Okay, here’s another post on why I find modern art’s lyrical direction so problematical. It has nothing to do with the music or its experimental aspect, both of which I said last week that I enjoy. It’s that I always thought that there had to be more to art than songs about love with a catchy line to bring listeners into the songwriter’s universe. The worst was always The Rolling Stones, who would weave songs using catchphrases like ‘wild horse couldn’t drag me away,’ ‘get off of my cloud,’ and ‘under my thumb.’ No one really cared (or I didn’t care) to listen to such repetitious lyrics about meaningless things when there were so many better poems to read, like Paradise Lost, Prometheus Unbound, and Hamlet. So I went to graduate school and read those.
My Former Snobbery
I bring my ability to read ‘high art’ to the lyrics of ‘low art.’ It’s not that I am a snob, though this was not always true. I went back to the library and read the books that had made me curious about becoming a scholar—book I had nor read in 15 years—and found that I had been tempted by the prospect of becoming a rare hero if I could only travel to the bottom of the sea in a ‘sea-change’ moment.
Such heroism was the reason I got into academia (it cured me of the disease on its own before I got out), and for me, who was never very popular in school, I was looking to compete with people who were demonstrably more successful that I was. I started taking drugs to test myself and my resolve at the bottom of the sea while others floated on the surface. I gave my quest up before I was 21 after I realized that I was able to explore my potential but had dropped out of college and given away all prospects of turning my potential into action. Others I had gone to school with and who had not dithered away years doing druds (and little else) were realizing their potential and putting it into action. I went back to school with the noble goal of teaching others what I had come to learn the hard way: drugs are bad; knowledge is good.
Famous Intellectuals Agreed with Me
Back then, when I was a snob, I relied on arguments like those of Herbert Gans’ arguments in Popular Culture and High Culture. In that book, he is trying to bridge the gap between ‘high culture,’ which is the art that ‘is dominated by creators—and critics’ (100), and all other cultures, which do not have the creator at their centers. ‘High culture plays [sic] attention to the construction of cultural products’ (101), whereas other forms of art do not. Gans aligns taste cultures with class: the more class you have the classier art you will appreciate. Gans wants to even out the resulting ‘taste hierarchy’ (141) by giving less importance to upper class snobs and making ‘low culture’ (115), not more accessible to the general public, but more in line with the high standards of ‘high culture.’ His plan for doing this is to subsidize a public television and radio stations out of the government’s pockets. The problem with that is that we can see that public television is not a fair arbitrator, but is in fact partisan for positions that had their heyday in the 1960s, when people were filled with idealism.
Money is the enemy of the idealist. It betokens only the grasp of people in the wrong direction. They should be living in the intellect, not in the gutter of acquisition for acquisition’s. It is only greedy people who work for money. This is the basis of Gans’ support for public media. He desperately wants to get capitalists who pander to the lowest common denominator through sex and violence out of the way and put in its place a more moral—because less capitalistic—media in its place.
But there can be problems with this model, as well. The first came about when we were liberated from five channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and a sole UHF station) and found ourselves at sea with over 500 channels to choose from. Now, channels compete for markets: some station exist for lower class taste, while others exist to cater to other niches not covered in Gans’ class-culture alignment. This sucked out of the PBS pipeline much of the programming that used to make PBS worth funding. Their audience has trended older; as younger viewers turned to more exciting programs(my youngest son never watched Sesame Street), WTTW is putting on trivial programs to revive the ‘taste’ of an aging population. In pandering to the remainder of the population that still watches, PBS has given up its claim to be a reflection of the general population and has instead given up its avant-garde position.
But there is another problem with Gans’ model: it does not now (and never has) understood taste and what drives it. By seeking to ‘elevate’ low class culture beyond its narrow limitations, it threatens to remake the plot of Mildred Pierce. This was considered a ‘low-class’ novel before it was adapted to a ‘low-class’ film in 1944. Over time, however, it obtained to status of a classic, raising itself up the taste ladder. In the remake of the film that is airing this week on HBO—these days a much more avant-garde venue than PBS—Mildred wishes to live her life surrounded by high culture, but the Depression kills her dreams. She has to work as a waitress, but she shields her surviving child Veda from the prospect of work. In the end, her shielding of her little girl backfires on Mildred, because Veda doesn’t have the sense of the work that underlies her precious knowledge of Chopin. Tragedy ensues.
