Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ms. Swift, Autotune and the Narcissism Epidemic

I didn't watch the Grammy's last night because it saddens me to see the visceral collapse of the music industry; and I was unsurprised upon hearing how badly Taylor Swift performed.  However, I suffer from schadenfreude, which finally got the best of me this afternoon when I sought out the above clip.  Of course I was delighted to see that she shall I say it...goddamn mother fucking awful!  Swift's inability to sing her way out of a paper bag, coupled with her clear lack of awareness about just how badly she sings, is sickly fascinating to me.  "How can this girl not know she is a sucky singer??"  I first wondered after seeing her perform on Saturday Night Live in January, 2009 - where after finishing her second song with nary a note in tune, she cracked a wide grin and hopped up and down with the excitement of victory.  She was also awful at the 2008 Country Music Awards where she mumble-sings in monotone while modeling a beautiful gown for her fellow blonde republicans and their cowboy-hatted beaus.  Such horrific displays of performative shame lead me to think the narcissism epidemic may be in effect with Ms. Swift.

The narcissism epidemic was first noticed by college professors in the early 2000s when Generation Me students (those born in 1982 and later) began expecting their grades would be elevated based on effort alone.  This was deemed a symptom of the self-esteem focused parenting style of the 90's...i.e. the "everyone deserves a ribbon" even if they don't mentality.  As a result, professors reported their students had little awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and had not developed methods to compensate for any skill disparities.  This lack of awareness was accompanied by an over-inflated sense of accomplishment and a belief that they would and should be rewarded and acknowledged for everything they tried regardless of the relative quality of their long as their effort was marked by panache. 

Taylor Swift most certainly demonstrates this epidemic at least in part.  She is a catchy songwriter, with a particularly good instinct for lyrics with broad relatability; and she most certainly has a girl-next-door kind of charisma that attracts people's interest.  These are great strengths.  But she is completely unaware of just how badly she represents those strengths when she performs those songs herself.  In fact, such outward ignorance of her clear vocal weakness allows for questions about her strengths.  "Did she really write those songs?" I wonder after hearing such poor delivery of them.  Now, I won't speculate on any sense of entitlement she might feel to the various accolades she's received because that would require a more intimate knowledge of her personality than I have.  But I will say those accolades act to reinforce the belief that sometimes plagues members Generation Me...that mediocrity will be rewarded.  Unfortunately, mediocrity is still mediocre, no matter how unapologetically it is delivered; and in the long run mediocrity is unlikely to leave an indelible mark on the world regardless of how many gold statues it collects.  Rather the outcome is more likely to resemble the image of Shelley's "Ozymandias."

By:  Percy Blythe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Jonathan Haidt's TEDTalk on the Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives

I grew up in the smack dab middle of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God Midwest. In fact, I grew up in a county with fewer democrats than palm trees; and my dad, a lifelong republican, spent 25+ years of his career in elected offices. In addition to my dad’s professional party affiliation, my parents are active social conservatives who converted to Catholicism in their late 50’s and proceeded to spend two years of Fridays "praying" outside abortion clinics. While they stray from the traditional conservative platform on gun control, and they are displeased with the work of George W. Bush and his crony Dick Cheney, who my father likens to the devil, they do believe in low taxes, small government, intelligent design, preventing stem cell research, and that God made marriage for a man and a woman – the very values the left is quick to denigrate as "stupid," “selfish,” "regressive" and "small-minded."

Meanwhile, the right is just as likely to call the left “selfish,” “Godless,” “anti-American,” “baby killers.” Each side is equally convinced of their “rightness” in assessing what’s best for the country as a whole; and each is equally convinced that those who disagree with them are hell-bent on running this country into the ground. While the left and the right have always been at odds with each other, it seems the level of angry self-righteousness in partisan politics has risen in recent years to a level that’s not only distasteful but counter-productive.

Perhaps this is the result of a culture turned on by contention. Even Obama’s victory on a wave of “work-togetherness” rhetoric hasn’t been able to steamroll what has become a seemingly inherent love of hatred. In short we LOVE to hate even more than we love to be right…or at least more than we love to DO right. Both sides would rather stubbornly refuse to work with the party in power than allow for the possibility that they may have valid points to consider. With partisan media pundits, the louder someone hates, the louder we get to hate back. A show of respect for someone with a different belief has come to seem deferential and undesirable.

As long as this verbal volleyball match continues, nothing will be accomplished and while each side will blame the other, the truth is that both are at fault because both are engaged in a self-righteous refusal to let the other side be right about anything…and neither side is right about everything. But, when we absolutely, unequivocally BELIEVE we are right, that someone else is wrong…we are at an impasse…and when that disagreement turns angry and judgmental as it has in recent years, how do we overcome that impasse?

Recently, I came across this TEDTalk by Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives, which addresses the moral matrix in which both ends of the continuum are locked. I think it's worth a few minutes of your time; while some will find themselves  trying to defend their own judgments about conservatives or liberals as valid in today's world, I think Haidt's offers information that can help us re-approach each other in ways that are both more respectful and also more effective.

Jonathon Haidt on the Differences Between Liberals and Conservatives