Corporate America, Calling The Tune of Mass Culture

A century ago, music that was shared by millions of listeners, that seemed an inseparable part of daily life, that could be used to immediately establish a bond of familiarity between strangers, would have been called folk music. Music of the people, its origins dim or forgotten. The very notion of possessing it, of controlling who could hear it and exchange it, of making a profit from it, would have been ridiculous. The demise of Napster–if that’s the effect of this manic modern day witch-hunt by Corporate Monoliths and backed by their lap dogs the Government with their jurisprudence–has arrested the evolution of popular music into a new kind of folk music. Temporarily, that is.


A century ago, music that was shared by millions of listeners, that seemed an inseparable part of daily life, that could be used to immediately establish a bond of familiarity between strangers, would have been called folk music. Music of the people, its origins dim or forgotten. The very notion of possessing it, of controlling who could hear it and exchange it, of making a profit from it, would have been ridiculous. The demise of Napster–if that’s the effect of this manic modern day witch-hunt by Corporate Monoliths and backed by their lap dogs the Government with their jurisprudence–has arrested the evolution of popular music into a new kind of folk music. Temporarily, that is.

The kind of popular music created by ‘N Sync and Britney Spears is an aberration in the history of music. The profits it has generated for artists and their media companies are unprecedented; its power to propel musicians into the highest ranks of celebrity, even to political credibility, is a cultural oddity.

For centuries, making music has been a profession, akin to shaving people for a living or keeping the hedges trimmed. Granted, it was a profession that required a high degree of cultivation, of practice and education; but for generations, musicians have been either shabby free agents or servants–of God, the court or the theater. (The exceptions, the virtuosos who emerged in the 19th century, were such odd beasts that no one knew quite how to identify them: They weren’t aristocrats; they weren’t businessmen; they weren’t athletes. Perhaps they were diabolical, a new category of musician as supernatural entity–the myth that attached to violinists like Paganini or pianists like Liszt.)

Even today, the vast majority of working musicians belong not to the world of celebrity, but to the world of unions, work shifts and the struggle for decent health benefits.

Musicmaking used to be a fundamentally humble profession. Bach may have rankled at the budgetary constraints placed on him; Mozart may have thumbed his nose at the ignorance of his patrons; Beethoven may have committed appalling acts of rudeness to everyone around him. Though they were all vigilant businessmen to different degrees, musicmaking was never solely a means to financial reward; it was also a kind of service, or devotion, even “a calling.” Indeed, some of their greatest works were composed without expectation of financial remuneration. Not to make music was impossible for them.

There’s no rational basis for the belief that artists are somehow akin to the clergy, that they serve a higher calling and must expect poverty as part of the bargain. They deserve fame and reward like anyone else. But it is a vestigial belief that long predates our assumption that skill with an electric guitar is a fast track to the good life of country estates, fast cars and great drugs. In any case, the belief that musicians serve something beyond themselves is not easily uprooted from the societal consciousness.

And, in fact, most people who create things for a living, whether it’s pottery or symphonies, have a sense of extraordinary privilege. Every morning, it’s a source of perpetual astonishment that you can put food on the table doing something you love. This is the world that most musicians live in, and for these musicians, the Internet represents nothing but opportunity: the chance to be heard, to market directly to listeners, to explain oneself and promote one’s concerts. They stand to gain more from the publicity power of the Internet than they would lose from programs like Napster.

Yet Americans make the mistake of equating a particular kind of popular culture–the big-splash stuff promoted by corporate America–with “American” culture, as if blockbuster movies and million-selling albums presented a whole and coherent account of creative life in America.

In a country as heterogeneous as ours, it’s tempting to believe that widely shared entertainment products are, in fact, the cultural glue that holds us all together. But that kind of popular culture is very different from what was once known as folk culture, and the difference is simple. Corporate America owns popular culture; nobody owns folk culture. Napster threatened to erase the distinction.

The courts are now in the odd position of reminding us that our mass popular culture isn’t really our “folk” culture–Eminem’s “Kill You” is not “John Henry”–despite the fact that many a politician has flogged pop culture for somehow representing the demise of American society. It may be ubiquitous as folks songs once were, it may seem like a spontaneous blast from the cultural id, but we still have to pay for it. It wasn’t really culture after all, but merely a product.

We knew this all along. We resented every hike in record prices; we resented the fads and the consumerism; we resented the ephemeral Top 40; we resented the lies, the “I love my fans” and the “I’m just in it for the art” that we knew, blatantly, baldly, weren’t true.

We don’t, by nature, enjoy ripping off artists. Most of us are happy to pay to see a play or a live performance, and we crave the kind of performance that allows us to further award the artist with the generosity of applause. So why do so many people enjoy the prospect of ripping off Time Warner?

Because on some level the vulgarity of corporate pop culture disgusts us, rather like we say politics disgusts us: We dislike it for its emptiness and because it makes many of us feel disenfranchised. Yet there is this unquenchable appetite for it, and that disturbs us even more.

With Napster there was the possibility of short-circuiting the entire commercial process. We would eat our way through popular culture while putting it out of business at the same time. It was an appealing idea–rather like Olestra–that we could consume the thing we both crave and resent without paying for it in the end.

Napster didn’t threaten music, musicmaking or musicians. It merely threatened one very specific kind of cultural production: the mass musical object.

We have, in general, placed far too much emphasis on these objects, reading their messages like tea leaves, allowing them to stand in for culture itself. But the quiet rebelliousness–and mean little larcenous streak–that fueled the Napster phenomenon tell us something essential about mass culture: We are all sophisticated enough to both enjoy it and wish that someone would drive a stake through its heart.

Author: Phillip Kennicott

News Service: Washington Post

URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58940-2000Jul27.html

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