Tuesday, December 02, 2014

a linkathon on the themes of music and cartoons and expectations

Willa Paskin discusses pop culture obsessions and why it's usually not the most popular thing at a given moment. 

We may become obsessed more frequently than before, but our obsessions are narrower. Water-cooler subjects of decades past had far more reach than the water-cooler subjects of today. One hundred forty million people watched the miniseries Roots. Eighty-three million watched the conclusion of Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” storyline. Thirty-five million people watched the first episode of Twin Peaks. Just 3.5 million people watched the finale of True Detective the night it aired. Fewer than 1 million people tuned in for the Season 1 premiere of Girls. Only 200 to 250 cronuts go on sale each day. The bar for what constitutes something “everyone” cares about is a lot lower than it once was.

Moving along to another quote from Paskin:

Having to “find” these objects is part of their appeal. You could adore Dallas, but with 83 million people watching it, you could not imagine that adoring Dallas was somehow particular to you, somehow a marker of your unusually good taste—your grandmother and your mother and your brother and Time magazine were nuts about it, too. But the things we obsess over now are things that we at least believe we have sussed out of the vast cultural morass. And if you have done the requisite cool-hunting to find these objects, then so has everyone else who loves them. Obsessions don’t just mark us as individuals with stellar taste; they signify our belonging to a particularly sophisticated cohort.

And that might single-handedly explain why over on places like Browbeat and TV Club over at Slate have round tables and blog posts about Archer rather than My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Why should Slate writers discuss cartoons that get watched by waves and waves of kids if they can talk about something kids probably shouldn't watch just yet?  Not that Wenatchee The Hatchet hasn't enjoyed all three shows, mind you, and things may well get written here about all three shows, but Slate ... ?  As Willa Paskin was saying ... .

As Archer goes ... this article attempts to frame the show in the history of Cartoon Network in general and Adult Swim in particular.

During his more than decade at Adult Swim, Reed wrote several episodes of Sealab 2021 taut enough to serve as models for aspiring screen- and comedy writers; more often, though, he was happy to bang a joke pretty damn hard with his own rake, and his oeuvre betrayed a writer too in love with confounding expectations, too eager to abandon his heroes and follow some secondary (more likely tertiary) character, one he knew viewers actively disliked — as if he were taunting the audience, as if the joke were really on you. Archer certainly employs a number of now de rigueur alt-comedy tropes: a fondness for delayed payoffs, punch lines that serve as trapdoors or springboards to other jokes, recurring in-jokes that reward dedicated viewers. But Reed has finally — or at least mostly — embraced a basic and unavoidable truth: No matter how funny you are as a writer, if you continually abandon characters and digress from a plot, you thin a story until it is vapor, leaving only the combustible cleverness and a match for your story’s self-immolation.

But to some degree an idea that could be overlooked in the evolution of animation in the United States as a subversive medium that could have gotten some mention was that cartoons have generally been seen as 1) for children and 2) for instilling a set of ethics or ethos.  Think of long-ago odes to Optimus Prime in Wired and "cold war moral clarity".  Using animated narratives and characters to subvert or question the kinds of cartoon moralism that cartoons have been expected or required to hand down to a presumed-prepubescent audience is part of the subversive fun.  A matter that could be potentially missed in the matter of subversion by one or two conservatives (and those who may not realize how much animation has changed in the US in the last thirty years) is that part of liking something "ironically" is not necessarily in the liking of a thing itself.  Over the years I have told people that I have always enjoyed animation, hoped to work in it (but realized I didn't have the eyes or steady hand for it), and that by contrast ... well let's consider what the opposite of kids' shows really is, "adult" entertainment? 

If anything the more time goes by the less certain it seems that the things children and adults ultimately hope for in life are as fundamentally different as some adults say. 

