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    All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter Five

    January 21, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    On January 1, our family did what a lot of other families do: we watched the Rose Parade on television. In the last year, our television has been on in front of our children more than ever before. But this was a deliberate choice. We thought it worthwhile for them to watch a lot of the Olympics, for instance. In fact, we let the oldest stay up late twice. Once, he was watching one of Michael Phelps’ races, and the other time he was up along with our second child to watch the ending ceremonies.

    Incidentally, Mommy was very pregnant and fell asleep during the latter.

    They also watched at least two of the presidential debates, though the girls mainly traipsed around playing with their dolls.

    Finally, they watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade {something I’m rethinking considering how far it has fallen from its original glory}.

    The day of the Rose Parade, Si was in the backyard with my dad assembling a giant trampoline {translation: “free babysitter”}. The children were so excited that they chose to leave long before the parade was over. I usually mute the commercials when they come on, but I was in the kitchen when a car commercial took center stage. My daughter A. gasped in amazement.

    “Wook!” {look} she said. “Cwassy! Cwassy!”

    It took me a while to realize that she was excited about the classical music accompanying the commercial.

    It was about this time that Cindy wrote another of her famous lines, this one being that a familiarity of poetic knowledge, which I think is closely tied to high culture, can help children transcend popular culture. My children are very young, but I felt that in this moment I caught a glimpse of that concept in practice. This child was so captivated by the beautiful music {and she is so sensitive to beautiful music} that she was completely unaffected by the sales pitch for the car.

    Chapter Five of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is called Accounting for Taste. The overall argument this chapter attempts to make is that a “taste” for high culture and a “taste” for popular culture are two very different things. Myers writes:

    When I say I “like” Bach, and you say you “like” Bon Jovi, are we really using the same verb? That is, when I listen to Bach and you listen to Bon Jovi, is essentially the same thing happening to each of us? At one level, all we mean is that each of us takes pleasure in listening to our respective music. But there are many ways of taking pleasure, not all of them comparable, not all of them morally good.

    Later, he concludes:

    If what happens when we listen to classical music, read literature, or attend the theater is fundamentally a different kind of experience from listening to rock n’ roll, reading romance novels, or watching “The Cosby Show,” then it is clear that having a “taste” for high culture is a very different matter from having a “taste” for popular culture.

    In one sense, high culture is like vegetables. It is good for you, but the taste is acquired for most of us. And just as it is helpful to be eating the very best vegetables {like homegrown tomatoes instead of the store-bought variety}, it is also helpful to expose children acquiring the taste with the very best that high culture has to offer.

    I am finding this term that it is, for instance, quite easy for children to acquire a taste for Liszt because his works are objectively beautiful.

    Myers doesn’t really go into why popular culture is so inferior in nature, but I can venture a guess. But first, let me explain that I have a communications degree that happens to have an emphasis in Media Management. Before I decided to marry Si and have babies, I had entertained the thought of going into talk radio.

    Anyhow, as I neared graduation, I was uncomfortable with my major most of the time. {It was too late to switch to philosophy and graduate on time, but I tried to cleanse myself by ending my formal education with a stint in seminary.} One lesson that was drilled into my head in my classes was the nature of the commercialism within popular culture. I mean, sure, we all know that TV has commercials, and so to websites and so on. But it was as if the audience was viewed as a product to be delivered to advertisers. My job would have been to prepare the product to accept the advertiser’s influence.

    Money makes the world go ’round, especially in the mass media. Commercials are what keep shows on the air, for the most part. But it is so turned around sometimes that commercials are actually the focus. The test of a good show is whether or not it draws a big enough audience and is also effective at delivering the audience to the sponsor.

    Myers writes:

    [Great art] selects its material according to the “Author of the reality to be grasped,” not according to the arbitrary needs imposed by marketing departments or Nielsen ratings.

    I think Myers is terribly idealistic about Great Art. How many of the greatest paintings and musical scores were commissioned by powerful members of Church and Government? How many times do we come across wonderful works of literature which were worded just so in order to protect the author from political persecution? To say that Great Art is this innocent, untainted thing is to overlook the sordid side of history.

    However, I do think there is a qualitative difference between high culture’s history of meddling by Church and Government and popular culture’s audience-as-product mentality. While the artists in the past were trying to avoid persecution, the focus was mostly on their art. They were just trying to live a few days longer, or perhaps get paid. I would say that this is difference than trying to make art appealing to the masses for the sake of selling the masses to the highest bidder. Essentially, the art of the past was on the defense, trying not to stir the pot too much, while the “art” of the present {I hesitate to use the term} is on the offense, aggressively seeking to please The People, and make lots of money in the process.

    I wasn’t particularly thrilled with this chapter. I felt like there wasn’t strong reasoning backing up the individual arguments or tying them together into a whole. In fact, I spent half an hour last night mapping it out just to be able to grasp what Myers was trying to say, and even then I came away disappointed. Perhaps he’ll go into greater detail in future chapters.

    I found myself with a lot of unanswered questions. For instance, in one of the above quotes, Myers had said that perhaps “liking” Bach is not the same thing as “liking” rock. Perhaps something different happens to the soul. But unlike Postman, who often maps out exactly what he thinks is happening to soul, character, or sensibilities, Myers leaves a lot of details unsaid.

    To use Classical terms, I feel like I’m lacking some of the grammar and logic here.

