Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Which He Tries to Talk about Pop Culture Without Mentioning Johnny Cash

Except in the header, of course.

File this under "common grace." No theology here.

My contention is simple: what happens in high culture eventually filters down into folk culture.

Folk culture is a valuable thing. It is reflective of real life, and dictated by the democratic forces of what people actually like and consume. Through much of human history, folk culture celebrated, highlighted and explained the joys and sorrows of life in an uncertain world. Folk culture provides us with many artifacts that aid us in understanding people --we might call these "art".

For purposes of discussion, here's a simple definition of art: art is something that either celebrates beauty for its own sake (like a Beethoven Symphony) or has something important to say about life (like The Diary of Anne Frank).

Both Jacques Barzun and Nancy Pearcey have used art (among other things) to trace the declension of the culture of the Western World. I want to take their thoughts a bit further. Barzun starts with the Renaissance and ends in the decadence among the thinking classes of the West (much lamented in Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, as well). What he says is certainly true, but very few people, myself included, are out there reading Derrida or Foucault or James Joyce.

Ideas do have consequences, though, and what happens among the chattering classes filters down to where we live. High art in the mid twentieth century showed the moral devastation wrought by existentialism and nihilism: unwatchable plays, un-listenable atonalism in music, unreadable novels and art that celebrated the meaningless, random and inconsequential. If you enjoy any of the finer things, scan your shelves and see how much you have among your cd collections by Philip Glass or Arnold Schonberg. If you had to take a music appreciation class in college, you probably had the misfortune of hearing atonal music. By any standard, it is not beautiful or meaningful. Indeed, it was intended to be just the opposite. This sad course was followed by many among the artistic classes, be it in visual arts, literature, and so on.

At the same time, folk culture was morphing into popular culture. Early on in this transition, pop culture took what was good in the folk culture, elevated it and made it accessible to the masses. I would argue pop culture began about the time of the mass production of the phonograph and exploded with the advent of radio --ordinary people could have, in their homes, enjoyable and engaging folk art produced by others on a scale never before realized. Motion pictures brought drama before audiences that may never have seen such before.

The early efforts have their own particular beauty (think Chaplin), but quality only improved with techonology. The restraints of censorship (as silly as some of it was) actually seemed to serve the purpose of developing art, since what was base and low brow had to be avoided.

Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke, among others, were able to elevate the old physical comedy of the Vaudeville circuit and put it into American living rooms. It was a celebration both of meaning (the value of family and laughter) and beauty and poignance. Playhouse 90, The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie were simple, elegant popularization of drama for household audiences. Again, they meant something, and were often profound.

Norman Lear elevated the sitcom to moral art form. We may not like or agree with much of what he said, but in terms of sheer artistry, using humor to disarm and critique through such figures as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. George Jefferson was a work of pure genius --he was no caricature, and not an entirely sympathetic character. Yet, he was a black man who made it, while his bigoted white neighbor stayed lower middle class. Lear had no saccharine, and few made the points as made as well as he made them.

Music, too, went through similar iterations. There has, of course, always been the product of the marketing machine. One wonders what the attractions of Connie Stevens ever was, for instance, beyond marketable beauty. Yet, alongside that were artifacts of real meaning and real beauty. This remained true in popular music through the 70's. A few examples:

The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write...and now a child can understand that this is the law of all the land --Three Dog Night

Down in the Delta where I was born, all we raised was cotton, potatoes and corn. Pickin that cotton till our fingers hurt, draggin' that sack through that Delta dirt. --Charley Pride

Even the negative experiences of life are art form, because they bespeak stark reality:

I'd smoked my mind the night before
With cigarettes and songs I'd been picking.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid
Playing with a can that he was kicking.
Then I walked across the street
And caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken.
And Lord, it took me back to something that I'd lost
Somewhere, somehow along the way.

On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.

Alright, so I broke my Johnny Cash vow, though the lyrics, like so many other meaningful ones, were written by Kris Kristofferson. Or consider these by Jim Steinman's "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," one of the best rock songs ever written, about the misery induced by promiscuity....

(The girl stops the advances of the boy):

Stop right there!I gotta know right now! Before we go any further!
Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me?
Will you never leave me? Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?
Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?

