Flash Culture?

A few weeks ago I came across an article in a magazine that I thought had at least a vestige of culture and sophistication.  The article claimed that rap singer Kanye West was an “American Mozart,” and I didn’t bother to finish it. Now, I will admit that I’ve only heard perhaps two songs, if that, by Kanye West, and I don’t care for rap, because every rap song I’ve tried to listen to comes across as essentially hip and violent with a monotonous driving beat.  I do know that the man has designed special Nike shoes that sell for something like $245 a pair.  But really, jumped up sneakers for $245?

The follow-up is that the latest edition of that magazine contained a letter to the editor objecting to the characterization of West as an “American Mozart,” to which the writer of the article had replied to the effect that West was indeed that, since he was appealing to the culture of today, just as Mozart had appealed to that of Vienna in the late eighteen century.

After I pulled my jaw back in place, I thought about the whole thing. To begin with, Mozart was never an eighteenth century “pop star,” even in just Vienna, or even just in the court of Emperor Josef.  According to compilations I’ve seen, four other composers had more performances of their works, and to greater acclaim and popularity.  The “pop music” hero of the time was more likely to be Salieri, not Mozart.

So, I wouldn’t have objected nearly so much, if the writer had characterized Kanye West as an “American Salieri,” here and highly popular, and then likely to be forgotten, because his work is essentially forgettable – not necessarily for lack of talent [although I will leave that judgment to others], but because the very form in which he works, like the popular works of Salieri and other popular composers of that time, lacks the breadth, depth, and sweeping sophistication of a Mozart or a Beethoven, or even of a Liszt [who was both a classical and popular sensation of the nineteenth century].

And what’s the point of this comparison?  It’s not a niggling about Kanye West, but a reflection of a far larger concern – that we are fast becoming a “flash” culture with little understanding of what is transitory and what may be permanent, and even less knowledge or understanding of our past, historical or artistic or technical. I understand that the person in the street, if you will, might not understand the historical nuances and references, but to me, it’s disturbing that a writer featured in a magazine which prides itself on reporting on “culture” apparently has neither that knowledge nor that understanding.

This lack of understanding, unhappily, goes well beyond culture.  According to surveys taken by  the American Revolution Center, sixty percent of Americans could identify the number of children of reality TV couple John and Kate Gosselin, but more than a third could not tell in what century the American Revolution took place. More Americans know the names of Michael Jackson’s hit songs than that the Bill of Rights is part of the U.S. Constitution. A shocking 70% don’t even know what the Constitution actually is. Only 20% of Americans understand the principle of the scientific method.  More than 40% believe that antibiotics are effective against viruses.  Forty percent believe dinosaurs existed at the same time as human beings, and forty-five percent don’t know how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun.

But ask them about pop songs, and they know… so long as they’re current. Most college freshmen in a popular music course in my wife’s university didn’t know who Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland were.

Welcome to the world of the flash culture.


14 thoughts on “Flash Culture?”

  1. rehcra says:

    I don’t know much about classical music(Couldn’t even spell Mozart off the top of my head) the American Salieri comment was both awesome and felt amusingly accurate.

    …But I have never taken those numbers about what people know very seriously. Often times they are constructed to make people look a certain way.

    And I find it flawed logic to belittle what a person knows about a subject they are taking a class to learn about.

  2. It’s perfectly good logic, and I’m not belittling individuals. Regardless of the motivation, when people have to take a class to learn about singers who were known to almost everyone thirty years ago, it makes my point about flash culture.

  3. Tim says:

    I wonder where the quoted statistics were captured. I checked out the US demographics on Wilipedia (ok, i accept this is not always accurate) which stated that the population of the US rose by 27 million between 2000 and 2010. If you then look at more detailed demographics and birth rates I suspect that a a surprisingly high proportion of US citizens today have no interest in the War of Independence as it is not in their personal cultural history so possibly the survey reflected this. I suspect this is not a product of flash culture, but what forms the curriculum in schools.

    In the UK, history at school means Romans, Saxons and Tudors. That is it unless you specialise in the pre University years, and the options are limited. All of the political reforms in Victoria’s reign are sidelined. And there is absolutely nothing about the history of the Arab conquests in the 8th/9th centuries and their modern consequences.

    I gather from a friend who is a teacher in the US that all l pupils have to stand up and recite a mantra every day. If that is the case, why is the US Constitution not taught?

    I have no interest in Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland, but my parents did and I saw the films in my youth. I suspect my sons have no idea who they were as I had none of their material. I believe this is the natural order of things since both artists are products of the flash culture of the 40s and 50s and so transient. The same will be true of Springsteen, the Beach Boys Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger 20 years after they have died. Many other artists however will be forgotten with 5 years of their last album.

