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3 January 2011

Michael Jackson vs. Kanye West vs. Quincy Jones: a short attention span essay on pop history, real history & their relation to “blood & treasure”

I. THE BASICS

So you’ve heard Kanye West talking shit like he’s the next Michael Jackson, no? If not try this one on for size: “As far as rapping goes, how can I say this? Jordan, Michael Jackson – it’s what I do.”

His attempts to insert himself in a royal lineage are subtle, no?

Well, actually no, he’s not being subtle at all. One of the primary tenants in Kanye’s five-point plan to achieve greatness is his understanding that subtlety has no place in pop.

Here’s why.

1. Big H history is a matter of large forces — war, disaster, fortunes gained & lost. It is not determined by the people (as one of 2010’s dead would have us believe); rather it is determined by the fate of a nation’s “blood & treasure,” that poetic dyad which legacy-minded presidents and statesmen use to make war sound noble & necessary. It is a game of unimaginable resources; of living and dying; of a cast of thousands.

2. Pop history, by contrast, is a fickle bitch. It is usually a matter of memories (feeble ones incapacitated by the pop cult triad of sex & drugs & rock’n’roll); it is a matter of insistence via memoirs which depict all the fair weather friendships & alliances made in a pop art career; it is a matter of shadowy aesthetic influences cast forward arbitrarily a generation or two past their moment of initial fashionability. It’s a story of whispers, rumors and cross-generational games of telephone. Pop history may not be determined by the people, but it’s certainly chronicled in outlets like People (which, come to think of it, sorta does a guy like historian Howard Zinn proud).

At their best, pop stars learn a way to make their pop historicizing meld into real history. Read more »

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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26 November 2010

Q: “What, after all, does a serious artist get out of being famous other than money and distraction?” A: Trips to Dubai

Terry Teachout‘s love of theater, his leisurely pacing, and his old-fashioned-ish musical tastes sometimes leave me with the impression that he’s a bit out-of-step with contemporary culture. But then he contributes a column that’s so on it snaps into focus just how with it he is, how much he understands the pulse of contemporary life. Finally, the tastes reflected in his column are not his notion of the zeitgeist; rather they are personal appeals on behalf of art he loves. (Reminder: There’s no shame in being a critic who gets to write about what they like — popular tastes be damned — as long as they don’t pretend their vision of the world is the world.)

Anyhoo, a recent example of his very with it sense of the world, below.

The national media have mostly stopped covering high culture—nowadays they are besotted by Hollywood—meaning that it is no longer possible for an artist like Mr. Albee to win true fame. Who was the last American poet to become famous in the household-word sense? Robert Frost. The last choreographer? Jerome Robbins. The last visual artist? Andy Warhol. Moreover, such celebrity-making mechanisms as still exist no longer have the power to unilaterally declare an artist worthy of renown. Yes, Jonathan Franzen was on the cover of Time a month ago, but how many people who haven’t read any of Mr. Franzen’s novels can tell you who he is? That’s the real test of fame, and it is no longer accessible to high-culture artists.

Is that so bad? What, after all, does a serious artist get out of being famous other than money and distraction? Did Truman Capote benefit from becoming a too-familiar face, or was his career shortened as a result of his celebrity? Those are fair questions, and they can’t be answered simply. On the other hand, I’m sure that it can’t be good for high culture when none of its practitioners are known outside a tight little circle of connoisseurs. How many Americans discovered live theater a half-century ago because they happened to read about Edward Albee in Life or see him on “The Tonight Show”? And how many of their grandchildren will fail to make such life-changing discoveries because those opportunities have dried up?”

Well, as a counterpoint (and as part of our obligation to our new, all-Kanye, all-the-time format) let’s leave the last word to Kanye:

That’s what you get, yo.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis  

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