The boy responds:

Let me sleep on it....I'll give you an answer in the morning.

She demurs, and he advances:

I couldn't take it any longer Lord I was crazed
And when the feeling came upon me Like a tidal wave
I started swearing to my god and on my mother's grave
That I would love you to the end of time
I swore that I would love you to the end of time!

So now I'm praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive...praying for the end of time so I can end my time with you.

It was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today.

More examples could be multiplied. The question is not whether pop culture used to produce forgettable junk. It always has. The question is rather whether it is producing anything of lasting value now. I contend that it is not. There is little profundity left in pop culture --not in television, not in popular music regardless of genre. There is, thankfully, a bit left in the movies, which lend themselves better to saying profound things. Movies like The King's Speech prove the point --there is still an audience for good stuff. Yet, the purveyors of pop culture, who produce via focus group and the lowest common denominator, do not seem much interested in profundity and beauty even when they sell. The reason why is: existentialism and nihilism are the cultural currency. Nobody listens to Schonberg, but millions will listen to Katy Perry. And, that is a crying shame.

Christians ought to see this vacuum as a great opportunity to advance. Our God does all things well. He speaks profound things about himself and all his creation. He celebrates beauty for its own sake, and so should we. We should engage in arts high and folk, and encourage and celebrate those who do. To the existential despair of much of art (which is a crying out for God), we can present the very God who alone gives meaning, purpose and moral beauty.


  1. Well Said indeed, Ken! Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Some of what you have written is similar to some thoughts I have concerning the preaching series I am doing in Ecclesiastes on Sundays. Well done!

  2. Great post. I agree that there is an artistic void in our day that gives Christians a great opportunity to create in a way that honors and glorifies the Creator.

  3. Ken
    Wow this opens up all kinds of paths of discussion. Absolutely agree regarding the vacuousness of the vast majority of pop culture, but like you say, what else is new? The more important point is that if we embrace the definition of "art" that you propose " art is something that either celebrates beauty for its own sake ... or has something important to say about life" then IMHO there's actually a lot of good art being made out there by Christians and non Christians. I'd like to run for a minute with the idea of the "folk" tradition because this is where I spend a lot of time (as opposed to "high" art). Folk in this sense can emcompass an extraordinary variety of artists and genres: old time country (old time being anything before about 1980)(CASH), bluegrass/jazzgrass (everything from Bill Monroe up to Tony Rice and Sam Bush), alt-country, singer/songwriter (Dylan, Buddy Miller, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark to name a few). Apart from being interesting and creative artists, most of these folks share something in common: they actually play their music live, in front of an audience, for a living, on a consistent basis. Contrast this with the "pop star" syndrome: make a bad techno-heavy record every couple of years, sell a bunch of songs on itunes, tour stadiums. In his book "Re-Sounding Truth", Professor Jeremy Begbie makes some interesting observations (that are actually pretty obvious once you think about them): (a) up until about the last half century music was something made and experienced in community, whether front porch picking or shape note church singing, players played and people listened or joined in; (b) music was not so much about the self-expression of the artist; (c) with technology working hand in hand with marketing folks, particularly now with mobile devices that can store literally thousands of songs, music has by and large become just another commodity to be bought and sold; and (d) that same technology results in privatization of a formerly social experience (i.e. ipod and headphones) and instant gratification (you don't have to sit through a demanding piece of music or song...just hit the advance button). So back to my point about ths broadly defined folk tradition. There are a great many musicians out there who care about crafting great songs, who are masters of their instruments,who play live...to people who actually want to sit and listen. If you want to see this in action go to a blugrass festival; its the best example I've seen of musicians and listeners coming together in community to make, hear and eperience music. I wish that we in the Church could find more ways to nurture this tradition of making and hearing music in community and to encourage Christian artists who are attempting to do this.

  4. Rob,

    All you say is true, but you have "niche knowledge," whereas I am talking about the broader cultural stream. How ironic when there were 3 networks that television was better.

    The culture used to promote (at least some) work of enduring value, and that does not appear to be happening, at least not as it happened in the past --that doesn't mean that individuals aren't cranking out some good stuff, just that they don't receive the notice they once did.