From radical to commercial in one generation

I was surprised to find that the opening bars of the version of “Star Spangled Banner” performed by Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock is used by Major League Baseball as its unofficial theme. I doubt that the favorite sport of George Will and Henry Kissinger was making some radical critique that reactionary forces have distorted our country’s ideals in this time of national polarization just as they did in 1969, the last time we were so riven. It probably is simply just another example of something I observed: that in our hyper-commercialized form of popular culture, where “art” is simply “content” which has been successfully marketed by profit-driven actors rather than cultural critics, it takes only about 50 years for advertisers and corporate image polishers to take even the most radical forms of expression and turn them into commercials. At one time abstract expressionism was thought shocking, but now it decorates the offices of even the most staid Wall Street firms (provided of course that the colors match the surroundings). I noticed that around the mid-1990s Saks of Fifth Avenue (the one in Manhattan) started playing Charlie Parker (just barely heard of course) in the background. (I wonder if the stores around the country did so at the same time or have caught up.) Munch’s Scream and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers of course have been decorative items for a long time.

Maybe the time period has something to do with the length of copyrights. Or maybe pop culture simply takes 50 or so years to assimilate innovations. It took Hollywood until about the late 1950s before it began using riffs from atonal compositions made in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, even though composers like Korngold, who witnessed and participated in it in Vienna, composed film music.

I suspect that time frame will speed up in the near future because fewer and fewer oases of non-commercial art exist, because popular art is largely conceived from the beginning as a commercial endeavor (with product placement, embedded advertisements, considerations of licensing possibilities), and because a generation has grown up immured against the idea that art is something outside of mass, commercial entertainment.

This may not be an entirely new development. Hemingway, for example, designed For Whom the Bell Tolls for a movie with Clark Gable in mind. Maybe it was inevitable with the twentieth century’s mass distribution inventions: movies, recordings, broadcasting. Maybe it would never have occurred to anyone to make “absolute music” independent of considerations of what records would “sell,” and more importantly, how much profits could be generated. Maybe Bach today would be writing television theme music, Virgil writing ad copy and Bernini trying to make cars look sleeker.

Even so there still seems to me to be a disconnect between the beer swilling fans in Boston screaming “Yankees suck!” and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” crowds at Woodstock. Maybe the forces of conformity have simply changed society. God knows there has been no real anti-war movement, despite over a decade of conflicts around the world. So maybe the forces that allow Hendrix to be play while watching the interminably slow pace of baseball has simply homogenized us all. It doesn’t matter what is sold, we will buy it as long as it is packaged in the way we have come to expect.

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  1. I agree that “fewer and fewer oases of non-commercial art” seem to exist, and that “popular art is largely conceived from the beginning as a commercial endeavor.” I don’t know the history of film or music as you do, but more and ore I feel distressed at what is happening to day.

  2. WordPress did not allow me to edit or finish my Comment above. Was going to say that I feel, just now, especially sorry for young actors of sensibility, capable of subtle and expressive performances, but with little chance for anything on screens that are not full of violence, death, and ugly, meaningless intrigue. Why ARE we such lovers of violence? And more and more of us concluding, it seems, that the world IS simply violent, war is everywhere, and nothing we can do about it. Yes, no serious protest against the wars of this past decade. I love the Occupy documentaries on FreeSpeechTV and to see again the rather large mass of us citizens who found glowing hope in that movement and often gave it their all. Look at the young Occupy woman serving two months in Riker’s Island for ELBOWING a cop? Or at least I think I have that right.

  3. Sorry, I can’t figure out how to edit Comments here. I should have added above that I’ve been somewhat interested in a recent book called Sleepless in Hollywood: the New Abnormal in Film. (Or is that the exact title?) An unapologetic defense of big budget movies and huge profits no matter what it takes as to content.

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