Music tastes, “fervent eclecticism,” and cultural omnivores

A review of the new TV series High Fidelity suggests musical snobbery has changed:

So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”

Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.

This reminds me of sociological research on “cultural omnivores”:

The term cultural omnivorousness was first introduced to the cultural consumption literature by Richard Peterson, in 1992, to refer to a particular cultural appreciation profile. According to his definition, this profile emerged in the late 20th century, in accordance with macro changes experienced in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Omnivorous consumers have an increased breadth of cultural taste and a willingness to cross established hierarchical cultural genre boundaries. In other words, the concept refers to a taste profile that includes both highbrow and lowbrow genres…The omnivore thesis is extremely important for contemporary cultural theory because it pushes researchers to scrutinize the current status of the relationship between culture and power. The contributors to this debate have provided competing answers to the following crucial questions: What is the strength and direction of the association between socioeconomic status and cultural taste? Are we witnessing the decomposition of cultural-class boundaries and snobbishness? How far does cultural omnivorousness bring tolerance and cultural inclusion? These questions, asked within the debate, demonstrate the concept’s significance for our understanding of sociocultural change. Many case studies have shown that eclectic repertoires are more likely to be embodied by the educated middle classes. Peterson himself argued that the employment market has begun to seek this kind of wide-range awareness and cultural inclusiveness. It seems that being a true omnivore requires certain skills, investment, and prior cultural knowledge, which can be translated into advantages in other social fields. Moreover, empirical research is now sufficient enough to show that omnivores are selective and they show little tolerance for the genres associated with lower social/cultural status. Therefore, this repertoire may very well be considered a new form of distinction—a strategy the economically and culturally advantaged use to “make” their identity and distinguish themselves from others.

In short, research shows that tastes in music and other realms is connected to social class. A way to differentiate your tastes from someone else is to have a wider repertoire, particularly for those with resources. Extending this review a bit, then perhaps cultural omnivorousness has spread from those with educational and financial capital to broader segments of society. Could being a cultural omnivore be something more people now aspire to or admire?

Becoming a cultural omnivore and expressing this in daily life is another avenue worth exploring. In High Fidelity, this took place within a record shop where selling music provided the backdrop for ongoing conversations about music. In daily life today, cultural omnivores or those who want to be might have different experiences. Is it easier to be an omnivore with all the streaming music services that allow access to different artists, genres, and songs? While the music supply has expanded, where do conversations about music or extended interactions regarding music now take place?

Finally, fitting these kinds of tastes in music and other cultural products with broader senses of identity (race, gender, class, etc.) could be fascinating. Is being a cultural omnivore still elitist or tied to particular kinds of people? Or, are there multiple ways to be a cultural omnivore that draw on different identities?

“Live from Des Moines and Miami”: twin spectacles of our time

At the gym a few days ago, I saw this headline about the temporary location of a morning news show: “Live from Des Moines and Miami.” The Iowa caucuses on Monday and the Super Bowl today in Miami share some characteristics:

1. Weeks and months of hype. The Super Bowl does not get as much lead up since the participants have only been known for two weeks but both are highly anticipated events. The Iowa caucuses only happen every four years so the combination this year is not normal.

2. The media attention paid to both. Even as they come at different parts of their respective processes – the caucuses come after a lot of campaigning and debates and then kick off primary season while the game concludes a popular NFL year – they are great material for news reports, opinion leaders, and everyone else in the media who might not always care about politics or football.

3. Competition and winners and losers. A football game has a clear winner and loser (though more unusual circumstances might cast a doubt on the victors). The caucuses are not so clear as the outcome requires interpretation but everyone will be looking to name the winners and losers once the voting outcome is known.

4. The entertainment value of it all. The football game is more clearly entertainment – it is just a game after all – but politics is in this camp these days as well. Both events are exciting and at least this year relatively close. With all this tension building, why not locate a morning show to live work from Des Moines and Miami?

In sum, these events seem to go together: the largest American sporting event takes place tonight and the fate of the free world/the most important election of our time/the race to beat the incumbent president really takes off tomorrow. For those who will be watching and broadcasting, may they be entertaining and full of high ratings.

Depicting heaven, hell, and in between through mid-century modern, the 1980s, and the Getty Center

The creators of The Good Place aimed to create a specific aesthetic for the locations on the show:

Rowe: There’s a signature that is heavily inspired by mid-century modern. Not just because it looks cool and clean, but because [the creative team] made a very deliberate dedication to a certain style per world. So the ’80s were the Medium Place. The Mad Men era was the Bad Place. The heightened, more European, I would say, version of that influenced the backlot. Dan Bishop created that cute, charming, endearing vibe from European villages. Those ice-cream colors and those colorful pops in our flowers—those defined what the rest of the world would look like.

