The Shifting Voice of Authenticity

Published on Tuesday, June 15, 2010

As I write this entry, my Facebook is abuzz with people excited about the season premiere of True Blood.  Now the last thing this world needs in yet ANOTHER vampire tale, yet they seem to be dominating the media right now. True Blood, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries... the list goes on, and mind you, these shows have little to do with being a vampire, and are rather just dark, romantic, masturbatory fantasies about forbidden love so strong it can’t be denied.  Same shit, different wrapper.  And not surprising from a culture that created fast food, Americans are eating this shit up.  But is this fast food culture truly the most engaging narrative we can create?

That certainly explains the quantity of mild vampire stories that presently abound. Indeed during a summer that’s seeing yet another Robin Hood rehash shows that original ideas are hard to come by. Even newer narratives like Shrek and Toy Story are being warmed over for another cinematic run.  These animated favorites often get great reviews, but they are little more than a parody of our Western culture, adding nothing new to the dialogue. Indeed, it’s dumbing down the culture… you don’t need to learn new characters, you just hear the name and see if the actor is typically cast as a villain or hero.  You rarely need to question what side Bruce Willis is on. It’s transcended beyond film, and now the Great White Way, Broadway, is full of fast-food theatre.  It’s either a scene-for-scene recreation of a Disney movie (where they serve wine in plastic, cartoon-covered sippy-cups for adults!), or cheesy, unoriginal, warmed-over nostalgia, complete with the 80’s soundtrack.  There’s even a show based on a Green Day album, fittingly called American Idiot.

Mind you, this song is 30 years old.

With the current level of media saturation, have we used the same ideas too much? Have we in the West exhausted our inspiration? Or perhaps this speaks to a greater global trend… The shift of wealth, both financial and cultural, from The U.S. and Western Europe to South America and Asia.

Good Artists Borrow. Great Artists Steal.

The Anglo-American culture has been on a brilliant run… from Jules Verne to Jay-Z, Shakespeare to Spielberg, the West has produced an exceptional cultural legacy. As it has progressed, however, Western culture has logically grown increasingly multi-cultural. Indeed the exploration of foreign cultures has always been a popular topic.  Rudyard Kipling and Ernest Hemingway enthralled readers with their tales of living abroad, and these tales weren’t limited to just literature. Can anyone argue that music in the 20th Century was anything but the creation of African-Americans? Jazz, Blues, R&B, Rock & Roll… all products of black culture in America.  This multicultural voice is a large reason for America’s success exporting its culture. Films, television and music continue to absorb more and more from outside cultures. The more we explore, the more we discover, and the more we absorb.

Over this 20th Century, the means by which we absorb culture have changed immensely.  In 1900, after dark, you read, drank, or slept.  There was no internet, no television or radio… people absorbed their culture in books and newspapers, and organically through the community.  And music was only heard live. A hundred or so years hence, and we carry a library of media on a pocket-sized device.  But how is that affecting the culture we absorb?

Most glaringly, it’s commodified it.  With each file format comes a cost to download, and somebody making money selling someone else’s creativity… and this is nothing new. There have been arbiters of taste in every culture, since the first cave painting, who select and promote outstanding, thought-provoking works that speak volumes of the zeitgeist that has produced them.  Often as noteworthy cultural forces as the artists they’ve promoted, arbiters of taste have included the likes of Lorenzo DiMedici, Emil Zola, Gertrude Stein, and Peggy Guggenheim to name a few. With the ever increasing availability of consumable media, art has become a commodity, and the arbiters have become a combination of executives, ratings, focus groups, downloads, and hits. In simpler terms, this means the market is the true arbiter of taste, and the market simply seeks the mundane, familiar, over-used clich├ęs that produce the highest profit. If this is the case, shouldn’t we look to where the market growth is greatest to see where the most profitable and perhaps most relevant cultural voices are emerging?

Go Where the Money Is.

So how does this relate to the shifting of capital from West to East (and South?). Simple. That’s where the growth is.  My generation of Americans will be the first to live more poorly than our parents, and the growing debt (to China, of course), the trade deficit (to China, of course), and the growth of markets in Latin America, India and Asia has seen the massive amount of wealth amassed in America after WWII change hands. We’ve outsourced our products and our an increasing number of services.  What logically follows next? Culture. And with this shifting culture, come fresh perspectives on familiar human stories, mixed with a cultural lexicon that hasn’t been overmined.

The hints of this aren’t hard to read.  We saw this with the Kung-Fu movies of the 70s, and see it now in the rise of Bollywood.  In the last couple of years, we’ve truly seen an incredibly cultural infusion from the East. The Kite Runner, Persepolis, Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker tell stories of life in Asia, where’s things aren’t so buttoned-down, neatly landscaped, and perfectly manicured. This is where life happens on a daily basis… where people dream of the life we in the West take for granted. And the contrast is evident, and neatly summarized at the end of The Hurt Locker, where a soldier who deals with life and death every day overseas cannot deal with the safe and predictable everyday life in America.

