Britney Spears, American Idol, Desperate Housewives … The material that passes for popular culture has never been so vapid. Indeed, it’s almost too easy to ridicule this stuff sold to viewers and listeners the world around. There is no enlightenment involved in the merchandise presented to us by car companies, banks, and other commercial failures whose primary intent is to convince us that our future involves us spending our money on their products. Indeed, there is not even a pretense or supposition that there should be any enlightenment in the equation. So, we spend our time watching and listening to these entertainment products while we work out how we’ll get that new car shown to us every ten minutes during the commercial break.
Trotsky wrote that “every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art.” While one might be hard pressed to justify most television shows and most pop music as art, they are what pass for culture. Once, a conversation with a friend who worked as a college faculty member turned to the question of whether film and music reflected or created popular trends and thought. In other words, does the culture we absorb influence us or do we influence it. Naturally, there is no conclusive answer to this question and we did not reach one that day. However, there are some clear examples of each. To begin with, television shows like the quasi-fascist “24” and its less unnerving predecessors like the 007 series of films exist to instill a fear not only of the enemies of the state but of the state itself. Thusly, we are encouraged by these obviously propagandistic works to ignore or consent to whatever illegal and immoral actions taken by those who claim to protect us. Furthermore, we are subconsciously trained to identify the state’s enemies as our own. Reality shows like “Cops” further this consciousness.
To substantiate the other side of the coin let me turn to the most popular rock band of all time, The Beatles. These young men arguably began as consumers who picked up musical instruments and replicated the music of their musical heroes, most of whom were bluesmen from the United States. They went on to become the most popular rock group of the 1960s and a cultural phenomenon with out parity. When the band grew their hair long and talked about LSD, were they propagandizing a new way of life or were they reflecting a way of life already in existence? To put it differently, did the Beatles and other rock bands lead the youth of the western world into the counterculture or did the counterculture consume the bands into its community? There is no clear answer to this, of course. The relationship was symbiotic at best and parasitic at its worst. Just like the later phenomenon of hip-hop, the streets created the music and the music in turn mutated, reflected and popularized the culture. Unfortunately, the aspects which were popularized were those that challenged the dominant system the least. In rock music that turned out to be the sex and drugs. In hip hop it turned out to be the sex, drugs and money. Politics and the sense of community were removed in favor of an individualistic pursuit of gratification. In other words, the capitalist ethos prevailed. This makes sense, of course, given that we live in a capitalist society and the companies that produce the music are instrumental players in that society’s economy.
Even on the occasion where something truly remarkable that serves a purpose beyond titillation comes into the cultural marketplace–a phenomenon seen in cinema and music more than television–the coverage of the work and its creators is often trivialized if it is covered at all. This was brought home to me recently as I watched the coverage of the Golden Globe Awards at a friend’s house. Little was said about the meaning of the films presented but thousands of words were wasted on the clothing worn by various actors and actresses as they walked around outside of the event showing off for the cameras. In the media coverage the following day, more print space was used describing people’s clothing and who they were with than on the works that were nominated. When it comes to music, reviewers tend to delve a bit deeper. However, at the end of the year, it is usually the musical works that made the most money that are celebrated in the media events viewed by the general public. This usually means that the works with the least meaning are those which are publicized most. This in turn propels even more sales, leaving works of consequence to linger in the CD bins until they are dropped by the industry.
Books are quite similar. Hundreds, if not thousands of titles, are rarely acknowledged by the media, while certain authors monopolize the sales charts and the minds of the reading public. I see this phenomenon daily as a library worker. Thousands of dollars are spent buying books that read very similar to the last work by an author, while other literature is never ordered. Well-read people end up reading materials that not only endorse the thought processes of the dominant culture of consumption and alienation, but are convinced that they are consequently somehow more enlightened than those that don’t read. Once again, we return to the question of which influences which. For example are second- and third-rate crime authors like Patricia Cornwell popular because people like her writing or are these authors popular because the advertising budgets behind them convince people that they should read them precisely because they are popular?
I’m listening to Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “Machine Gun” from a concert he performed in Berkeley in May, 1970 while people rioted in the streets against the US invasion of Cambodia. This song is not only a prayer for peace and love. It is about the massacre of Blacks in the streets and Vietnamese in the jungle. It is also a cry for an end to greed and the wars it causes. It is a condemnation of the masters of war and a cry of defiance. I don’t think it will be appearing in a commercial any time soon. Do you think Obama has this song on his iPod? Would it make a difference if he did?
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org