It’s very important to point out that [Ted Danson’s character] Michael was an architect, and that was a character choice from Mike Schur that influenced everything from there. What architect going to school, at any stage doesn’t love mid-century modern? Plus the age of the actor—he’s all dressed up. If he was designing kooky ’80s architecture or ’70s skyscrapers, I don’t know if those would fit.

The focus on European villages gets at some features of desirable places: existing at a human scale, full of street-level activity including food and shopping alongside people talking and walking, and a relatively small set of people. (One feature of these some villages that might be missing on the TV show: the homes seem to be set apart from the village area, separating home and work.) While the village streetscape could be part of a larger city (perhaps each neighborhood or district has a village area like this), it hints at more small-town life. Residing in smaller-scale villages might fit better with human history than the substantial urbanization of the last two centuries. At the same time, we view big cities as centers of progress and human achievement. Perhaps the choice of villages hints at human desires for social connections and a human scale rather than big cities. (But Michael’s depiction is not what it seems – so is this commentary about European villages?)

As for heaven itself:

Rowe: When heaven showed up, it was pretty much unanimous right away that they wanted to shoot at the Getty [Center, an art museum in Los Angeles]. There was a lot of discussion that happened to help the Getty get on board, because obviously they have a brand they want to protect. The location manager went and said, “It’s a show about heaven, and we’re showing the Getty as a place of paradise.”

We actually didn’t do that many things there, because the architecture speaks for itself. People breeze through that museum, and you can ask them, “Oh, did you see any paintings?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I kinda saw the modern stuff upstairs, but I was basically outside the whole time.”

The Getty Center is indeed a unique building and it connects modern architecture, gardens, and a view overlooking Los Angeles. As an oasis set apart from the Los Angeles bustle, I could see how it would be compared to heaven:

Getty2

Comparing depictions of heaven across time and cultures could prove to be a fun exercise. How much do the depictions reflect contemporary tastes or standards? If the architects of today or those with architectural knowledge generally like mid-century modern, this is what they might prefer heaven to look like. Would Christians throughout the United States agree? There have been too many depictions of clouds for that not to show up somewhere and ancient Greek architecture – familiar to Americans in a number of important buildings including government structures – might be popular. Would heaven look more like the nondescript suburban megachurches of today or more like a Gothic cathedral? Or, would Americans prefer heaven to look like mansions in a well-kept suburb or prefer it to be more about nature? And global depictions would likely differ significantly from these options.

Argument of the movie Yesterday: Beatles songs would wow everyone regardless of who performs them or when they are performed

The movie Yesterday takes away all knowledge of the Beatles and their music and puts the songs into the mouth and guitar of regular musician Jack Malik. And the music previously unknown becomes massively popular.

Ignoring the other parts of the plot, this is an interesting basic argument: the songs of the Beatles, their music, is so good that it can be put it a different time period and with a solo singer-songwriter and they can create a stir. Is this true? What made the Beatles such a phenomena? A few of the popular theories that have been debated for nearly six decades:

  1. They came at the right time and right place. Rock music already existed (see Elvis) but the Beatles energized people in a different way. The broader cultural milieu was open to them in a new way: from Britain needed a cheeky group in a period of still trying to dig out of the aftermath of World War Two to Americans wanting a diversion from the Kennedy assassination to a postwar adolescent generation looking for heroes.
  2. The sum of the parts – some talent among the individual members of the Beatles – added up to something spectacular. This is a good analogy to what sociologists would say about social groups or social networks: these collectives can do things that individuals on their own cannot. The Beatles together, the combination of their skills and thoughts, made something magical.
  3. The Beatles made multiple advances in music, ranging from original songwriting to psychedelic sounds to innovations in the recording studio to excellent songs. They started with songs like “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You” and made numerous changes along the way.
  4. The songs themselves are simply good. The combined songwriting talents of Lennon and McCartney plus the development of Harrison made music that has stood the test of time.

All together, few bands or musical acts have made music where such a film could be made. It is hard to imagine a world without the music of any number of major musical acts but the reach and influence and staying power of the Beatles is hard to match.

