Stirring the Pot

I was reading up on one of my favorite icons of nostalgia recently, Schoolhouse Rock. For those not familiar with it, it was a series of short cartoons shown during commercial breaks during Saturday morning cartoons. They were all educational in nature, starting with the basics of grammar and then delving into multiplication tables. Eventually, they included science and American history, and much later basic finance, and  a spin-off on computers. Each one covered its topic with a specially written pop song and animation. If you’ve heard of “Conjunction Junction”, “I’m Just a Bill”, or “Interplanet Janet”, this is where they came from.

I was dumbfounded when I read that one of the modern criticisms about the series is that most of the songs aren’t actually “rock”. They explained that some are jazz, others are R&B, and still others are folk music. Then I understood that younger generations don’t understand that there was a time that all these and many other types of music were all grouped together under the umbrella of “rock music”. In the 60s through the early 80s, anything that was even remotely pop music considered itself rock. Rock radio stations could be expected to play anything from AC/DC to Vangelis to The Manhattan Transfer to Ronnie Milsap.

I suppose it was inevitable that by the mid 80s the range of musical styles would cause the whole genre to fragment, and while some acts tried to bridge the widening gaps (like ZZ Top with the ill-conceived “Velcro Fly” music video) inevitably the public’s tastes became so polarized that almost no one identified themselves as rock fans anymore. Even the later Schoolhouse Rock shorts abandoned any pretense of being rock in any way.

It should come as no surprise that all this mirrors American society in general. The factions in politics and business, in religion and communities, in education and entertainment have all grown so wide that we are almost at war with each other over every difference of opinion. It’s not enough to be a Republican now; you’ve got to be a “tea partier” or an evangelical or a libertarian. Being a Christian is much too broad; now every sect has a set menu of pro’s and con’s that everyone is expected to fall in line with, lest you risk eternal damnation (or according to some, not).

This is one of the problems with living in America. We are so inclusive that we find ourselves outnumbered by people we’ve included who aren’t like us. This can get chaotic, particularly when people start fighting each other over maintaining their cultures. The history-revision rhetoric starts flying around, insisting that “not only do we not want you around, we never did!”

As we progress into ages of increased communication tech, we find it’s easier to connect with large communities of like-minded zealots (of every stripe) even if no two of them live within ten miles of each other. Paradoxically, it may be that the ease of our ability to connect with each other is the very thing that’s driving us apart.

We need to start learning to accept each other. That begins with learning each others’ cultures. Take some time, go to whatever website or music store you use and start shopping around for music that you don’t normally like. Don’t pay attention to anything recent; most of it is forgettable and will land on the heap of obscurity in a year or two anyway. Step back a few years. Not far, just five or ten years should do it. Find something to listen to that has good reviews and listen to it. Try your best to keep from focusing on what you don’t like about it, look specifically for something you do like. Cross the race barriers. Jump the generation gaps. Dance a step or two in the shoes of someone from a different social class. If you live on country music, try some techno. If you’re a city boy, sample some bluegrass. Step out of your comfort zone. Remember that the zone you’re trying out is someone else’s comfort zone. They like it, there’s no reason you can’t as well.

One of the Schoolhouse Rock shorts was titled “The Great American Melting Pot” (written by now-famous Broadway composer Lynn Ahrens), and it celebrated the diverse backgrounds of the people who have made America their home. It’s a concept that is sorely lacking today. We need to understand each other better, and that starts with understanding their culture. Understanding their culture starts with understanding their art and their music. Art isn’t frivolous, it’s communicative. It’s how we express our histories, our priorities, and our traditions. When it’s done well, it expresses how we feel about these things. But it can’t do that when it falls on deaf ears. Communication is always a two-way street. Listen. Look. It’s a rich, wonderful world.