Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

Can we have a new spectacle now? Please?

The old one is about as tired as the power grid that serves the Superdome.

Somewhere in the middle of Sunday night’s 34-minute third quarter power-outage delay, as reporters on the sidelines scrambled to get anything resembling credible information, it occurred to me that this unusual drama was more engaging as “entertainment” than the super-polished, beautifully staged Beyonce performance just concluded. Not that there was anything specifically wrong with the halftime show – this morning’s reviews praise the singer as “electrifying” (haha) and on her “A game” (groan).  In the context of a normal Super Bowl, it was flawlessly rendered, with precise camera angles and lighting cues nailed down to the nanosecond.

But what followed wasn’t normal, and as soon as the TV commentators had to go “off script” and yammer to fill time, there opened up a moment to ponder, in a “is this all there is?” way, the megawatt extravaganza we’d just witnessed. A cast of thousands doing yet another update on the line dancing routines we’ve loved since Michael Jackson and Madonna. A star looking invincible in designer threads and heels while executing proto-robotic choreography. A perfunctory reunion of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s old act. Solid, once-engaging hit songs reduced to puree inside a whirlwind medley. Somehow, despite her beauty and starpower and abundant energy, Beyonce seemed trapped inside an utterly canned, inevitably contrived mode of performance. When, in conclusion, she said “Thank you for this moment,” it was less about whatever had just transpired musically – because, let’s be real, the needle on the Excitement Meter barely moved – and more about further validation, a crowning ego moment, another exclusive stamp in the passport of a megastar.

And that’s boring. The images of half a stadium in darkness held more suspense, sparked more curiosity – was it an accident or the work of hackers? A philosopher might argue that Americans, hotwired for movies with lots of explosions and music with blazing nonstop hooks, get the mass spectacles they deserve: This kind of relentless show might actually be the only remaining way to enchant numb, overly entertained audiences. Still, when the power failed you couldn’t help but wonder how far the spontaneity-free empty spectacle thing, with staging considerations clearly outweighing musical ones, can go.

There was no mystery, nothing even particularly human, about the halftime show. And what followed was all too human, riddled with an unsettling sense of “what happens now?” You know things are out of whack when the lights going off in half of a stadium turns out to be more compelling than a gazillion lights blazing to perfection, in dazzling computer-coordinated sequence, exactly the way they did in rehearsal.

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Things I’ve Learned Returning to the Discipline of Music

For the last two years, I’ve been splitting my time between journalism endeavors and active music-making, returning to the saxophone after a long period of not playing. I’ve had the chance to explore music with strong individuals who know exactly what they want to communicate and exactly how to do it. They’ve been teaching me. Music itself has been teaching me. It’s been an amazing journey, humbling every day because music is endless. A month or so ago, I stumbled upon a notebook I kept while working on Into The Ojala, a recording of my originals. (Sample available here.) It struck me that some of the small observations had resonance beyond my own situation, and that it might be interesting to share them once in a while. So, here goes…
People can become unnerved by music played at a whisper. It’s rare to encounter soft, pianissimo-style dynamics in clubs or taverns — anywhere, really. Maybe quiet music asks too much, demands more attention than a casual listener can give? Maybe the less-is-more aesthetic is another casualty of this too-much-information age?

The Shelf is trying to tell you something…..

I didn’t expect my nonfiction bookshelf to seem so dated.

On the hunt for a factoid in Ruy Castro’s excellent history Bossa Nova (published 2000) yesterday, I traveled past some beloved titles:

Agee on Film Vol. 1, a collection of the wonderfully rangey criticism of James Agee, first published in 1958.

Signposts in a Strange Land, the essays of novelist Walker Percy, published in 1991.

How to Read a Book, an updated version of the classic guide to intelligent reading by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, published in 1972.

American Singers, a collection of portraits by New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett, published in 1988.

How Fiction Works, James Woods’ enormously entertaining examination of the elements and strategies used by novelists, published in 2008.

 

Looking at the covers, I began to wonder: Would this book get signed up right now? Does it have a prayer in the Kindle store? It’s not difficult to imagine the conference room discussions at the top publishing houses were these under consideration today: “Face it, nobody reads essays anymore.” “Brazilian music, that’s something your parents liked.” “The writing’s great, but does anyone really care about those movies today?” “What need does this book answer?” And on and on.

Which is why even a relatively current work – Woods’ 2008 volume – can seem to hail from a whole ‘nuther era, a higher-faluting time when an editor somewhere thought it prudent to share one sharp reader’s observations. Of course there’s a ton of spirited and highly inventive narrative non-fiction on the shelves, but the abovementioned titles are concerned with something other than “story” – they’re essays and meditations and histories that offer a different kind of reading experience. Which means these ambitious and praiseworthy undertakings are bound for the dusty back room at the library. They just don’t sync up with our Snooki moment.

I’m wondering if they’re relics. And if so, is this troubling? Should it be? What implication does this have for writers, creators, thinkers? One disheartening answer can be found in another now-classic on the shelf: Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published in 1985.