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The Two Choices in a Discontented Age

The most popular politician in America at the moment, according to all the public opinion polls, is President Barack Obama. He’s not all that popular, only recently barely nudging past a 50 percent approval rating for the first time in several years, but at this discontented moment in history that’s plenty good enough for first place.
Our only explanation for this thoroughly awful president’s modest bare majority of approval, even as supermajorities of the public describe the country as “on the wrong track,” is that no one’s been paying much attention to his still thoroughly awful presidency lately and instead are focused on the thorough awfulness of both of his most likely successors. We also note that nothing and nobody are very popular these days, though, so anything over 50 percent is something.
Nowadays the most popular television shows are watched by only fractions of the nationwide audience that used to tune into mediocracies as “M*A*S*H” and “All in the Family,” few people over the age of 30 can name any of a currently popular pop music star’s hit songs, the latest hit movie is probably some comic book super-hero flick that you probably won’t bother to see, even such literary types as ourselves couldn’t tell you what’s currently on the best-seller lists, and the rest of the entire culture is similarly disdained. Government and business and organized religion are widely despised, and both of the most likely successors to our thoroughly awful president seem to suffer any consequences for their disdain of the First Amendment, which most of the under-30 set already agrees has got to go, and even the longstanding and generally acceptable social arrangement regarding men using the men’s room and women using the women’s room is by now widely disdained enough that neither of the thoroughly awful likely successors to the thoroughly awful president who proposed this thoroughly awful change is willing to take a forthright stand against it.
This is partly because of the largely beneficial diversification of the marketplace, of course, and all that creative destruction our capitalist sensibilities usually appreciate. There are now a gazillion channels on television and the internet and whatever new technology we’re not yet aware of, so it’s inevitable that even the best shows won’t get the same chunk of the audience that even the worst shows used to get when there were only three channels. The internet allows us to listen endlessly the great music of the past, as it does to anyone no matter how less refined their tastes, so it’s hard to imagine anyone achieving that Elvis Presley or The Beatles ubiquity that made even the over-30 set aware them. Although there are fewer movie theaters in most towns than there used to be there are far more screens, and there are no more “Gone With the Winds” and “Casablancas” and “Godfathers” with lines that everyone knows by heart. There are all sorts of notions afoot about how government and business and organized religion should be run, and by now everyone has a problem with somebody’s use of the First Amendment, and even that tiny sliver of the public that’s upset with current social arrangement regarding bathrooms has a hit show compared to what the rest of the country has divided itself into.
We also believe that the thorough awfulness of the overwhelming majority of it all also plays a part. Once upon a time in the glorious history of American music there were singular artists in a wide range of styles who truly earned this widespread popularity against challenging competition, but these days only the most addled of the under-30 set insist that any of is any good. There are a few good shows on television these day, in most cases better than the hit shows of the past, but these days there’s only niche mark for such fare. There are some very good movies, and without comic book super-heroes, but they can’t become hits like very good movies used to do. The last best-seller we were aware of a self-described feminist Sado-Masochistic porn novel, which of course was made into a well-publicized movie, and we’re slightly relieved that despite all that publicity a vast majority of the country never read the book or watched the movie. Government and business and organized religion have all their problems lately, too, but the current unpopularity of the First Amendment and that longstanding and generally agreeable social arrangement regarding restrooms can only be explained by how very discontented our country has become.
Politics is the only marketplace in our culture where consumers are still faced with only two choices, although we’re still holding to some faint hope that the culture’s penchant for creative destruction might change that final longstanding and once generally-agreeable arrangement, so it’s not surprising that the widely diffused ratings of mostly thoroughly awful shows have turned up two such thoroughly awful final options.

— Bud Norman

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Swirling Down the Super Bowl

