Scavenger Hunt

I chose to look up the term “jazz,” mostly because I was playing around with different terms on the Ngram viewer and was curious as to why there was a sudden sharp jump in the use of the word in the mid-1850s, only to disappear again a few years later and be practically nonexistent until its rise to popularity in the early 1900s.  Interestingly, it seems to have the same exact connotation as it does in modern times – everything that I found refers to a style of music.  I expected it to have shown up as some sort of popular slang term that was used for a little while and then forgotten about until it took on a new meaning, but as far as I could tell it’s always had the same one.  This raises another question that I couldn’t find the answer to – where did the term originally come from, and why would it be universally recognized for a few years, only to disappear for several decades before making a comeback?  One of the earliest sources that I could find was the pamphlet “Philosophy and Psychology” on Google Books, which is from 1855 (the year that the sudden upswing in use of the term began.)  It only discusses jazz for a few pages in reference to “higher” and “lower” forms of entertainment, but it seems to coincide with what we know as jazz today:

“If higher and lower have any meaning here, a man who cultivates jazz in preference to so-called good music, because he likes jazz better, ought really to cultivate the good music instead because it has more value. […]  In relation to any other state of his interests, or in case of his incapacity to develop this state, so-called good music does not have a higher value than jazz, and is not in any proper sense of the word ‘higher’.  It might be better for the man who actually prefers jazz to cultivate better music.  But it might not.” (page 53.)

This provides some intriguing, if confusing, insight.  It seems that jazz has something of a negative connotation here, while modern jazz is often considered a high-class, sophisticated form of music.  This implies that it might have once referred to a slightly different genre, or maybe that peoples’ view of it simply changed over time.  It’s odd that it only seems to be mentioned in this specific time frame while still being used the same way it is now, only to stop again so suddenly.  I wish that I’d been able to find more about where it might have come from, but for now I just have even more questions than when I started, even if this is interesting.

 

The Modern Influence of Minstrel Shows

Initially, minstrel shows emerged as a form of racist mockery, exaggerating black features and stereotypes to reinforce racist viewpoints in early 20th century America.  Once black people were allowed to join in, however, it became something slightly different.  That original racist intent was still very much there, but now it had become something like performance art.  It was something inherently silly and based around stereotypes, but at the same time it often provided black artists with early methods of upward mobility.  At the time, black people were extremely disenfranchised, so many took this rare opportunity to actually share genuine parts of their culture and make their voices heard, even if the means was inherently racist.  Everyone could enjoy it, even if white enjoyment of black artistry was somewhat insidious – they would never view it as something serious, but it was still fascinating, so it sold well.  At the same time, black people could get a form of representation, even one so twisted.  In the modern day, the legacy of the minstrel show lives on in a much subtler way.  Current performers tend to do the same thing that early minstrel shows did, conforming to exaggerated stereotypes as a means of gathering attention.  While it is often still a conscious decision, it’s less inherently based in mockery and racism.  Black artists still use the same methods they once did, but I believe that there’s a different attitude behind it.  I doubt most people in the entertainment industry think about why stereotypes sell, but they very much do, which is why it continues.  “Performative Blackness” is a term that I’ve heard used before that I think fits this phenomenon rather well.  Artists will exaggerate whatever aspects of themselves or their personalities will sell the most records, and for many black artists, that happens to be the stereotypes that go along with race.  However, I think that in a modern setting it’s less about the mockery of the original minstrel shows and has much more to do with something that’s just ingrained in American culture, whether people understand the original intention behind it or not.

The Public Sphere

Some people say that everyone should strive to present themselves a certain way in public, no matter where they are or what they’re doing.  This idea of a “public self” versus a “personal self” can be useful to an extent, but is generally fairly dangerous.  The concept of keeping a perfect facade at all times in public can be damaging to people that feel like they don’t belong – if they’re already worried about how they’re presenting themselves and don’t see anyone like them anywhere, it can make them feel more alone, exacerbating problems that are already there.  As someone who is bisexual, I firmly believe that it’s not only my right to be clear and public about it, but my duty to an extent.  I don’t often see people like myself in the public sphere, which is why it took me years of self-reflection and unlearning toxic stereotypes to even realize that I wasn’t straight.  If I had had people to look up to when I was growing up, if I had seen people like me in public spaces, it might have been a little easier.  Now, it’s all I can do to try to be that person for someone else.  The idea of the public sphere is wildly exclusive, limiting individuality and personal freedom.  Expecting all of the vastly different people in the world to adhere to the same standards of excellency is absurd.  No two people are alike, and as such their ideas of what is “proper” will be different too.  Who should get to decide what the standards for the public sphere are?  Why would any one person’s definition of the right way to present yourself be taken as the true way you should behave?  I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that personal is political.  If no one speaks up in a public way about the things that aren’t working for them, or the ways that they’re being harmed by current societal standards, then nothing will ever change and a frankly terrifying culture of oppression and elitism gets built up without anyone even realizing it.

