Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Cultural Balkanization


The cultural mandarins in New York City are pushing for cultural fragmentation. At least, that’s the impression given by New York Times Magazine’s recent March 12 “Music Issue.” All is identity. In the Introduction to the issue staff writer Nitsuh Abebe says this:

“In 2017, identity is the topic at the absolute center of our conversations about music.” (“Our” being individuals at the newspaper?) And: “For better or worse, it’s all identity now.”

Abebe discusses the 1950’s as the “last great gasp” of “ethnicities,” but his is a distortion of American musical history. What made the 1950’s noteworthy is the fusion which took place between various threads of roots music, becoming “rock n’ roll”—melding into the pop music of the day and displacing it. The most visible of the new artists, Elvis Presley, counted among his influences country, gospel, rhythmn and blues, and Italian-American crooners like Dean Martin. Presley’s movies would place him continually in Latin and Hawaiian settings, motifs from those cultures’ music appearing in his songs—which were often as not written by Jewish-American songwriters in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. Elvis even did knockoffs of operatic arias!: “It’s Now or Never,” and “Surrender.” In other words, everything was fair game.

Elvis placed songs in the #1 position on the three main charts; pop, r & b, and country; the first time this happened.

Not just Presley fused various styles into his presentation and art. Chuck Berry’s first hit, “Maybelline,” was a reworking of a country song. Further, Berry’s voice had a ringing quality to it that for the time sounded “white.”

The best example of conscious fusion in the music of the 1950’s and early 60’s comes with Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who crafted a sound he believed would appeal to everyone. R & B blended with pop form. Gordy marketed this as “The Sound of Young America”—and it was, as kids from all backgrounds bought the records.

Pop music then was truly and distinctively American, embracing the musical backgrounds of all Americans.

This seems a more unifying goal to have, than the fragmentations of now.


In the Times Music Issue we get not just identity, but obsession with identity. A good example from the issue is the essay by Jenny Zhang. Hers is not the positive outlook of a Berry Gordy, who believed anything could be accomplished—and then went and accomplished it. Zhang mentions the “ways in which white supremacy had warped each of us.” Yet she’s confused about fundamentals. In discussing DIY/punk music of the 1990’s, Zhang says “no one much questioned why a subculture that saw itself as rebelling against the establishment was quite so dominated by white men.”

But it was an economic and business rebellion (as was the print-zine movement of the same decade, which I was part of). A rebellion against monopoly and elitism. Against tops-down thinking, and the idea that all culture must come out of L.A. and New York. A business rebellion in the same way rock n’ roll, promoted by carny barkers and street hustlers like Colonel Tom Parker, Sam Phillips, Alan Freed, and Dick Clark, was. Hundreds of upstart storefront record companies like Sun Records took away half the market share of the “Big Four” record giants—an almost unprecedented business revolution (which led to pushback via Congressional “payola” hearings intended to bust the newcomers).

Most of the DIY “punks” of the 1980’s and 90’s were white men, sure. But let’s remember that at any time in American history, including now, a huge segment of the white male population lives in grinding poverty. For an example of this study the biography of Kurt Cobain, who through the popularity of his band Nirvana took subculture grunge music, originally recorded and promoted by small Northwest outfits like Sub Pop, into the cultural mainstream.


What can be said finally about the Times Music Issue?

A.) Maybe that someone is pushing an agenda—agendas being pushed are generally in the interest of power or dollars. I opt for multinational conglomerates as the chief culprit, who today control most of the music business and whose focus isn’t on authentic American culture, but global profits.

B.) Also that when new cultural changes begin happening (see literature now) those well-schooled souls inhabiting Manhattan skyscrapers are often the last to know.


(At New Pop Lit we believe in American literature—and will demonstrate this with our upcoming “All-Time American Writers Tournament.”)


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