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August 25, 2010

Bieber v. The Boss

Consider for a moment the phrase “arts and entertainment.”

The words roll off the tongue like they were made for one another. As neatly as peanut butter and jelly, rhythm and blues, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, the word “arts” has been joined in popular usage to its seemingly natural life partner “entertainment.” But this linguistic union is presided over by a cunning deceiver, the trickster conjugation — and.

It’s the oldest trick in the subliminal suggestion playbook. Repeatedly correlate two ideas using the word “and,” and before you know it, they are perceived as a cohesive unit, as if they came packaged together, straight from the factory, never to be torn asunder.

“And” is used to suggest general agreement between two or more concepts, but in the case of the phrase “arts and entertainment,” the agreement is sometimes elusive, and other times actually antagonistic.

I know better than to try and cram a discussion about what art is into 750 words. There are desperate gangs of grad students with more debt and greater knowledge than I positively frothing to tell you.

For my purposes, I’ll just say that Prose, Song, Story, Play and Picture seem to be at their best when I feel exposed by them and, in this paradoxically private space, it is clearly communicated to me that I’m part of something greater than myself.

But what do the Classical Muses do when they’ve clocked out for the day, untied those tightly curled Greek locks and finally put their feet up? Do they drink box wine, listen to Fleetwood Mac and watch re-runs of “Mad Men”? Do they stay up all night reading important, if underestimated graphic novels, listening to 78s and brooding over the implications of the spaghetti Western on modern film photography? Where does their job stop and their leisure begin?

If “art” exposes us to ourselves, “entertainment” allows us to ruminate on, and sometimes escape that which we’ve been shown. Like a hall of mirrors, though, it’s easy to get lost in the corridors between the two, endlessly gazing at gross distortions of our own image until we’ve been entertained into an artless catatonic stupor.

Pop music is the most confusing, but maybe the most illuminating example of the constant information exchange between art and entertainment. It’s shown itself to be capable of distilling and successfully delivering much-needed booster shots of humanity to enormous numbers of people, while at other times it is the vector of intellectual and spiritual malnutrition.

“So what if some entertainers don’t have the artistic merit you’d hope for,” you might say. “Can’t pop music just be fun? What’s the actual problem?”

Bad music is the problem, friendo, and it’s out there looming over our culture like a psychic plague.

I’m willing to bet that, like me, you count yourself as inheritors of a more provocative strain of popular music than existed, for instance, in the ’30s. Radio and rock ’n’ roll pretty much wrapped up any notion of pop music as harmless, and thank goodness for it.

But are you unsettled by the daily presence of Justin Bieber and the unholy spawn of Billy Ray Cyrus in your house, instructing your children on what music is? The reach and power of their influence is immense, and I’m fearful.

If all of this sounds eerily similar to every stodgy reaction to youth music from every previous generation … so what?! Otis Redding was actually a genius, and his music was actually brilliant. Lady GaGa, on the other hand, is the buzzing noise of a culture that has blown a fuse. Her songs don’t reference anything and only indicate our descent from at least a nominal aspiration to convey meaning to one another into the dismal acceptance that there’s nothing left to say.

Look, here in the rubble of what must have been a stately home once — the portrait of a royal family. David Bowie sits on the throne as Regent Supreme of Pop Entertainment as Art. Madonna, bedecked in a bustier, Tudor gown and powdered wig, grins mischievously on his left, Michael Jackson, the Heir Apparent, sits dutifully at his right hand, while Bruce Springsteen and George Clinton direct court ceremonies as Sergeant at Arms and Majordomo respectively. There in the corner sit the jesters Iggy Pop and Warren Zevon, smoking joints and flipping everybody the bird when they’re not looking. This court is one to which I would gladly pledge my fealty. 

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