Idiocracy, the Greatest Mental Disease of Our Age: On Critical Thinking and Culture
Before going any further with this blog, I would like to take a post and write briefly about the goals of my research. This short statement of purpose was inspired by a few recent correspondences I have had with noted musicologists: Rob Wegman (Princton University), Jennifer Thomas (University of Florida), Jason Stoessel (University of New England, Australia), and Keith Sanger.
Musicology comes in a variety of guises, just like any research. You have those that do lab work, field work, and theoretical work just as in any science. You also have those that specialize in teaching the field, focusing less on new research. Each is important and all need each other to succeed.
If you are doing lab work, you might be working on performance practice, recording historically accurate performances, or transcribing modern editions of old music. If you do field work, you might be searching through ancient achieves for biographical information or doing ethno-musicological field recordings. If you are doing theoretical work, you might be discussing analytical topics in music history, either writing about how music was written or describing how the music works. Of course all three of these categories depend on the other, just as in any science. Einstein might have theorized and mathematically calculated his Theories of Relativity, but it took many other scientists in the field from his time and even to the present day to confirm those theories and find ways to implement the consequences of those theories.
As a composer by profession, I frequently find myself outside the circle of musicology, looking in. Furthermore, as a composer, I frequently find myself interested in theorizing about music and wanting to know why music works, rather than know about specific biographical or cultural aspects of the music. Of course biographical and cultural aspects of the music are important in understanding how the music works and why it works the way it works. However, the culture of the 14th century and the biography of the composer and his/her piece does not effect how most people hear their music today. Most people, when they listen to this music, have little to no background information and are simply listening within their modern context with whatever tools that have, whether they are listening to Beethoven, Babbit, Bach, Borlet, or Bingen.
Thus, as a composer of the present, writing for people of the present, and as a musicologist I want to know why and how music – any music – works for ears not only from the past but the present. Josquin DesPrez’s music was popular in the 16th century and popular today, but of course people listening to it today hear it within a different cultural and musical context than it was heard 400 years ago. Thus, I tend to want to ask “how does this music work and why is it still something that is interesting to listen to.” Rather than simply argue that the music is historically significant and thus we should listen to it, I want to argue more empirically, attempting to justify what is in the music itself that make it worth listening to. Relying on history to justify music for us can be quite dangerous. Let me explain…
Again, knowing some of the history of a genre is important in understanding its grammar and syntax, but ultimately the music must stand on its own, able to be quantitatively evaluated for its merit as music today rather than just a historical artifact. Just because something exists and has survived through history, doesn't make it, by default, "good." Furthermore, just because something was popular at some point in history, doesn’t necessarily make it “good” either. It must be shown in a meaningful way through some kind of critical analysis to have merit beyond just the historical.
If in 500 years, musicologists look back at the early 21st century and see only the records of that music which was most proliferate in our day, they would of course only see our popular music industry. Given some kind of catastrophic event or the weathering of time, it is likely that the great musical names that would echo from our age will be Bieber, Perry, Gaga, Kesha, Mars, etc. simply given their massive proliferation. Thus musicologists would have reasonable justification to claim these “artists” as the greatest of our culture. They, of course, would be mistaken, despite the plethora of information that would naturally be available on these individuals.
If these future musicologists or cultural anthropologists were wise, they would look deeply into the music itself, rather than its cultural relevance to determine its true artistic merit. If they did so, they would see the horrifying reality of our present civilization. Let me elaborate…
According to YouTube to most watched video of all time is “Gangnam Style” by the “artist” Psy, surpassing 2.6 BILLION views as of 2016. The song lasts 4 minutes and 12 seconds. If one does some simple mathematics, it is revealed that as a civilization we have spent more than 655 billion seconds listening to this song. That means that we have spent 10.9 billion minutes or 182 million hours or 7.6 million days or 21 THOUSAND YEARS listening to Gangnam Style.
This is simply criminal. If humanity had rather directed this time to curing cancer, we would have probably accomplished this long, long, long ago. Even if we consider that people only watch ¼ of the video per view on average, we would have still wasted 5 thousand years watching dribble. That is still longer than most of recorded human history. Imagine what Einstein could have done if he had lived and worked for 5000 years longer. Imagine if all of humanity’s greatest minds had been able to divide this time evenly amongst themselves and worked that much longer to make our world better.
