Art for Whose Sake?
I've been tracking the growing PC didacticism of contemporary culture and some of its more extravagant recent manifestations. (That was about a music video whose status as PC propaganda has been cemented by the narrow restrictions placed on how others can reference it or comment on it.)
What strikes me the most is how mainstream culture is openly embracing the idea of a didactic or propagandistic role for art. Consider a New York Times review—a gushing pre-launch promotional piece, really—for Jagged Little Pill, a Broadway musical based on the catalogue of the angsty 1990s singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette. I know there were a lot of angsty singers in the 90s, but she was the one with the kind of whiny voice. OK, that doesn't narrow it down very much, either, so she was the one who didn't understand what "irony" means. There. Now you remember.
Astute readers will immediately recognize Jagged Little Pill as a basic "jukebox musical," a genre that allows producers to raid the song catalogs of popular music groups with a large pre-existing fan base. Up to now, they've mostly been cashing in on the nostalgia of well-heeled and reliably theater-going Baby Boomers, drawing on the likes of The Beatles, ABBA, and Billy Joel. The news about "Jagged Little Pill" is that the younger Gen-Xers—anyone who was in high school or college in 1995, when the Morissette album of the same name was released—are now old enough for someone to pander to their nostalgia.
But don't dare tell them that. Gen-Xers won't go for anything as unapologetically light and fluffy as Mamma Mia! They can't bear something that is merely fun and enjoyable. Remember all that angst? No, their nostalgic jukebox musical has to have some kind of overriding social importance. Hence the direction taken by Jagged Little Pill, which the New York Times describes as "the most woke musical since 'Hair'."
What is interesting here is not just that the musical has a political message. It's the fact that so little is said in this article about the esthetic qualities of the music. Instead, Morissette's breakout success way back when is describes as a blow to "the patriarchy," because I guess there had never been a successful female singer before, and the songs and their staging are hailed mostly for their dedication to the currently fashionable side of a parade of political issues.
The show tackles hot-button issues like opiate addiction, gender identity, and sexual assault, as well as more quietly urgent ones like transracial adoption, marital bed death, and image-consciousness. It also contains imagery from the Women’s March and the #NeverAgain gun-control movement. Picture a pageant of liberalism, with your favorite ’90s songs as the soundtrack.
It is not just the reviewer who is fascinated by the show's politics. That also seems to be most of what the producers and performers are talking about.
The vibe behind the scenes of the musical is, like its material, inclusive and socially aware. Early in the rehearsal process Ms. Paulus asked everyone in the cast to give a presentation on a topic from the show. Celia Gooding (the daughter of the current Tony nominee LaChanze)—who plays the queer, protest sign-toting daughter Frankie—spoke about colorism, a form of discrimination based on skin color that transcends race. And Elizabeth Stanley ("On the Town"), who plays her mother, chose to research transracial adoption.
This show sounds, not just Politically Correct but also narrowly political in a partisan sense.
[W]hat Ms. Paulus called “the last two years of major trauma in America"...shaped Jagged Little Pill throughout development. Some material has even gone straight from headlines to the stage, like a sobering moment in “All I Really Want” when the song suddenly stops—leaving the audience with the tableau of Frankie holding up a #NeverAgain against a backdrop of images from the Parkland student protests.
The reference to the "last two years," the time since the election of President Trump, indicates what opened the floodgates. The political and cultural left was always predisposed to turn every aspect of life into a political crusade. They are, after all, the ones who brought us the motto, "the personal is the political," which was the basis for the concept of Political Correctness. The "trauma" of seeing the wrong corrupt politician get elected just gave them an excuse to embrace that PC creed as the ultimate standard for the arts.
A lot of people are starting to notice this, and a few are starting to become concerned. Also at the New York Times, Lauren Oyler notices a kind of verbal tic that is becoming common in book and movie reviews: the word "necessary."
A few decades ago—heck, maybe even last year—describing art as "necessary" might have referred to the personal, inspirational, intellectual, or spiritual role of art, and only secondarily to its role as political commentary. But politics is rapidly becoming the sole meaning of "necessary."
A turn toward socially conscious criticism, ushered in by the Internet's amplification of previously ignored perspectives, has meant that culture now tends to be evaluated as much for its politics as for its aesthetic successes (or failures). Certain works—usually those that highlight the experiences of marginalized groups, or express some message or moral about the dangers of prejudice—have been elevated in stature. It's an overdue correction that brings with it an imposition: No longer just illuminating, instructive, provocative or a way to waste a few hours on a Saturday, these works have become "necessary." The word is a discursive crutch for describing a work's right-minded views, and praise that is so distinct from aesthetics it can be affixed to just about anything, from two-dimensional romantic comedies to a good portion of the forthcoming books stacked beside my desk....
