American Creative Culture —
I am sitting in a theater in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am watching a Grateful Dead cover band playing Grateful Dead cover songs. (Entrance was free — and, well, free is free.) But what is interesting is not the band, nor the music, but the fact that the crowd spans three generations: people the age of grandparents, children, and grandchildren dance to the same music in, for all intensive purposes, the same manner. I would have to say that the oldest people dancing must have been in their 60’s — their long white beards and bald heads gave them away — and the youngest people could have been no older than 12 or 13.
I momentarily enjoy the scene before me. So rarely in the America that I grew up in could I observe multiple generations of people enjoying the same entertainment in the exact same way. Even the goofy dancing of the multi-generational crowd was nearly the same. The 20 year olds flung their arms about in the air and wiggled their hips in the same un-rhythmic way as the dancers who are 40 years their elder.
As I watched three generations of Americans dancing all together to the same music I had to question the direction of USA culture. What has happened? Did we stop evolving, creating new material, new music, new motives, new subculture, new culture, new ways of dancing, new forms of entertainment? Has this culture become stagnant, comfortable with itself, perfectly adapted to its environment? Or has our culture solidified, grew thick, and matured to the point that we, again, pass down music and knowledge from one generation to the next?
Is America again becoming a folk culture? A traditional culture? A strong culture? A thick culture where kids once again listen to the lessons and music of their grandparents and share a lifestyle that is in common with their parents? Are we loosing our fickled identity crises and are again becoming comfortable acting within the same cultural fold as our grandparents once did? Or has American creative culture grown stagnant?
And, as anyone who has studied anthropology, history, or geography knows, a stagnant culture is a dead culture. A species that becomes perfectly adapted to its circumstances is doomed.
What is going on here?
A couple of months ago I went to the Bangor Folk Festival with my wife, her parents, and her grandparents went a day or so before I did. My daughter Petra was also in tow, though I cannot say that it was of her own volition: she was stuffed inside of a papoose. Again, parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents were at the same place enjoying the same entertainment in the same way. There were no generational barriers. The young and hip rubbed shoulders with the old and use-to-be-hip.
I was walking through the early nighttime streets of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was going towards the local mission on the scent of a free meal. I walked past a group of young kids standing in a parking lot near a club. They were standing around a van, and appeared as if they were in hardcore/punk bands. I recognized them easily as I too once played in touring punk bands, and as I got closer to them I noticed that they were wearing the same black hoodies, had the same band patches (Nausea, Aus Rotten) sewn into their black stretch jeans, and had the same stupid hair that I did ten years ago.
They also stood around their vans in a tribe feeling much too cool about itself — as I once felt, too.
In ten years time this subculture has apparently not gone very far — at least in its fashion sense — and it is my impression that it has stay this stagnent for the past thirty years.
I asked a group of them if they were in bands. They said that they were. I looked into their fresh and sparkly white faces — was my face this fresh and sparkly once too? — and realized just how young these kids were. There could not have been a single one of them of drinking age.
They asked me if I was going to their show. I asked them how much. $12. I laughed and walked on towards the free meal at the mission. “Maybe,” was my only reply.
On my way back, I walked down the same street and in front of the same club. A mob of these fledgling humans were in a big globular ball in the streets outside of the doors where one of the bands were playing. I listened to the music, and, yup, it was the same unmelodic loudness that I once played. One kid was inside on the stage beating up his guitar and another was growling into a microphone so loudly and incoherently that no one could understand what he was saying — perhaps it was better this way.
I use to do that too, scream and run around. People actually use to watch me do this, and they would even clap and cheer when I would momentarily cease screaming for a moment to gain my breath before the next song of screams. But I was in no mind to listen to this audio cluder any longer, I had had a youth full of it.
I cut through the mob of baby faced teenagers with mohawks and black hoodies in front of the club and walked on into the night.
I chuckled as I thought about how cool I once felt 10 years ago standing in front of clubs with my band, wearing patchwork pants and trying not to bash my nicely groomed mowhawk into anything. With a great sigh of relief, I relished the fact that I no longer feel very cool anymore. I am happily too old for that shit.
