You Think You’re So Smart: The Good Old Dais
I’ve always taken a special displeasure in the ‘things were better before’ approach to culture. While it’s undeniable that taste is taste, it strikes me as a particularly lazy way to come at the world around you to simply let your tastes calcify without protest. Sure, it’s hard to keep up, but throwing up your hands and telling the whole world that music, film, and every other form of human endeavor reached its pinnacle right around the time you graduated from college isn’t so much a statement about the sorry state of culture as it is a confession that you long ago stopped paying attention.
Still, it’s not like everything is as good now as it used to be, right? Even a scold like me has to believe that some things used to be better than they are today, right? Sigh. Okay, fine, yes. It wouldn’t be me if there weren’t the usual whingeing caveats — these statements are conditional, this list is subject to change, and there are certainly very many exceptions — but here are a few aspects of our culture that, if they aren’t exactly in a permanent state of decline, at least seem to me to be less robust than they once were. (Note also that I think there are plentiful examples of things that are as good or better than they’ve ever been, and I’m also not listing things like jazz and hard rock, which are still producing great work, but simply don’t have the audiences they once did.)
INDIE ROCK. This is the one that’s liable to get me the most argument; I’ve always loved indie rock, and there are plenty of people who would argue that it’s in a particularly fecund period right now. But the dominant form of it these days, at least in terms of what’s being embraced by critics and promoted by labels, is terribly soft; the guys-with-guitars model still reigns supreme, but everybody’s forgotten how to make noise. The guitars are turned down low, the vocals are whispers or whines, the drums are apologetic brush-strokes, and the lyrics have lost all hint of aggression. What’s going on here? Where is the intensity of the post-punk era? Where is the innovation of the lo-fi era? Why all the woodland-creature names and songs by people who sound like they’re about to start crying? Say what you will about metal’s cartoonish nature or hip-hop’s absurd street brags, but at least they sound like they’re having a good time. I’m all for depth of emotion in art, but for God’s sake, make a little noise up there.
BOOK COVER ART. With all due respect to my professional peers, many of whom are doing outstanding work in the field of book design, do you know why there are a million blogs dedicated to reproducing book covers from the ’30s through the ’60s? And do you know why there aren’t a million blogs dedicated to reproducing book covers from the ’70s onward? It’s because the last few decades have been marked by significant mediocrity in the field of design, and of cover art in particular. Striking layouts, clever use of fonts and gorgeous full illustration has given way to cookie-cutter sameness, indistinguishable typography, and lazy abstraction or cheap stock sources. This isn’t a problem confined just to genre fiction; everything from cookbooks to pulp hackwork to upscale literary fiction has fallen victim to a plague of dullness. It’s telling that Chip Kidd has become the most famous book designer in the world largely by clever recycling of the techniques of the past.
COMMERCIAL ARCHITECTURE. Look at almost any kind of commercial building — a supermarket, a diner, a garage, a bookstore, a department store, or anything else — that’s over 30 years old. Look at its design, its layout, its architecture, its shape, its signage. 99 times out of 100, it will be vastly superior to anything built in more recent decades. Not only has architecture and design fallen into a state of decay, with every building in every city and suburb modeled after the same stamped-out similarity, but even signage and typography has become identical. The strip mall of one town is the city center of another town. Much of this is due to the coming of the chain store and the franchise; a decay in craftsmanship and trades is another major factor. In fact, with commercial architecture as with book design, the corporate model and its desire to forever cut costs, combined with the command to promote ‘branding’ at the expense of individuality, is largely to blame. It’s a deadly combination of cheapness and conformity that’s lethal for most expressions of the consumer experience (though I think product design is improving).
COMIC BOOK ART. This one needs a huge caveat front-loaded into it: there are more people doing comics today than ever, which means (a) much-needed diversity and (b) tons of talented artists. Unfortunately, most of them toil in the indie world, and what I’m addressing here is what comes out of the big three houses. In the Silver and Bronze ages, each publisher had a particular house style, but the degree of diversity within that model allowed for a number of stars to emerge who didn’t much resemble one another at all. These days — thanks to the cookie-cutter corporatization discussed above — there’s a tendency to hire artists who fit a very specific model, which discourages the kind of innovation the medium depends on. This combines with new printing techniques and the entirely unwelcome ‘innovations’ in computer lettering and coloring that tends to flatten everything out and produce a samey style that’s visually busy but very indistinct. While there are more talented people in comics art than ever, and even a few truly innovative individuals in the big leagues, house style has turned from a feature to a disadvantage.
POLITICAL SPEECH. Here I’m not just speaking of the coarsening of political discourse in general, the right’s relentless charge to the bottom, and the constant pandering to the lowest common denominator — though those factors all play a part in what’s happened. I’m just talking about the mere art of delivering a speech in politics. Eloquence, intelligence and passion, the key factors in political speaking, are now so rare as to be almost invisible. We’ve not only fallen miles below what was once common in the 19th century, we’re so far from even the likes of a JFK that Barack Obama, a merely adequate speaker, seems inspirational, and the fact that he writes his own speeches worthy of special praise. It’s not just because we haven’t given the more recent ones time to sink in that all the great speeches seem to come from the ’60s or before; it’s because no one is making them anymore. The fact that politics has increasingly become the arena of businesspeople and their interests is by no means coincidental to this turn of events.
(I can’t resist closing with the observation that there are about a million things in our culture that are better than they’ve ever been, from television comedy and drama to children and young adult entertainment to cocktail culture to public access to information. I just wanted to be a tough guy and take the opposite stance for once.)