"The disproportion of the descriptor is made clear when it's invoked to transform two very long, idiosyncratic theater productions into compulsory interventions in the issues they reflect: The New Yorker's Hilton Als called the revival of Tony Kushner's eight-hour play Angels in America "brilliant, maddening, and necessary"; The Los Angeles Times's Mark Swed made a similar pronouncement about Taylor Mac's 24-hour queer history of popular music, which is typically performed in four six-hour shows without intermission. But if you skipped the second season of HBO's series "Divorce," about the dissolution of a marriage between two white, wealthy people, you're safe. "'Divorce' is heartbreaking," Rachel Syme wrote for The New Republic. But "now, when so much is at stake, even a glint of sunshine on this narrative" cannot make the show "feel completely necessary."...
The effect is something like an absurd and endless syllabus, constantly updating to remind you of ways you might flunk as a moral being. It's a slightly subtler version of the 2016 marketing tagline for the first late-night satirical news show with a female host, "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee": "Watch or you're sexist."
Most telling is Oyler's observation that "This usage seems to gesture everywhere but at the art itself." But treating art as a political statement referring to outside events makes it less necessary, not more. "Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?"
Oyler seems to take the flip side of this, hinting that art is unnecessary and referring to historical movements that championed "art for art's sake." I would look at it differently. Art is necessary, but it isn't about politics. It is about the soul—something that is deeper, more interesting, and more important than politics. Art is a medium to explore the personal meaning of work, love, friendship, creativity, desire, integrity, heroism, and all the varieties of human potential. But the main thing we need from art is not a lecture telling us which political preferences are the right ones. Instead, we are seeking out an experience of life that is worth living through.
This is particularly true of music. Most music—even popular songs, particularly Alanis Morissette's—have no coherent message to their lyrics. (To a writer, this is somewhat baffling, but I've met many people who don't particularly listen to the lyrics of their favorite songs, and in many cases they're better off for it.) Much of the best and most profound music has no lyrics. What is the political message of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major? The question is an absurdity. Music is not primarily about a message. It's about how to order your thoughts and emotions. Music, more so that the other arts, is epistemological, not political. But again, you don't listen to a great piece of music to get a list of pointers on how to live. You listen to get the direct experience of what it's like to live that way.
But in a culture where all art has to have some wider utilitarian purpose, I supposed it's fitting that this kind of music, if it serves no political goal, has been pushed into its own kind of utilitarian function. A curious article recently caught my eye about "weaponized classical music" used to discouraging disruptive loiterers.
At the corner of 8th and Market in San Francisco, by a shuttered subway escalator outside a Burger King, an unusual soundtrack plays. A beige speaker, mounted atop a tall window, blasts Baroque harpsichord at deafening volumes. The music never stops. Night and day, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi rain down from Burger King rooftops onto empty streets.
Empty streets, however, are the target audience for this concert. The playlist has been selected to repel sidewalk listeners—specifically, the mid-Market homeless who once congregated outside the restaurant doors that served as a neighborhood hub for the indigent. Outside the BART escalator, an encampment of grocery carts, sleeping bags, and plastic tarmacs had evolved into a sidewalk shantytown attracting throngs of squatters and street denizens. "There used to be a mob that would hang out there," remarked local resident David Allen, "and now there may be just one or two people."
Over the past several decades, particularly after a successful test on the London Underground in 2003, this has been adopted as a common tactic for repelling vagrants and deterring crime. The author of this piece complains that the "intimidating upper-class associations" of classical music create "a sonic border fence protecting privileged areas from common crowds, telling the plebes in auditory code that 'you're not welcome here.'" I see it more as a massive failure in our educational system. Before this music was used to convey, "you're not welcome here," there was a concerted effort to make this kind of music unwelcome for most listeners.
Ironically, even this comically utilitarian use of classical music reminds us of its true function and meaning. "As a Cleveland official explained, 'There's something about Baroque music that macho wannabe-gangster types hate.'" Well, of course. The delicate, complex structures of classical music are anathema to the disordered minds of the homeless or to the violent and impulsive mentality of thugs, which is much more at home with the pounding rhythms and obscene shouting of what passes for contemporary music. If music is about how you order your thoughts and emotions, a culture that listens to noise—and which fails to prepare its children to grasp more ordered and sophisticated music—will end up putting noise in people's brains.
Art is necessary, if our obsession with politics doesn't make us blind and deaf to it. When that happens, we might end up recruiting mediocre popular music as a voice to screech out our big social causes, while we use great and profound music as an auditory scarecrow.