Underground Overground

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several days ago I was talking to an old friend of mine, and as we were catching up, he asked the question, “So, what are you listening to these days?” “Uumm, well, really liking Barry White at the moment, Al Green, you know…” The disdain in his voice was almost tangible, and immediately he began sending me mp3s by bands I’d never heard of, in what Ii can only imagine was a last-ditch effort to save my soul from the seductive clutches of commercialsoul music.Back in the day when I was a raging music snob, probably took a similar attitude to others, but now I can’t help but think they were probably having more fun dancinground their rooms than was. Music is the most obvious example, but to a lesser extent, the same idea applies to other art forms: cinema, literature, theatre. Ssnobbery, however,still thrives and there seems to be no good reason for it.It seems strange to me that people so often reject things that are considered popular and limit themselves to what is obscure or little-known. Pperhaps it is the idea that what everyone likes must be inferior and dumbed down, in order to appeal to the lowest commondenominator. Pperhaps it is a need to make oneself feel superior by identifying with things that can only be enjoyed among a select minority. This elitist mindset is all very well, but it ignores quite a few important factors in the way our culture is working. For a start, the standards of popular entertainment are getting higher and higher. Ccinema is perhaps the best example of this trend.While I fully acknowledge the need for the subtlety, intelligence and depth that is often more readily available in films or music that would not necessarily appeal to the mass of the population, sometimes, like the mass of the population, Ii just want to be entertained. That is not to say am a fan of the formulaic approach, the “let’s put lots of gratuitous sex and explosions in this film; that’ll keep ‘em quiet” approach. I’m not sure many people are fans of this any more. The average cinema audience really does have a lot more intelligence than film-makers these days give us credit for and it shows most clearly in the way in which formulaic films in this vein are attracting declining audiences. Take this summer’s War of the Worlds, which was a decided flop, even with Tom Cruise in the starring role. Iit looks like the originality of Ssteven Sspielberg’s vision evaporated quite some time ago and audiences have recognised this. The household status of his name alone is no longer enough to draw people in.So it seems that there is a majority vote in favour of being entertained by something that at least gives the impression of having been made with a modicum of intelligent thought. Iit is not just the connoisseurs in the audience who are unfulfilled by the rampant shallowness on display from certain purveyors of mass arts. The most recent example of a film achieving both subtlety and popularity as part of this more intelligent entertainment is Sserenity. This movie has all the ingredients of a popular film: loveably roguish heroes, suitably nasty enemies, a righteous cause, explosions, the odd bit of sex, and all this, of course, played out by unfeasibly attractive people. Yet it is also original, stylish and witty, without being remotely pretentious or inaccessible. surprisingly, there are a lot of films like this.After all, there’s a reason why, for instance, popular music is popular. Wwhy should popularity in itself be a sign of poor quality? The Beatles went from being one of the most innovative and influential bands of the twentieth century to being one of the most popular. Eeven if it was a valid argument, if popularity these days somehow did add up to poor quality, how do fans of obscure bands explain the fact that they are all too likely to go off a group the minute mass media and a wider audience start to express interest in them? The fact is that obscure artists, genres and subcultures tend to come out into the light of day eventually and when they do this we should not take it to entail a loss of their integrity.The mainstream consciousness is constantly absorbing new or minor aspects of our culture and other people’s cultures. Iit is not a bad thing. Think how the punk movement of the Sseventies has influenced an ever-widening circle of musicians in the past thirty years. Ssimilarly, consider how film noir emerged from hard-boiled Ddepression era pulp fiction to bring us some of the classic films of the Forties and inspire contemporary cinema like Ssin Ccity and the latest incarnation of Batman, or how anime has broken out of Japan and brought us, among other things, the increasingly popular films of Hhayao Miyazaki. If these genres had not grown and adapted themselves to the mass market, imagine how much we would be missing. None of the new wave of indie-punk bands, no bleak, violent crime thrillers, and no oversized cartoon castles wandering around the countryside.This process is the way in which our culture grows, evolves, and is enriched. Ssince the advent of digital video in the early Nineties, independent cinema has gone from being, in the Eeighties, a fairly shoddy affair producing the odd stroke of genius, to being a well-financedindustry that regularly rivals the major studios and incorporates hugely diverse styles to bring us more and more better quality, original films with ever expanding audiences. Ccult cinema is fast becoming mainstream: Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite and Donnie Darko spring to mind, and with every film like this that attracts large audiences the bar is raised for other new releases to show that they too can offer something truly engaging and worthwhile.The drift towards higher expectations for innovation and creativity in films can only be a good sign. Aand the principle applies elsewhere: the more new music that surfaces from the underground and gains a fan base, the more varied and interesting popular music will become, and conversely, everything that is popular today has its roots in something that was once excitingly new and innovative. Yes, even Barry Wwhite.Besides, if you are a fan of something, if you love a band, a director, or an author, why wouldn’t you want other people to appreciate it and accept that their lives were being improved by this new appreciation? This attitude can be found most frequently among fans of things that no longer, because of changes in fashion, attract the enthusiasm they once did. Jazz fans, for example, nearly always welcome new devotees to their genre. My long-time favourite band has recently started gaining a sizeable fan base in this country, and while Ii certainly do feel the sting of no longer being superior to everyone who hadn’t heard of them, it comforts me to think of all those people whose lives are undoubtedly enriched by the owning of their albums.It should be perfectly clear that am not anywhere near advocating the abandonment of non-mainstream culture; rather, would like to see more credit given to the increasing quality of what is being made for mass audiences, an acknowledgementthat popular does not equal rubbish.It is often due to the influence that ‘alternative’ culture has on what the masses take in that we see welcome expansions and innovations taking place in the art world. Sso there is clearly no value in art snobbery, in dismissing mass arts, or in desperately seeking to keep art that is indie or underground as the preserve of an elite audience. Eeither way, the result is a reduction in our own potential enjoyment and in cultural growth.So perhaps instead, we should celebrate when people start liking our favourite obscure bands. Let’s go and watch some blockbusters and let’s enjoy the guilty pleasure that commercial soul music, to take just one example, has to offer. Let us recognise that it probably had its origins in something it’s okay to like, and, well, it might turn out to be fun.ARCHIVE: 6th week MT 2005

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