Trickle-down Culture – As American As Pad Thai

August 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Resentment against cultural elitists holds a prominent place in the populist energy driving Trump supporters. Mainstream conservatives have been playing this card since way back in the game with playground taunts like “brie-eating, chardonnay-drinking liberals.” In fact, this animus against elite culture may be what divides the pro-Trump and never-Trump conservatives, at least those who babble publicly in the media. Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity imagine themselves to be one with what another Trump supporter, Sarah Palin, called “the Real America” united against the cultural snobs.

But as Paul Krugman (here) points out, we’re all cultural elitists now. Or rather, what was once elite culture has gone mainstream.

But most of all, this kind of punditry, while ostensibly praising the Real America, is in fact marked by deep condescension. One pats the simple folk on the head, praising their lack of exposure to quinoa or Thai food — both of which can be found in food courts all across the country. Sorry, but there are no country bumpkins in modern America.

Even as recently as the early 2000s, part of the liberal stereotype mocked by conservatives was “latte-sipping.” Now NASCAR dads might well have a chai latter or venti in the cup holder of their pick-up. That didn’t just happen. Starbucks spent a lot of money opening outlets and spreading the word.

The same is true of Thai food. Americans didn’t wake up one morning with a cravings for pad thai and green curry. Matt Yglesias links to an article in The Economist.

In a plan ambitiously called Global Thai, the government aims to boost the number to 8,000 by 2003. This, it is argued, will not only introduce deliciously spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies and persuade more people to visit Thailand, but it could subtly help to deepen relations with other countries.

In the United States at least, . . .  the number of Thai restaurants has grown from 500 in 1990 to more than 2,000 now [i.e., 2002]  . . .  More modestly, the Thai government aims to make it easier for foreign restaurants to import Thai foods, to help them to hire Thai cooks and sometimes to benefit from soft loans. It has been much encouraged that Tommy Tang, a Thai chef working in the United States, has said that he plans to open 200-300 Thai restaurants there during the next five years

Sometimes popular tastes change seemingly without anyone with a vested interest pushing things along, as when names like Barbara and Ashley go out of fashion, and Olivia and Ava become all the rage. In other areas, an entire industry – clothing for example – depends on its ability to convince people to follow the latest fashion. With food, there’s a complicated interaction between person-to-person influence within the population and a strong push from the outside by players who have a stake in the outcome. I don’t know about quinoa, but thanks in part to the efforts of the government of Thailand, Thai food may be on its way to becoming as American as pizza.*

*As a food becomes more popular, restaurateurs in the US who want more customers will find ways to make it more palatable to Americans, probably by toning down the spices and ramping up the sweetness. That’s the cue for elitists to look down on The Olive Garden and other “inauthentic” foods. (Pad Thai is to thai cuisine roughly what chop suey is to Chinese.) The politically correct will decry the cultural appropriation in Hawaiian pizza or a college food court version of banh mi. I know: cultural propriation, bad; Asian fusion, good. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

Lenny and Me

August 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston
(No sociology, just –  to borrow Chris Uggen’s term –  self-indulgery.)

Leonard Bernstein was born on this day in 1918.

Earlier this summer, I was walking around Tanglewood on a weekday. The Koussevitsky music shed - the open-air concert venue – was deserted, so I walked up onto the stage and stood on the conductor’s podium where decades earlier I had seen Bernstein stand and conduct. (I’ll spare you the photo. I was not wearing my tux.) But that was not the first time our paths – Lenny and mine – had crossed.

In the early 1950s, Bernstein was a visiting professor at Brandeis. No doubt he felt at home in a department that was eager to go beyond the bounds of what traditional music departments did.

Some years later, when I was a sophomore at Brandeis, I had a campus job in the music building. A few days a week, at 5 p.m., I would play records (this was long before Spotify, long before CDs) for the students in the Opera course. I mean, I would play the records if any students came to the classroom in the music building, which they rarely did. I think a couple may have come when the topic was Don Giovanni; that’s the only reason I can think of that I have some familiarity with “Madamina,” the openng aria. We never got beyond that.

The classroom had a piano at the front for the instructor to use – a Baldwin baby grand – and sometoimes I would sit there and do my inept version of playing piano. I’d never had a lesson, and I played a sort of jazz by ear. (I recall that Horace Silver’s “St. Vitus Dance” was one of the tunes I was trying at the time.) One day late in the semester, I noticed a small metal plate, about 2" x 3" attached at the right edge of the piano above the keyboard. I read it. It said something like, “This is the piano that Leonard Bernstein learned to play on as a child, and is donated by his parents. . . .” I played that piano more frequently for the rest of the semester.

Here’s the Bill Evans solo version of “Lucky to Be Me,” from “On the Town” (1944 – i.e., when Lenny was 26). Evans takes some liberties – modulating the last eight bars to A♭instead of F the first time through. But Bernstein’s own chord changes on the bridge are incredible as is the melody – very chromatic and hence not easy for singers.

Soundtrack of the Zeitgeist

August 22, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday’s post was skeptical about a link between pop culture and the Zeitgeist. I questioned whether the a change in the content of fiction or film or other products of the imagination reflected important social change. Still, when done well, Zeitgeist explanations often sound plausible.

