The Entertainment Industry and the Ratchet Effect
A Useless Frivolity

A Further Note on “Oldies”

Sunday Night Journal — February 15, 2004

A correspondent writes, in reference to my February 1 entry:

…that the music of a time doesn't necessarily reflect the mood. Look at depression-era jazz, for instance—much of it is quite exciting and joyful...the idea of course is that people need joy and excitement when times are hard. Not to say that what you said about the ‘50s isn't necessarily true…

This is a good point, and prompts me to explain myself more fully. My first premise—that the art produced by a society is indicative of the prevailing mental climate of the times (with all due allowances for the temperaments of individual artists)—is not very controversial. But the relationship between external or material circumstances is often, as I think we all know from personal experience, not always as direct a matter of cause and effect as we might expect. People are bound to be less than perfectly happy most of the time, and at the same to expect, irrationally, that they should be perfectly happy, and in fact have a right to be so. External problems provide a plausible reason for the unhappiness. In their absence we face the more fundamentally disturbing possibility that something is wrong with us, that we ourselves are the real problem, not our circumstances. Walker Percy makes much of this phenomenon in Lost in the Cosmos, one of my favorite books.

Many years ago when I first discovered medieval and Renaissance music I was struck by the disparity between the difficulty of life in those times and the sweetness of the music they produced. This was a civilization in which life was, from our point of view—the point of view of a comfortable American—almost inconceivably difficult and harsh. Yet its music is, on the sacred side, transcendently exalted and serene, and, on the secular side, merry—or, if melancholy, melancholy in a sound way, about love or death or time, not morbid or deracinated. It is hard for me not to conclude that medieval society was psychologically healthy in some fundamental way that our own is not.

My point about the 1950s (actually the period between roughly the early ‘50s and mid-‘60s) is similar. The conventional view of the time, as seen in entertainment and journalism, is that it was sick—neurotically repressed about sex, and driven by fear of an imaginary demon—Communism—to embrace a real one—anti-Communism. Deep wells of misery lay beneath the superficial prosperity and stability, and people who thought they were happy were actually experiencing only a sort of timid comfort, sweetened with self-righteousness. According to this view, we ought to expect the art of the time to be either stiffly inorganic and inauthentic, like Nazi or Communist art, or bitter, angry, and depressed, like Brecht or Celine. Yet the popular music of the ‘50s (and I prefer to put aside for the moment the question of how much of the real soul of the society was in these commercial products, except to say that I think it was considerable) is lively, confident, good-humored, and still capable of imparting high spirits not only to the people who grew up with it but to people young enough to be the grandchildren of those who made it.

Of course, if the ‘50s were not a nightmare they were also not an idyll. In fact the period was not as different from our own as many journalists and academics who should know better make it out to be. The essential conditions of modern life had been established, and many of our current problems were clearly present then. The fine arts had been wrestling with post-Christian spiritual conditions for decades. But just as it seems that the basic mental health of medieval society was more sound than that of our own, so it seems that our time is sicker than the ‘50s. It’s a long way from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to death metal and gangster rap. The question of the connection between the former and the latter I leave for another time.


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