A simple theory of culture

The transistor radio/car radio was the internet of its time.  Content was free, and there were multiple radio stations, though not nearly as many as we have internet sites.

People tuned into the radio, in part, for ideas, not just tunes.  But the ideas that spread best were attached to songs.  Drug use spread, in part, because famous musicians sang about using drugs.  Anti-Vietnam War themes spread through songs, as did many other social movements.  Overall, ideas that could be bundled with songs had a big advantage.  And since new songs were largely the province of young people, this in turn favored ideas for young people.

Popular music was highly emotionally charged because so much of it was connected to ideas you really cared about.

Of course, by attaching an idea to a song you often ensured the idea wasn’t going to be really subtle, at least not along the standard intellectual dimensions.  But it might be correct nonetheless.

Today you can debate ideas directly on social media, without the intermediation of music.  Ideas become less simple and more baroque, while music loses its cultural centrality and becomes more boring.

We also don’t need to tie novels so much to ideas, although in countries such as Spain idea-carrying novels remain a pretty common practice (NYT).  A lot of painting and sculpture also seem increasingly disconnected from significant social ideas.

In this new world, celebrities decline in relative influence, because they too are no longer carriers of ideas in the way they used to be.  Think “John Wayne!”  Arguably “celebrity culture” peaked in the 1980s with Madonna and the like.

When I hear various complaints about the contemporary scene, sometimes I ask myself: “Is this really a complaint about the disintermediation of ideas”?

In this view, the overall modern “portfolio” may be better, but the best individual art works, and in turn the greatest artists, will come from the earlier era.


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