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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

And The Next American Idol Is.. Yourself? Yay?

For anyone interested in a scathing thesis on why American Idol is so popular, and its implications for Western culture at large, I recommend a courageous read.
The day is gone when a smile and a shoeshine will get you a shot at the American dream, but a smile and a song can still get you a chance at instant stardom.

More than ever, audiences in the West validate their own mediocrity by crowning stars-for-a-day. That is the message of [vain] hope that Susan Boyle bears to the beleaguered Anglo-Saxon world. Meanwhile, in China, 60 million children are learning music the hard way.

Here is Spengler, at his best, commenting on the symbolism of a certain Susan Boyle's victory in the British version of the singing contest. He basically warns that the West lives in a fantasy world, with real consequences in the real world where in walks China.

In said article, Spengler judges "pop culture" against "high culture," which really isn't a fair comparison by today's standards. Nevertheless, the balance in America does lean toward "pop" over "high" concerns even in times of crisis, whether it's AIG and Wall Street bonuses, stupid pirates or pig flu. Some believe this trait carries irrevocable consequences, especially in a self-governing democracy.

Here is Spengler's basic argument: while Americans aspire to musical mediocrity on American Idol, large numbers of Chinese are diligently learning Western classical piano. In other words, while the West is consumed with "validating its own mediocrity," the Chinese are keen on bettering themselves through the study of "high culture."

To Spengler, when a civilization has lost perspective on high culture, it is driving down Decadence Lane. When it comes to cultural aspiration, he believes the American character is firmly en route to being surpassed by its Chinese counterpart.

Analysis - Stage One

It is almost amusing how aspects of American culture completely disgust Spengler, revealed to be a Mr. David Goldman. While in some sense it is difficult to find fault in his criticism, conceit runs deep in his bolder conclusions (as I will point out).

Be that as it may, the significance of his criticism merits wider attention.

Spengler finds truths in the way a civilization manifests its own history. In China, centuries of national strife and humiliation have etched virtues of thrift and diligence into the modern Chinese with a "conviction that the world shows no mercy to mediocrity." On the other hand, the modern American has pioneered a microwavable world wherein "high culture" is edged by a "slacker's desire of reward with neither merit nor effort."

It is a fair criticism, agreeable to those disgusted by unbridled materialism and celebrity culture; or presumptuous reality shows, Wall Street alchemy, Facebook narcissism, so on and so forth.

But the Chinese may be little better off, contrary to what Spengler implies. However more thrifty or diligent they may be, a culture of strict discipline can seed a decadence of its very own. Their intensive musical studies, while more valuable than Guitar Hero, may cause bereavement of other kinds.

As a case in point, here is a story imparted to me by a good friend:

I'll never forget that I had a friend from China in middle school. I went over to his house and his sister was practicing the piano for some recital. I guess she missed a note and her parents just went ballistic on her. I remember thinking, damn she sounded all right to me. Maybe she was just screwing around or something; I've always told myself she missed a note, but she seemed hard at work on that piano.

I will leave the reader's imagination to measure the significance of this account. I dare not speculate, but would venture to say that our freedom to slack off vis-a-vis their regimented discipline both have its price.

To dismiss Spengler's observations on this basis, however, is to miss the point. While I believe he overstates the integrity of the Chinese character, his warning of decadence in the West stands on its own.

Analysis - Stage Two

Simply bettering oneself for betterment's sake seems to be an overlooked enterprise these days. The deep popularity of shows like American Idol suggests that Americans are more concerned with showmanship and microwaved celebrities. This triumph of mediocrity over high culture, Spengler argues, presents nothing higher for people to aspire to other than their own average selves.

I am sympathetic to this argument.

Consider the case of musical studies. American parents often think that joining the school band or taking private lessons will help their kids get better grades. While this holds some truth, these parents are completely missing the point.

Involvement in music isn't about getting good grades, nor for the sake of participating in "high culture." Rather it is about simply getting good at doing something (read: anything). The best activity, of course, is the kind that teaches how to better yourself. Why any parent would need other reasons for musical studies, scientific or not, is beyond my understanding.

Do we really need a reason to commit to something other than to better ourselves? It seems that we do, perhaps because Americans feel little need to better ourselves beyond who we already are.

We feel we have arrived; the American Century was unfolding before our very eyes, with the pre-9/11 world coming to order. All major wars have ended, save for the ones we begin. As the sole superpower, the world was our backyard. Wealth, prestige, influence, power, morality, these are all things Americans have harvested in abundance and come to take for granted by the 21st century.

After all, why struggle to better ourselves when we have already made it?

If the Chinese do surpass us one day, it will not be because of their incubated diligence and discipline. Rather it will be our own complacency that drives the West into decline.

(Perhaps we can find solace in the fact that China is probably headed down the same road toward a consumerist existence. After all there's nothing like materialistic complacency to wipe out the hard-learned lessons of history. This we should know.)

One thing about Spengler's dire warning is for certain: the West still has no idea what kind of trouble it's in.
If Westerners think the present recession is unpleasant, they cannot begin to imagine how the recovery will look, for it may occur entirely remote to them, on the other side of the world.

It is harder and harder to dismiss the awful thought that Americans, too, might require long experience with hard times to restore the sort of diligence that their Chinese counterparts learned at such a high price.

May he be proved wrong. In the meantime, who will be the next American Idol? You? Yay?