Perceptions of Technology

Change has always been an inescapable part of human life.  Growth, reform, new ideas, new technologies – all of these and more are constantly remaking the world as we know it, giving us new ways to explore the things around us and interpret the constant influx of information that we get.  Naturally, some people aren’t exactly fond of every aspect of this.  There are downsides, certainly, but some major leaps in progress over the course of human history have been met with resistance.  Technology alters the way that we see the world, drastically in some cases – the world today is connected like never before, information passing from side of the globe to the other almost instantly.  It makes sense that similarly radical transformations in technology and the things that it allows us to do would make some people uncomfortable.  Socrates himself was illiterate, refusing to use what he viewed as a crutch to gain more knowledge.  He didn’t believe that reading was necessary, and claimed that it undermined internalizing knowledge and truly understanding things.  But literacy persisted, becoming more and more important over time until it was the norm.  Today, people often push back against technology, claiming that it’s too much, that it’s gone too far, and that people will use it as a crutch, not truly learning anything for themselves if they have the world’s collective knowledge at their fingertips.  It’s true that there may be downsides – change and development often means a certain level of sacrifice.  But I think that the benefits of modern technology far outweigh any negative repercussions.  It’s a beautiful thing, to have so much information readily available at all times.  It makes knowledge a collective, turns it into something that anyone with a wifi connection can achieve.  There is far too much knowledge in human history for any one person to internalize.  Should you simply give up?  Should you struggle to learn small, individual skills from specific people and places at the cost of being able to do so much more?  The way that modern technology is ingrained in our society may certainly have drawbacks, but it seems to me that attempts to tear it down are attempts to privatize information.  I believe that knowledge is the one thing that everyone should have completely free, open access to, no matter who they are.  If information is allowed to be limited to specific people, then that means that there are people deciding who should get to know what.  This just makes it easier to control people, to keep them from achieving what they could otherwise.  People deserve to pursue whatever information they can, and the internet makes that so much easier.  It’s true that people might not internalize information the same way that they used to, that maybe it isn’t as inherently important anymore.  But I think that there’s something to be said for being able to decide that I want to learn more about something or take up a new hobby, and being able to find everything people know about it instantly.  We’ve evolved to the point that we don’t need to depend on mentors or elders to teach us things that we’re curious about – we can just learn it ourselves, decide how we feel about things and research them until we have our own opinions of the world around us.  Whatever these abilities may cost us, I think that they’re worth it.  It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about the harm it could be doing, but people will never stop innovating.  Just as the literacy that Socrates refused to embrace is now an integral part of human society, so will all new technologies be.  The choice you have to make is whether you’re willing to take the good with the bad and allow them to help you grow, or whether you’ll reject them entirely and let a rapidly advancing society leave you behind.

