The marketplace doesn’t adjudicate the quality of art or pop culture – it does no more than offer an aggregate snapshot of the trillions of subjective preferences acted upon by consumers. That snapshot, in 2013, tells us that when it comes to “Bread and Circuses,” Rome and its provinces wallow in the same lowbrow popular culture.
Incidentally, to judge the quality of a cultural product is not to begrudge the preferences of the people who purchase it. It is simply to apply timeless, objective standards in assessing these products.
In its salient features, the Commander In Chief’s Ball resembles the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. There, some of the most pretentious, worthless people in the country – in politics, journalism and entertainment – convene to revel in their ability to petition and curry favor with one another, usually to the detriment of the people, whether the latter know it or not.
By and large, when it comes to entertainment, the people and the elites are on the same empty page – most of the musicians whose products they patronize, or with whom they fraternize, can’t read music, much less play it.
“Grammy and Academy Award winner” Jennifer Hudson, to whose primal screams the president and first lady attempted to dance, doesn’t sing; she screams. Voice coaches once considered the Hudson brand of “vocal wobble” a deficiency in technique and talent. But then, “Why be a musician, when you can be a success?” Such cacophony currently plays to full houses. It is to their credit that the First Couple smoothed the noise over with some smooth moves.
“We all know Beyoncé can sing,” came the response from inaugural organizers to the rumors that the singing sensation lip-synched to “The Star Spangled Banner.” Beyoncé is another performer who distinguishes herself with an obscene bump-and-grind routine and a din of discordant, jarring yelps.
We know not definitively whether Beyoncé merely moved her mouth to a prerecorded version of the national anthem, but much like babies banging on a play-play piano, the nation is preoccupied with the matter.
We do know this: As a studio musician close to home has explained to me, the T&A line-up at the Inaugural and Commander In Chief’s Balls would be reduced to embarrassing grunts, out-of-tune yelling and bedroom whispers, if not for the magic of Auto-Tune, which is the “holy grail of recording.” Auto-Tune “corrects intonation problems in vocals or solo instruments, in real time, without distortion or artifacts.”
Auto-Tune technology is what makes a cast of vain ventriloquists like Katy Perry and Glee what it is.
More sounds that curdled the air were those of Alicia Keys pounding on the piano keys.
“Obama’s on Fire. Obama’s on Fire,” the smirking Ms. Keys chanted tunelessly over and over again. The tradition of a praise singer or a tribal poet laureate still flourishes in Africa. But the tribal poet, unlike Keys, is a splendid performing artist. I know. I’ve seen him in my native South Africa convey the glory of the African savanna – even bring to life moribund leaders – with mesmerizing words and movement.
To sing well, you need a finely tuned instrument and musicality. An example of such an instrument is Carly Simon’s voice in this live performance of “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be – 1972.” Hers is an evocative and nuanced voice. As to the lyrics, you’d have to be both literate and complex to write as evocatively.
To counter the assault on the ears popularized even further by the current White House, do lend an ear to the opera group “Seven,” singing the National Anthem at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 30, 2012.
However, the National Anthem – the words to which were written in the aftermath of the Battle against the British, at Fort McHenry, Sept. 14, 1814 – is not much of an antidote to the ugliness of the Inaugural soiree.