I used to want to live to be a hundred years old. It wasn’t just an idealistic notion, but a real possibility. My grandfather lived 99 years, my mother 97.
But the world has changed. At 67 years of age, I’m not particularly looking forward to 33 more years of being held captive in a world so different from that in which I grew up — a world that produced my values, my beliefs, my identity.
A sense of not belonging anymore is being fed daily by every exposure to contemporary life — news reports, politics, economics — but mainly by stark changes reflected in our art forms. What was known as art fifty years ago is only known by those who were alive back then, or to the esoteric few who bother to study art history.
“Culture” today has no connection to the culture of the past. A sensitivity for beauty has been replaced by a jarring “street” mentality. Junk art has replaced sculpted forms. The art of story telling is dying, as special effects replace plot and character development. Dramatic content has become bloated with crudity, immaturity, and banality.
For me personally, the greatest difference between today’s culture and the culture of our past is in the loss of the art of song. The song has been redefined from being melodically derived to becoming a beat-driven form. Song used to consist of a developed melody cradled in lush harmony and carried along on a heart-beat of rhythm. Today, the beat is the driving force of song. Harmony has less significance, and is used primarily in instruments supporting the beat. Similarly, melody has been reduced to short musical patterns, endlessly repeated, which emphasize the predominance of the rhythm.
The change in the structure of song reflects the cultural changes in social settings in which singing is done. In our old culture, it was more common for people to enjoy singing by itself, simply for the pleasure of the song. But in the new culture, singing is more often associated with a performance experience, such as a mega-concert, or with dancing at a club or party. And as an art form, dance itself has become increasingly less “refined” and more “primitive”. Influenced by Rap and Hip Hop, the popular enjoyment of body movement has become primarily expressive of sexuality and “street” pride, where dance used to embody more innocent and even noble messages.
I realize art has always expressed all the elements of human character, good and bad, high and low. But the change I have witnessed in my life-time is one of emphasis. Where most art used to emphasize the highest ideals, now most art wallows in harshness and reckless abandon. Add to this the intolerant, judgmental and even mocking attitude of today’s younger generations toward art forms of the past, and I feel quite alienated.
This morning as I was sipping my first cup of coffee, I sought solace from what is euphemistically called “the news”. I flipped through the channels until I came across the 1936 movie, “Rose Marie”, starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Maybe you’ve never heard of them. But back then, they were as big, as famous, as popular as one could be.
At first I watched the film in a distracted way, not really awake, not really in the mood. But soon, as Nelson Eddy began to sing, I experienced a flood of memories from when I was an aspiring baritone. Listening to his resonant tone, his superb vocal control, his clear diction and the apparent ease of his upper range, I began to identify with the singer’s experience — the use of technique to convey passion.
The greatest reward of singing for me was when someone would tell me how much they “liked my voice”. What they were really saying was that they had experienced the same feelings listening to the song that I had felt singing it — the same feelings the composer felt writing it. And that is the essence of art: separate lives sharing common passions through the connective talents and skills of the artist.
My memories, like the movie I was watching, were of an old style of song, and the singing was that of a bygone era — an era of love songs — something that would be considered sappy today, but then they were heart-felt, simple, direct and universal. Songs such as “Indian Love Call” expressed feelings that everyone dreamed about: “You belong to me. I belong to you”. They engendered a passion shared by audiences, regardless of social or cultural differences.
When I was a singer, I was particularly moved by that passion for life and love elicited by such songs. Now I feel separated, isolated, disconnected because the world has changed. Now I feel like a stranger, an outsider, someone who is irrelevant, a “stranger in a strange land” — someone more comfortable in a world that no longer exists.
In our culture and art today, love has become a victim. It’s a victim of sex, drugs and rock and roll, a victim of self-esteem, a victim of political correctness, a victim of multiculturalism, class envy, and every other form of social disunity that contributes to the breakdown of our cultural identity. As individuals, we have every opportunity to pursue any distraction in our attempt to fulfill our aspirations and satisfy our every desire.
But as a people, that is not enough, because a genuine love for one another has been buried in the grave of the past, along with modesty, circumspection, discipline, tolerance, forgiveness and accountability to the transcendent standards of an infinitely perfect God. That very God has been rejected by the world — a world that is not my home. I guess I’m just homesick.