On the Downfall of Modern Culture

I see some folks I know and some I don’t know blaming a nebulous “culture” problem for acts of violence like the massacre in Florida. Specifically, I see people calling out certain styles of music—especially styles like “rap” which are associated with non-Western-European-descended people—and other nonspecific examples of violence/promiscuity/rape/disrespect for authority and the like in popular entertainment, music, internets, video games, social interactions, etc., etc.


Let’s take a trip down Western European culture memory lane, shall we?

Ever seen or heard the operas of W.A. Mozart, including The Marriage of Figaro (and the Beaumarchais plays on which the story is based) and Don Giovanni?

☑️Winking at or graphically singing/talking/joking/acting out sexual violence and coercion? Yup.

☑️Lots of flagrant promiscuity by men and women? You bet.

☑️Other types of violence, including murder. Of course.

☑️Disrespect for authority and subversion of patriarchal societal norms? Um.... yeah. That’s pretty much the central tension. And then there’s that whole French Revolution thing which was closely connected...

...plus plenty of other mature content.

☑️Bonus! Creepy ghost stuff and disrespect for religion too!

...And we haven’t even touched on the famously scandalous real life escapades of Lorenzo da Ponte, the guy who wrote the words for those two operas... so throw in a dose of celebrity tabloid hijinks.

But that lovely Italian libretto and 18th-century balanced classical musical phrases means it’s super-classy in our minds today.

Going back a little further, bro, do you even Shakespeare? I carried a severed head onstage, rehearsed fight choreography well enough that our swords were LITERALLY THROWING SPARKS, and learned the meaning of the word “lechery” when I played MacDuff in a high school production of MacBeth. And in one scene I played opposite a high school guy pretending to be a drunk, making jokes about sex and booze... because that’s what the script says. It just sounds all fancy to our modern ears because Elizabethan iambic pentameter and all. Oh, and that’s without getting into the witches.

Also, I read some pretty darn racy and violent stuff in classes with the incomparable Mrs. Byrne and other wonderful teachers in high school. We read James Joyce and Shakespeare and Ralph Ellison and Hopkins and Frost and Achebe and Atwood and Dickens and Orwell and Wiesel and Knowles and Golding and Hawthorne and Brontë and lots more. I feel lucky to have been made to read a pretty diverse reading list of great literature. But oh boy was some of it full of “adult” stuff! And major mouthing off in some of those scenes! And sometimes it was violent enough to be difficult to read.

And this is all stuff that is considered among the highest achievements in (most Western European) literature and culture, right?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about some of the tasteless content or gratuitous realism of some popular entertainment today. We should always  look to better humanity through art. There will never not be an ethical dimension to what we create.

But you see, the thing is... if you think modern rap or movies or video games or whatever are the root of some recent cultural moral decay or some downfall of long-established decency, you’re a few hundred years late to the party! You also sound like literally every critical backlash against every new trend in the arts, ever.

When it was first released, “Rock Around the Clock” was considered by many a priest and parent to be part of that evil rock music that was ensnaring teenagers under its spell. You do know that the title of the song (and the term “rock & roll” itself) is a euphemism for not-just-dancing all night? But in 2018, you could play “Rock Around the Clock” in a family gathering or a community potluck and most people would think it sounded like pure wholesome nostalgia.

Walk a mile in the shoes of a cultural context (including your own) before you think about passing judgement. I’ve done it, and it’s uncomfortable but also worth it. Some days I still need friends and students and colleagues to help me check my assumptions...like that time I COMPLETELY misread the significance of Beyoncé’s performance of “Formation” at the Super Bowl. Someone on this newfangled Internet (I think it was Sha Naosh Iro) challenged me and her comments set me straight and put me in my place and even though it was uncomfortable at the time I am so glad. I was being racist. And I didn’t even see it.

Growing up, I used to think I disliked most rap music, and all country, and then one day in college Daniel Sherwood made me listen to ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and I got to know people who are from places that are home to country, and people who are from places that are home to various types of rap and hip hop. And you know what, neither country nor rap is just a bunch of drivel about cars and girls! There’s some amazing and innovative art that is part of both genres, and pretty much every genre if you learn to look (something I learned from Dr. Youmans).

Most art makes a great deal more sense in context. And much of the time it turns out to be a great deal more meaningful than it looks from the outside.

Maybe culture has always been on the precipice. Maybe... well...maybe if you find yourself worried and grumbling about kids listening to some form of terrible music, watching some terrible videos, playing some terrible gamesc reading some terrible things, suffering from some terrible influences... maybe you might want to join me in supporting better alternatives.

Maybe you might want to fund the arts. Like, really fully fund the arts, at all levels. And the humanities. And education. And healthcare.

But please, if you want to blame someone, don’t blame “culture”... and certainly don’t do it using Comic Sans and lame pictures of white shampoo commercial Jesus. Go out and make some art. Make better art. Or support someone who does.

If you want to renew and redeem Culture, then actually do it. I’ll be right beside you, laying down the (chord) changes.