Saturday, November 28, 2009

Journal for Saturday: "Precious", Lady Gaga, Popular Culture and Going With The Flow

I am committed to self-change, and in these pages I examine and chronicle my attempts at self reinvention, share them with you, and invite comment. 

I often worry at my reluctance to embrace certain trends in poular culture.  Shouldn't someone as interested in change be open to all things new, to developments in movies, music, media? 

Why do I feel left out when I express a difference of opinion against a popular consensus; why do I feel irrelevant when I try to maintain a certain standard against which to measure a piece of creative work?

Some might tell me that my standards are, in the end, subjective, and that they need to stay flexible to flow with the times.  I might reply that their standards, too, need to change, and fast, to keep up with swiftly changing tastes and demographics, especially in the motion picture and popular music industries; and that those who dismiss me as closed-minded might know, even sooner than I ever did, the rejection of finding their favorite artists being regarded as out-of-date. 

 One thing I react against is a kind of hyperbole I see in discussions of new films, often having nothing to do with an honest appraisal of the movie and its strengths or flaws.

After I saw the trailer for "Precious" two months ago, I was impressed by its power. I told myself that I wanted to see the film, even though I wondered  if any movie could live up to the complete emotional experience delivered by the trailer. (I suspected I had already seen the best parts of the movie during the previews and could skip the actual harrowing experience.)  I read some reviews; most were glowing, but a few (like the New Yorker) questioned the way the film manipulated the audience, and objected to its graphic depicitons of incest and abuse.
Since then, I have read quite a few on-line reviewers hailing the movie as the most astonishing work ever committed to celluloid...and I started to feel that once I actually saw the movie it would be a letdown.... 

There are a lot fewer serious-minded movies released today, and so we can all be forgiven for overreacting to the few that happen to slip by the corporate machine and get distributed.

I'm sure the reviewers of "Precious" were honestly moved, but instead of dealing with how the film created these feelings, they appeared to want to be among the first to jump on an awards bandwagon, as a way to vindicate these strong feelings...rendering this just more awards fodder..... And as more pictures are released in the next two months, each deserving of honest scrutiny, I'd wager that these reviewers, instead of meeting these other films on their own merits, will make completely irrelevant comparisons to "Precious" .  Reviews like these treat the work as merely an entry in a year-end competition. I still want to see "Precious", but am preparing to be disappointed, as I fear the hype may carry the film to a slew of awards, while the real issues raised by it will be lost.

The second thing I find troubling is an almost irrational allegiance some pay to acts by some artists who have been packaged and processed and who know how to play up to these fans.

Lady Gaga is a curious phenomenon.  Here's someone who clearly has musical talent---she has played the piano since age four, written songs for popular acts, and has captured the imaginations of those who prefer glitzy theatrics and "fashion" to meaningful lyrics and music. She dithered on the topic of her own bisexuality, and thanked "the Gays" twice, once while accepting an MTV Music Award and once at the National Pride March, as thought gay people were a single-minded sitcom family. I have watched some of her TV performances and a video or two with amusement, and would have been happy to meet her on those terms, as an artist who parlayed real talent into a fascinating freak show and got rich quick and faded into relative obscurity

...until I heard people defend her as though she were the most original artist ever, and why, as one who appreciates art and theater, didn't I give her more credit? 

Well, quite simply...she hasn't moved me, or completely won me over, yet....she made me smile, and if fun is all, then her appeal has had merit for a time, and I enjoy it on that level,...but how can I truly embrace something which moves so quickly and changes so often, let alone defend her dubious, even disguised, talent? 

Pop culture is supposed to be fun, and it's a way to unite people in common enthusiasm or shared exasperation, a way to identify one's cohorts, to give signal to our chosen emblems of attractiveness and cool. 

But it must also stand the test of time, after which it mellows into something worthy of serious discussion, of recognition of true artistry, of ground-breaking theatricality....

I have abandoned a lot of popular culture, especially movies and pop music, only because it seems to move so fast through the public consciousness as to be easily forgotten and irrelevant...For aesthetic and personal pleasure, I tend to explore more traditional forms of creative expression....opera, classical music, literature, even theater...which seem to adhere to universally accepted standards of excellence, and which have thus proved lasting, and yielding almost endless treasures.

