When discussing high and low culture it is crucial to also consider the context of the times and the effect they have on culture itself. In our postmodern era, with the media being as it is, accessible to almost everyone in the world and everyone in more developed locales, the distinction between high and low forms of culture has blurred. Instead of separate forms or levels of culture, a global culture is beginning to emerge.
What is “serious music” today? How many people are actually aware of the existence and works of contemporary classical composers? Personally speaking, not many. The majority of people today listen not to music that was painstakingly composed by someone with a pen, staff paper and a piano, but to music that was generated in a matter of hours on sophisticated music software; the popular artist’s voice has been digitally altered and corrected, leaving a song free of even one single mistake. Even composers who write music in a more traditional or classical vein – those who may still be considered part of a more highbrow musical form – use computer programs that can transcribe notes or even create arrangements for an entire orchestra without lifting a finger from the computer’s mouse. The process of creating and the process of listening is no longer wholly tangible, physical. What we have now is a mess of media.
Remember the days of the vinyl record? I don’t, so I’ll stick to talking about tapes and CD’s. Back in the good old days, I remember reading about the release date of my favorite band’s next album in a magazine, being excited about it for weeks beforehand and saving every bit of money I had just to be sure I could go and get it on the day it came out. I would walk back home with the album in my hands; so eager to listen to it I couldn’t help but open it up to admire the artwork on the album leaf and the print on the disc itself. The next part was almost a ceremony. I would walk into my room, cradling my new treasure to my chest, and shut the door behind me. I would turn on my boom box, open the CD tray and then gently remove my shiny new disc from its case before delicately placing it in the stereo. I would hit play, sit back on my bed and listen to the whole album through – or at least until I was interrupted for dinnertime.
This concept will be totally alien to the next generation. They will be so used to having music at their fingertips all the time that they will not even be able to comprehend the rush of frustrated excitement one feels when struggling with the vacuum-wrapped CD case. In fact, it’s getting to be that way already, and the people of my generation are the remnants of those who still remember what it is like to hold music in one’s hands. We do not even have to wait anymore for an album to be released before we can listen to it; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites that allow you to download “leaks”, unreleased tracks and/or albums. So, already, the anticipation and eagerness is removed from the listening experience. To add to this, nowadays no one goes to the music store anymore. It’s all on iTunes, so why bother walking down the block? And if you can’t find it on your friendly Apple Corporation music program, it’s on a different website that allows you to download it right away after you punch in your credit card number – we don’t even pay for these things physically anymore. Listening to music on your computer is one thing; at least you have to stay relatively nearby it to be able to hear it. But now that literally everyone has an iPod or some sort of portable music device that allows you to store millions of songs, we all have music everywhere, all the time.
It was always so satisfying for me, once I had amassed enough CD’s to fit into a CD wallet, to flip through my albums, debating which one I felt like listening to. Now I just scroll through my iPod, hoping that I can move my finger fast enough to get from the letter A to the letter L in less than two minutes. The physicality of the music experience is gone, and, I think, some of its value and meaning, too. We don’t listen to music as actively anymore, we merely hear it. We have it playing constantly in so many situations that it is no longer music but instead a sort of comforting background noise. Very rarely do I find the time or the concentration to actually listen to an album anymore. Instead, I play an album while I’m reading for class, checking my email or driving my car. And as much as I enjoy listening to music almost constantly, I feel like my appreciation of it is somewhat lessened through the music’s accessibility.
Things are bringing about change in different ways than iPods and iTunes, though. The Internet is revolutionizing the way we hear and discover music. Websites such as MySpace, Pandora and the Hype Machine are responsible for the emergence of hundreds of thousands of new musicians whose songs are all readily available for instant listening. Anyone with a computer can be a musician, and, through MySpace, the entire world can hear your songs. As fine and good as that may sound – everyone has a chance to be an artist – it is actually destroying music. Music, historically speaking, has come to be well known through its musical value or superiority, not through blog hype. Technological advancements have made things so easy for us we even have our music recommended to us by computer-generated algorithms instead of discovering it for ourselves.
We’ve all seen an image Britney Spears on a can of Pepsi, Justin Timberlake on a Burger King placemat; music in popular culture is no longer about the music, but the money. Pop stars are churned out by major record labels that work with other industries to exploit the artist’s moneymaking potential to the maximum before spitting them out, making way for the next young and beautiful (and most likely not very talented) singer. According to Donald N. Wood, “ours is a post-intellectual era. We are experiencing a cultural transformation that is reversing four hundred years of intellectual evolution.” In an age of globalization, where more people worldwide can more easily recognize Ronald McDonald than their nation’s leader, we are beginning to lose our grip on intellectual value.
High music, such as opera, is today being converted into another moneymaking scheme by the music industry. Take a look at Il Divo , a group of male tenors created by American Idol pop-judge Simon Cowell. Like so many other pop acts today, this group was put together by Sony BMG and paraded around the world singing opera hits. "Popera," as it is called, clearly exemplifies the merging of this once high form of music with a lower, commercialized form. High art is commercialized, too. Museums worldwide with works by famous artists have three-hour lines of Hawaiian shirts and sandals clad tourists waiting to shuffle in not to see the art itself but only to have gone to this famous location. Then, on their way out, after hastily having taken a digital photograph of every piece in the entire museum (which they will most likely never even browse through again), they stop at the gift shop to buy a postcard of a work whose artist’s name they have never heard. High literature no longer exists. Instead, we are left with Tom Clancy bestsellers and books that we buy because Oprah suggests them. We glean our values from the media, basing them upon television and biased news reports. R. Cronk, author of Consumerism and the New Capitalism says, “The traditional cultural values of Western society are degenerating under the influences of corporate politics, the commercialization of culture and the impact of mass media. Society is awakening from its fascination with television entertainment to find itself stripped of tradition, controlled by an oppressive power structure and bound to the credit obligations of a defunct American dream.”
The world is becoming westernized and homogenized, based off the American consumer culture we have all played a part in creating. Having grown up in Thailand, I have seen first hand how Asian popular music seeks to emulate not its own traditional music but that of western, and particularly American, pop music. It is this homogenization of music worldwide that is creating a world culture, and it seems to be following the path that low culture set out for it. This combination of technological advancements, the rise of consumer culture and globalization is driving the general population away from high art, music and literature, and towards a mass-produced and advertised form of culture: our new traditions are emerging.
Even politically speaking, we as a whole feed what is handed to us. There are those of us who may complain, disagree, or even protest, but in general, we do not fight for what we believe in on a large scale. We have seen the effects of war and fighting on our country and others’, but today we do not speak up for ourselves. If you compare my generation to that of the youths in the late 60’s and early 70’s who actively sought change in the nation, we are doing nothing to combat the problems we face in this world. Instead, we write in our blogs about how terrible the state of international affairs is before we pop in a microwave meal and settle down in front of the television for tonight’s E! Top Hollywood Stories. We have reached a point in time where things have become so easy for us all we have to worry about is ourselves. This collective narcissism that we have only recently established on our planet is what is causing the decay of our collective intellect. We, through consumer culture, have been reduced to an obedient mass, following the directions of our television sets and the Internet. Culture itself, what it once meant, exists no more.