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A moment of change in our civilization
by William McGaughey





I heard a commentator remark on the fact that people seem more interested in Tiger Woods’ marital problems than in the conference on Global Warming held in Copenhagen. In my opinion, this observation speaks to the nature of our current society and culture as we move through an historical epoch dominated by television and film entertainment which I call the “Fourth Civilization”.

If you accept that a society dominated by television can be a “civilization” which like Toynbee’s rises and falls, you may want to look for particular events that mark the delineation between one situation and another. World history as a whole is the sum of many individual acts. Which acts marked turning points in the history of humanity viewed as a succession of civilizations?

My focus will be upon recent history. There was a transition between the Third and the Fourth civilizations during the 20th century. A book by Elijah Wald, “How the Beatles destroyed rock ‘n roll”, or, rather, its review in the Financial Times, identifies a particular moment in history when the world of popular music changed. The year was 1966. The Beatles exemplified the change taking place in the culture. How this change relates to civilization will shortly be explained.

First let me say that each civilization has its own type of hero. In Civilization I, it was the great king and military leader: a person like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, sometimes worshipped as a god. In Civilization II, it was the philosopher or prophet, especially the founder of a world religion. In Civilization III, it was the creative artist, which includes poets, novelists, playwrights, and other writers, as well as painters, sculptors, architects, and, of course, composers of classical music. In Civilization IV, on the other hand, the performers of music and drama took precedence over the creator of a musical score or dramatic script. Movie stars became celebrities while screenwriters were ignored.

The reason for this shift in heroes was that a new type of communications medium had taken hold in the culture. The technology of motion pictures made it possible to record and disseminate the individual voices and visual appearances of persons performing in the films. The sensory impact of the performers’ personalities was so powerful that audiences more paid attention to this aspect than to thematic qualities in the script.

Before the age of motion pictures, dramatic productions were performed on stage. There were stars of the theater such as Edwin Booth, the great Shakespearean actor, but the play received primary attention. William Shakespeare, the writer of plays, was the hero of this culture rather than the performer. This was still a print-based culture. Words were preserved and broadly disseminated; the sensory aspect of the performance was incidental. Cultural excellence was thought to reside in the words used by a renowned writer. Such creations involved “genius” while good performers were merely clever..

how the music industry changed

In looking at the transition between the Third and Fourth civilizations, one can see how one set of ideals replaced another. Elijah Wald’s book documents the change in a particular decision made by the Beatles in 1966. “When the Beatles quit touring in 1966,” the reviewer wrote, “it was less a revolutionary act than an acknowledgment the world had changed.” The composition gave way to peak performances captured in a recording study.

We can start with this observation: “My father, born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1906, had a terrific memory for the hits of his youth, and I grew up hearing ‘The Sheik of Araby’, “When Frances dances with me’, ‘Yes! We have no bananas”, over and over. I would sometimes ask, ‘Who sang that song?’, a normal question for any pop listener born after 1950. But it made no sense to him. Everybody sang those songs; that was what a hit was. Record dealers assumed the average customer would be happy with any decent performance of a hit - just as casual buyers of classical music still shop primarily on the basis of the composition and composer. Such thinking remained common up to the rock ‘n roll era.”

That era began, in the early 1950s, with a song-oriented presentation of hit music. On television, it was known as “Your Hit Parade”. In-house performers would sing the tunes topping the charts. Dance music dominated non-media performances. Yes, bands such as Glenn Miller’s and Duke Ellington’s were famous, but, the reviewer notes, “most dance orchestras were local groups, playing a mix of old favourites and current hits for ballroom crowds."

"Since the tunes they played were available in roughly the same arrangements on records by Ellington and Guy Lombardo, there was no reason to preserve the version performed by a local orchestra in Northfield, Minnesota ... Like customers in dance clubs today the young couples jitterbugging to ‘One O’Clock Jump’ in Northfield expected to hear the current dance mix. And the fact that they were hearing count Basie’s hit played by locals rather than by Basis himself did not bother them.”

Attitudes started to change as albums replaced hit singles recorded on 45 r.p.m. disks. “Rather than being at the mercy of radio programmers, listeners could put on a stack of LPs and create a personal sonic environment opening a new market for ‘mood music’, Broadway and film scores, classical orchestras, and instrumental jazz ... Teenagers were falling in love with particular performances, which meant it was becoming increasingly common for a record to be a hit, rather than just being a recording of a hit .... if we ask a DJ to play ‘Maybelline’, we expect not only to hear it performed by Chuck Berry but to hear the specific recording that was a hit for him in 1955.”

The Beatles began as a touring group that performed a medley of songs. Their records “captured the same energetic sounds they presented on stage ... from Dick Dale and the Deltones in the beachside ballrooms of southern California to the Beatles on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, they churned out loud, rhythmically powerful music four to eight hours a night, seven nights a week.”

However, pop music was moving in the direction of music recorded in studios, which allowed more options. “Synthesizers, drum machines and digital editing” created a wider range of sounds. A pioneer of this new music was the head of Columbia Records, Mitch Miller, who recruited singers for music he liked, much as film studios recruit actors to play the parts in scripts. Under Miller’s guidance, “unexpected sounds and styles began to infiltrate the hit parade ... studios became creative centers rather than simply places to record.”

The critical moment came, Wald suggests, when the Beatles began focusing most of their energies and attention on creating music in studios rather than performing it live. Finally, in 1966, they stopped touring altogether. It was then “widely viewed not as a retirement but as an artistic advance.” Studio recordings could capture the sensory nuances of music as never before.

Today, studio recordings are the main product of pop-music performers. “By the time the Beatles appeared at Budokan (in Japan) they were the roadshow for their records, and if they didn’t match the sounds of those records, that can reasonably be considered a flaw. As the dominance of records became increasingly obvious, later pop stars would learn to avoid such flaws. Watching Michael Jackson’s spectacular performance of ‘Billie Jean’ at the 1983 Motown 25th anniversary concert, it is impossible to tell whether he was singing the song or lip-synching.”

Video games featuring musicians likewise are calibrated to the studio recording rather than that of the live performance. “The Beatles: Rock Band” game is an example. Here is work of the Fourth Civilization in a rather late stage. Individualized computer-centric creations are around the corner.

a final comparison

As I write these words, the Global Climate Change conference in Copenhagen is coming to an end. The world’s political leaders are gathered to consider steps to avert what could be a civilization-changing development. A rift is evident between representatives of the northern and southern nations. Some say that the science is inconclusive. Young men and women representing “civil society” are being arrested in the streets by Danish police. Dysfunctionality reigns in the civilized world.

All this, however, is too Civilization III. What most people really want to know is what happened when Woods’ car smashed into a fire hydrant near his home in the wee hours of the morning? Have any more girl friends come forward to claim a relationship with Woods? How will Tigers’ admitted infidelities affect his many endorsement contracts? The billion-dollar performer in the sport of golf is the latest in a series of entertainment celebrities who have fallen from grace.

One might as well admit: We’re many years into the Fourth Civilization. Public values are different today.

(written December 17, 2009)

Note: Some scholars do not believe that entertainment can be the foundation of a civilization or that the word “civilization” should be used in this way. This article is written to tie ideas about civilization to events and situations in the world of historical experience.

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