Into the Vapid: Consuming the Cultural Product

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 the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on August 2nd, 2009 at 8:58am #

    in other words, we humans, being one of the best survivalists and acceptors of cultures, accept culture which the ruling class allows us to obtain.
    we have always accepted our culture from previous generations. At times, we wld also venerate or consider passed-down culture as holy.

    whereas 20K yrs ago, culture was handed down to us by our equals, who really cared for our surviving well, but from ca 10K yrs ago, we were receiving ‘knowledge’ from shamans and later from sacerdotal class; which further refined methods of deceiving, so that the deceivers cld enjoy prestige, veneration, power over us, and very easy living.

    thus, our innate and wonderful trust began to be [ab]used by one, two, three, etc., people and with time abuse got ‘better’ and ‘better’.
    u want to sell a thing? Not to worry! Use a deception! Remember, it always worked; it’ll work again! Watch me!
    want a war, constitution, ‘law’, ‘education’, etc.? No problem! First of all some solemn self-laudations; praise for our brave-noble soldiers, constitution, etc., and a big lie or lies. And presto! What did i tell you?!

    but haven’t babylonians, russians, italians, assyrians, persians, romans done just what americans are doing?
    to most people this is a big secret and not because they are dumb/dishonest/uncaring but solely because they are trusting and conditioned to react to events just like pavlov’s dog.
    so, pavlov, tolstoy, trotsky, russel, santayana, et al new this. A genius had said that it takes a genius to see the obvious.
    however, this is not an adequate observation. I like analogy with pavlov’s dog.
    it is much clearer; at least to me! tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on August 2nd, 2009 at 9:43am #

    Whatever the system in this age maybe unplanned. To many players looking for the answers. I could be wrong on the answers.

    And presto! From 5,000 years of knowledge just what answers have we found? Wait don’t tell me capitalism is the best path to prosperity. So that’s what we see is it prosperity. Might have forgot to smell those rose’s for longer than 15 minutes. Well more and have more as the driving force the goose/Earth is cooked. Now maybe 5,000 years ago genius was needed to see this today it’s at our finger tips. That part amazes me and always’ will in this brave new World.

  3. kalidas said on August 2nd, 2009 at 3:16pm #

    It’s human devolution, or your lying eyes..

  4. Deadbeat said on August 2nd, 2009 at 7:27pm #

    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.

    I was a musician playing in New York around the time the “hip-hop/rap” scene started so I think the question that Ron is submitting is a bit simplistic and the birth of “hip-hop/rap” is a bit deeper than merely throwing a label like “vapid” to dismiss its origins.

    The whole rap/hip-hop genre was birthed by neoliberalism. Cuts to the cities especially the black community it was gave birth to hip-hop. It was the result of increasing poverty and the withdrawal of resources from the black community.

    As a musician playing in street bands we could not get gig because as the cities were losing its industrial base, the dwindling bar & club owner could not afford to pay a band. It was much easier for them to pay a DJ with a crate of records to provided the music and entertainment. In addition, one of the first areas that schools with dwindling budgets cut were their music programs. You have a whole generation of especially minority students who never even picked up what are considered musical instruments. In fact these inventive folks made the turntable, mixers, the record scratch, and their rhymes their musical instruments.

    Hip-hop, like all genres has the good and bad and some of the best rap/hip-hop performers were politcal rap performers like Public Enemy, KRS-One, and today you have Dead Prez.

    The real problem is the consoldation and corruption of the record and media industry that promotes the worst kind of music and media across all genres.

  5. ron said on August 3rd, 2009 at 4:24am #

    thanks for the comments, Deadbeat. I agree with your points and also who you name as quality hip-hop groups. The primary point of my piece when it comes to music was exactly the same as your last sentence.

  6. siamdave said on August 3rd, 2009 at 10:10am #

    very true stuff – I was a Beatles devotee for years, and still like the music – but sometime during my awakening the last couple of decades it began to occur to me that for all the hype, they really did not change much, and nothing in any useful way – in terms of who is running things here, the neocons have only gotten stronger since they got serious about things in the 70s. Yes, they were ‘only’ musicisans and not gods, and could not do everything – but they, and other influential cultural figures, musicians, writers, actors, could be doing considerably more in the way of telling people to get the earphones out and start getting involved with things than they do – some honorable exceptions notwithstanding (and I wouldn’t include people like Bono in that group, who seem to be very much supporting the power structure rather than promoting some kind of real democratic movement in OUR countries, which is what is needed.
    Anyway, if you are looking for some alternative visions for society, books the mainstream press or media will not go near, there is Green Island .