Washington Libertarian Review

Political commentary from the State of Washington with a libertarian perspective.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Niche Society

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner pies
And we walked off to look for America...
The lyrics of this Paul Simon song came to mind as I read today's op-ed by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Commenting on the fragmentation of the music industry and the death of the so-called mega-group, he laments The Segmented Society. It isn't just the state of the music industry that bothers Brooks. He says,

"It seems that whatever story I cover, people are anxious about fragmentation and longing for cohesion. This is the driving fear behind the inequality and immigration debates, behind worries of polarization and behind the entire Obama candidacy. If you go to marketing conferences, you realize we really are in the era of the long tail. In any given industry, companies are dividing the marketplace into narrower and more segmented lifestyle niches."
Certainly the segmentation of society is not really a surprise. Before 1983 AT&T was the only phone company in town. Now there are dozens. When was the last time anybody referred to GM, Ford and Chrysler as "the big three automakers"? How many networks now compete with ABC, CBS and NBC for TV viewers? Daily newspapers have been steadily losing market shares for years. Google, Yahoo and multiple other web sites now offer "personalized" portal pages. And so on.

Yet in a way there really is something to lament. For baby boomers the music spoke for the generation. From "One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small..." to "I read the news today, oh boy..." to "Stop, hey, what's that sound..." to "What's goin' on?..." to "The answer my friend, is blowin' in the wind..." the music defined who we were. And if there was an anthem of the generation, it was this Youngbloods tune:

Come on people now
smile on your brother
everybody get together
and try to love one another right now
What baby boomer does not know this refrain by heart? What baby boomer doesn't hope, deep down, that someday everybody can get together?

But it hasn't happened. The Woodstock generation gave way to the Watergate generation. The things that tied us together in the sixties drove us apart in the seventies. Foreign policy debacle followed foreign policy debacle. Back home the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The civil rights movement balkanized into the separate movements of several minorities. And we have never been able to reclaim the unity of ideals and purpose that defined "the flower generation."

Conspiracy theorists may blame the Bilderbergs or the Trilateral Commission. But I think, at least as to the music, the seeds of this splintering were there in the beginning. The music that defined the baby boomer generation was a music of rebellion. Both rhythmically and lyrically it marked a significant departure from the music that had come before.

In fact, what we call rock-n-roll was largely a synthesis of different types of music with very different ethnic and religious roots. Blues, bluegrass, country & western and gospel all had a hand in the creation of rock. It was a music that overtly challenged tradition and authority, when both of which had become ossified in the first half of the twentieth century.

But the challenges never stopped and now there is little tradition left. Holidays are now more than ever just days off from work. The celebrations for which these days were set aside are all so much rigmarole that we are more likely pay someone to entertain us than to cook our own meals or create our own activities. According to Brooks very few of today's musicians know the roots of the music they play. Consequently most of it is adrift in a sea of noise, meaningless.

Meanwhile, authority has no respect. And maybe it doesn't deserve any. The unity and sense of purpose that informed World War II has all but vanished from the American landscape. Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II - all of them demonstrated significant weaknesses of one form or other. Both Congress and the Supreme Court seem content to continually whittle away at our constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. Musically, there are no Dylans or Lennons to rely on either.

So, who are we? What does it mean to be an American these days? Even our common heritage as a nation of immigrants is losing its vitality as those of us who are already here wonder whether America is still "the land of opportunity." Now we seem to have this sense of limits, limits on available resources, limits on the way we treat the ecology, limits on the very freedoms on which the country was built.

Consequently, it seems to me, Americans are not so much interested in growth as they are in protecting what they have. And so they divide up into factions, each one focusing on some particular aspect of life that is most important to them, but each one also knowing that this sort of selfishness can never get us together and love one another right now.
Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
All gone to look for America
All gone to look for America


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