This is a developing critique of culture I've written in an attempt to frame my thinking around what is more saliently wrong with culture today and, more importantly, how it might be better. It will grow and change with time.
There's an interesting and unsettling article in todays NYT about the impact of mass retailers like Wal-Mart, Kmart and Costco on popular culture in this country. Since stores like Wal-Mart regularly account for 20% or more (much more) of a best-selling album, DVD, book or CDs sales, the buyers for these stores have an incredible amount of influence over what publishing houses choose to promote. Most of these buyers -- most likely as a result of the corporate culture and upper management within these companies -- are either conservative or christian, and often both.
As a result, that which issues forth from publishers and producers of content is compressed into more narrow, more normative band. Country artists like Toby Keith and Faith Hill are promoted at the expense of more "dangerous" material like Emenem or even John Mellencamp. Many musicians -- or often the publishers who own the copyrights to the music -- produce "special editions" of their albums to comply with Wal-Mart's moral standards, following the credo that if you want to make money, you have to censor yourself.
"They have not dictated to us, but we are very smart about servicing that channel the way they would like to be serviced," says Jane Friedman, chief executive of the HarperCollins division of the News Corporation.
The influence of these mass-sales chains go beyond just coercing controversial musicians into re-master their albums. They are also exerting an almost gravitational force on what becomes popular in this country. For instance, the Left Behind bible novels are now perennial best-sellers, largely thanks to their prominent display in Wal-Mart's across the nation. Veggie Tales, a cartoon series about bible-loving anthropomorphic vegetables -- no kidding -- has gone from bible store obscurity to being a top pick for parents nationwide.
Furthermore there is the economic impact of Wal-Mart and its ilk to consider. When a large discount store moves into an area, small business which serve to represent local community tastes and may have more eclectic tastes than the media-buyers at Wal-Mart inevitably go out of business. In effect, large chain stores reduce consumer choice at two levels simultaneously: first by providing a narrow selection on their own premises, and secondly by driving alternative media outlets out of business.
Market fundamentalists will cry out that if there were sufficient demand for other forms of media, then alternative media outlets would prosper in the face of Wal-Mart's competition. While it is true that the business model of many small/local/family-owned stores could stand improvement, it is also true that the overall regulatory and economic environment blatantly favors large national chains to the disadvantage of small business.
Big chains get tax breaks to move into town. Big chains get price breaks from producers and suppliers. Big chains, by the nature of their bigness, are catered to at nearly every level of their business. Just like Jane Friedman, most city council members, congresspeople and even Presidents of the United States are "very smart about servicing that channel the way they would like to be serviced."
All of this I find quite distressing: the muscling-out of small businesses, the disappearance of production as a source of employment for many people, the union-busting, the bad haircuts, the conservative evangelical politics. It makes me wonder again how "out of touch" with America I am living the life I lead, and it frightens me to think that we may end up completely dominated by Mall Wart culture. I don't think it's a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. Wal-Mart, like most business that have shot to the fore in recent years, has a revenue model based on never-ending expansion. Also, there's no reason they could not be outdone by a more eclectic-minded cartel with an improved (read: information-age) business model.
But where's the Good Stuff coming from these days? I mean, hipster culture may contain more diverse signifies and permissiveness than Wal-Mart, but it's still mostly empty headed follow-the-leader materialism. It doesn't seem to me like there's much movement or excitement in the counter-culture these days. There's the old left over granola from my parent's generation and it's attendant new-age crap. There's the plastic sparkles of ravers and their candy-colored PLUR paradigm. And there's the cutting edge of reactionary indie-rock, with it's bitter attitude and now officially out-of-fashion foam hats. The only place I see any real action is from the underground of hip-hop, but even much of that falls victim to the bling-bling testosterone poisoning that's been prevalent ever since people realized there was more money to be made selling rap to suburban white boys than people in Brooklyn.
Man, I really need to write that manafesto. Maybe that should be my summer project.