Friday, May 11, 2012

A little light culture: Revisiting Lady Lazarus

One of the things that I do to keep myself sane is to remind myself every once in a while that any political party that really represented my interests would be lucky to get one percent of the vote. When elections roll around, I don't go looking for anyone to represent me but rather pick the candidate who seems the least of the evils available that year.

A similar lesson should apply when it comes to culture. I love Mad Men and so do lots of other people but three percent of the television audience would be a huge audience for the show. Most people don't watch and they don't care. AMC, the network that produces the show, seriously considered not renewing it this year. They aren't losing money on it but they could probably make more from some other alternative. It could be cancelled anytime. For all we know AMC executives may have already decided that this is the last year.

But even if the show were as big as the Beatles it wouldn't matter that much. Cultural events rarely amount to anything political. A revolution that could be televised wouldn't be revolutionary.

Which brings me to NPR's Ann Powers who is rather miffed at the fact that Don Draper didn't like the Beatles tune he listened to. And the sentence she starts off with his telling:
Don Draper sure has a lot of power for a fictional character.
Meaning what? I suspect that it means that for Powers we're in a culture war and she is terrified Don is on the other side. She worries that he has a huge influence on how some young people are going to understand the sixties and how we understand the sixties is going to have a huge effect on the culture wars. Powers is worried that all the cool kids watching the show are going to think less of the Beatles and psychedelia because Don Draper pulled the needle up and walked away unimpressed. She may even be right.

Relevant disclosure: I sure hope so. Reading her piece on the subject gave me new hope that the series is going somewhere worthwhile this year after all. The only thing for sure is that the show is going to disappoint someone. It will either disappoint Ann Powers and people like her or it will disappoint me and people like me. We'll see. The fortunate thing is that it doesn't matter. Nothing really important hangs on the outcome. I'm not sure, though, that Ann Powers sees it that way. I suspect that rather a lot hangs on it for her.

But let's take a  deep breath and consider a few important facts. Let's start with Mad Men itself.
Never in the entire history of the show has it managed to attract more than one percent of North Americans. Walk down the street and remind yourself that most people you pass not only don't watch the show, the vast majority have never seen a single episode.

Now consider the Beatles. They had a much larger impact than Mad Men but most people alive in 1966 did not buy Beatles records. They were aware of the Beatles because they got a lot of news coverage and radio airplay and there was very little choice in music in those days. For most people that year the Beatles meant the two sided single with "Eleanor Rigby" and "Yellow Submarine".

Very few people bought Reviolver and even fewer sat around listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows" and the ones who did were oddballs and geeks.

But that shouldn't stop us. I mean, come on kids, Hey, hey they're the the Beatles! Lets listen to it backwards maybe it will make more sense! Or maybe not. Here is the couplet that we hear just before Don pulls the plug:
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
Oooh deep. Well no, it's fatuous tripe, sophomoric and shallow right to its core. And sophomoric on acid doesn't make it any better. I know, it's not nice to point this out but it's true.

Let's back back to a few facts.
  • Two years after te release of Revolver  Nixon was elected president. He won an even bigger majority the next time. Watergate deflated that for a while but Carter was a one termer and he was followed by Reagan.
  • The late 1960s would provoke a huge normalcy backlash. In 1971, The Waltons would debut on TV and it would be one of the most popular shows on television for the next decade. A few years later it would be followed by the movie American Graffiti and the TV series Happy Days. Not only would these shows reach a huge audience, they would reach that audience with a sustained narrative. 
  • The Beatles, OTOH, reached people with a lot of songs that could be easily separated from narratives people didn't like. With that in mind, which of the following sets of Beatles songs do you think reached the greatest number of people at the time and since?
  1. "Tomorrow Never Knows", "She said, She said", "The Walrus", "Strawberry Fields", and "Come Together".
  2. "Yesterday", "Eleanor Rigby", "When I'm 64", "Hey Jude", and "Something".
  • For years and years after 1966, Madison Avenue went on making millions of dollars selling cigarettes, Jello, Canadian Club, Oldsmobile 98s, Kraft Dinner, Revlon, Swanson TV Dinners. No matter how important they are to you, all of those products had a bigger cultural impact than the Beatles.
And that is why Don Draper makes the right choice to pull the needle up and go to bed. No matter what they taught you in the Pop Culture course you took at university because you needed an easy A, the Beatles did not, as Ann Powers seems to think, transform, "pop marketing as much as music".

No comments:

Post a Comment