    There were a couple issues Myers touched on that gave me food for thought. One was the effect of popular culture on the Church, and the other was the concept of sentimentality. In regards to the first, he writes:

    Entertainment reaches out to us where we are, puts on its show, and then leaves us essentially unchanged.

    Remember earlier when I said that my daughter associated church with rock concerts?? {Sorry. I don’t usually require two questions marks, but I’m making an exception this time.}

    Is this what worship-music-performed-as-a-concert has to offer us? Unchange in the worst sense of the word? Leaving us un-sanctified, so to speak?

    This is actually connected with sentimentality, which Myers defines as “loving something more than God does.” He further explains that the “scale and proportion of emotion should be rooted in reality.”

    I remember once, when I was in my early twenties, standing in a worship service wanting to feel something. Was I still in cemetery seminary at the time? I don’t remember. But the lyrics to the songs that day were so empty, so vacuous. They could have been referring to anything. Because there was nothing to grasp on to, I began reaching back into the past, trying to remember emotions I’d had previously. I think this is what is being referred to when Myers quotes Abraham Kaplan as writing:

    There is a nostalgia characteristic of the experience of popular art, not because the work as a form is familiar but because its very substance is familiarity…The skill of the artist is not in providing an experience but in providing occasions for reliving one. The emotions that come into being are not expressed by his materials but are associated with them.

    I would say that most recently-written worship songs rely on association rather than expression. However, over time, we lose our memories and so all that is left is the void, the emptiness.

    Shouldn’t church have more to offer than this? That was the question I asked so often ten years ago. Thankfully, I have discovered that it does. Or, at least, that some churches do. And the Gospel? Well the Gospel is certainly the Answer.

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    6 Comments

  • Reply Brandy January 23, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    Ellen,

    It is comments like this one that cause me to remember why I like you so much. You independent thinker, you. 🙂 I have to admit that since I read this, the song from the 80s with the part that said “Rock me Amadeus” keeps going through my mind. I can’t hardly control it!

    I do agree with you that both kinds of culture have something to offer. I just can’t clean my house while listening to Bach. I really do use something along the lines of rock to get me up and moving when I’m dragging and there are lots of chores to be done.

    I, too, was considering where rap fit into this discussion. I have terrible assocations with it as well. Mainly folks in the ‘hood shooting at each other. And I must admit that there is something about it that sounds aggressive. I really wish that Myers would explain more about music and why he holds the opinions he does. Overall, I think he has been too vague for a person like me who hasn’t considered the nature of music before (coming from a former music major, this is embarrassing to say)…

  • Reply Brandy January 23, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    Dana, I would still be interested in hearing tastebud stories if you ever get around to it.

    Interestingly enough, I found a review of LOST’s season premiere entitled ‘Lost’ an acquired taste. Thought that was funny in light of the vegetables discussion…

  • Reply Willa January 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    This is actually connected with sentimentality, which Myers defines as “loving something more than God does.” He further explains that the “scale and proportion of emotion should be rooted in reality.”

    Really interesting! My older children and I often talk about what sets mediocre art apart from highest quality things, and why pop or rock music doesn’t belong in church (our only local church is heavy on the schmaltzy 3rd rate folk music and my kids strongly dislike it).

  • Reply Ellen January 22, 2009 at 1:35 am

    Hmmmm. I have to admit that I’m kinda skeptical about this popular vs. high culture stuff.

    After all, Mozart was a rock star in his day. And nobody can tell me that he didn’t write to impress. He held rock concerts then, just as we hold them now.

    I think that the reason for production of art is probably a difference of degree. Most artists don’t just create to please themselves, especially after they become more popular. Humanity craves acceptance, whether we’re talking about the year 1720 or 2020.

    That being said, most classical music is more complex than most popular music. I think it requires more concentration to hear the nuances in it, and so it appeals to a different part of the brain. But a lot of popular music performed well and with joy is also a pleasure to listen to.

    I like both Christian rock and the American boychoir, and I think they both have something to offer, though that something is different. One is more restrained and thoughtful in its presentation, and the other is more abandoned and joyful. We need both, I think.

    I think there could be some taint associated with converting rap music to Christian lyrics, but it’s just a vague feeling, and I don’t think that Myers has made a strong logical case for it. It probably isn’t the type of music itself that taints… it’s the associations we have with it. If I think most rap is vulgar, because I’ve heard vulgar rap, then I’m going to be uncomfortable with Christian rap. But if I’ve never heard vulgar rap, then I won’t have negative associations.

    I’m rambling now, but maybe you get my drift. =)

  • Reply Dana January 21, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    Hi Brandy!

    I really wanted to talk about taste buds today and how to develop them. I have some silly stories relating to dinner table antics 🙂

    About TV, high culture, and LOST:

    Unfortunately I’ve never watched LOST so I can comment on the show. I do know that someone from my county is an actor on the show 🙂 Josh Holloway, grew up in Free Home, Cherokee County GA. But because I didnt go to high school here and he’s a lot younger than I am, I cant really vouch for him.

    There is some degree of cross-over with TV and high culture according to Wikipedia….like Masterpiece Theater renditions of Jane Austen novels and the like.

    Thanks for stopping by HiddenArt.

  • Reply Dominion Family January 21, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Years ago when I just had one baby, I took an exercise class at a gym. We did aerobics to music. The first class the instructor played an Amy Grant song and I spent the rest of the class trying to figure out if all the songs were Christian songs. I couldn’t tell because they were all about the higher power of love or something silly like that.

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