by carl wilson

I Miss the Tyrant

beatles-sullivansmall.jpg tvdinnersmall.gif

The most quotable quote from this year's EMP Pop Conference was probably Robert Christgau confessing, "I miss the monoculture" - that storied (and arguably mythic) time when "everyone" listened to the same songs, watched the same shows, and so on. A similar sentiment animated the TVO's Studio 2 The Agenda panel I did in April, asking what ever happened to the big hits that "everybody" danced to.

Leave it to this week's Cat and Girl to provide the counterargument.

It makes me imagine a fable ending with this dialogue:

"I miss the tyrant," the old hero sighed.
"But you killed the tyrant!" his young disciples cried.
"At least under the tyrant," he replied, "we all knew who needed killing."

Okay, a fable or maybe a prog-rock song.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, May 28 at 1:11 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)



Those who equate monoculture with dull blandness are getting it wrong. Back in the day, there may have been only one AM radio station to get your music from, but that station played Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Hugh Masekela, Dusty Springfield, Dave Brubeck, T-Rex and Frank Sinatra back to back. People needed a wider tolerance to different musics back then. Today people can comfortably immerse themselves in only what they like and never be exposed to new and different things.

Posted by shabba rich on June 9, 2008 12:06 PM



Also - monoculture ruined Nirvana.

Posted by Chandler on June 1, 2008 10:06 PM



I'm 21 and a relatively recent discoverer of dominant music (and it's ideology.) I agree with what you had to say in the Agenda - that young people within "my generation" (I like to label it X&Y; - like the Coldplay album) are almost doubly informed of genres and musical history from then and now because the internet has infinitely opened up our accesibility to unlimited music. With my music geek friends it's all about mix tapes from Africa, the new Mariah album and rare Pavement reissues, with friends that watch American Idol unironically, they are discovering Teagan and Sara through Grey's Anatomy episodes and what Seth Cohen namedropped on the O.C.

Just because everything is fragmented and music is at a disjuncture doesn't mean that the new Madonna single won't reach a pressure point. It just means that those big cultural touchtones (of which "Umbrella" was played over and over again) have reach an audience through a number of media avenues. Maybe you hear it on the radio, then during a montage on "Real World: Williamsburg", then in a Telus commercial, and finally it seeps through on a Pitchfork mixtape and ends up on the other side of the "Pazz & Jop" poll. Music still has the capability to reach the masses even if Capitol Records goes bankrupt. But you also find anomalies - 12 year olds know who MGMT is months before 55 year old Upper West Siders read about them in the New York Times. And both those subsets love Alicia Keyes.

Personally though - my Grade 9 mix CD's are at a total disparity, NSYNC's "Gone" next to "Hey Ya!" next to the Pixies "Here Comes Your Man." I think we're trained to be more musically carniverous now - there's no longer any excuse to "hate country." Especially if it's sampled in a Kayne West remix.

Steve Paikin seemed to side on "monoculture" but what's good about that? Social change can be enacted by a variety of mediums now that encorporate hit singles into their retellings. Think of all those self-created TV show montages with Death Cab For Cutie singles. An 11 year old did that - and that's petrifying.

Posted by Chandler on June 1, 2008 10:01 PM



To be clear, songles - it wasn't a spontaneous, unconsidered remark. It was part of a paper that he'd written (about John Mayer's politics, incidentally) - and I should explain that he also said, "I understand that we can't have it [the monoculture] back and that there are reasons why we shouldn't."

EDIT: Actually, according to an interesting post by Phil Ford (
), it was part of the Q&A; session, so I'm wrong - it was spontaneous, though I think he meant it.

And Stuart of course you're right, but I think the Cat & Girl cartoon is right to say that you only can have the level of "consensus" that the Beatles moment recalls if you exclude both diverse/opposing voices and in general have a very low level of choice on every cultural level. C&G;'s image of TV dinners recalled for me Doug Saunders' essay in the Globe about what Canada was really like at the time of Expo '67 - very white, dull, male and hardscrabble. Expo, Elvis, the Beatles, etc, were exciting because they signaled coming changes, not because they were typical - and that might be the only moment where you get an exciting monoculture: when everybody senses that it's about to break up.

(Doug's piece:

Posted by zoilus on May 29, 2008 1:52 PM



Without context it's hard to tell if he was serious or not. "Existential crisis" for the Dean? - maybe - but you'd think Christgau would rather enjoy the fresh challenge of fitting all of this modern pop into his unified theory.

Maybe he was tired.

Posted by songles on May 29, 2008 12:50 PM



As someone in their mid-early thirties, I feel like I was part of the last generation to have a canon dictated to me -- when I was getting into punk rock, I turned to certain texts and writers, and there was a general consensus about what the 20 essential albums were. Whether or not you believe in lists and canonization, their existence at least provides a foundation from which to explore outward and relate back to. (By contrast, if you asked 10 critics what they felt were the best indie-rock albums or best electro jams of 2007 were, I imagine you'd get 10 very different lists.) If you believe that the experience of listening to and enjoying music is enhanced when it's a shared experience, then I can understand a certain nostalgia for monoculture. And if one of the main jobs of a critic is to contextualize the music he or she is writing about in relation to the culture around it, that job becomes more difficult and (gasp!) meaningless as the culture becomes more fragmented. So, I imagine Christgau's comment stems more from a music critic existential crisis than a hankering for TV dinners and wide ties.

Posted by stuberman on May 29, 2008 11:59 AM



I'm not as old as Christgau, but I'm old enough to have lived in both worlds. I also know a lot of people my age (51) who miss the monocultural experience. Not me. Not a bit. Not for a second. It's also worth remembering that as indisputably great as some of the cultural products of that era were -- the Beatles, maybe more than Swanson TV dinners -- their exalted status is forever amplified by the monopolistic nature of the exposure. I remember when wide, gawdy ties were the fashion. My father, who never would have thought to wear one, kept getting them as presents and finally was goaded into putting one on. That wouldn't happen today. At least it wouldn't happen to me, now that I'm as old as he was then. Monoculture had a tyrannical quality. And it's dead forever. Given the choice we'd never choose someone else's preferences over our own. Assuming we're individual enough to have preferences.

Posted by vfw on May 29, 2008 7:22 AM



Christgau has always been anti-nostalgia, so it's poignant to see nostalgia finally get to him after all these years.

Some people plump for "American Idol" as cultural unifier. But is American Idol musically unifying, or is it dramatically unifying?

Posted by john on May 28, 2008 8:11 PM



asking what ever happened to the big hits that "everybody" danced to.

Soulja Boy must not have told 'em.

Posted by Dave on May 28, 2008 3:59 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson