Peter Aspden has an interesting piece in the Financial Times in which he argues that we get the culture we deserve even though we may not want it or we may despise it. His point is that culture doesn’t happen to us, it happens because of us. He used the example of the Spice Girls to make his point about our responsibility for our culture. Sugary excerpt:
The Spice Girls became international figures, despite producing a string of drippy ballads, opposite in tone from the zip and sassiness of their first hit, which showed how soon record company conservatism kicked in. A generation of commentators anxious to write seriously about popular culture expended thousands of words on the new phenomenon, but they made a fatal mistake: popular culture at the start had been serious, in intent and conception, and worked devilishly hard to be taken as such. Now it had largely been replaced by tat, but no one seemed to notice. The symbolism was paramount, and the results surreal. The Spectator really did want to know Geri Halliwell’s views on the single currency.
Most nastily of all, a new demographic was discovered, or should we say invented: the pre-teens. They copied the dead pouts and the crappy outfits, and pester-powered their way to commercial significance. They thought they were sexy, although they didn’t know what sexy was. Nor, it should be said, did the Spice Girls themselves, always too contrived in their moves to hint at the carnal mischievousness which is at the heart of cheap-and-cheerful pop (compare Sandie Shaw, Bananarama).
The Spice Girls managed a rarely sinister double achievement: they sexualised infants and they infantilised sexuality.
[…] Most western art turned its back on that kind of ingenuous entertainment around the time, perhaps, of the death of the Hollywood musical. In its place, we have installed the Spice Girls and their ilk (see their melismatic flailings every week on the ghastly The X Factor). They are inane, dripping with cynicism, dumbed down and hyped up. It is our fault. We seldom get the culture that we really, really want; just the one that we deserve.
Although I agree with Aspden on his main point about the fact that we get the culture we deserve, I don’t agree with him on anything else for the simple reason that he seems to be arguing that “crap” is new in culture and that “innocence” is necessary for a great culture. The temptation that too many people fall into when they discuss the state of popular culture is to argue that everything is new or that everything that is happening has happened before when the truth may be in the middle. What isn’t new is the condemnation of popular culture as vile, worthless, and raunchy. What in my opinion may be new is the increased fragmentation of culture caused by the increasing gap between those who have not only money, but also an education and those who do not. In other words, my argument is that people aren’t born with good tastes or bad tastes and that good taste is developed with exposure to different things and with knowledge. The dumbing down that is occurring isn’t because of a bad culture, but because of a less cultured, less knowledgeable, and less educated citizenry. Thus, the outrage of Aspden is misplaced and it shouldn’t be on the Spice Girls, but on societies and governments that believe that it is acceptable and even safer to have a population that is uneducated and therefore less demanding.