In the Shadow of the Stars

20 07 2011

This was of course the film that won the Best Documentary Oscar in 1991, and it is a refreshing blast from the past compared to the too-cool-for-school style of the post-Michael Moore world. The film in a nutshell is the Chorus Line for opera singers, documenting the struggles, joys, and triumphs of those who sing in the chorus of the San Francisco Opera. While it is at times evident that they are afflicted by the green devil of envy and would of course prefer to sing the solos of the repertory that bring down the house, all the same, the people interviewed seemed well adjusted and thankful that they can make a living doing what they love.

What was most revealing to me was a rather whimsical scene of one such singer driving a commercial truck for his “day job”. He said that he learned both his love for opera and his truck driving from his father, who was evidently a great fan of classical music. Such an anecdote from the early 1990’s was a painful reminder concerning how far the working class has fallen in terms of a certain criterion of cultural literacy. In the past, it was perhaps not so unusual for a truck driver (probably unionized) to be an aficionado of the high arts, such as opera. This refutes the idea that the plebs must necessarily love what is plebian: what is so natural for a regular person to love Elvis compared to Verdi: working people crooned both at different times in history while doing their menial tasks? Or what makes Mozart less popular than Rick Ross other than the marketing? Doesn’t our economic system have to create cultural crap just to stay afloat? There is nothing natural about the demand for such cultural dreck: it is manufactured like everything else.

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4 responses

20 07 2011
Anonymous

what is so natural for a regular person to love Elvis compared to Verdi: working people crooned both at different times in history while doing their menial tasks? Or what makes Mozart less popular than Rick Ross other than the marketing?

What is the range of appeal of Elvis and Rick Ross? I’d say that neither of them appeal to “regular people” so much as young people (or, in the case of Elvis, old people for whom Elvis is a reminder of their youth). It’s interesting that the truck driver you mention learned to love classical music from his father…when he was young. We live in a society built around a cult of youth, it seems to me. Even technology depends on young people who are born into each new invention. Elvis, New Kids on the Block, N’Sync, Britney Spears, 50 Cent, Justin Bieber…all of them have appeal to young people, until the young people move on to the next big thing. I don’t think that if Mozart were marketed like Rick Ross, kids would be lining up on iTunes to download Mozart. The cult of youth is more to blame than marketing. I’m interested to see what becomes of rap in the next few decades. There’s no such thing as old rappers. There are only great rappers who get old…will a 70 year old 50 Cent be wearing G-Unit shirts? Young people don’t have a serious adult culture to grow into, to inherit, like the truck driver inherited classical music.

21 07 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Youth sells, and young people buy things. I think you are making the same point from a different angle. Just look at all of those Viagra commercials. They’re rather disturbing if you think about it.

Though I have it on good authority that one four month old’s favorite song was this one. Though she was born in New Orleans, so she might just be supporting the home team.

20 07 2011
Leah

People say that the high arts (ballet, opera, orchestral music, fine arts) are expensive compared to other pursuits, but I would dispute that. Even the nosebleed seats for the last Lady Gaga concert cost about $200, but that didn’t stop her legions of teenage fans from going. In comparison, I got decent season tickets – a total of six concerts – to the 2011-12 season of the symphony for about $175. Aside from the cult of youth mentioned by anonymous, I blame the lack of music education in this country. Kids need to be socialized into understanding the arts like anything else. Of course, the parents of said kids also have atrocious taste in music, which they pass on to their offspring.

I don’t trust the market to ensure the continued existence of the arts. Just look at the cable television channels that started out being high brow. A&E and Bravo used to have interesting, classy show about history and the arts. Now they just churn out bottom of the barrel “reality” programs. I am more than willing to give money to some crazy performance artist via the National Endowment for the Arts if it means keeping the Metropolitan Opera and similar institutions funded.

21 04 2014
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