The Death of Cool: Running on Empty
Nobody doubts the high degree of commercialization that has become the standard of our times’ so-called “popular” culture.
Nobody denies that capitalism has succeeded in turning every available aspect of the life and culture of our younger generations into a product, i.e. something that is designed 2 generate a profit as much as it is intended 2 meet a need or respond 2 a demand.
As a program shown on PBS last year entitled “The Merchants of Cool” brilliantly demonstrates, however, this pervasive commercialization appears 2 have crossed a new threshold in recent years.
Indeed, the various threads xplored in this program, when looked at as a whole, all appear 2 b pointing in one single direction: Cool is anything but. What tries 2 b cool becomes un-cool the minute it becomes cool. Cool is marketed “rebellion”, which means that cool is marketed marketing. Cool has no substance. Cool is nothing. Cool is dead.
The Feedback Loop
Of course, the history of music is rife with xamples of one generation’s new musical style of choice being labelled as “degenerate” or vulgar by the previous generation, only 2 become the new musical standard by the time the next generation comes along. Romantic music was a form-less degeneration of classical music. Jazz was offensively uncivilized music. Rock’n’roll was a vulgar form of popular entertainment. Etc. Etc.
Consequently, it is easy 2 argue that today’s youth is simply continuing the cycle, adopting new musical forms that slightly older generations cannot and will not understand or learn 2 appreciate.
The trouble with this theory is that nothing says that the cycle will continue 4ever. Think about it: What if what is still being called “music” today is, 4 the most part, no longer music at all? What happens 2 the cycle when instruments have been replaced by machines, artists by producers, per4mance by promotional activities, and records by… computer files? What happens when everything becomes driven by commercial considerations rather than musical/artistic ones? Is denouncing commercial manipulation really still in the same league as finding jazz “vulgar” or “rock’n’roll” offensive?
In other words, what happens 2 rebellion when rebellion itself becomes a marketing tool? What comes after this? Is there a way out of this “feedback loop”?
Running on Empty
The world of modern entertainment and pop culture today is controlled, 4 the most part, by a handful of “multimedia” multinationals, which r no longer competing against each other 4 artistic merit, but 4 financial profit.
This world-wide competition of corporate giants has generated a whole industry of “consultants” and “cool hunters” who specialize in identifying new trends and providing their insight 2 their corporate clients, so that they, in turn, can capitalize on these trends as soon as they surface and b4 they fizzle out.
The trouble is that the methods employed by these “cool hunters” have become so intrusive and so connected 2 the actual world they r supposed 2 observe that the line between the observers and what’s being observed has become blurred. In other words, we have reached a point where the corporate machine is so well-oiled that, through its “market research” activities, customer surveys and “focus groups” of paid participants, it is actually in the process of creating the very trends that it is suppose 2 detect.
In popular culture and entertainment, the giant corporations r machines that have become so well-oiled that they r now RUNNING ON EMPTY.
It certainly is no coincidence that the 20th century also happens 2 b the century where scientists hit that limit in scientific observation where the observer can no longer OBSERVE a phenomenon without irretrievably ALTERING this phenomenon — and where, in McLuhan’s terms, the medium has become the message.
Fortunately 4 scientists, they were able 2 generate theoretical tools 2 reach beyond this practical limitation and continue their exploration of nature.
It is highly unlikely, however, that the corporate “culture” will ever b smart enough 2 try and reach beyond the so-called “trends” that it is actually creating at the same time as it is observing them. And the reason 4 this is simple: It doesn’t need 2. The corporate world is pretty content with a captive audience in which it can invest with the bullet-proof guarantee that it will get more than its money back.
By eliminating all artistic, ethical, philosophical, and emotional considerations from the way it operates, the corporate machine has achieved the economic Holy Grail of a system that feeds itself and doesn’t ask 4 more. And it seems that we have reached a point where, by commercializing the very act of commercializing itself (selling music that advertises clothes that advertise beverages that advertise movies that advertise music that…), they have succeeded in creating a self-sufficient system with no escape where the escape itself is part of the system.
No one can deny that there is still great music being made and making it thru this maze and managing 2 reach ears that have not yet been deafened.
No one can deny that there r still artists whose art manages 2 reach and touch an audience that is willing 2 do the work required 2 ACCESS and xperience this art.
How is that possible?
The Human Factor
As Frontline reporter Douglas Rushkoff states, the corporate machine has succeeded by forcing the human factor out of the equation. In his words, “they don’t call it human research or people research, they call it market research”. By creating trends instead of allowing them 2 surface, the corporate machine has complete control over the whole cycle of producing and consuming. It has managed 2 become quicker than time itself and created a situation that amounts 2 a cultural standstill.
What it hasn’t done yet, however, is take control of r own free will. The corporate world knows what makes us consumers. But it has no idea of what makes us human. It has no idea of what makes art art. It doesn’t know what an emotion actually is. It can copy it, mimic it, package it, sell it — but it cannot grasp it.
There r still true artists out there who share this intimate knowledge of what makes us what we r and, thru a single musical phrase or written sentence, can literally open worlds 4 us 2 xplore. And many people r persuaded that providing access 2 these artists and their art is something that is worth fighting 4.
It requires patience. It can seem hopeless at times. But humanity knows how 2 surpass itself, and when it does — well, it’s freezer burn compared 2 cool.