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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Power of Myth (monoculture edition)

Steven Hyden recently wrote a spot-on piece for Salon.com on how monoculture is a myth. As I read it, I thought about how glad I was that somebody wasn't falling in line with a context-free, romantic view of the past. I wished there were more speaking up and saying this. Especially lately with all this grunge nostalgia.

Hyden and I are close in age, so when he talks about being young and seeing an album like Nevermind have a monumental impact on pop culture -- and not just the music industry in the early nineties -- I can relate. He also remembers the other big names in music during those times. Names that are not as celebrated these days.
Once my classmates did see it, a number of them purchased “Nevermind,” as I did. But many of them didn’t. Some preferred Pearl Jam. Some liked N.W.A.’s “Niggaz4life.” Some didn’t care about music at all; they’d rather play Tecmo Bowl. Then there were the millions and millions of Americans who bought Garth Brooks’ “Ropin’ the Wind,” the best-selling album of 1991. If anything, that was the album that we as a culture were united behind — it sold 14 million copies, though I never heard it once blasting through people’s windows.

I'm not shocked Hammer's Too Legit to Quit, Garth Brooks' Ropin' the Wind, and Kenny G's Breathless are not receiving the 4-CD/DVD deluxe reissue treatment this year. There are plenty of reasons why.

In the eyes of many critics who tend to fall into the mindset The Onion perfectly satirized a few years ago, those former blockbuster albums didn't have enough of an impact. Those albums just satisfied the lowest common denominator -- making them feel like they were eating a combo meal at McDonald's. Really? Something can sell millions of copies and not affect culture? And not just music, but video games, TV shows, and movies -- all which were taken to by millions? Makes me wonder more about the true meaning of sales figures in the long term. Especially with how we respond to them in the now, glimpsing into the past.

I'm curious how people will view Titanic in six years from now -- exactly 20 years after the film and soundtrack seemingly made everyone flock to. Will we get a deluxe reissue of even more of James Horner's score and Celine Dion's chest-bumping scorchers? Probably not. We're more likely going to see a box set reissue of Radiohead's OK Computer.

When people sound wistful about a day and age when an album could be enjoyed by multiple age groups and demographics, implying that can never happen again, I roll my eyes. Sure, it could very well be pop culture's equivalent of Halley's Comet, but that doesn't make or break the enjoyment of life. You should live for the moment you're in -- which, as Hyden points out, is filled with way more options than 20 years ago -- instead of the past, which seems so easy and straightforward in retrospect.

So I ask people of my age group: do we really want to fall in love with a patched-together worldview of the past, not that far removed from what our parents and grandparents fell for? You know, those Good Old Days, which sound suspiciously like plot points from Happy Days and The Donna Reed Show? Well, keep going back to oxygen tank labeled "monoculture" and we may very well end up that way.

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