Watching, enjoying and analyzing cartoons has been fun, and it is fun.  One of the many things that makes it fun to write about cartoons is observing that in American culture the cartoon tends to be the medium through which grown-ups tell children stories that demonstrate or encourage those values that grown-ups most wish children to learn.  We can learn the most about what values are sacrosanct in various strata of American culture by looking at what characters and narratives are presented as "safe" for children to observe.  With the emergence of shows like The Simpsons, or Beavis & Butthead, or Aeon Flux, South Park, or any number of shows you could pick from Adult Swim, half of what is subversive about any of these shows is working in the medium of animation to begin with.  It shouldn't be in itself but American academia and cultural punditry is never likely to catch up to this particular reality about pop culture.  Why look down on cartoons as a medium if a cartoonish boiled-down narrative is what the grown-ups keep resorting to in the op-ed pages of political magazines?

OVer at NPR and The Atlantic there are a couple of interesting links about the changing measurments and metrics of what music gets listened to vs what companies can measure in terms of sales.


Radio stations, meanwhile, are pushing the boundaries of repetitiveness to new levels. According to a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, Top 40 stations last year played the 10 biggest songs almost twice as much as they did a decade ago. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the most played song of 2013, aired 70 percent more than the most played song from 2003, “When I’m Gone,” by 3 Doors Down. Even the fifth-most-played song of 2013, “Ho Hey,” by the Lumineers, was on the radio 30 percent more than any song from 10 years prior.

Wenatchee The Hatchet was kind of busy in 2012 writing about Mars Hill and Batman cartoons and "Blurred Lines" was never on the radar.  What's interesting about that specific song is ...

Marvin Gaye’s family wins first round against Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams in ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit

To get back to the earlier Atlantic article:

And not only are we hearing the same hits with greater frequency, but the hits themselves sound increasingly alike. As labels have gotten more adept at recognizing what’s selling, they’ve been quicker than ever to invest in copycats. People I spoke with in the music industry told me they worried that the reliance on data was leading to a “clustering” of styles and genres, promoting a dispiriting sameness in pop music.

In 2012, the Spanish National Research Council released a report that delighted music cranks around the world. Pop, it seemed, was growing increasingly bland, loud, and predictable, recycling the same few chord progressions over and over. The study, which looked at 464,411 popular recordings around the world between 1955 and 2010, found that the most-played music of the new millennium demonstrates “less variety in pitch transitions” than that of any preceding decade. The researchers concluded that old songs could be made to sound “novel and fashionable” just by freshening up the instrumentation and increasing “the average loudness.”

I think that last thing is called "dynamic range compression" within the music world and it's the bane of many a new song!

As for songs and singing ... another bit from The Atlantic on why actresses sometimes opt to become folksingers. Reinventing yourself as a singer shifts the focus to your voice rather than your look and in an image-mindful milleu such as cinema the image can be an unforgiving medium. 

Maybe the reason so many people may harken to the pop and rock of old is not necessarily because it's all better so much as because rock/pop has developed its own canon and there's a sense in which if we're going to get stuck hearing the same four or five chords strummed rhythmically across the board we could try to go back to the songs that defined the clichés rather than repeat them.  You can listen to "Blurred Lines" if you want ... or you can listen to Marvin Gaye.

Norah Berlatsky, who's got a book on Wonder Woman that's coming out soon, writes about the futility of the school-ish advice to "find your voice" as a writer when, in the real world, nobody wants to buy YOUR voice so much as your ability to assimilate the voice of someone else.


As for some pending/ongoing projects. the transcription/analysis of the 2008 spiritual warfare session is taking some down-time.  One can only handle so many hours of circa 2008 Mark Driscoll talking at length about spiritual warfare.  There's musical stuff incubating for probably 2015 and stuff about cartoons that may also just have to wait until 2015.  But the blog's on a semi-hiatus for some of its ... "expected" topics. 

However, a nod in closing to Phoenix Preacher
6. If you choose to live in a theological echo chamber you have willfully chosen to only learn what you already know. 

In light of the self-congratulatory impulses left and right about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill it seems necessary to point out that half a decade or more of the Pyromaniacs crew blathering on about Driscoll accomplished absolutely nothing in much the same way that the Salon/HuffPo crew went on for at least a decade to no effect at all.  What changed the game, if we have to call it a game, was that things happened and got discussed across the boundaries of the usual echo-chambers of the theological/political "left" and "right" respectively. 

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