Cities standing in for other cities in films and TV shows

A longer discussion of how holiday films treat big cities includes information on where these films are made:

The irony, of course, is that these movies that portray the cruel hustle of big cities and the virtues of small-town life are filmed in big cities that get high marks for livability. Christmas Town, like many products of the holiday rom-com industrial complex, was shot in the made-for-cable Christmas movie wonderland of Vancouver, British Columbia, which boasts an abundance of studios and proximity to a variety of urban and rural shooting locations. Vancouver is also a perennial high-scorer in urban happiness and well-being rankings, a place that Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery singles out for praise in his book Happy City. (As this first-hand report from the Christmas Town shoot reveals, conditions on set were somewhat less magical: Filmed on a suburban backlot during a heat wave, the movie used leftover ice from Vancouver’s fish markets as a stand-in for snow.)

Other films rely on Toronto, another Canadian metro with enviable livability scores, to play the urban heavy; while certain landmarks may stand out to local viewers, the mostly American Christmas-movie audience is none the wiser. They’re too busy inhaling the on-screen, small-town romance that Hallmark and its kin have carefully crafted to make us believe miracles happen—just not in the big city.

Many films are made in these locations given the cost of filming in Canada versus the United States as well as the ability of these Canadian cities to stand in for many American cities.

Instead of looking at just holiday films, how many American viewers notice anything amiss when they are actually looking at Vancouver and Toronto on the screen? Would they even notice? Between the use of different cities plus the use of backlots, a good number of television shows and films may include very few to no shots from the location depicted on-screen.

Does this matter in the long run for viewers? On one hand, not at all. Relatively few on-screen depictions of places actually involve much unique material from those places. Think of the average television show: the activity largely takes place within buildings – homes, offices, restaurants/coffee shops, and the like – and involves a limited set of characters. The show may be set in a prominent location yet it could take place in any large city (outside of some establishing shots or an occasional reference to local culture). On the other hand, seeing deplaced places – generic cities and neighborhoods – suggests every place is similar. Does it matter that Full House took place in San Francisco or How I Met Your Mother took place in New York City? Not really. An on-screen big city is largely like any other on-screen big city.

If holiday films need generic cities and neighborhoods, Vancouver and Toronto can work. If they truly wanted unique locations and let those locations help drive the plot – such that a story from Omaha would differ from one in Phoenix or Charleston – then the movies themselves would be richer and more complex.

Kevin McCallister of Home Alone does not live in a McMansion

From a Buzzfeed list of tweets about Home Alone, here is one that considers the primary setting for the movie:

HomeAloneMcMansion

While the house may appear to be a McMansion because of its size and suburban settings, there are multiple pieces of evidence to counter this (compiled from multiple websites including fancypantshomes.com, themirror.co.uk, and census.gov:

1. The home was constructed in 1920. This construction predates McMansions by roughly six decades.

2. The home sold in 2012 for just over $1.5 million. This is beyond the price of most McMansions.

3. The home does not suffer from the architectural issues facing many McMansions (likely because it was built in 1920): it has a consistent brick facade, a symmetrical front, and not too many gables.

4. The home is not in a suburb with residents striving to look wealthy; this is a wealthy suburb with a median household income of $220,000 for its over 12,000 residents.

5. Because this is an older and smaller suburb, it is indeed possible to walk from the McCallister house to downtown which is less than half a mile away. It is possible to have big houses located in walkable neighborhoods (which is part of the appeal for some teardowns in older suburban neighborhoods).

Kevin McCallister lives in a big house, a house for wealthy people, but it is not a McMansion. The primary setting for Home Alone is a large and older single-family home far beyond the reach of most Americans and located within a walkable and wealthy suburb.

Designing your own Peytonville, Part 5

In a new iteration of the Peytonville commercials from Nationwide, Peyton is in the big city that loomed at the edge of his region:

peytonville5.jpg

This is one broad avenue with at least four lanes of traffic and it looks like there are bike lanes on each side. There are plenty of trees on wide sidewalks. The buildings are not that tall and are setback a ways. They primarily look like newer structures – glass facades – with some older buildings (or at least structures clad with bricks).

Is this a typical American big city? This view looks like either a sprawling city found in the Sunbelt or a smaller big city in the Midwest.

Is this meant to be an inviting image? My first thought is that this is a city built for cars and not people or pedestrians. With such wide streets, the scale is slightly off (even though the sizes of the buildings showed here do not overwhelm the streetscape). For example, crossing the street at this traffic light would take some time.

I wonder what kind of urbanism Peyton Manning prefers. Would he prefer a college town? A mid-sized big city like he played in during his NFL career?