March 17, 2009

Culture Central

A bright young person living in some backward city of a hundred thousand souls may feel out of step with his or her peers, due to having interests no one else shares, like a boy who gets obsessed with blues music or comic books instead of baseball statistics, but things are different from what they were when Donald Barthelme was a young man, dreaming of writing humor sketches for the New Yorker and living the New York literary life, or even when Jay Leno first hit the comedy circuit with his weird pompadour and tough guy clothes. If you read Steve Martin's memoirs, about his apprenticeship in theater that enabled him to leave his small-town fundamentalist Christian background behind, you know you're reading about things that don't happen anymore, not the same way.

These thoughts came to my mind because lately--and for the first time--I've been tempted to buy an iPod shuffle, which is now priced under a hundred dollars, and already the magical process of consumer rationalization has set in. I ride a stable exercise bike and it would be nice to have my own music to listen to while working out, otherwise so boring; I could put all my music on it and just let the cuts shuffle through, cutting from Mitziko Uchida's Schubert to Miles Davis's On the Corner without transition...I think I could stand it; unlike my children I don't need 40,000 songs; it's so tiny...

Then suddenly I remembered the device, close to the same size, that I used to listen to music on when I was a boy. It was called a "germanium diode crystal radio," about the size and shape of a pack of chewing gum, jacketed in brass metal, with a little retractable antenna, and one ear piece. It was pre-stereo, and anyway, it was a radio. I listened to it in bed at night in the dark, because that was when you could get the jazz show from Chicago or listen to WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia. The rich baritone of the announcer from Chicago, bounced off the ionosphere from a thousand miles away, was full of knowledge that I was sure awaited me, not only of jazz, although he could tell you who was playing on all the songs and stories about the musicians, but knowledge of the world, City Life, the kind of experiences that had led to the writing of those songs, heartbreak and great joy, ecstasy and the blues, one more night in one-night cheap hotels, girls with perfume whose names you never heard of, and booze. I lay there in bed storing up what little information I could about the world against the day when I finally got there.

The thing is, culture came from somewhere. It came from a central source, New York City for me since I was interested in art, painting, jazz. For someone else, it might have been LA, or specifically Hollywood, or even for others Paris, for the francophile girl I would one day marry who sat on her bed at night memorizing all the forms of 500 French verbs. But today, precisely because of devices like the iPod or the laptop on which I am composing now, cullture is decentered rather than produced in and transmitted out from a center to the margins, from a great city to provincial outposts where talented or intellectual teens wait in yearning to be part of it. I believe the only aspect of culture that has yet to be decentered in this way is money itself. It was part of Marshall McLuhan's argument in Understanding Media that the electronic media (in contrast to the printed book) replaced a "center-margin" technology with a "global village," and for the most part he seemed to think this a good thing, although he was no leftist admirer of nonhierarchical, democratized societies. I wonder, though. While it's now possible for the majority of people to be equally in touch with the latest trends no matter where they live, it isn't only that culture centers no longer dominate: culture now comes from nowhere. Literally from out of the blue. Where does a young person with dreams go today to find like-minded others who hunger to do new things? For when there are no centers, and culture is everywhere, everywhere is a backwater.

1 comment:

  1. I pods are not for use on stationary bikes, but for people who are under way...insulation so that they don't hear the car honking at them when they are about to be run over.
    You have the same Itunes software on your computer and can buy a cheap battery powered device at Best Buy or Radio Shack, which will pipe it to your stereo radio receiver. I have one, though I seldom use it. Works fine if you place it close to your radio receiver.

    P.S. Logic: how is it that, if culture now comes from everywhere rather than from New York, that everywhere is a backwater?
    It is true that much of New York....the East River.... is a literal backwater, and it has always been more essentially the source of money and product than of culture... but is it obviously good for an artist to be in the main stream, or to spend her time drinking with other would-bees who are convinced they are where it is at?
    P.P. S. the verification word for this comment post is EXEDTLE,which is spookily close to EXIGENT.
    Burn after reading.