Archive for Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Don’t blame pop culture for being agent of change

July 2, 2008

I'm not the first to lament the state of contemporary music, and I know I won't be the last.

I've usually soft-pedaled my criticisms, remembering only too well how some grown-ups freaked out at the musical choices of my generation. You'd have thought those musicians were encouraging us to abandon our morals or use drugs or something. (Oh, wait : but that's another story.)

Concerns of public licentiousness and prohibited substances aside, it's always seemed to me that people who get so shrill about youth's bad choices have got the wrong end of the stick, so to speak.

There's no question that public standards have changed a lot over the years. One has only to watch a movie in a theater or rent a video, or listen to recorded music from whatever source.

A lot of the language that passes for discourse in today's media environment would have gotten you thrown in jail in my youth, and I can think of several people who did. Lenny Bruce comes to mind, and of course there were others.

The problem is that people who want to ban music or movies or books or whatever act from a belief that popular culture is an agent of change in society. They think their kids are misbehaving because of raunchy song lyrics or whatever. It seems pretty clear to me that, rather than being an agent of change, popular culture is simply reflective of changes that have already taken place.

Lenny Bruce didn't invent the words that got him thrown in the clink. They were right there, in common if not polite usage, and had been for many years.

Changes in youthful attitudes toward sex in the 1960s and '70s had a lot more to do with chemistry than with music. Parents of that era who were concerned about their children's sexual habits often seemed to act as if the Beatles were to blame. They might have been closer to the mark to blame Searle, a name that was retired in 2003 after it was acquired by Pfizer.

The way I see it, the relaxation of standards that occurred in those days had far more to do with the availability of cheap, effective methods of birth control, such as the oral contraceptives marketed by Searle, than with popular music.

What got me to thinking about youthful tastes in music was that I had occasion last week to drive to Wichita to pick up our 10-year-old granddaughter to stay with us for a few days. Generally, when I drive with my wife I seldom turn on the radio because the noise makes her uncomfortable. When I'm by myself, however, I usually turn it on. As long as I can get it, I usually play the local public radio station. Once I'm out of range, however, I try to find something like a classic rock station. I find that the beat helps me stay awake. Familiar lyrics help, too.

So Friday, when Myra and I left Wichita, I told her she was in charge of the music. She brought along two CD's of her favorite band, which she played as we set off down the highway.

At first it didn't seem too bad. The music had a catchy, infectious beat, but the lyrics? Often as not, one phrase, repeated over and over. Those were the tracks that I could understand. Other times, they didn't seem to be speaking English.

Now, as I said before, I don't like to be too critical. In one song I remember from my youth, the artist sang something like, "sitting on my la-la, waiting for my ya-ya." And of course there was the Little Richard phrase that even today sticks in my memory: "Tootie fruity, oh ma-rooty, bop bop a looma, ba-lop bam boom."

When you look at those classics, I don't figure we have any real reason to feel superior. I'm writing this Sunday evening. Tomorrow morning we'll set out to return to Wichita. Now where are my CD's?

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