Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In The Barring-gaffner of Bagnialto, or This Year’s Masterpiece—one of several story synopses in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions—a government official spins a wheel to assign cash value to works of art submitted by the citizenry. The wheel lands on a painting of a house cat by Gooz, a humble cobbler who had never painted before. The simplistic portrait is appraised at eighteen thousand lambos, or one billion earth dollars. Crowds flock to see it at the National Gallery. Meanwhile, a bonfire consumes all the statues, paintings, and books the wheel has deemed worthless.
This satirical vignette highlights the disproportionate and arbitrary role of industry officials (governmental and corporate) in determining aesthetic values and tastes. The top-down model lampooned in the parable is not distant from commercial radio stations that weed out music before it ever reaches our ears. Cultural critics contend that decisions to promote or bury certain songs too often rely on extra-musical factors: image, celebrity, markets, studio backing, etc. This results in a homogenized soundscape, where listeners have limited volition over the music they hear. In Vonnegut’s hyper-cynical scenario, a completely random process shapes the masses’ artistic sensibilities. They flock to see an amateur painting of someone’s pet, and think nothing of other works—no doubt many of high quality—going up in flames.
To an extent, Vonnegut’s bleak parable was more applicable in 1973, when Breakfast of Champions hit the shelves, than it is today. The online availability of music, access to independent radio stations, and platforms for compiling digital playlists provide unprecedented opportunities to short circuit the music industry’s control. Democratization has dented the industry’s historic role in pre-selecting sounds. Individuals more directly determine what they hear and what becomes popular. Adrian C. North and David J. Hargreaves are optimistic in their essay, “Music and Marketing”: “the digitization of music means that psychological factors will become more important than economic factors in explaining the music that people listen to on a day-to-day level. In decades to come we…suspect that the importance of economic explanations [for listening preferences] will diminish” (from Oxford’s Handbook of Music and Emotion, 2010).
We are not there yet; the old tastemakers still operate. As the digital age has broadened listening options, corporate interests have narrowed their palettes. In a high-stakes industry faced with escalating costs, intense competition, and a perpetually volatile youth demographic, safe bets overwhelm the airwaves. The complaint that “everything sounds the same on the radio” seems truer now than ever before. Listeners who do not explore digital or other options, either by choice or by circumstance, are left wading in an undifferentiated pool of cookie-cutter consumerism. They are stuck gazing at the cat.
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