I am uncertain, but I would bet that if one tallied up all the play time for Bach on YouTube, it wouldn’t come close to Psy’s. You might not like Bach, but listening to one of Bach’s Passions is like reading a dense and challenging novel. “Gangnam Style” is like reading the cover of a Cosmo magazine. So, imagine that humanity has collectively been devoting 21,000 years of human energy and intelligence to reading the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine. So when you wonder why we have not yet ended world hunger, abolished poverty, colonized the solar system, or cured cancer, HIV, AIDS, diabetes, or a variety of sever genetic disorders you can know that we have simply been throwing away our time and energy. However, what is truly horrifying is that we have not only been spending time by the thousands of years on Psy’s “Gangnam Style” but also on Katie Perry, Justin Beiber, Adele, and Taylor Swift, who all occupy the majority of YouTube “most watched” lists.
If I take along with Psy’s “Gangnam Style” just Swift’s, Bieber’s, Adele’s, and Perry’s single top song on YouTube (as of 11 September 2016 these are respectively “Blank Space,” “Sorry,” “Hello,” and “Roar” all totaling 6,806,216,625 views, knowing that they each “artist” has multiple top charters with billions more views), humanity has spent 2.55 TRILLION seconds (2,549,004,301,296 seconds to be slightly more precise) watching and listening to the “greatest” of the early 21st century’s cinematic and musical “art.” This means that we have spent nearly 81 THOUSAND YEARS of human energy doing this worthless exercise (see chart below). This is just a lower bound. If we take into consideration the top 40 YouTube views, all of which are Popular Music, our time spent consuming the basest forms of our culture would be cosmic in scale, stretching back further than we can trace the beginning of homo sapiens.
As of 11 September 2016 at 3:00pm:
Psy, “Gangnam Style”: 2,641,557,753 view at 252 seconds = 21,108 years
Bieber, “Sorry”: 1,803,302,679 views at 210 seconds = 12,008 years
Swift, “Black Space”: 1,755,301,091 views at 270 seconds = 15,028 years
Adele, “Hello”: 1,709,460,217 views at 360 seconds = 19,514 years
Perry, “Roar”: 1,538,152,638 views at 270 seconds = 13,169 years
Imagine if we had spent this time more wisely. Imagine if people had rather been watching videos to educate themselves and expand their minds. At least within the United States, our youth wouldn’t be as incompetent, our adults wouldn’t be as irresponsible, our elderly might be healthier, and we all would probably be less ignorant and evil. We have fostered an age of idiocracy by feeding our minds with poison. We blindly call these people “artists” and deify their work, affixing grandeur to them without much question. Everyone can identify by face their favorite singer on the shows American Idol or America’s Got Talent and can list the roster of their favorite football team, but most people don’t’ even know who is the president of China or what LIGO is. I mean, how could these ever be an important thing to know anyways?...
It is through a critical look at music that we can perhaps begin to cure ourselves of this self-inflicted cultural disease at least within the realm of our music consumption.
I don't want to take for granted the fact that any music is "good" merely because it exists, survived, was popular, is popular, or is culturally significant. Of course Justin Bieber is culturally significant to our age, but only in the worst of ways, indicating how our consumerist culture has destroyed the meaning and purpose of what we call art. Justin Bieber isn’t an artist, he is a commodity designed to make money.
I believe that many pieces of music (classical, popular, folk, etc.) from all regions of the world are good pieces and should be included in the canon of humanity’s great works, but I cannot take claims at face value, convince someone of this fact, or justify a piece’s meaningfulness if I cannot claim this with some empirical method and objective understanding. My interests are ultimately not in archival research or tracing the history of the genre, but rather understanding how we can critically hear a piece of music today and what place it should (or perhaps should not) hold in our musical understanding, study, and appreciation now and in years to come.
Honestly, we could all use a larger helping of critical thinking in all aspects of our daily lives. It would make us all better people in the end.
Jordan Alexander Key