When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

— Bud Norman

The Economy and the Cold

The winter has been so cold around here that we’re running out of snappy “it’s so cold” lines, and have lately been reduced to likening it to certain unmentionable portions of witches’ and well-diggers’ anatomies, but the fine folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics have helpfully provided us with a brand new cliché. Whenever the arctic breezes push the wind chills down to double-digits below zero we can now say “It’s so cold that the jobs report is lousy.”
In case you couldn’t hear the news over the chattering of your teeth, the past two monthly jobs reports have been unexpectedly lousy. We say “unexpectedly” because all the media stylebooks now require that any bad economic news be described that way, as they apparently expected the economy to be chugging along toward egalitarian utopia with Barack Obama in the White House, but even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders in the press have been forced to admit that the jobs numbers — along with other data ranging from consumer confidence to manufacturing activity to the trade deficit — have indeed been lousy. Reluctant to stop telling their favorite tale of a rebounding economy, the press has endeavored to explain the recent bad news as a mere interruption caused by various factors having nothing to do with administration policies. The devaluation of some third world currencies has been one common explanation, as is whatever mischief those darned Tea Party Republicans have been up to lately, but the most popular excuse has been the cold and snowy weather.
This explanation has the obvious advantage of plausibility. The weather has indeed been miserable the past two months in much of the country, and it’s bound to have had some chilling effect on the economy. Here in Wichita the streets have been covered with enough snow to deter the hardiest car shopper from taking a test drive, workers have stayed home to mind children taking an unscheduled winter break from school, and commerce has been frozen as solid as the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers. We hear it’s been worse elsewhere, and almost as bad in places even more unaccustomed to such icy hassles, and those warm weather regions that have been spared the worst of it are probably used to taking life easy. Such awful weather likely explains some of the recent economic data, but we are not reassured that those long awaited green shoots will soon start to sprout through the melting snow.
Even before winter set in the jobs reports were pretty lousy by historical standards, showing just enough job creation to keep pace with population and not nearly enough to make a dent in the record number of long-term unemployed and labor force drop-outs, and it’s hard to see what might have brought improvement even in a mild winter. The Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing of gazillions of newly-printed dollars into the stock market seems to have worked well enough to entice so many discouraged workers out of the labor force to push the official unemployment rate down to 6.6 percent, just a tick ahead of the announcement benchmark for ending the scheme, and the markets have responded with a two-month slide that has abated only on the hope that things are still bad enough to keep the presses running at the mint. There’s also been an energy boom based on fracking and drilling on private lands, but the administration has been working on stopping that and the recent problems with the trade deficit suggest it might be succeeding. The economy is increasingly controlled by people who think it’s a good thing that Obamacare will pay a couple million workers to stop working and live on the dole, and that more job-killing regulation is needed to stop global warming.
An economy that is truly chugging along toward utopia, egalitarian or otherwise, should be able to plow through a few feet of snow. Many of the economic effects of the weather can be blamed on the failure of state and local governments to competently deal with the foreseeable challenges of the weather, and their inability to acquire enough salt for the frozen streets should cause some doubt about their ability to run the entirety of the economy and make it fair and sensitive and hurtful to no one’s feelings. A change in the political climate is required, and that is at least two more winters away.
If the weather is to blame for the past two months of economic data the next jobs report should be another lousy one, as February is proving the worst month yet. At this point we have no optimism regarding March, and we expect the April showers will bring a flowering of new excuses.

— Bud Norman

Black Friday, White Christmas

Thanksgiving is over, even if the leftovers are likely to last another week or so, and the Christmas season has now officially begun. We take a back seat to no one in our gratitude for the birth of Jesus Christ, but this strikes us as a bit too much Christmastime.
The celebration of our Savior’s birth begins ominously enough with something called Black Friday. This now-familiar phrase is meant to have a positive connotation, as it refers to the black ink that retailers are hoping to use to write down the profits made from the first day of the Christmas shopping season, but it has an undeniably sinister sound about it that that more accurately conveys what the event has become. By now it is an annual tradition for the Drudge Report to scream out headlines about the mayhem in America’s shopping malls, with harrowing tales of maniacal shoppers assaulting one another in the store aisles and riots breaking out over the bargains being offered, and it seems a most inapt way to honor the arrival of the Prince of Peace. It’s far more frightening than anything that occurs on Halloween, which is about the time when the big retail chains start running television commercials with a Christmas theme to promote their Black Friday sales, and it winds up causing a full two months of holiday cheer that is simply too much to bear.
We wish all those stores plenty of black ink today, and dread the drop in the stock market that will surely occur if the figures prove bleak, even if the Federal Reserve announces that the quantitative easing will continue into the next millennium, but we’d rather that people approached Christmas with a more relaxed and reverential attitude. For at least the next two weeks or so we intend to go about our business as usual, and remained focus on such seculars matters as the great lump of coal in the national stocking that is Obamacare, and only then turn our attention to the spiritual issues that are supposed to inform the season. Any more than that would test the faith of even the most pious Christian, especially if he spends the time punching out other shoppers in pursuit of the latest gizmos at some green-and-red-bedecked shopping center.
Our week of Thanksgiving has been spent far from our prairie home in the Philadelphia area, where our parents remain endearingly Okie even after a couple of decades in the big bad city, and except for an opulent evening at the astonishingly fancy-schmantzy Green Room of the Hotel DuPont in nearby Wilmington, Delaware, it’s been a happily low-key week of reminiscing and family togetherness and genuine thankfulness. We highly recommend it to anyone as a good way to spend a holiday, especially a holiday that celebrates the impoverished birth of a man who once chased the money-changers from His father’s temple.

— Bud Norman