listener." Sigh...

Why do we have such limited patience? Part of my review consists in my claim that Tales may indeed be the most perfect use of the vinyl record format in the history of rock music. Part of the joy of purchasing a record, or any recorded music for that matter, is the fact that you own the album. Having it in your possession means that you can listen to it whenever and how often you please. Topographic Oceans is not an album that one can truly understand on first listen. Forget it. This is an album that demands repeated listens. Any fan of the work can attest to its "getting better with every spin" properties that define great music (in my opinion). I'm also going to suggest that listening to this album in today's world is the ultimate show of anti-establishment behaviour. In a world of 99cent downloads and the simplest music built solely on its catchy hooks and having no other depth whatsoever, Tales stands out like Jon Anderson at a Punk concert. As the days tick by from its release, mainstream culture is only further developing its short attention spans. Even the most commercial and popular release from 1973 is high-art in comparison to anything being made today.

This is probably a source of too much frustration in my life. I just can't associate with today's culture. I feel like the black sheep of society. If it were not for the advent of the internet, who knows where my mental state would be right now. Why am I seemingly the only person thinking. What's wrong with using my brain and applying independent thought? Is there any chance that the masses of stupidity will ever change their ways? Is the lack of brain-power a sign of genetic degeneration or is it purely a manifestation on a commercial culture leaching off those who gladly follow the herd?

The posts to the Prog Rock Blog may slow ever so slightly over the next few weeks. The reason for this is that this blog is going to become a part of a larger network. I'm going to expand my writing into other areas and examine other aspects of interests in much the same way I am doing here with music. The common thread running throughout these sites will be an examination of contemporary culture and its penchant for favouring simplistic lowest common-denominator forms of entertainment over anything that requires any form of thought. Have no fear, once all the other sites are up and running I plan to continue full force here at The Prog Rock Blog. The thing that drives me to write here and eventually in other places is one underlying belief. If I can somehow reach as many people as I can and challenge their notion of the reality they consider normal, then maybe...just maybe, we can pick ourselves out of this culture-rot. What I hope from you, dear reader, is to join in the conversation. Let me know when you agree with what I have to day. Even more importantly, let me know when you disagree. Share this site with anybody you know who might have similar tastes. If they too look around at our almost unbelievably stupid music mainstream today and shake their heads in frustration, then I can bet they will want to share their opinions here.

While many of those reading this site may be of a more advanced age, considering the music I cover here, I am a young and ambitious guy. I want to do what I can to encourage everyone to question the norms. I want to inspire others to use their brains to make new realizations about the world around them. In my opinion, things have rarely been worse in contemporary history. Despite the means that technological advances have brought us to expand our minds and use our brains more efficiently, we are stuck with a culture more obsessed on basic instinctual self-centred motivations. Sex-obsessed, shallow and materialistic, I think its time we move into a new age of enlightenment. Who's with me?


Palmer said...

So what other sites are you working on?

A few thoughts on the post:

1) I agree with your Star Trek analogy but found the newest installment to be fun. I have no intention of seeing it again and find it stylistically inferior to the first ST film, but I had fun nonetheless. I wrote something similar about concert videos:

2) I don't associate with much of today's culture either but I think you have to be careful so that you don't romanticize the past. It has always been the case that the majority of people go for the lowest common denominator.

There's nothing new about this and it's never going to change. Here's an article that you may find interesting:

3) Many albums, and perhaps especially prog albums, should be listened to in toto. But I don't begrudge those who just get a track or 2 online. I think that different people react to, relate to, and absorb music differently. Remember, singles have been around for ages and there are always those people who listen to the radio but rarely buy full albums.

For me, if someone gets joy out of listening to music, then that's what really counts.


There have always been stupid people and pop culture has always gone for the lowest common denominator. The real boon today is the Internet which allows everyone, including people like you and me, to pick and choose the culture with which we wish to engage. We can largely bypass all the crap out there.

It is easier than ever to get a hold of obscure prog albums, to watch independent and foreign films, etc.

I'm with you - I like to own the CD and listen to it on my stereo instead of a crappy mp3 on earbuds; I find it irritating when films cut every second instead of using long, sustained takes. You're probably right that all of this is because of sheepeople but, if you wait long enough, everything will come around again. I'm 37 and am disgusted when I see 80s fashions coming back. But such is life.

Paul Di Meglio said...

The Economist article is interesting. I have the feeling that we're at this point where where people are stuck with old habits and don't quite understand the new technology. I do think that the next few years are going to bring a wash of new internet-enabled set top boxes that will bring that vast quantity of often "much better" (my opinion of course) web content right to the TV sets of people who are too lazy/technologically impaired to use a computer to get it. That, I hope, will help people realize that these "blockbusters" are really garbage. Chris Anderson's "Long-Tail" theory is something I admire. I also recommend his book "Free". The guy gets the technology and I think his ideas are spot-on, if not a wee-bit ahead of their time.

I'd like to point out that in the history of modern culture we've never had anything quite like the internet. Suddenly people like you and me are able to reach an even broader audience than the big media companies ever could at a HUGE fraction in cost. In the history of human communication, nothing remotely close to the accessibility of the internet has existed. Making 'content' is costing less and less and isn't really the domain of big business anymore.

