Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Recycling spoiled leftovers

To slightly rephrase the "Revelation" of science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, 90% of everything is junk. Today, this is nowhere more evident than in the popular arts, especially cinema and music. In both of these art forms, at least 90% of what's being produced is a regurgitation or rehashing of what had been done to death long ago. For instance, most modern science fiction movies are rehashes of Star Wars, which was itself a rehash of the "space operas" that were popular in the early 20th Century as published in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories.

In the world of popular music, if I am to judge by the stuff I overhear as I go about my daily routine, matters have gotten extremely dire. The cutting-edge stuff would seem to be hip-hop, but my brother was listening to that music in the late 1970's when it was simply called rap, so this cutting-edge music has been around for at least a quarter of a century. As for rock music, I continue to hear a great deal that is practically indistinguishable from the stuff that was being performed in the latter half of the 70's. In fact, I've heard quite a few records that are nearly note-for-note recreations of records that were popular thirty years ago. In virtually every case, the re-recording comes off as lifeless and flat compared with the original (many of which were derivative even at the time), leaving me to ask "Why did they even bother to re-record this thing?" The modern music I'm hearing today strikes me as being just plain dull and tired, saying the same thing that's been said better by those who have gone before. Why bother indeed?

It is largely on account of this mindless recycling in music and movies that I've made a conscious choice to go back to the stuff that was made by performers who were (in their day) on the cutting edge. Why bother with bland remakes and clones when I can enjoy the style as it was performed when it was fresh and new? Admittedly, the technology of the past wasn't as good as that of today, so I often have to put up with black and white photography and monophonic sound, but so what?

Take, for instance, the movie musical. If you think that its heyday was in the 1960s, you're sadly mistaken. Fine films such as Mary Poppins and The Music Man were in fact the last gasp of a dying genre. Instead, I suggest that you go back to the 1930s. Don't go too far back, though: the very earliest musicals were almost entirely turkeys. (Check out the recent DVD reissue of The Broadway Melody of 1929 if you doubt me.) In fact, movie musicals came to life in 1933, thanks in large part to the all-time classic 42nd Street. Featuring the often awe-inspiring choreography of Busby Berkeley, this is the first musical in which the camera was set free to move. Berkeley used this new-found freedom to great advantage. Numbers such as Young and Healthy, replete with tightly structured dances and frequent camera movements, must have amazed audiences of their day. For my money, this is the birth of the movie musical. Although many fine musicals followed (from MGM, RKO, Fox, and other studios) through the 30s, 40s, and 50s, for my money there's nothing like a classic musical of the 30s for freshness and invention. Give me 42nd Street or an Astaire/Rogers classic such as Swing Time over The Sound of Music any day.

Let's also consider the matter of rock 'n roll. Lest you think that I am a hater of that genre, you've quite mistaken me. Although rock has suffered from tedious, derivative performances ever since its earliest days, I would argue that many performers produced vibrant and creative work at the beginning, especially from the early 50s through the early 70s. However, I've chosen to not collect that era of music, concentrating instead on the various musics that helped to give birth to rock: jazz, country, blues, and more. Much of this music, especially in the years immediately following WWII, is full of energy, drive, and good humor. In country, there was a whole genre now known as "hillbilly boogie" that anticipated the style later known as rockabilly, whereas rhythm and blues--one of the most direct forebears of rock 'n roll--featured an energetic style known as "jump blues." For my money, much of this pre-rock music has infinitely more life and creativity than I hear in the popular music of today. Sure, the sound quality isn't always hi-fi, and it's never in stereo, but I'll take life over technical perfection, thank you.

In case you think my criticism of the popular arts has been harsh, it gets worse. In my opinion, the very worst stuff you can see or hear is the supposedly "Christian" music and movies that are cranked out as watered-down, allegedly "positive" imitations of whatever happened to be trendy in the secular world two years ago. Actually, I'm glad that this stuff is being promoted as being "positive" rather than "Christian", because with the new terminology the blessed name of our Savior is being spared further shame. People, let's face it: the music and movies that are being cranked out by the world are bad enough, both morally and artistically. How do we honor Christ by producing fourth-rate copies of what started out as third-rate imitations?

My friend, if I've helped you to think about today's dire lack of artistic excellence, I urge you to do something about it. First, start by doing some research. Whether you're interested in cinema or music, pick up some books that document the history of that art. As you read, you'll learn about the people who produced the stuff that's stood the test of time. These are the people whose work is being copied by everyone else! As you learn about these folks, seek out their work and find out why they were so good at what they did. As you go about your research, be warned that you may become just as weary of garbage as I have become. Watch your step! :-)

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