    Finally… I went to a party years ago where we were inflicted with a parlour game of ‘ trivial pursuit’ which is essentially about general knowledge. Over 60% of the questions were on the entertainment industry. I bombed.

  4. Wayne Kernochan says:

    I just have to comment on Mozart, who I regard as one of the two or three greatest composers — although I see him differently.

    You can hear from every composer’s works that in their “mind’s ear” they hear voice first; but most composers hear piano second, and that’s it. Mozart from his writings would have been a violin virtuoso in any age, and so he understood the “natural voice” of strings as well as any composer. Unfortunately, most performances don’t capture that (also, his violin sonatas were too early in his career). It also made him the first to give the “inner voices” a real part in pieces; perhaps only Brahms is as good at it.

    If you look at the winds, Brahms may have been better at the oboe, and Faure and Debussy at the flute, but Mozart was best at capturing the “natural voice” of the clarinet (all right, Brahms at the end was his match). Likewise, Mozart was at the top in the French horn.

    Mozart was the first and among the best at providing “rich” harmonies of the instruments (Beethoven, probably because he couldn’t hear anything subtler, was far too fond of octaves and fifths). Cf the start of the Dissonant Quartet. Moreover, Mozart’s late operas are notable for having “rich” harmonies all the way through — as opposed to the Italians, whose orchestration was often light on everything but the melody.

    The quality of Mozart that’s hardest to convey is his ability to put a surprising twist at the end of every phrase. One of the things chamber music performers learn is that you can “turn off your mind” at the end of a phrase with most composers (yes, that includes Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner), because it’s predictable from the beginning of the phrase. With Mozart, you had to stay alert, because he would always take it in an unexpected direction.

    The problem with Mozart’s operas is that we tend to confound him with the librettist. What should come through is that in just about all of his late operas, he has the equivalent of a “hit” song, but it’s a song by the “comic side-kick” — Leporello, Figaro, Papageno. Like Shakespeare, Mozart lived in a transitional era where you had to satisfy the “noble” sentiments of the nobility and the pratfall sentiments of the groundlings. But Mozart uses the comic side-kick as the Greek chorus or glue of the opera’s music and its revelation of psychology, not just its comic relief — which should remind us just how subtle he is.

    Re rap, I’ll only note that if there’s any comparison, it seems to me Homer would be closest — that is, more or less on-the-fly sophisticated rhyming that still has to make sense, which was quite a relief after the really bad lyrics of “that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it” repeated about 200 times. It’s got nothing to do with non-voice music, except for the rhythm.

  5. cyan says:

    Hi L.E.,
    By and large, I agree with the opinions that you express in your blog posts (many of which I read aloud to my other half with my own emotive infections). In the case of this particular article, I feel like you may have over-thought this one a bit. My impression of the Kanye West = Mozart comparison has naught to do with talent, virtuosity in their respective fields of music, nor popularity in their time. It’s a simile based on a simple line of perception – subject A is perceived (projected) as a rap icon, subject B is perceived as a classical music icon; both subjects are generally well known in their respective field of music and so the simile works for most people. (Flip the coin, there would be PLENTY of people arguing that Queen Latifa or Run DMZ or the Beasty Boys are more qualified to be compared to Mozart than Kanye West.)

    As to whether or not the writer who used this comparison is actually reporting on ‘culture’… well, that depends upon the writer’s (and magazine’s) target audience, does it not? As well as what ‘culture’ means to you. To me, ‘culture’ can mean community and family and the traditions and values that one is raised with; and can also mean a certain understanding and appreciation of the artistic expression produced by people across abroad range of time and space. The latter requires some knowledge, the former doesn’t really.

    1. My complaints with the comparison also had nothing to do with talent, but with the fact that the comparison was inappropriate. I likely would have laughed if the writer had compared West to Salieri. The reason why the comparison was inappropriate was because the writer showed no understanding of the culture of Mozart’s time, and if one is writing about the culture of that time, one should.

      1. cyan says:

        Ah, I see your point now. However, it still seems to me that the standard of knowledge that you’re looking for on this particular subject is rather out of reach for most people, i.e. those who don’t study classical music. During the first 10 years of my early education always included some form of music class (either instrumental or choral) and I don’t recall ever encountering a piece written by Salieri. And, of course, that very popular and Oscar winning movie called ‘Amadeus’ didn’t help.

        I don’t think that a magazine writer who’s article is about a rap artist should be expected to have in-depth understanding of the 18th century European music scene. At least, not simply for the sake of making a simile culturally and historically accurate on a level that only a minimal percentage of readers would truly appreciate.

        1. MingoV says:

          “I don’t think that a magazine writer who’s article is about a rap artist should be expected to have in-depth understanding of the 18th century European music scene.”

          That’s true, but since he didn’t know classical music history, he should have made a different comparison.

  6. Lourain says:

    In my state, students must pass an American Constitution test before they may graduate from high school. I would guess that such knowledge is in the ‘use it or lose it’ category. Sadly, most students memorize the information, and immediately forget it after the test, because they have no interest in it.
    Even worse, too many people actively avoid thinking about anything beyond their immediate interests. It is so much easier to pick an ‘expert’ and let the expert set their opinions.
    As for rap, or other parts of today’s culture, the true test is time. Just as time has winnowed the composers of the eighteenth century.

  7. Bob says:

    Lies, damned lies and statistics.

    One failing I see in the statistics is the lack of data on how many would be able to locate the relevant answers quickly if they were given the chance to use their phones/computers/PDAs/other portable electronics. As much as if seems like a crutch to previous generations its just as valid and maybe more efficient in some ways to look up data rather than memorize it. Does knowing how to Google the date of the revolution rather than memorizing the date change the date or relevance?

    It will be interesting to see what sociologist actually say about our times. I get completely what you are saying but in another way you are just yelling at those darned kids to get off your lawn. Knowledge culture technology and society has changed in such a fascinating and scary way.

    In the end though what really matters is what kind of idiot compares a pop artist with Mozart, its just showing a lack of understanding of their field combined with a knowledge of fancy words.

  8. Rich says:

    I think once kids pass college and start working, they begin to unravel the garbage that is fed to them.

    I drove a 19 year old to a school club event and it was clear that he used media as a crutch to replace actual thinking. He believes in the illuminati theory, that the government is a huge conspiracy to keep the common man down. He also believes that mainstream music is a sell out so he doesn’t listen to it.

    I remember a time in high school when I didn’t know any better and used fibs and lies to shield my lack of knowledge. After all, I wanted to sound cool in front of the older kids. Tidbits like, “Kanye West is a modern mozart” written by a cultural authority could easily have fallen in my mouth.

    The good news is that today, with an undergraduate and mba, I’ve learned to think. And so too have the people around me. Cultural magazines, if not damaging to the younger crowd who don’t know any better, look ridiculous to educated folks because they don’t sufficiently back up their claims.

    Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think educated people run this world and are looked up to in many ways. So although only 70% of people don’t know what the constitution is really, these people know that they should.

  9. Joe says:

    It takes competence to recognize competence.

    What is competence? A deep understanding of the subject material, a map if you will, built on facts. While remembering every single fact is not essential, one needs a good number of them as anchors to prevent one’s view from flapping around in the breeze like a flag every time someone says something. Inconsistency is not a mark of competence, and yet so many people just mouth what they heard last night on TV.

    Competence takes work (many facts, rarely used), and is rarely rewarded. Flash culture doesn’t (few facts, often used with your friends), and is rewarded for most people by friendship. Flash culture, cigarettes, booze, gossip.

  10. Max says:

    I don’t listen to a lot of modern rap, but not all rap is is just rhyming about gangsters on top of repeating drum line. Some have quite good melody and inspirational lyrics. Its been overplayed, so it hard to appreciate it on the merits, but Eminem’s Lose Yourself still sounds amazing to me. I’m not a composer but it seems it takes a lot of work to make the effect where in the main refrain of the song goes out of sync with the music and the beat, but in a good way, so that they are weaved together like multiple themes in Bach organ works.

  11. Alana says:

    It seems to me that the lack of true knowledge of any given subject that one is writing about has reached pandemic status. I teach psychology at the college level and cannot even count the number of research papers about Freud, Skinner, Ellis, et.al that do not contain a single reference by the actual theorist the student is writing about. I do however get “works sited” (misspelling intended) pages that list wikipedia, google, textbooks and a million other secondary sources as the only points of reference used in compiling the paper. I believe that reading the original source material is a lost art. Much more alarming than the students not checking their sources, I have perused more than one general psychology textbook in which the author has obviously read the cliff notes on Freud or some other theorist and then abbreviated the abbreviated version for the textbook that the students rely on. We just need to face it, we are in a microwave society that everything that takes any amount of effort, like checking sources and knowing what one is talking about, is considered too taxing. A sad commentary indeed.

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