Our Stagnant Bombastic Art

Amidst all the highfalutin pretentious discussions of great works of art, we often lose sight of its practical utility. Art is, among other things, a means of communication. And, sad to say, our current “arts” are, in my opinion not doing a very good job of it.

To explain what I mean, let’s consider, say, Skype. Skype is a very handy means of communication. I can hear you, and I can see you. But I can only hear as much of your voice as the intervening microphones and speakers will allow. You appear visually, but in two dimensions. And I cannot smell you, nor can I feel the warmth of your physical body. In other words, there’s an awful lot of our respective existences that is not being shared.

If you think of popular music of our day as a means of communication, how much of our mutual experience does it allow us to communicate about? Well, basically, the rap music allows us to express anger and frustration. And the vast majority of the popular music gives us vocabulary with which to express excitement over love and sex, or sadness over the current lack of love and sex. And of course, if you’re into the expression of narcissistic angst, you’re living in a virtual paradise.

But, like skype, there are obviously some things missing.

For example, when I was a teenager, if I wanted to seek expression of my frustration over an issue like, say, pollution, there were songs by a guy named Tom Lehrer, who sang songs about social issues. In fact, back then there were any number of folk singers addressing fairly complicated issues of social change.

Here and now, if I want to somehow seek some clarification of my feelings about my country being at war for 10 years, where is the song that captures that feeling? Can you think of any major pop music star who sings a song about Iraq or Afghanistan? In terms of expressing our collective emotions about difficult issues that we are all facing, it’s as if the entire telephone system is shut down. This is, quite frankly, an artistic failing.

I was listening to the greatest hits of the mamas and papas the other day. Not only were the harmonies extraordinarily complex, but the lyrics were so… I don’t know… sophisticated?

All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray
I went for a walk on a winter’s day
if I didn’t tell her
I could leave today
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

This lyric captures, albeit somewhat vaguely, the specific emotion that one feels when one has to say something to another person that you’re really not eager to have to talk about. This kind of honest specific expression alleviates a sense of isolation and loneliness which is the core cause of much of our national dysfunction right now. I could list any number of songs, mostly from the 1960s, that achieve this kind of complex poetic expression of the human condition. Compared to that era, the pop songs of today are, in terms of emotional “color,” mostly just super saturated primary colors. Very little is being expressed beyond extremely basic sexual instinct. Certainly nothing of any political complexity. There has not been one single opera about the financial meltdown. If you can imagine the English language being limited to 2-300 words, that is what is happening to us in the artistic realm. Only the most basic, lowest common denominator emotions are being expressed.

Of course, my skeptical self has to wonder if the corporate/government funding of arts and arts venues has resulted in this exceptionally stagnant and suppressed state of our popular artistic expression. There is no equivalent today to, say, John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (I’m not sure I can imagine, today, a song saying “imagine there’s no heaven/and no religion too”… Wal-Mart would not stock it for fear of customer reprisals.) It’s not government censorship, but it’s censorship. There isn’t even anything equivalent to “Charlie and the MTA.” I keep thinking about writing a song about “Charlie and the TSA.”

I can write about this sort of thing here in my blog, but there’s something about singing the song with the simple chords and simple rhythm that draws the spirit into the discussion. It’s not like there is a mogul at the local coffeehouse not letting us sing songs about something that’s important to us. Anybody can get on youtube. And yet, there is nothing.

© Justin Locke

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