Lee Siegel is an essayist, and he’s written an essay decrying the coarseness of our culture these days.
It’s hard to argue with that, but Siegel seems to be blaming the internet and social media (maybe, he’s not entirely coherent), for making it easier to be blatant than it used to be. He cites his bona fides by mentioning that his favorite movie is Last Tango in Paris, and that he considered once writing a book about the eff word. He’s no prude, he says.
I think he gets it so wrong because he fails to recognize the big difference in the culture when he and I were young, and the culture today. Back then, until the 80s really, the popular culture was (mostly) monolithic. For example, when punk broke all the news and magazine shows did stories on punk music and culture because it looked like it was the next big thing. It was assumed back then that when something grabbed the populace, like the Beatles, that everyone would soon be into it. Everybody paid attention because such seismic shifts affected everyone. Time and Newsweek put them on the cover.
But really, ever since punk, or at least since around then, our culture has splintered. At about the same time came the introduction of the personal computer and the rise of cable television, and in the intervening years, of course, came the overlay of the internet over almost everything. It isn’t that the internet didn’t matter, but that the internet helped us create millions of separate individual cultures. They overlap, of course, but they are tangential to the mass collective culture that they ultimately make up.
Siegel says the culture has coarsened because we now have the brazenness of Beyonce instead of the subtlety of Elvis. Really?
In fact, we still have the subtlety of Elvis. We are not wedded to today culturally. We can pick and choose historically and geographically. Same with movies, and books, and just about everything. The world is our oyster as far as cultural consumption goes. The price we pay for that is that we share less culturally than we used to. It is relatively easy to ignore the popular culture these days, if you want to.
In reality, my family actually is in the middle of the popular culture, because my daughter listens to pop music. A lot. If not for her I’m sure I wouldn’t know anything about Lorde and Miley Cyrus and Ellie Goulding and Birdy, among others. And even when I hear these pop songs she listens to, many of which I actually like, I’m under no illusion they represent the culture. Most of my peers I talk to about them don’t know this music, have no interest in it, are totally separate from it. To be sure, they are a sliver of the total output. And when I tire of hearing them in my house, echoing down my hall, I have my ear buds. Bye bye Lorde.
What has become the popular culture of today isn’t the one thing that everyone gets behind, at least out of obligation, but rather it’s now the one thing that everyone allows to be foisted upon them. As in the movie Idiocracy so goes the MTV Music Awards. The popular thing has to break through the weave of our personal cocoons the way nut-busting does, and so Miley creates her provocative theater. And for our soundtrack, we hear the pop tunes in the grocery, sometimes, but then didn’t we always?
Siegel, early on, uses the Rolling Stones Brown Sugar as evidence that subtlety is better. This, he says, was a dirty transgressive rock song that grabbed hold and is still with us 40 years later. It intrigued and captivated us with its subtle evocation of the slaver-slave dynamic(!), and the caucasian black-music lover and the feelings of the black musician being loved (or ignored). This is complicated stuff. Two years later, Siegel points out, the Stones made another, coarser song, called Star Star (Starfucker). Few remember it, he says. Which may be true. Star Star is a straight ahead rock riff, a Chuck Berry vamp amped up and impeccably layered by the Stones with about 300 overdubs, but decidedly lacking in ambition or achievement. It’s a better rock song than almost anyone else could do, but it is pretty rote for the Stones.
Brown Sugar is a classic. Not for its restraint or subtle coarseness but because of its riffs! It doesn’t sound like a Chuck Berry tune. The lyrics are ambitious, ambiguous, allusive, redolent of power and privilege and I hear the recognition that that power and privilege are crimes, though perhaps unavoidable ones. That’s human nature. The song endures because of it’s excellence, not its restraint.
You can read the Lee Siegel piece and maybe you’ll agree with him. I agree that you hear the eff word more these days, so there is that. But I think if we were to live a long time we would hear this exact same argument, again and again and again, from other old guys who have children and who think the world should make them feel more comfortable. So they gripe. But it isn’t going to soothe them, and more importantly, it never did.