No, seriously. Something, somewhere, at some time, went wrong, when none of us was paying attention.
I was reminded today when I flipped to my city's Top 40 Clear Channel station during my drive home, waiting impatiently for the DJ to shut the hell up and play the song. I just wanted to see if, for once, the station decided to play something BESIDES Katy Perry or Ke$ha, so I could enjoy the drive home in spite of having finished my audio book and broken my mp3 player. The DJ, of course, remarked on the weather, and because it is February 2nd, cracked the 18th joke I'd heard by then about how this mild weather will be ruined because of that stupid groundhog, HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAAHAHAHA, laughing loudly at himself.
"HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAAHAHAHA," I shouted (yes, shouted) at the radio, following up with, "Jesus CHRIST!" as I flipped to another preset and reflected with irritation on the barrage of banality in the media. I flipped to the classical station, even though I wasn't in the mood for classical at that moment.
The host of Performance Today was talking about a contemporary piece, Azul, which was recently broadcast on the show. The cello concerto, composed in 2006 by Osvaldo Golijov, had mixed reactions. Some thought it was brilliant, and others, not so much. Callers from Nowheresville, Minnesota and BFE, New Mexico called to complain about the supposedly "cacophonous mess" that was this piece, and how they couldn't believe the great Yo-Yo Ma would deign to play it.
All throughout the segment, Azul played in the background, and it sounded interesting and lovely. Maybe it isn't the piece for everyone (and people are certainly entitled to their opinions), but it was, in my estimation, both listenable and original. Golijov is, after all, a Jew who grew up in Argentina, and as such represents a neat mix of cultures. He visited my school a few years ago, and he was interesting and unpretentious. What struck me about the callers on the show, other than their startlingly hateful reactions against the music, was their inability to articulate what it was about the piece that was so bad. The only specific word anyone came up with was "percussive."
Really? Percussive? Is that the best we, the supposedly enlightened listeners of classical music (sorry to be a little elitist there), can do? Plenty of good music is percussive. But Azul's percussiveness is not the issue - the real problem is the utter lack of imagination in our society. If these people had their way, Performance Today would rotate the same recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart's best loved symphonies, and Canon in Fucking D over and over until our cultured ears bled.
After moving on to a little François Couperin, who evidently found all the squabbling in his day about whether the delicate French or ornate Italians made better music (even this type of shit still goes on), I flicked through the other stations again. I only became more depressed. The radio hasn't changed: it's the same obnoxious DJs, same dumb commercials, same clichèd lyrics, same boring chord progressions. We keep pretending we're getting something NEW! every time some trite Top 40 hit thuds or croons in our ears; it's all the same.
You know what I saw today on the TV in the lunch room, for the first time in at least a year? A soap opera. You don't see a lot of those anymore, because more women work now and only old ladies seem to really like them these days. I used to think of this as a hopeful sign; finally, I thought, women have stopped letting such excrement insult their intelligence. But then I realized that that just wasn't true. We've exchanged daytime vicarious bed-hopping in between laundry loads for DVRed Grey's Anatomy and The Bachelor(ette) (read: nighttime vicarious bed-hopping) after work, acting like we are a new and improved generation. We're listening to the same music, vegging out in front of the same trashy show, spending our money on the same lame movie because we heard that an actor whose name we know is in it.
Why do we do this? Why do we sit through the same mindless plots and talk about the same shit and laugh at the same stupid, unfunny jokes? Why are we so blind and dead inside?
I'm still trying to figure all this out, but the answer is becoming a little clearer. George Carlin called it the "illusion of choice," wherein we are given a choice of twenty flavors of bagels in order to distract ourselves from the reality that we are continually getting fucked over by the same people, again and again, who live for nothing other than getting more for themselves. Stay with me - I'm not going on a nut job rant about some shadowy conspiracy of world domination. To paraphrase Carlin again, he said that you don't need a dark room and a clear, elaborate plan to have a situation where a small group of people work to protect their own interests. It just happens - and we're too busy popping meds and laughing at fart jokes to wake the fuck up.