Maybe, just maybe, all those people who were in the TV/Movie/Music business just to make it rich will have to find other lucrative markets to make their millions...who knows...deforestation? Oil? Whatever... My hope is that art will become the domain of real artists again. Sure they won't be making millions and flying around in private jets, but even the most niche band can make enough of a living to pay for rent and put food on the table. It should be about love of the art, not about getting rich.

Hmm...and to your point number 3) Sure there is enjoyment to be had for the single-track folks. But you really can't say its at the same level of immersion as really sitting down and focusing on a piece of music for 40 minutes at a time. The difference is this: either the music is going to be an all encompassing sensory experience, like reading a book or watching a movie, or it is just aural wallpaper. Nothing wrong with aural wallpaper, I put on music to drown out the sound of the refrigerator as much as anyone else, can be really pleasing and nice as background colouring. Can spruce up the mood of a room as much as a nice coat of paint or a floral pattern wallpaper. But if you are really going to let a piece of music take you for a ride, you need to focus on it and give it a larger portion of your time. And again, I'm not saying that's for everyone, it takes an attention span and an imagination. I just want to make that distinction and challenge those who have never tried a serious listening session to a well-thought-out album a shot. They might just find a new engaging pastime? Or more likely they'll wonder when the next Survivor is on...sigh...

And I'm with you about sustained shots. My favourite two movies are 2001 and Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. I'm all about slowing down the pace of film. I'm actually in a bit of a battle with the Producers of a film I made at school about its content and pacing. They want it faster and easier to follow and the Director and I want to keep it slow and make people think. You know....the same battle that always happens when artists have to deal with money-makers.

Thanks for the link to your blog. Do you have an RSS feed for just the blog itself? I see a feed for the audio content, but I'd love to be able to follow the written stuff on Google Reader.

Thanks for your comments.

Palmer said...

I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree. To me, the Internet is certainly potent but people already have the ability to access "much better" content and have for years. Ever since the advent of mass communications, people have had access to culture that they didn't have before. Sure, the Internet broadens the palette, but cable TV and satellite have made watching non-blockbusters, non-Hollywood movies easy as pie. Yet people aren't clamoring for art films on pay per view. Some people watch IFC, Sundance, etc. but most people are content with the lowest common denominator. To my mind, this isn't a problem with acculturation, but human nature. We like spectacle, we like certainty, and other things in our stories.

One thing to remember about the Internet is that, while it has the power to reach an incredibly broad audience, the audience is not under an obligation to seek out and consume that which is "much better". You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.

You said: "It should be about love of the art, not about getting rich." Remember, art and commerce have always had a relationship, however uneasy. Back in the day artists had patrons who funded their activities. The idea of this artist who just does his or her art regardless of all else is, in my opinion, largely a false and overly romantic image.

You said: "My hope is that art will become the domain of real artists again." As a netizen you of all people should know that there is plenty of great art being made. All the hype goes to blockbusters, etc. but finding art that is meaningful to you is now simpler than ever. Again, looking at history, I would argue that simply because someone does not have super-refined aesthetic taste doesn't mean that you can just send them to the symphony or have them watch Kubrick movies and expect them to take a shine towards high culture.

You said: "Sure there is enjoyment to be had for the single-track folks. But you really can't say its at the same level of immersion as really sitting down and focusing on a piece of music for 40 minutes at a time. The difference is this: either the music is going to be an all encompassing sensory experience, like reading a book or watching a movie, or it is just aural wallpaper."

I think this is a false dichotomy. There are, I would argue, listening experiences in between. For example, one can sit down,concentrate on, and immerse oneself in a 3 minute song. Similarly, someone can enjoy music on a very deep, profound level while dancing. It may be qualitatively different than sitting down and listening to Foxtrot, but I would argue that the latter is not better than the former.

The Internet is contradictory. On the one hand it allows access to culture beyond the lowest common denominator which requires patience, focusing, and the like. On the other hand, it fosters childlike behavior. It allows people to give into the childish impulse of having everything at once and discourages the notion of delayed gratification.

I think that you're overreacting in a way. You see pop culture and don't like it so you dismiss and denigrate it and promote is polar opposite. From my point of view, pop culture has always been how you describe it and always will be. The real task is to make sure that non-pop culture always has a place at the table - that we carve out spaces for it in the larger picture...

Palmer said...

...People who want a diet of Transformers movies, Britney Spears, and Dan Brown books use and will continue to use the Internet to get at and foster their interests in such things. But the blade cuts both ways. There is no better time than now for people who like to indulge themselves in prog, art films, etc. For my part, I love audio dramas and the Internet is vital to this. They are not going to become as popular as they were in the days before television, but I now have access to a wealth of them and can turn the odd person onto them as well. The Net has been a boon to my bootleg collecting habit. And I get to share them with over a billion people. But they have to want to listen. Sure, more people download my Miles Davis show than the one by Melody of China, but there are people out there who do like Chinese folk music. The Internet doesn't have the power to make millions of people suddenly enjoy folk music from the Orient but that I can connect with those who do.

As for an RSS feed, I'd have to look and see if Blogger offers one.

Palmer said...

And take a look at this: