In 1981 Gil Scott-Heron recorded a song entitled “B-Movie” on his album Reflections. The brilliance of the song comes not so much from it’s subject matter of Ronald Reagan’s presidency,but from the fact that Gil’s typically pointed observations on America becoming “the consumer rather than the producer” came so early on in the Reagan administration. Even before the term Reaganomics was ever coined in the first place. This song continues to stand as an example to humanity that,sometimes, the best qualified person to make an accurate sociopolitical commentary on a give time period is a visionary futurist who can effectively communicate with the common human being. Since Gil referred to himself as a “bluesologist”,that would seem to go back to the original meaning of the music: singing the blues to release ones inner blues,not (as illustrated by fictional Simpsons character Bleeding Gums Murphy might say) to make people feel worse and making a few bucks while your at it. That’s the easiest misconceptions of the blues even Miles Davis had to contend with: the music as exploitation. And to some,that misconception lies in some of the appeal of the blues for some people to this day. Considering how generationally oriented this blog has tended to be? Just how far have these types of cultural misconceptions gone?
As has been stated here before, I’ve all too often had to contend with a great deal of difficulty in being a funk admirer. Of course that comes from the fact I personally process the music from a very different standpoint than many of those around me. But ever since I heard Gil Scott-Heron talking about America being a nation of consumers and not producers,that line has grown to have continual resonance with me. Seeing life from this end from the outsider looking in perspective,a good vantage point to notice this would be in the types of employment people have. More people seem to have and seek employment in some variation of retail/sales positions than anything that involves creativity. And if creativity is embraced,its often the most masochistic end of it where something is being tirelessly manufactured for retail purposes. Of course those who control the nations finance do much the same thing-eliminating the middle man and creating an anti foreigner attitude by producing goods and services mainly in other nations. The end result is that many people I know see anything outside of their own social network of friends,family and (if applicable) employees much like concentric circles-all the same shape but diminishing in size,and therefore significance,the closer one gets to the center of it. Therefore the perception of one of our most human forms of social communication,creative arts and culture,have had similar fates.
Some people,even some family,have spoken of me in terms of being a person who has a cultural aestetic closer to that of someone who,at present is in early/late middle age. That would mean that I have the attitude of a baby boomer era American somehow displaced in time. Its a source of great discomfort sometimes, at least outwardly. Inwardly though I’ve come to think of it as something I am proud of. Funk music is actually a good way to measure that aestetic. In fact the history of that has been mulled over on many different levels on this blog already. However one thing I have learned of late is that Gil Scott-Heron is very right about America becoming primarily a consumer-both industrially and culturally. The end result of that is cynicism which,as I’ve learned from personal experiences,runs anathema to creative potency. Its hard not to feel it necessary to repeat this. However when you base a society on ideas such as “keep it simple”,”keep it real” and “keep it economical” the thrill of creative innovation will inevitably begin to disappear. Its hard to believe,even now as popular music is currently improving a great deal, that funk music of the type made by Stevie Wonder or James Brown were once the culturally driving force of creativity-the way often foul mouthed and even ignorant mainstream hip-hop and heavy metal has been for so long. Since it is more a visually than aurally based culture still,there may be an even better way to articulate this impulse: the public perception of film and television.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who,a British science fiction television show about an extra terrestrial space/time traveler whose time/space craft has larger dimensions inside than on the out. From the very beginning,people who’ve traveled with him don’t (and often refuse) to understand how an object can be larger within than without. The entire program is like that: it revolves around bending reality and stretching your imagination. Since it’s height of popularity was in the 60’s and 70’s,I can certainly see how a funk oriented person such as myself could be interested in the show. Yet the same applies. With a television show especially,the majority of the public are all too fast to condemn something that was not given the financial focus that it deserved-focusing in on the most superficial element of what they see. As with the original Star Trek series and other science fiction of its era,the perception of such things are very much like what I once observed here about the perceptions of funk. The phrases “so bad their good”,”cheesy” and “kitsch” are terms that are often used. Personally I doubt that,in the example of Doctor Who,that people at the BBC working at a lightening fast pace with barely any money at all to produce forward thinking and socially progressive television would see such attitudes towards their work as more than,at best ostentatious condescension. At worst,flat out bullying.
It is very easy to become cynical. That’s easy enough to admit. The true exploitative low quality television,ironically musically based such as American Idol and the many other series based on it,have been elevated to certain people as a major event-some waiting an entire television season for themselves to be completely exploited into thinking the types of musical talent presented by these types of show personify America’s ideal cultural consciousness. Extending the metaphor even further I don’t conceptualize funk or television science fiction such as Star Trek and Doctor Who as being in bad taste at all. Rather the reverse. If one appreciates these things only on an ironic level,chances are they may find themselves in the contradiction of elevating the cultural importance of what is truly designed to be exploitative and insignificant. Did Simon Cowell ever go out of his way to help prevent violent rioting the way James Brown did following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination? Did Justin Bieber ever sacrifice his musical career and even his citizenship for matters of social principles as John Lennon did during the early 1970’s? No more than… say a movie about weeping women being jilted by unfaithful husbands and boyfriends will inspire female audiences as an eccentric alien travelling through time allowed the women he traveled with to be better people. Or even a starship peacefully exploring space where class,religion and race are something to celebrate-not something to fear. Are Americans seeing funk as a producible art form? Or are they merely consuming what from their perspective might be seen as something bad?