american culture

The Grammys: Something Old, Something New, Something… Meh

Before anything else, I have to give serious props to Jennifer Hudson for doing her acapella tribute to Whitney Houston, whose death at age 48 cast a noticeable pall over the otherwise celebratory evening. With a photo of the recently deceased pop legend hanging over her and millions watching, Hudson pushed back her emotions to deliver a rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” that few could pull off in any situation, let alone one with that kind of pressure. She proved herself a true professional and a peer worthy of comparison to other superstar divas like Houston.

Beyond that stand-out moment, the Grammys offered what seemed to be a house divided in the music world, some of which was reassuring, and some of which simply made me feel old and out of touch.

The End of Rock As We Know It

IN 1977, THE great, now dead, rock critic Lester Bangs, in his Elvis obituary, wrote to a culture just starting to fracture into niche markets, “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”

Thirty-four years later, nearly two decades into the Internet age, the September 2011 break-up of the rock band R.E.M. reminded me just how right Bangs was. R.E.M. was one of the last traditional rock bands still doing relevant work. They stood firmly in the line that ran from Presley to Lennon to Patti Smith and Joe Strummer. Like all those predecessors, R.E.M. wrung out various guitar-based roots music forms to see what they would give up, not just with the entertainer’s aim to be famous or rich, but with the artist’s ambition to make something true, beautiful, and revelatory, and maybe change the world. But the era in which a rock band could exert world-changing cultural leverage has probably passed.

Elvis changed the world because, like Walt Whitman, he “contained multitudes.” He uttered his barbaric American yawp, standing, like Paul Bunyan, astride the usual polarities of masculine vs. feminine and black vs. white. With the help of his mentor-producer Sam Phillips, Elvis made a new sound that would eventually become as big and inclusive, as wild and free, and, sometimes, as unthinking and greed-addled as America itself.

From its very beginning in Sam Phillips’ fevered brain, the rock-and-roll idea was about bringing America’s cultural outsiders into their rightful place in the cultural mainstream. The other, inextricably related, part of the rock-and-roll idea had to do with the connection between the artist and audience. The artist came from the people; he or she was always one of us. And, in live performance, the artist and the audience became equal partners in creating a communal experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.

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Passages and Pilgrimages

WE ARE ALL on a journey, it seems—the butcher, the baker, participants in reality shows from The Bachelor to Pit Bulls and Parolees, those with chronic or terminal illnesses, the grieving, the people in pink walking for three days to raise money to fund breast cancer research, and, of course, actual travelers moving from one geographic point to another. A movie about a pilgrimage, The Way, even enjoyed a grassroots-fueled, quiet-but-steady success this fall.

As Jack, a character in The Way, exclaims, in an enthusiastic monologue on travel-related metaphors to warm the hearts of English majors everywhere, “The road itself is among our oldest tropes!” And more popular than ever, if our cultural rhetoric is any indication.

This plays out in how we describe important emotional and spiritual events or challenges: Counselors often use journey language to describe grief, for example. Many who’ve suffered the death of a beloved can describe how loss casts a person into unfamiliar territory, and how the process of working through raw emotion and “finding our way back” to accept new realities takes us to, and through, different emotional or spiritual places.

“Journey” is now the go-to word in today’s pop psychology lexicon for most any kind of personal process or narrative. This is seen to mixed effect on reality shows, where the term is ubiquitous—sometimes used poignantly, bearing real freight as people attempt to deal with life-and-death issues such as addiction or morbid obesity. Other times it can seem laughable—earnestly used to describe the search for “true love” in an audition-selected pool of carefully pruned and polished contestants or for purported wisdom gained between Real Housewives smack-downs and party planning. Alas, just because you say you’re on a journey doesn’t mean you’re really getting anywhere.

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Being Christ in a Consumer Christmas

Christmas light display at the Yodobashi-Akiba store, Japan.
Christmas light display at the Yodobashi-Akiba Department store in Akihabara City, Japan. Image via

Beneath the usual clamor of the holiday season is the faint din of anger.

Once again many have raised their voices regarding the “secularization” of Christmas. Armed with slogans such as “Keep Christ in Christmas,” they ensure we don't forget that this is a holiday about Jesus of Nazareth.

Common greetings such as, “Happy Holidays” are met with a defensive, counter-greetings of “… and Merry Christ-mas to you too.” 

Try using the abbreviation “Xmas.” Some folks believe this is literally “X-ing” Jesus out of the Christmas!

What seems to be glaringly absent from these vocal Christmas Crusaders is any protest against the gross consumerism, greed and selfishness that arrives every year with holiday season.