This is the lesson I learned before I went back to school: it is that people who want to raise us up beyond ourselves to a starlight perspective may have good intentions, but intentions are not actions. Actions can be judged over time, and we cannot ignore the law of unintended consequences. Sometimes things turn out according to plan; other times not so much.
Idealism in a World of Change
It is when things don’t turn out well that idealists have the hardest time changing. They revert back to their original premises, which were proposed amongst the purest of minds, minds that are uncontaminated by thoughts of money. The only way that people could object to their good intentions is that ‘them’ are bad,’ their minds contaminated by impure thoughts. As such, ‘them’ didn’t need to be listened to, but lectured to. Since in graduate school this flung blame was directed squarely at me, I decided to drop out of school once again and find a line of work that I could be more comfortable in.
The art world has not caught up with me here. They still think of themselves as being outside of, away from, above, at the margins of the ‘low-class’ world in the air of the pure and whole. This is the metaphysical realm and not the world of science.
This is why so much of the lyrical world makes sense only if you think of the lyricist as one of ‘us,’ the knowing, lecturing the ‘them,’ the unknowing, from the protected realm of metaphysics. No one can judge the lyricist creator, because he has by definition removed himself from the scientific realm to the pure realm of starlight.
Eminem Again (Say That 3 Times)
When we actually think about what Eminem is actually saying in his ‘Not Afraid,’ we probably shouldn’t believe it. He is reflecting knowledge that he doesn’t actually have as though he has it and just isn’t aware of it. As I said, the lyric content of the song doesn’t bother me, and I feel no obligation to correct his lyrics through a ‘higher’ public discourse. I like Eminem, and I like this song. It is what it is. The fact that the lyricist is claiming it to be complete in relation to ‘lesser’ non-artistic, non-creative garbage.
But this is the limitation of the creator of art in terms of art itself. Artistic creators always think that their worldview is unique. It is not always so.
Handsome Boy Modeling School
The same holds true of the Handsome Boy Modeling School. They were formed “as a conceptual hip hop duo that parodied and acted as a commentary on vain, consumerist, materialistic, and self-absorbed members of upper class society, such as supermodels and people from old money. The pair often satirized upper class snobbery and perceived beauty” (Wikipedia). The name of their group was derived from one of the most inane sitcoms on the air at the time, Chris Elliott’s Get a Life:
They position themselves above the ‘low life’ fray of ‘low-brow’ culture with songs like ‘Metaphysics’:
The song features lyrics like these:
Hyposes scientifical parabolus, milytical projectile punctured
chronicle moderate bisected, injected refractions
computating thoughts through a terament of ground stored in a floppy
T 1 line connect, intersect riding brain waves
like a silver surfer whale is molding hand
perforating a family of swords,
I get metaphysical
It’s a good day
Decontextualization, Not Content, As Meaning
This ‘metaphysical style’ uses scientific words without context, deriving their meaning from the decontextualization of meaning. If I wanted to, I could make up connections between words, but the point is that if I were to do so I would be breaking away from the principles of ‘high art’ to engage a more prosaic search for a more limited meaning. I would mark myself as an outsider by insisting that words ‘mean’ something.
That is a valid point, but it is a point that is made again and again (and again forever) through modern art. It is a statement of position (‘’us’and those who like what ‘us’ like are ‘in’; ‘them’ and those who want something more are ‘out.’’). Such things become self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘Us’ don’t need to engage the world; ‘s’ already know what the world holds for us. All that is required is for ‘them’ to listen to what ‘us’ have to tell ‘them.’
This is the problem I found in grad school: people were more interested in positioning themselves on the right side of the ‘truth’ question than they were in thinking about their position in relative terms appropriate to action in time. For idealists, there is no component added by time that is not present in their ideal.
The same holds true of the Handsome Boy Modeling School. They (and only they) have a hold on the truth in a world filled with ‘false consciousness.’ See my discussion under the heading ‘Marx, Aristotle, and Me’ for deeper discussion of the concept. They have their eye on ‘The Truth’:
These lyrics are even more revealing than the lyrics of ‘Metaphysics,’ because they actually make sense. They start out with the mountain (of Mohammed, presumably) and the burning bush (of Moses, definitely):
Go to the mountain if you must
Go to the burning bush
Happy would ease your troubled mind
How do (my baby?) stay behind?
