Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Nation of Cover Bands

I think there was more room in Manhattan, and in the country, for eccentrics when this photo (photo of Capote snapped by Warhol in the 60's was snapped than is the case today.

We had whole GENERATIONS of eccentrics in times past. Admittedly there were legions of wouldbe eccentrics (who were actually new forms of conformists) as well. But it was less expensive to live back then, and fewer of the psychological, social, geographic, and aesthetic niches had been established and filled in. It was still possible to be a pioneer.......or at least a one-off.

Most of the seemingly "originals" today come off, really, as content-free imitators, imposters, poseurs.

Think of what it takes to get into college these days. Children create "brands" or identities for themselves from an incredibly early age. They and their parents make sure they attend the right schools (rarely public), participate in the right organized sports, the eye-catching extra curricular activities, etc. Who dares to simply be and do and learn? One eye is always on pleasing authority, whether that authority is a college admissions office, a community of peers, a corporate personnel officer, or even a prospective mate.

Now it is not uncommon for 6 year olds to design and plan their looks, their lay out their outfits, piece by piece, before going to school. This sort of behavior at such an early age was unimaginable a few decades ago. After WWII a distinction was drawn between two schools of acting: the method, as exemplified and personified by Brando, which worked on characterization from the inside-out, and the longstanding theatrical outside-in mode exemplified by Olivier. The first was more instinctive and visceral, the second more conscious and calculated. Of course the method involved a great deal of conscious thought as well, but one needed only to look at its best exemplars to see the power lent to a characterization which had the luxury of discovering itself, surprising itself. The same can be said of Pollock's action painting from the same period. The painting itself was a by-product of the process, the action of creation, which was a discovery, a risk, a gamble, and a zen dance. The artist valued the possibility inherent in the act of creation infinitely more than he/she valued the art itself or the effect the art might have on viewers or the rewards, social/material/sexual/psychological, which might be gained by pleasing others (buyers, curators, critics, fans) with one's work.

The very act of being has been hollowed out. It doesn't flow spontaneously from the inside out. It's not a discovery. The self has become a calculation, a thousand calculations, made by a human rat in a vastly complex social, sexual, and intellectual maze. But wasn't it always so? Yes. But moreso now than ever. There is more pressure now to live a life which is tailored to impress and mollify others. And so we have a society consisting entirely of pretence: citizens pretending to be whatever they need to be to impress others, but the others they are trying to impress are equally hollow and lost. Think of the ongoing financial collapse: was the nation actually producing MORE of something prior to the collapse, was there more of something of VALUE? Or was most of the alleged increased value merely a reshuffling of finances, a prestidigitation of derivatives, a gigantic con or confidence game invented to swindle real value from rubes not sharp enough, or cynical enough, to see through the swindlers' deceptions? And was the nation fundamentally hollowed out, dressing to impress......even BEFORE the collapse?

In centuries and decades past immigrants came to America to seek material prosperity and social mobility, just as they do now. But perhaps most of all they came here to be FREE of the expectations and traps of the old worlds. Here there was ROOM. Room to discover, to surprise oneself, to grow in startling and unexpected ways.

And we who were born here viewed this freedom to improvise one's life as a birthright, a precious legacy. We were a nation of eccentrics, or rugged eccentrics, or so we viewed ourselves, even as we knuckled under, crushed and strangled by an increasingly heavy web of expectations from employers, educators, drill instructors, coaches, spouses, co-workers, peers, fashionistas, and neighbors.

What's the hottest show on TV these days? American Idol. Wouldbe stars, narcissists who may or may not be talented but who are always convinced they are talented, sally forth to impress a woeful panel of alleged experts. The experts are patent idiots, curmudgeons, even drunks, yet they, and the studio audience, and the hungry "artists" themselves, endow them with an absurd power and respect. They are wizards of oz, opening or shutting the stargate. Like St. Peter, or the director of admissions at Harvard, or the personnel director at Goldman Sachs, they control the gates of paradise.

And the audience identifies with the desperately degrading and degraded hunger to please which is all too painfully obvious in every singer. These musicians are not Billy Hollidays or Bob Dylans, whose process of discovery transcended the desire to please audiences, judges, fans. The contestants on American Idol are, by definition, smaller than the process and the authority figures and the fans which validate them.

One could argue that amateur hour/ talent search shows preceded American Idol and Star Search by many many decades on TV and radio. Arthur Godfrey, for example, had one in the early 1950's. But those early amateur hours had modest dimensions. They were small, slightly absurd, entrance ramps into the larger world of self-expression. They had the air of smalltown vaudeville about them.

American Idol is not only national in scope, it's international. And the seething crowds waiting to turn thumbs up or thumbs down are like the desperate Roman mobs jampacked into the Colisseum, thirsting for a circuslike spectacle. And if it's one in which blood is spilled (in the form, on American Idol, of eviscerated egos), then let the blood and bowels pour in torrents off the stage. The defeated contestants don't permit themselves a shred of dignity in defeat, but fall apart utterly, weeping, sobbing, their tripes spilling over the stage as Simon eviscerates them. None seem to have a sense of worth separate from the validation of the judges, none can imagine a life of worth separate from winning the contest. At least the ancient Christians fed to the lions had an apprehension of life, even an eternal one, separate from winning and losing, living and dying, eating and being eaten, in the arena. In the arena of the Faux Network, it's not a single Caesar who holds the power of life and death, paradise and perdition, but a triumvirate of imbeciles/montebanks.

Nothing is real about the process: not the talent, not the performances (which are always derivative and sentimental in the extreme), not the judges, not even the reactions of the audience. Everyone is lost and hollow and posturing and floundering after a grain of authenticity and real value in a laughably fraudulent sea. No wonder the show is so popular. What could be a more exact expression of the ongoing American experience, refined and crystallized and fired right back at the audience?

This audience is laughably far from a collection of free-thinking individuals in a republic. It's a desperate, empty, ill-defined mob clamoring for bread and circuses........and a vicarious experience of a corrupt imperium. Call it the Empire of Music if you like. This Empire has been rotting from the inside out for decades. The very market for music, even hollowed out, meaningless, derivative, music, has been devastated by the Internet.

So what is the paradise to which the winners of American Idol gain admission? CD sales are in the toilet. Presumably a handful of Justin Guarinis can make millions for a few years from live performances and album sales immediately after their big wins on American Idol before sucking back into the blackhole of nobody-ness from whence they came. But what is the shelf life of a completely derivative contest winner who has no identity of his/her own separate from that of the contest itself?

How long will it take them to land on the "where are they now" ash heap, or perhaps, if they're lucky, in a reality show with Dennis Rodman, Danny Bonaduce, and Andrew Dice Clay?

It's hard to imagine them on the nostalgia circuit a couple decades hence because these singers have no music or musical identities of their own. Every note they sing is already a reference to past music and singers. There is no there there. One wonders: can the same now be said of the entire country and its inhabitants? Have we become a gigantic cover band, referring back to a time and place when there was, allegedly, real value, real words and notes to be sung, and real expression and discovery?

Obviously nothing of value can be expressed or discovered within the context of Rupert Murdoch's contests. If we still have a chance to make real discoveries, express something meaningful, experience something of value, it's going to have to be outside all the contests, the swindling, lying, billionaires' contests. But who in America has the stones to live a life outside the markets, the popularity polls, the corporate rat mazes? Do the more recent generations think that the contests ARE the self, the self the contests? And when the contests themselves collapse, what will the contestants have left to say or sing?