And yet...and here's the crux of my conflictedness about all of this.....It's lonely not to feel cool...

Sure, I could always go with the flow, for the sake of being a part of something.... Some fans get so defensive over that which should be fun....I know I could lighten up a bit...and I know we all hold favorite movies and music and books to our hearts and personally identify with them....but can we allow each other to remain outside of the mainstream on some forms of culture without feeling condescended to?
For every "Precious" there is a "Slumdog Millionaire" a "Dark Knight", a "Little Miss Sunshine"--all of these burst on the scene, created excitement for a month or two, were fiercely defended by vocal fans, won the awards they were groomed to win, and are now nostalgic footnotes.    For every Lady Gaga there is an Amy Winehouse, a Gwen Stefani, a Christina Aguilera;  I wonder, who will be listening to their voices and responding to their lyrics in ten years? in five? 

Sure, pop culture is meant to go with the flow and change to reflect--or create--style.  But if you want to fiercely defend that which will quickly fade and use artistry and originality as your defense, then I am afraid I for one will stand against that.

It used to be that with the traditional, although limited, media available to dispense information and desseminate culture, there was much more that was shared.  Now, the audience has been is "created" for  "markets" of consumers, and as long as these segments keep buying what corporate hacks produce, they don't care if "the product" crosses over....   

Before we bestow kudos for originality, consider:  today, it's "Precious"; before, it was "Sybil", or "Charly" (see photos above).  Today it's Lady Gaga, yesterday it was Elton John or Madonna. 

Will "Precious" or Lady GG have enough time to enter the consciousness of a fickle public?  Will they appeal to a cross section, or just a small portion,of that public?   I hope that their recognition will be for true talent and honest engagement with the emotions and aesthetic pleasure of their fans, for providing us with true beauty without pandering, for making us think without exploiting our basest curiosity.  I hope "Precious" will live up to the praise and be the compelling emotional experience the trailers promised; and I hope Lady Gaga will some day just sit at her piano and sing something of such beauty and originality, with clear and strong conviction, that I can not help but move to her corner. If either this film or this artist honestly accomplish these things, I will also be their champions.

And so, I will remain open.....while not abandoning the standards with which I greet creative work, with excitement.


  1. A lot of what you say resonates with me and alludes to a fundamental tension in our culture (all cultures?): a conservative tendency to maintain what has endured and an energetic desire to create something new. I've long thought that there are people who are wired to put down roots and stay put and others who keep moving on. Our tastes in the arts play out across a similar spectrum. I feel like I'm somewhere in the middle, and sometimes I'll resist an artist simply because so many others are already on the bandwagon. And later, sometimes years later, I'll suddenly become a fan. In the end, there's no way that any of this is supposed to be. It is what it is, and we like what we like. When ever you keep making the same choices you'll likely get more of the same. It's not "better" to try something new, but you're more likely to get a different result. We all get to choose.

  2. I am so happy for your visit Michael, and your eloquent comment. I agree, there's a lot to choose from out there, and I too feel somewhere in the middle, between establishing an identity of taste over time, and opening my mind to something new.
    Please stop by here again, you're thoughts are always welcome!

  3. Great post, Tom! Your topic is something that I am sure we have all thought about from time to time. Inasmuch as we feel compelled to attach ourselves to the flavor of the month of movies or singers because others do makes one wonder how much of what we perceive as our "favorites" are actually our personal beliefs and not those chosen by committee.

    Industry hype can be counter-productive and often it aids in my decision not to see a movie or listen to an artist. I know I will probably see "New Moon", not because I want to, but because the wife has read the books and wants to see it. But not because of the hype.

    Personally I feel less compelled to listen to an artist until they have built up some credibility within musical establishment and not just their fan base. Remember the Spice Girls? Most singers or groups don't have the stamina or talent to keep them in the public eye. I will stick with my old favorite movies and bands/singers and keep a wary eye open for the "next big thing."

    Until then I remain steadfast in my non-conformity.

  4. Tom,
    I don't know how I missed this summarized my thoughts very well.
    I guess I'm uncomfortable with the fragmented state of pop culture, the specificity of the markets for various "product", and a rushing of it all through the media pipeline, giving it little time to mellow and be embraced as a shared experience by the "culture" at large.
    Thanks for your comments!