If ‘you’ were to find ‘Happy’ there it would ‘ease your troubled mind.’ The gist of the last lyric, which I can’t hear, is to draw her lover out of himself and into her orbit. The lyrics continue:
I know you better than you think I do
Don’t worry babe. This is why i fell in love with you
The man in the looking glass
Is looking back at you at last
She reflects his consciousness back at him in a way that staring at a mirror never could. From this, she gets the notion of a dualistic sense of truth, as opposed to a single image in the mirror. This breaks the narcissistic cycle and brings ‘us’ out of ourselves to a greater truth, the truth of love (Aaaww, isn’t that sweet!). With that, she gets to the chorus:
You can’t hide from the truth
Because the truth is all there is
You can’t hide from the truth
Because the truth is all there is
You can’t hide from the truth
Because the truth is all there is
You can’t hide
Now, at this point I have an objection, which is that the truth is not all there is. In fact, I can think of a blue weasel with a pig nose, komodo dragon legs, and angel wings that never existed in reality. Now, the Handsome Boy Modeling School is not listening to me (why would they?; who am I?), but if they were, they would object that George (my weasel-friend’s name) doesn’t really exist.
If I was four, then I’d have gone home to Mommy and cried like I did when I learned that there was no Santa Claus. But I am not four. I’m 48 and have been to graduate school, so I would argue that there is an imaginative component to experience that cannot be reduced, as the Handsome Boy Modeling School would reduce all things, to ‘the truth.’ If you set up a goal like this, you are destined to fail. Ends are the product of metaphysics, but ends are only goals. You (or I, or anyone, not even creator-artists like the Handsome Boy Modeling School) can get to the bottom of our assumption pile to dig out of the pile of dung a diamond. There may be diamonds in the pile, but in order to get one, you will have to dig through a lot of shit.
The Relationship Between Handsome Boy Modeling School and Piles of Shit
The problem with the Handsome Boy Modeling School is that they’re looking to stay clean as they dig through piles of shit. And I don’t think their strategy of ignoring the shit that cakes on them through a posture of irony works. I can watch Chris Elliott’s Get a Life without surrendering my judgment and without taking a posture of irony. I do this by limiting the role that Chris’ stupid sitcom takes in my life; it funny, but not that funny; it’s clever, but not that clever. I would rather read Hamlet.
I do not think that I am an idiot for watching the program without a sufficient sense of irony. Yes, I think that Chris is portraying someone stupid, but that doesn’t he is stupid in real life. Nor do I think that those I who watch it are any more stupid than, say, the Handsome Boy Modeling School, who have taken an ‘ironic’ stance on the literature of television. The difference is that I don’t live in irony-world, a distant (and certainly unreal, despite the hopes of ‘Findhorn people’ there at last that men (and women if gender stereotypes still apply in the heaven of Findhorn) will find salvation from the diurnal changes that affect this life on another planet) planet. I am content to live on this planet without refuge to ‘imaginary’ planets that don’t exist except in the heads of crazy people like the few ‘us’ people like André who actually believe what the rest of ‘them’ accept as a metaphor.
Life in this world is hard, and here I agree with the Handsome Boy Modeling School:
If happy times are too few and far between
It’s a pity dear, we can’t erase the things we’ve seen
But no sooner have I agreed with them that they disappear from view (as if that is really possible without either an artistic or an actual suicide).
So disappear, vanish if you wish
Just go before you’re swallowed up by bitterness
That’s too bad, because I was getting to like the Handsome Boy Modeling School. But, as always with me and my relationship with music, the Handsome Boy Modeling School is too insistent about ‘the truth’ being all there is,’ despite the apparent insensitivity to that which makes our dark days brighter again: the power of fiction and metaphor.
That said, I don’t really listen to music for the messages they hold, since these tend to be foolish, and not well-thought-out. And in this, I include the Handsome Boy Modeling School, who had hoped to escape the nonsense of inanity by traveling to a more serious world, the world in which names don’t have any meaning, or if they do they point to inane things like Andy Warhol eating a hamburger or ‘the truth.’ I have looked at art another way.
So lighten up, Handsome Boy Modeling School! Having a sense of humor will get you a long way in this life.