Journalistic tradition dictates that the day after the Super Bowl be spent analyzing the game, the half-time show, the commercials, all the attendant hoopla, and what it all says about the state of the culture. This is a grim business, given what it all says about the state of the culture, but we are steadfastly traditional and couldn’t find anything cheerier in the few non-Super Bowl stories that somehow squeezed into the news over the weekend.
We claim no expertise regarding the sport of football, but to our untrained eyes the Seattle Seahawks squad seemed to get the better of Sunday’s contest. The score was 450 to 0 or something like that when we dozed off late in the first quarter, and when we were awakened by one of the noisier commercials just before half-time the advantage had somehow increased. We had been hopefully rooting for the Denver Broncos squad, partly because of a brother who lives in the Rockies, partly because they play in the same American Football Conference western division as the Kansas City Chiefs squad we owe our regional loyalty and we were looking forward to rationalizing next year’s failure to make the playoffs by saying “Hey, it’s a tough division,” so the lopsidedness of the result was somewhat disappointing. Something to do with the Seahawks’ blitzing offensive formation forcing the Bronco’s aging quarterback to throw before he had time to check the color of the intended receiver’s jersey, we were told by the thick-necked men in bulging business suits who provided the half-time commentary, but intimations of other problems were apparent to us as early as when the Broncos’ center tossed the opening snap over the quarterback’s head and into the end zone for a safety.
At any rate, by half-time we were almost eager for the half-time show. The Super Bowl’s mid-game extravaganzas are our annual venture into contemporary popular music, and they hold a certain sociological fascination for us because they have come to represent the officially-designated pinnacle of mainstream mass-media show business much as the old Ed Sullivan Show did back in our boyhood, and it’s occasionally interesting to hear what the young folks are doing the funky chicken to these days. This year’s featured performer was Bruno Mars, who is so famous that we are familiar with the name but not so famous that we are familiar with any of his music, and we were mostly struck by the familiarity of his act. There were lots of the lights and fireworks and high-tech stage-craft that characterize the most up-to-date corporate stadium-sized show biz, but the haircuts and the sparkling matching coats and the James Brown-ish choreography were all borrowed from the “show bands” that had all the teenaged girls squealing at National Guard armories across the fruited plains back in the early to mid-‘60s. The music wasn’t bad by comparison to what we hear when scanning the car radio across the dial, but we’d still prefer the less-synthetic sound that The Fabulous Flippers used to put on the Lawrence-to-Wichita-to-Hays circuit back in the day.
At one point in the performance Mars was joined by funk-rock stalwarts The Red Hot Chili Peppers, who have been around so long that we can recall catching them in performance at the late and long-lamented Coyote Club roadhouse up on North Broadway. They were pretty good, by our recollection, too cool for stadium gigs, but we were there mainly to hear the great cowboy yodeler Randy Erwin, who was the opening act because of a double-booking accident, and the set he performed in his long johns to spoof the band’s habit of performing in jock straps or less was by far the highlight of the evening. There are a couple of Red Hot Chili Pepper tracks we still like, both of which made it into the Super Bowl, of all places, but it still seems embarrassing that a supposedly cutting-edge performer such as Mars should need them around to make his shtick seem more contemporary.
Few of the much-ballyhooed commercials commanded our attention, but we were struck by the same theme of baby-boomer nostalgia in several of them. One ad for some product or another had Bob Dylan subtly warbling his class nasal country-rock in the background, and a lengthy commercial for the Chrysler Corporation had a grizzled old guitar-strummer who turned out to be Ramblin’ Bob himself. The erstwhile voice of his generation, now the voice of the voice of Chrysler Corporation, extolled the virtues of the America of smoky factories and river barges and James Dean and pool rooms, and course such traditional American carmakers as the Chrysler Corporation, and the mavens of Madison Avenue seem not to have noticed how very strange it was. Dylan’s politics were always stated in impenetrable lyrics and were notoriously hard to pin down, but there’s no doubting he became a commercial-worthy counter-cultural icon to a subset of his generation that angrily decried smoky factories and such old-folks transportation as Chryslers. Throw in the facts that the ruggedly individualistic and quintessentially American Chrysler Corporation was bailed out of bankruptcy with Obama bucks and sold to Italy’s most notoriously unreliable carmaker, that James Dean died recklessly driving a German car like the ones in the new ads touting German engineering, and that Bob Dylan now looks as ravaged as Detroit itself and clearly is not a pool player, and the ad seemed an unsettling commentary on the state of the culture.
The confluence of the mainstream culture and the counter-culture was accomplished long ago, but that just made the Super Bowl weekend all the more dispiriting. There was a funny bit with the Jerry and George characters from the old “Seinfeld” sit-com, but judging from the pair’s appearance that overly re-run show was a long, long time ago. The celebrities in the audience shown by the network cameras were mostly gray-haired, and included a shot of Sir Paul McCartney of The Beatles munching on a pizza while he tried to figure out the labyrinthine rules of his confounded America, a past half-time performer and a relic from the era when the Ed Sullivan Show represented the officially designated pinnacle of mass-media show biz. Much like the Chrysler Corporation, the Obama bucks administration, Bob Dylan and Bruno Mars and the modern music scene, and the Denver Broncos’ offensive and defensive coordinators, American culture seems to have run out of new ideas.

— Bud Norman