I'm re-reading Brave New World, which I read for the first time in 2003, as a sophomore in high school. At that time I kind of vaguely observed how our society seemed to be going in the direction of the society in the book, but at that time I was only just beginning to think for myself and form ideas about the world. In the nine years since I first read, however, it appears that we've only come closer to the reality of the book.
Brave New World is about a society in which "mother" and "father" are dirty words, because babies are made in test tubes and raised in a society where "everybody belongs to everybody." The highest possible virtue is to be an obedient worker within your caste (for which you have been genetically engineered and conditioned): alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and epsilon. Knowledge for its own sake is forbidden, literature is gone, original thought is discouraged - and in order to keep you from contemplating this and how fucked up it is, you are kept in line through group ceremonies, promiscuous sex, and drugs. It is the most extreme example of the social contract explained by Enlightenment-era philosophers; that is, you give up every personal liberty in exchange for being comfortable and disease-free.
Sure, we still have families and (supposedly) value individuality; we don't have different castes, and we (sort of, half-assedly) try to provide the same quality education for everyone. But don't you think some of the above-mentioned is starting to sound a little familiar? Does anyone really believe that the educated elite want the rest of us to get the same quality education they and their children receive? Has anyone found convincing evidence of class mobility? Do any of you (especially those of you in low-paying, corporate/customer service jobs) feel like your individuality is valued and respected by your betters?
How about some more leading questions: In this supposed meritocracy of ours, why do our chances of being the next president or big movie director or corporate CEO increase by about a zillion times when we just happen to be related to someone who has also been one of those? Why do the same loaded, well-connected, (mostly) white, (mostly) Christian, (mostly) men get elected into public office every two/four/six years? (And for those in the "mostly" category, why can they only get elected as long as they act white, Christian, and male?) And why are we so stupid that we continue to quibble about which one will do the most for people like us, as if one is any different from the next?
Because we're kept in line. We're kept in line at our always-changing-but-always-the-same, low-paying, shitty jobs, by bosses who promise that if we just work a little harder and a little longer and wait just a while more for raises, we'll "grow" and "develop." And if we work hard enough and go high enough, we might be able to shatter the glass ceiling and climb up on the pedestal they will then display for the lemmings underneath, so that the lemmings will work harder and believe that they might also be the exception to the rule. We're kept in line by the constant barrage of cool, shiny shit on commercials and billboards, seduced by the promise of happiness if we work just a little harder to afford the cool, shiny shit. (And we are happy once we buy that new TV, but only until a better model comes out.) We're kept in line by caffeine, junk food, tobacco, drugs, alcohol, porn, reality TV: empty, addictive pleasures meant to distract us from reality and make more money for others. And no matter where we are in life, we are always being told we must be contemptuous of everyone who is better off, or worse off, than we are, so that we willfully remain in the exact same place.
I'm not the first one to think of these things. Countless observers have made the same observations in their own time and place, and most of them more coherently than I. So why haven't we been able to do anything about it yet? Are the owners just too powerful, the public too ignorant? How can we stop Aldous Huxley's Brave New World from becoming our reality?
I don't have the answer, and likely never will. But I have one small seedling of a possible solution: turn off the TV for a while. Listen to Azul or an obscure artist instead of LMFAO. Ask your doctor for an alternative to the prescription that will inevitably be pushed on you when you have your next problem. Tell the "you must vote because it's your civic duty" automatons to fuck off and come back when they can produce a candidate that has NOT lived a life of privilege and greed (save me your "you should vote for my guy because he's done this and this and this" bullshit - I ain't buying it). Quit listening to your managers when they treat you like the best thing you can be in life is a "Senior [Bullshit Title]" in their company. Trust your tastes, your instincts, and what few choices you still have. Choose something else, anything else. Just choose.