Tuesday, February 12, 2008

God, the Grammy's, and Drugs

I admit to having the dangerous combination of an education and an opinion, which makes me a "snob," at least in the eyes of my wife. But I find the Grammy's weird. Or rather, I find our reaction to them weird. Granted, their ratings were dreadful, but that really any of us care about them at all anymore is puzzling. I realize that such award shows do not appeal to me, as I cannot help but view music in light of history, which forces me to eschew much of what is modern. Even more, I find little innovation in modern pop, and spend far more time listening to podcasts than FM radio. What struck me in particular, though, was the response to Amy Winehouse's victories for best song ("Rehab") and best pop vocal album ("Back to Black"). 

Judging from my wife, it was a moral victory, a win for the underdog, the girl just struggling with an addiction. Now, perhaps my wife is alone in that sentiment, but judging by the audience's reaction, everyone seemed to agree. It really didn't matter how good her album was, only that she was trying to get her life back together...after the threat of prison, of course. I'm not sure any of the albums were particularly worthy of many awards and, being largely unfamiliar with the music scene these days, wouldn't know the difference. I can boast that Natalie Cole agrees with me, but still I find Winehouse's music uninspiring to say the least. I understand that she has successfully made lounge music from the 50's cool again, but is that really worth heaping praise on? (Which reminds me, is her music even good, or has she just run into a sympathetic Postmodern crowd, anxious to crown the latest "old" thing the next "in" thing. I remember Norah Jones riding a similar wave on better-than-average music, only to join the ranks of the musically "good, but not compelling" category quickly thereafter.)

While I didn't watch the whole show, I can only say that my general sentiment was one of emptiness. Not to sound like a college radio DJ, but do we really believe these shows are driven by much more than the music industry picking who they would want to win, who should win? Winehouse was apparently a great pick, as no one was going to deny an addict struggling to recover. But at the end of the day, the show was just a trip down memory lane, hoping to tap into some rock nostalgia, and a display of the latest and greatest, who rarely seem able to develop an interesting chordal progression, presumably because it doesn't sell well.

This reminded me of a seminal reality as it concerns art, morality and religion. Ultimately, my main objection to most modern art, be it oil on canvas, Amy Winehouse, or independent films, is that they are trying to cull from a rather shallow well: themselves. While occasionally brilliant pieces of artwork is produced using the inside-out method (I still enjoy Radiohead's Grammy-winning "OK Computer", and Warhol, while overrated, made some interesting observations about popular and celebrity 
culture), I would not be surprised at all if one-hit wonders are a by-product of this method more than anything else. Simply put, we're capable of producing fine art on our own, but inspiration that's lasting is hard to come by in secular circles. Beyond shock and anger, the staples of the modern artist, what else can the world give you?

What's the alternative? Well, I'll call it the outside-in method, the process of devoting your art to God, at the risk of sounding like a pietist. In other words, it is a fool's paradise to assume art is its own reward, or that it can stand on its own for long. (I highly differ from Ayn Rand in this regard.) Eventually, inspiration for the artist will be limited if their own minds and souls are the sole source. But the beauty found in religion, God, or scripture, or any combination of the three, is a treasure trove of inspiration for the modern artist, if they will only bother to look. 

Consider the amazing (stunning, really) output that the Church has produced. 2,000 years worth of sermons based on a pretty small number of ancient texts, and the artform is still evolving. The invention of western music from Josquin des Prez, to Palestrina, to Bach, to wonderful largely anonymous composers who are still producing beautiful poetry. Or the cathedrals that still stand as prayer in stone, even after architecture said those styles were outdated. Again, label me a snob, I just find songs about rehab boring, and worse, depressing. Only when we engage in such Postmodern irony do we chuckle at such a song, and feel so, well, nothing about it.

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