So does this mean we’ve run out of drama and excitement in our lives in the West? Certainly not. There are heart-breaking, touching, inspiring tales of true life every day in America, but we hear about them on the news, laugh at them on Maury, or attempt to re-create them with reality shows.  Yet the best we can do with our films are overblown special effects covering up hackneyed plots and tired, familiar devices (Dances with Avatars, anyone?), or some pretentious, self indulgent film by Sam Mendes.  And just as our artwork has gotten so self-indulgent (though I’d argue this really started with Jackson Pollock), we’ve seen culture tailor itself to demographics, not to a culture as a whole. Whereas fifty years ago, families gathered around the TV together each night to watch the same shows their neighbors watched, nowadays, after dinner families in America each go to their own rooms and consume wildly different media in a multitude of digital formats.  This need for such a huge selection of media has worn out our narratives, and has led to the production of safe and familiar artwork that no longer pushes the envelope, but rather dresses up the same plotlines in different clothing and sells it to each fragmented demographic.

Fresh Perspectives and the Struggle for Authenticity.

Fitting we’re seeing this oversaturation of uninspired popular culture as the West is at a crossroads. Where 25 years ago, South America was little more than banana republics ruled by military dictators, it’s now given rise to a very progressive group of countries, which are producing a growing middle class, and becoming a driving force in the market. Asia was once a warzone for drug lords, dictators, and communists, but is now a global center for manufacturing, while neighboring India has profited greatly from British colonialism by putting their English-speaking skills to work in the customer support industry. This fusion of East and West, however, has not come without numerous consequences, both good and bad for each side.

The musician and artist M.I.A. is a prime example. Most popular music in the West now consists of marketable, familiar, inoffensive schlock. Even the wealth of musical inspiration that has come from the African American culture seems to have run dry, with hip hop now relying too heavily on stolen samples and expected beats. M.I.A.‘s music fuses Indian and Western musical heritages, combined with her outspoken beliefs, often addressing issues faced by women across the globe.  And here we see where the differing global perspectives come into play. Whereas we in America worry about which liberal arts college we want our daughters to attend, many daughters across the globe fear for their lives when pursuing a grade-school education.  The excitement, worry and concern we feel deciding which program is best for us cannot compare to the emotions in a young girl who worries she may be stoned to death for learning to read. Not surprisingly, her message has caused some controversy and censorship… even on the web.

Explicit Content! So controversial, in fact, this video for MIA’s Born Free was banned from YouTube. Strange how over these same 25 years, the USA has gone from being the global beacon of freedom to being a divisive, militaristic, oil-drunk, corporate regime who’s ravenous consumption is responsible for most of the problems in the world. Good thing for us Yanks that we don’t care what anyone else says. Ugh.

It is from such struggles do we find the most passionate and compelling storylines, and the most original voices… and those of us in the West may not like what these voices have to say.  After all, Western culture has been responsible for wars for oil, pollution, and horrible working and living conditions across much of Asia and Africa.  While many Americas support causes that fight for change in these practices, their lifestyles do not echo this concern. Activism, it seems, is skin-deep.  While we hope for change, in the end, we return to our comfortable Western lifestyle where we dream of new cars and new gadgets. Meanwhile, those who toil to produce the materials to make those cars and gadgets dream of 3 square meals and a safe place to sleep where the air isn’t thick with pollution, and the rivers aren’t choked with garbage.

This landscape, bleak as it may sounds, is rife with possibility and growth, but at a potentially great cost.  Whereas the landscape of America is fully-formed, with paved roads, picket fences, and neatly manicured lawns, the dreams and possibilities in the East are just being explored. Here the ease and beauty of our Western middle class lifestyle comes in contact with its dark industrial underbelly…. places where oppression, strife, fear, and violence are more than things on TV.  From this conflict and contradiction comes the passion, the desire, the drive to change the world. This is what produces great art… art that speaks to more than just the artist’s own self-indulgence or insecurity (or substance abuse), and one that speaks to a greater cultural significance… art that comes from those who have lacked a voice, and are struggling and yearning to find it.

The most interesting aspect of this cultural revolution is how technology will impact the dissemination of these new voices.  With HD video cameras now available on every smartphone, the growth of inexpensive professional software, the Internet providing a free and open distribution network, and the growing power of social media and the “Like” button, the separation between artist and audience has once again been erased, and new stories with fresh, often jarring perspectives will once again make their way organically through the community.

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