American Idiot?

President Barack Obama is a great orator; there is no disputing it. In fact, he is arguably the best “public-speaking” President this country has ever elected. And while I am considered by most who know me as an individual who is a fan of politics, fear not- this article will not turn into one of political debate or banter. I only mention Obama’s eminent speaking abilities to define motive for quitting my assigned readings for school Wednesday night to turn on the television and take in the seventy-minute State of the Union Address.

There were many moments throughout President Obama’s speech that will evoke editorial writing all across the country this week, as well as throughout the entire world to some extent. Yet for me, there was one particular section that I felt not only appealed to the institution of government itself, but to an industry that, in our modern information- glutton society, may be equitably important and influential to our laws, policies, gubernatorial decisions, and way of life: Media.

“Unfortunately too many of our citizens have lost faith that our biggest institutions … our media … still reflect these values [that built America]… The more TV pundits reduce serious debates into silly arguments, and big issues into sound bites, our citizens turn away. No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there. No wonder there’s so much disappointment.”

Did our President just call out the conglomerate media giants on printing sexy-headlines instead of reporting content? He sure did, and kudos to him for doing it!

So what does this all have to do with music today? The music industry (particularly the music-media industry) is largely guilty of the same cheeky sales tactics. The unfortunate thing is that as an industry, unlike a federal government, we don’t have a President to address us all at one time basically scolding us with, when reading between the lines, a lecture that compels; “Stop it. It does no good. Be better than that. What happened to the values and foundation that for a century now has made our music great?”

One has to wonder what the ratio of people is who have seen upskirt photos of Britney Spears vs. listened to a Okkervil River album; who have googled (yes, this should be a verb in 2010) images of a strung out Amy Winehouse vs. have ever listened to Billie Holiday sing “Strange Fruit;” or those who have spent more time discussing the final decade of Michael Jackson’s life (ahem, demise?) vs. actually listening to his music and message.

The problem with giant music media companies is that they are private organizations, and as such, they employ a Chief Executive Officer whose number one responsibility is to improve the stock value of his company. To do that, sales must continue to out-pace costs and revenue streams must continue to steadily ascend. It’s basic economics and at the risk of sounding condescending, I am sure it is something we are all quite aware of already. So, as CEO of any media form that reports on the music industry, one can only expect that a headline about the argument leading Noel Gallagher to tell his brother and rest of his bandmates to basically “go F themselves” will sell more issues, and in turn increase a higher net sales figure, then say an in depth review of the Belle and Sebastian catalogue.

This unfortunate truth is not unique to music at all. Sadly it is the state of our media today, especially since the onset of the information revolution. But what other alternative is there? Government controlled content of the media? Not only is that most likely impossible in today’s technological world, it would most certainly create a much more Orwellian state of things than I think any of us would even like to imagine. And who can blame our so-called hypothetical CEO for printing the Oasis headline over a Belle and Sebastian review? If that is what is going to get people to purchase the media content, than that is what should lead the medium.

Yet at some point we have to sit back and ask ourselves whether in today’s culture the antics outweigh the art? Does youth-society become a fan of music because of its sound or its sensation? Before the pop/rock star, music was made by the suffering, the ecstatic, the lonely, the celebrator, the nostalgic–in all: the artist. Now it’s produced by the greedy to be performed by the egoist and played for the envious. What better example than the American Idol sensation that has not only taken America by storm, but also 42 other countries (source: Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idol_series). Is this really how our generation would like to be remembered when looked back by historians as what was the music pop-culture scene at the turn of the 21st Century? The ’30s got Satchmo, the ’40s Frank, the ’50s Elvis, the ’60s Dylan and The Beatles, and we get Jordin Sparks?

The early pandemonium first created by the young teenage fans of Frank Sinatra that would transmit into “Beatlemania” forever changed the way we view popular music (it’s a tricky phrase to use–“popular music”–I am aware. A whole separate article could be written about what this term means to different readers and how the obscurity of the term leads to debate and misunderstanding. Yet that is another album to be played so to speak, so I request you all take what I mean here with a grain of salt and grant me the vagueness of the term). The question that we have to ask ourselves is if young people today get into music for what it represents as opposed to the expression (or lack thereof in a lot of cases) it intends. I would argue that majority of American adolescents, the nucleus of pop-culture, do. Not that they are to blame, for there is the substantial argument that humankind always has. But now more so than ever, it is becoming solely about representation and image and less about expression and art.

It is no accident that “We Shall Overcome” became a repeated hit during the Civil Rights movement throughout the 1960s. Representation of the lyrics was everything to the motley crowd of protestors who would repeatedly sing it during sit-ins, rallies, and marches. But the difference between the music industry past and present is how that song was portrayed to the masses then, and how it would be portrayed today.

Imagine Joan Baez or Mahalia Jackson being dressed up in Shakira-esque skirts and having bloggers report a fabricated love triangle between the two of them and Dr. Martin Luther King, accompanied by sound bites and paparazzi-plastered images all over the Web–all in hopes that “We Shall Overcome” becomes the next protest theme-song for The Movement. When one thinks of such a ploy, it sounds absurd and ludicrous. Instead of looking for meaning in song that captures the way an entire generation feels about its situation, music, and its codependent spouse media, is attempting to create the reciprocal by telling a generation what they feel through a façade of images and sound.

Look, I know there are a lot of engines out there that produce quality reporting and reviewing of artistically-inspired modern music (as opposed to commercially generated “American Idol” commodity-music). BreakThru Radio is a perfect example of such a vehicle. In fact if you are reading this article you are precisely the audience that most likely does not need to be reached.

My point here is that the grand American music industry, as it is perceived by majority of Americans as well as the rest of the world striving to identify with the American culture, lost its way somewhere between Sun and Chess Records and Making The Band. While independent labels, Web sites, radio stations, and small venues continue to push for quality over sensationalism, it is the corporate labels and our playing into the ignominy of our musician stars that is continuing to foster the growing disgrace of the perception of America’s music scene and in accordance, American pop-culture as a whole. No wonder there’s so much cynicism out there. No wonder there’s so much disappointment.

– Kory French

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