Modern Entertainment

As something of a storyteller, the idea of so much radical change in the way that entertainment – especially stories in various forms – is expressed over time is very interesting to me.  This is especially true when it comes to movies.  I grew up with the presentation of multiple perspectives, so it doesn’t seem at all strange to me, but thinking about how strange it might seem to someone from an earlier century who would never have experienced something like that is fascinating.  We don’t see it as strange, because it’s all we know.  But looking back at those older movies, the ones without different angles or changes in shots , it makes sense that movies nowadays should be much less believable – they present points of view that no person would ever realistically be able to have.  At the same time, they feel much more real to us, much more emotional and engaging, and I think that it’s due in a large part to how movies changed over time, allowing people to gradually become used to the idea of multiple perspectives.  It might have seemed strange to them at first, but once it’s something that you’re used to, I think it offers much more in the way of creative freedom.  Over time, people have had to make massive adjustments to the way that they perceive information as its delivery and methods of consumption have changed, and I think that this is likely another byproduct of that.  Once people got used to they new, dynamic view of more modern movies, it no longer registered as unrealistic because I don’t think that the point was ever to make it seem like you were really there.  Movies, to me, have always been more about observation and experience than actually trying to put yourself into whatever the situation might be.  In that sense, I think that the idea of multiple perspectives opened up a new world for movie makers and allowed them to explore emotion and creativity in ways that otherwise never would have been possible.  People know that they aren’t really supposed to feel like they’re there, so they can suspend their disbelief and enjoy the faster-paced thrill of a dynamic setting.  More than anything, I think that these changes evolved as a way for the people behind movies to increase their options as far as how they tell stories – once you break away from the limits of what would realistically be possible, it allows you to do just about anything that you want.  In modern movies, that feeling of endless possibility is a more important quality than truly believing the scene.

“Loudness War” – Not Necessarily Negative

Many people that grew up with music that was allowed more of a dynamic range much prefer it, which is understandable – there is something to be said for its ability to deliver impact and its room to grow.  However, I don’t believe that music without that kind of range/ability is necessarily worse.  More than anything, it’s just different: a product of changes within society, production, consumption, and tastes.  People that are more used to music that is less compressed may simply prefer it because it’s what they’re used to, and not because it genuinely sounds better.  A common argument is that heavily compressed music can’t deliver the same kind of emotional punch as music with more of a range, but from the standpoint of someone who has primarily experienced “louder” music my whole life, I don’t think this is true.  If music is allowed to grow and get louder to accentuate a certain part, it does lend it a specific intensity.  However, there are other ways to achieve the same thing, which many modern songs make use of.  The addition of harmonies, a fuller background sound, a beat drop, even the use of time changes or unusual patterns within the structure of the song can be enough to get the same emotional response.  To me, compressed songs have never felt flat.  I do agree that it is generally better to allow for at least a little room to grow or to be louder for impact, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary.  It might be because that’s what I grew up hearing, but there isn’t a huge difference for me, and I don’t think that heavily compressed music is in any way a degradation of culture.  It’s just… different.  It makes use of different tools to achieve similar effects, or in some cases, doesn’t even need to achieve the same things.  Compressed music, from what I’ve heard, generally has a fuller and more balanced sound from the beginning, so does it even need that same impact?

As far as compressed music signalling that people are becoming lazier or not listening to music the way that they should, I will admit that as a realist I’m a little biased.  Generally, I consider myself to be a nihilist, so idealist standpoints tend to make me angry.  The way that I see things, nothing really matters because nothing is truly permanent or worth being exalted as an ideal, so I tend to see idealist themes as nothing more than excuses to promote elitism and cut people out of things that they might enjoy.  Any form of art, including music, should be fully and completely available to everyone.  I don’t believe that there’s any true ideal, and as such, people should be allowed to enjoy things in peace however they personally deem fit as long as they aren’t harming anyone else.  If someone is listening to music while doing something else, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t paying enough attention to the music or not giving it the respect that it deserves.  I think that it’s partially a product of changing times and the way that people now interact with the world as well – everything is coming at us so fast that the only way to keep up is to multitask or risk missing something.  So we’ve learned to give certain things priority while still paying attention to multiple things at once.  There’s something to be said for being able to listen to music without having to focus on it – it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m lazy, I’m still hearing it and probably jamming a little while I do whatever else I’m doing, but it’s not my primary focus.  It’s still very important.  If I can’t listen to music during a time that I normally would, like when I’m at the gym or in the car, I feel that absence like I’m missing an arm.  I’ve adapted to listen to it in a way that works for me while still appreciating it, and compressed music tends to fit the way I do things.  In this day and age, I think it’s genuinely unreasonable to expect people to dedicate time to one task and one task only at a time.  It’s unrealistic, even if that might be a little sad.  The best that we can do is adapt to it and enjoy things in new ways and in new forms.  I don’t believe that compressed music is a degradation, but rather an evolution.  And if you don’t agree, the great thing about music is that it doesn’t disappear – there will always be room for dynamic range in other songs anyway.