Chris Molanphy knows a lot about popular music. He has  a feature at Slate called “Why Is This Song No. 1?” where he would give a super-hit of the day a full physical exam. The performer, the producer, the studio, the way the song evolved musically, the market, the audience, the distribution – all the elements internal to the music business and the creation of songs come under his stethescope. (See his take on “Love Yourself” or Drake (“One Dance” and “Hotline Bling”) or any of his other pieces here)

Molanphy also appears in a regular segment on The Gist, where he and host Mike Pesca turn back the pop-music calendar to a single year. Historical hindsight allows them to align the hits with forces outside of the music itself – politics, the economy, the general spirit of the time. When you’re looking backwards, the temptation to go full-out Zeitgeist is irresistible.

Here they are discussing 1999.

PESCA: What’s the case for its importance, what’s the case for its artistic value, what’s the case for 1999?

MOLANPHY: The case for 1999 is that this is American-led pop at its absolute apex. This is the height of the Clinton era writ large in pop music. It’s empire America at its peak, very candy colored, very Total Request Live, very Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” even. . . and surprisingly a lot of artists who were hits in this TRL era of pop have proved quite enduring. Britney Spears . . . Back Street Boys . . . Christina Aguilera . . . Nsync.

If the first half of the nineties was all about rather grim-faced music – it was about grunge, it was about gangsta rap – this is the candy colored half of the 1990s.

PESCA: This is the Clinton expanded economy, the Internet, this is the years of peace and prosperity, this is the pre-9/11, pre-wakeup-call, good time.

MOLANPHY: If you watch that year’s VMAs. . .  All of the artists that you see on this list of number ones are there. Britney Spears is there, Christina Aguilera is there, the Back Street Boys are there, and all the Latin Pop stars. Ricky Martin is there. . . You see a culture that feels like the good times are going to last forever. The dot-com era is at its height, Clinton’s in the White House, unemployment’s at five percent, everybody’s got money to burn, and the good times are here again. We know what happened two years later, but we know that 1999 is a very neon colored bright and shiny year, and for that I have an odd sort of nostalgia. [Emphasis added. Listen to the entire episode here].                            

Pesca even implies that the “good time” Zeitgeist of 1999 somehow knows what will happen two years later when it will give way to a bad times mood descending upon the country. “This is the pre-9/11, pre-wakeup-call, good time.” To paraphrase Yogi Berra, prediction is easy, especially about the past.”

Sometimes the producers of pop culture do try to come up with songs or movies or TV shows that align with the Zeitgeist as they perceive it. Usually, that means copying the most recent big success.  So we get a wave of superhero movies or doctor TV shows. (There are probably equivalents in music; I just don’t know them.) Sometimes it works; often it flops. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” Including culture analysts who write about the Zeitgeist.    

Take My Zeitgeist, Please

August 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So many plays today, on and off Broadway, are small, character-driven dramas, the kind that let the actors show their chops. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in “Fully Committed,” Jeff Daniels and Michellle Williams in “Blackbird.” Perhaps America in the post-Bush era is becoming more inward looking, more cautious about external adventures, more attentive to problems at home. I mean, that’s the kind of bullshit interpretation favored by some op-ed writers and bloggers. They take some trend in popular culture as a reflection of an all-encompassing spirit of the times (in German, Zeitgeist). And why not? After all, popular culture is by definition popular. It must strike a responsive vibration in the psyches of lots of people.

Ken Levine has a different take. He’s a sitcom writer (Cheers, Frasier, The Simpons . . .), who blogs  (every day!) mostly about the entertainment industry.  Working in the biz, he is highly sensitive to the non-Zeitgeist constraints on what does and doesn’t wind up in the cultural stream.

He wrote recently (here) about “Fully Committed,” which he saw on Broadway. He must have gotten to the theater early because apparently he read all of the Who’s Wenho bios in the Playbill – offstage people too, not just the cast. Maybe that’s what people in the biz just do. Or maybe it didn’t take him all that long to read the bios for the entire cast (n = 1) so he kept reading. The bio for the writer of the show (Becky Mode) reminds Playbill readers that since 2001, this play has been “one of the ten most produced plays in the United States.” Wow. Is this ranking a clue to the Zeitgesit? Does the popularity of “Fully Committed” reflect a 21st-century concern with full commitment? Or with trendy restaurants?

Not according to Ken Levine. He thinks it’s about the economics of theater.

It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. . . . The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write . . .

This reminded me of Wendy Griswold’s classic 1981 article about American novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some culture analysts saw in them a “femininization” of American culture starting in the 1890s. Before then, American novels were more about masculine and uniquely American concerns (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). The more sentimental novels read by Americans (mostly women) came from British authors, not Americans. But towards the end of the century, American writers began to pay more attention to domestic matters.

The feminization idea is consistent with other trends in American society. But Griswold shows that the change had much less to do with a shift in the Zeitgeist than with the enforcement of international copyright laws. Prior to 1891, American publishers did not have to pay royalties to a foreign author. They could reprint titles by British writers very cheaply (a copy of A Christmas Carol, which cost the equivalent of $2.50 in England went for six cents in the US). American authors were fully capable of writing sentimental fiction, but publishers preferred the cheaper imports. American novelists turned their efforts to subjects and genres where British writers couldn’t compete  (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). Then, once copyright laws guaranteed royalties on both sides of the Atlantic, British “feminine” fiction lost its economic advantage, and publishers issued more and more sentimental work by American authors.

I don’t know. Maybe the spirit of the times in the US did change in the late 19th century, with religion and middle-class women feminizing the culture. Searching for the Zeitgeist is a game anyone can play. Or you can take Deep Throat’s advice and follow the money.