Kurt Andersen is someone who has earned our attention. Largely responsible for the success of SPY magazine, a seminal confluence of the celebrity/media snark and satire zeitgeist in the mid-80s, Andersen went on to create the short-lived but equally iconoclastic website/magazine “Inside”. He’s published a couple critically acclaimed novels with a third teed up for next summer. He also hosts NPR’s weekly arts and culture program, “Studio 360”. He is, in short, one of the smart kids in the class. (He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard where, yes, he was an editor for the “Lampoon”.)
MPR’s Marianne Combs had Andersen on last Friday to discuss his article in the latest Vanity Fair, titled, “You Say You Want a Devolution”. The gist of it is Andersen’s view/belief that America’s creative culture is in a retrograde phase unlike anything in any generation since the industrial revolution. Fashion? Nothing significant since the late ’80s. Architecture? Nothing nearly as bold and as emphatic a statement of this era as the Empire State Building and Grand Central were of their’s. Music? Lady Gaga is today’s recycled Madonna with weirder costumes. Film? What happened to that explosion of creativity in the early Seventies, when we had “A Clockwork Orange” and “Klute”.
Wait a minute? “Klute”? Jane Fonda as a high-priced hooker? I missed the explosive revolution in that one.
Reading the piece in its entirety it’s pretty obvious that there is no science here and the whole argument is a lot like a couple of football nerds arguing who is the better quarterback, Dan Marino or Aaron Rodgers? Basically it’s just Andersen firing off 1500 words to provoke an argument. But since it is Kurt Andersen there is an argument worth having. Especially when he wanders into how large-scale corporate research and marketing focuses — with high precision — on the most profitable demographic, pours on more of what they want most, re-branding it as “classic” and selling, both subtly and directly, the “nostalgia” appeal of the latest pop idol or re-imagined muscle car. The insinuation being that culture-rattling boldness, creativity of a kind that shocks and momentarily discombobulates audiences and before setting a standard for a generation kind of got co-opted by the giant conglomerates that control the marketing end of “art”.
In truth, callers into Comb’s show made several points more interesting and provocative than Andersen. But having covered media in one way or another since pretty much the dawn of Andersen’s retrograde era, 20 years ago, I have some sympathy for his argument. If pop music is in a static phase, with nothing anywhere (of any mass) having the impact of rock’s ’60s-’70s glory days, or Springsteen in the ’80s, or hip-hop in the early ’90s, the manipulations and decision-making of record execs, most answering to the shareholders of major media corporations are a bona fide subject for indictment. Expand that complaint to the numbing blandness of commercial radio through the past 20 years, a period most notable for gross consolidation and an ever-heavier reliance on corporate-generated play lists, voice-tracking “local jocks” and syndicated talent, and you see why something bold and unusual, much less revolutionary, rarely if ever cuts through the research-tested maximum-middle ground formula.
Predictably, as I drove west across sun-swept, snowless Minnesota to pick up Mom for a Christmas visit, I wondered how much big media marketing, looking to mine the rich ore of “classic” and “nostalgia” (essentially interchangeable concepts) has colored the past 20-plus years of political values.
Watching the strategies of all but maybe one of the Republican candidates trying to appeal to the party’s base in Iowa, I continue to return to the explanation that what the base wants most in its candidate is the person who sounds most like their favorite radio host –by that I mean pugnacious, scornful of everything liberal, supremely self-assured (and beyond direct intellectual challenge). Hence the brief spikes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. Each of them delivered, or purported to deliver, the same kind of “classic nostalgia” that has been the essential, research-tested, carefully target-marketed mien of talk radio since the introduction of Rush Limbaugh — via heavily consolidated syndication — 20 years ago. They present themselves as avatars for classic American values — unequivocal patriotism (of a specific militarized variety), a 1950s vision of familial propriety (before a black middle class, single working mothers and, gasp!, kids with two mommies) and an intense resistance to change (especially if suggests social peerage with those previously regarded as of a lower class).
I’ve thought for some time that this particular election cycle represents a moment of apogee for this kind of talk radio mentality. It had a great deal to do with Gingrich’s glory moment in 1994, but it floundered as a result of overreach, Bill Clinton’s more adroit/less toxic-feeling political instincts and a booming economy. The “movement” recovered its balance — and as syndication and the development of FoxNews delivered the “classic nostalgia” message to every market in the land — asserted ever more sway over the only receptive party, the Republicans, until its crowning moment in 2010, hyper-galvanized by Kenyan Muslim Barack Obama hero-worshipped into the White House.
What we’re waiting to see now is whether that retrograde nostalgia mentality takes one more step next fall — not with a Mitt Romney winning the presidency as much as the nostalgist anti-revolutionaries capturing both houses of Congress and completely shutting off any avenue for … change.