Friday, September 20, 2013

Vizsla v. the Myth of High and Low Culture

Quite frequently I use Youtube as my own personal radion station.  I do this for two reasons -

-I don't understand how Spotify works

-No matter what song you're looking for, it's pretty good odds some wistful teenager has used it as a backdrop for a terribly earnest fan video about the Vampire Diaries.

So the other day I was listening to Vicodin by Terra Naomi - which is a really lovely little song about the interconnection of loneliness and addiction and totally worth a few minutes of your time - when I noticed that it is in fact a four chord song.

For those who didn't get caught up in the Axis of Awesome video that was all over the Internet a while back - the basic observation is that just about every pop song of the last 40 years is the same four chords in the same pattern (E, B, C#, A if you want to try it at home.)

Now, this is actually true.  The starting point that AoA used in their example is Don't Stop Believin' by Journey, but other notable examples include When I come Around by Green Day, Tomorrow Wendy by either Andy Preiboy or Concrete Blond, Let it Be by the Beatles, Stay Tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry, and many, many others.

The only occasionally unspoken subtext behind the 4-chord song theory is that songs falling in that pattern are somehow 'cheaper' or 'less' than songs that don't.  This in turn ties into a broader belief held by a section (if not the majority) of the population that anything widely popular has less cultural merit than things that aren't.  This is the basic belief behind the notion that there is a difference between 'high' and 'low' culture.

Case in point - Shakespeare's The Tempest is 'High' culture because we were told that Shakespeare is 'Art' when we were in school, and because almost no one has ever gone to see a production of it.  On the other hand, 'Married, With Children', to pick a random example, is 'Low' culture, because it appeals to the unwashed masses and is therefore not 'art'.

This is obviously bullshit.  For one thing, Shakespeare's work was specifically written to appeal to as much of the masses as possible ever bit as much as Married, With Children was.  It's sort of how he paid for little things like food and shelter. 

The difference between the two isn't whether one is more 'art' than the other (all writing is, by definition.  The question is whether it's good art or not )  The difference is that The Tempest is very well written and Married, with Children was written incredibly lazily.  This isn't a shot at sitcom writing in general - Compare any random episode of M,wC to any random episode of Modern Family (for as Apples to Apples comparison as possible thanks to the Ed O'Neill through-line) and you'll see what a difference a talented writing staff who are actually putting in the effort can make.

To sum up -

-There is no such thing as 'High' or Low' culture.  There's only things are are done well and things that aren't.


-It's a mistake to ever confuse popularity with quality.  We do a pretty good job of remembering that just because something isn't popular doesn't mean it's bad, but we tend to forget that the opposite is also true.

Now go learn those four chords and start a rock band.

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