A Quilted Culture
Bravo! Last week’s inquiry into whether or not the generic “muzak” of dentist offices or supermarkets is “art or entertainment” elicited a single response that took the position that it was neither, but rather a form of mind control. Since my mind accepts a certain degree of sinister intent in the workings of big business, my initial knee-jerk reaction to this was to ponder musical mind control, of manipulating individuals with music that was originally intended to be entertaining, as a kind of art. This got me to thinking about the emotional qualities of triads that we all learned during our first exposure to music theory (minor = sad, major = happy, etc.) and how this could make up a basic, but obvious, formula for mind control in Western music, one that may have used in the churches, courts and opera houses of Europe for centuries. Then I remembered an essay by Lawrence W. Levine, “The Folklore of Industrial Society: Popular Culture and its Audiences”, wherein he claims pop music has replaced the role of folk music in 20th Century America.
I disagree with his premise. Pop music, like most of pop culture, sees itself as a commodity to be marketed commercially, targeting its listeners as mere consumers with the end result being to make money for those who distribute it—with the actual manufacture of the media (LP, cassette tape, CD, etc.) as part of the distribution process—while those who create the music in the first place receive as little remuneration as possible. The reception of pop music is guided by the distribution of recepts, ideas that form after one is repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus. Try monitoring your initial mental response after reading the phrase, “red, white, and blue.” The mind’s eye of those of us raised in the U.S.A. probably see flags and fireworks, some of us might even crave a hot dog. That’s how popular culture is disseminated, by semiological pragmatism. The tacit reception of folk art, on the other hand, is by the people who produce it. So folk music profits those who create it, regardless of whether or not any M1 changes hands. Distribution isn’t part of the production equation, it is meant to stay with the folks who use it; Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik in its purest, purist form. (I hope this isn’t a too round-the-bush way to include Sean Shepherd’s discussion of “education and outreach” from his engaging blog entry of July 11, “The Ties That Bind”. I’m looking forward to reading part two.)
Levine presented an idea that I think is essential to an understanding of what we American musicians represent, which is that American culture is not analogous to a melting pot, but rather to a mosaic. This was driven home to me when my wife hosted a visiting educator and poet from rural Canada over the weekend. She attended a few concerts that I was performing in. This required traveling around the outer boroughs of New York and northward to New Rochelle. We used her GPS to navigate the routes, but it was programmed to avoid any highways. So, we wound up driving through the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn, seeing how each neighborhood exuded distinct cultural characteristics that have little to do with what is presented by the American Cultural Machine. The golden arcs of McDonald’s still appeared every half-mile or so, but for every “national” fast-food outlet (MackieDee, the Burger Royalty, Tostada Ding-a-Ling, et alia ad nauseum), another 25 to 50 (or more) options were available. Restaurants, stores, supermarkets, the way people dressed—all indicated that diversity-at-large, and not homogeneity is what the American Experience is about. How this translates to American music was exemplified in Frank J. Oteri’s fascinating entry (“Shop ‘Til You Drop”, also from July 11), that included his experience of hearing “Dominican tipico meringue” being performed by a live band in a supermarket while shopping in Sunset Park for ingredients to cook Mexican cuisine. (If you want to eat great Mexican food in the New York City, get thee to Sunset Park!)
The American musical experience is not very well presented in the orchestral concert hall, but rather in the dance halls, nightclubs, restaurants, places of worship, and neighborhood events that salt-and-pepper its geography. This includes all of the Americas; the whole Western Hemisphere. You have just about the same odds of hearing a meringue or mambo band in a Mexican supermarket in Sunset Park as you would in a bar in Monterrey, Mexico. Diversity, as we see it today, is Monrovian in scope. But Monroe was no liberal. He didn’t include indigenous culture in his vision and to connect with that is an arduous undertaking. My friend and musical colleague, Jill McManus (who I had the honor of playing at a Whole Foods supermarket’s ongoing jazz concerts in West Orange, New Jersey—maybe live music in this type of venue is catching on?), travels regularly to New Mexico to listen to and hang out with the Hopi musicians there. Every visit brings back a bittersweet report of how wide the gulf is between a healthy respect for place and the unbridled urge to conquer anything not one’s “own.”
I fear that the latter philosophy has invaded the realm of the music industry in the recent NARAS decision to drop 31 of its Grammy award categories. The decision doesn’t reflect the national musical culture that the institution purports to represent. Certainly, the job of presenting awards will be a little easier and cheaper next year, but the act of excluding American musicians in such large numbers will cost us all in the long run. Diversity defines America, not the other way around.