Perhaps, if the me of then could look face to face at the me of now I would kick my own ass. Perhaps I would have called myself a sell out. Though, more than likely — the male pattern baldness aside of course — I would look myself up and down and nod with approval. I would like to think that the me of then would be glad that life would prove to be far more dynamic than the bounds of a stagnant subculture.
As I walked out of range of the music away from the club I could not help but wonder if the creative impetous and drive behind American culture and subculture has dried up.
A stagnant culture is a dead culture. An overly specialized species is a doomed species.
As I drove across the USA from Maine to Arizona I listened to the radio the entire time. I wanted to hear the modern beat of my country. I wanted to hear what was new and if people were still listening to the old songs that I grew up listening to. It turned out that nothing has changed.
Country music stations played country music. Classic rock stations played classic rock. Pop stations played pop music that is constantly being made by new muscians but always suspiciously sounds the same. It was a pretty gruesome ride. I gave up looking for the new in American music — it simply hurt too bad, as listening to songs about love which rhyme “door” with “floor” are difficult to listen to — and reverted to the music of my youth: classic rock.
It still filled the bill. It was just as good as it always was, but, when compared to the new music, it did not only seem classic but timeless.
My mother warned me about this when I was young. At 10 years old I wanted to diverge from my parents. I did this by listening to different music. I think I listened to MC Hammer. I remember telling my mom that rap was here to stay and that I would always listen to MC Hammer.
My mother, who would do her morning aerobic exercises listening to John Mellencamp would always say with an intentionally wise smile, “That stuff that you are listening to is here today and gone tomorrow, but John Mellencamp will still be here.”
This annoyed me. It annoyed me so much that John Mellencamp became the bane of my early adolescense. I would wake up and cringe each morning as my mother would begin her aerobic routine with a “thump, thump, thump” of her feet on a mat and “I was born in a small town” blaring over my entire home.
But as I drove across the USA nearly 20 years later “I was born in a small town” came over the radio over and over again. I think I listened to friggin’ John Mellencamp in every state I drove across except Texas. It was my youth revisited. But rather than cringing, I enjoyed it. My mother was right.
Where the f’ck is MC Hammer?
If music can be viewed as a direct lens through which to view the heart of a cultural (or a segment of such), then looking through this lens at my own country I must ask: Is American culture growing comfortable with itself?
Or has it run out of ideas?
Have we topped off the apex of vibrant change and cultural upheaval of the late 20th century with pasty faced reenactments? Or perhaps there is no longer a real impetus for change; perhaps any subcultural upheaval that rears its head is quickly bought, sold, and gentrified.
Perhaps the young no longer “believe” in the future. Instead they talk about health insurance, jobs, and retirement. We know that Peter Pan is a petite woman, we know that Santa Claus is a fat drunk in the mall with a fake beard, we know that the future is a straight white hallway that just leads to other straight white hallways unto death (perhaps another straight white hallway — “go towards the light”).
Perhaps the warnings of our parents’ generation have been actualized: we have been processed down the assembly line and mushed into hamburger.
It is my impression that this culture has become comfortable with itself: comfortable with its cubicle jobs and 40 hour work weeks, spoiled by its ease of commuication (the fact that we can carry a device in our pockets through which we could talk to someone on the far side of the planet no longer blows our minds), unsurprised by its extremes — “seen that, done that”, jaded by its environmental movement — “buy eco-friendly plastic water bottles, lets all use cars that use less gas” — made weak by its inactivity — the pencil neck wimps of society are no longer beaten into submission but rise to the top.
Perhaps this is a culture that has plateaued. Perhaps the path through the white hallways have monopolized the creative impetus.
What has happened to USA creative culture? Has American culture solidified? Have we stopped creating?
Or is there no longer a thing known as American popular culture? Perhaps there are no more pan-generational unifiers — like music, like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Perhaps USA creative culture been segmented into 10,000 niches, which, in and of themselves, are relatively mediocre. Perhaps the common cause/ the common experience of youth culture is no longer held in common.
Perhaps the rope of creativity has just been frayed, and there are now a thousand small strings jetting out in all directions where there was once a few big ones.
Or perhaps my culture, in all of its IPOD office chair sparkle and dust, is growing creatively dead — friziling out on a thousand paths that peter out of their own volition deep in the woods.