Consumed by Consumerism

How many songs do you know? Start with nursery rhymes, skipping rhymes. Go on to songs you learnt in kindergarten, in school and at camp; and to advertising jingles from your childhood and youth (if you’re an old Vancouverite, think of “Honest Nat’s Department Store, 48th and Fraser” or “Squirrel Peanut Butter is best by far…”) to your maturity. Now you can add Christmas songs and carols, and if you were brought up a Christian, roll in hymns from church and Sunday School. OK? Now throw your mind back to when you were ten, and begin adding to your already not inconsiderable list the “golden oldies”; turn on that “classic rock” station to jog your memory, or go to K-Tel or the remainder rack to augment your list with the too-forgettable and the unlistenable. Don’t forget the songs you sang endlessly but never hear anymore, like “Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie” or “Kissin’ and A-Huggin’ with Fred”. You must be past five hundred by now: double it by performing this exercise with a childhood contemporary. Lastly, add your “real” music, the music you now listen to – rock, folk, classical, new age, country, roots, whatever. How many songs? Why so many?

The thousands of songs in our heads represent a sort of gluttony, an over-abundance of material we can better appreciate in comparison to older cultural formations.

Wherever we look in pre-industrial cultures, we see parsimony, a refusal to fill all the niches, a limitation on what could be done. It is this parsimony in culture, this specificity which allows us to distinguish Haida masks from those from Bali. We see an economy not only of content but also of form. The old songs are the best songs. The old way of doing things is the best way.

Our musical gluttony is a part of our society, a consumer society. We’ve left behind the world of production: primary production, where people interact with the “products” of nature, and secondary production, a world of iron and steel. The world of primary production was one of agriculture, that of secondary production, one of industrial cities, massively visible pollution and trade unionism. Our third world, our consumer economy, focuses on consumers and their “rights” – the rights of the “innocent bystander” (surely an oxymoron), the shopper “held to ransom”, the fans deprived of their hockey playoffs.

Our connection to the world is now mediated as never before by products, or, better, “product”, the endless protean sausage extruded from the industrial machine. Though the products look more and more the same, we differentiate and distinguish endlessly. We consume endlessly, because we define ourselves as consumers. In this society, we are only truly “human” when we are consuming; the act of consuming mediates every connection we have to it. Carlyle in the late nineteenth century called this mediation “the cash nexus”, but it more properly belongs to our world of consumerism than to his age of industrialism.

In this consumer world, we see things differently, too: a forest, for example, is a Tree Farm Licence, so and so many board-feet of lumber or jobs. Land itself is now “real estate”, is property. Everything is “property”. And we find an economic reason (to “protect” jobs, for example) for our fetishistic need for “product”. This phantom itch of ours will never go away, no matter how much we scratch. And we enjoy scratching: “When the going gets tough,” we say, “the tough go shopping.” Our fetishistic search for “product” is not limited to fish fingers and Ferraris. It extends to folk music, where the contradictions between the content and form are most obvious.

By “folk music” I mean the music of pre-industrial cultures, whether from seventeenth-century Germany or Canada, or from cultures as disparate of those of Ghana or India. This music, whoever made it, was and is the popular music of the working people of the world. It is not and was not owned by anyone, and with a few exceptions (such as, for example, European art song), had not been, until the consumer era, appropriated by others. What has the consumer culture done to folk music?

To start with, it is now called “roots” music; at least, the Juno Awards called it such. The name was perhaps changed for marketing reasons, since marketing is the engine which drives us forward. One year, many years ago, I was asked to be a judge in the Best Roots & Traditional Album category. I was told that the judging panel would be “balanced geographically to represent all major markets across the country”. I was told when “the product” would be “shipped”.

This is more than mere industry jargon: the people who sell folk (or roots) music could be selling anything, since “selling” is what they’re selling.

But for every seller there is a buyer. We buy the front line “product” – CD, cassette, LP. We buy the T- or sweat shirt. We buy the coffee mug. We buy the bag to put it all in. We buy the concert, the festival, and the paper they’re advertized in. We buy the performer. We buy the genre. And when we’re bored with it, and want to move on from the flavour-of-the-month (South African? South American? Mountain music? Inuit? Balkan?) we discard it for the next fad. We consume, as a fire consumes. Nothing is left. Our fetish, to consume, lives on.

What effect on traditional cultures does our consumption of their folk music have? I read somewhere of a “roots” fiddler who at the end of a performance at a festival, for some reason known only to himself, played the last four bars with his fiddle behind his back. The applause overwhelmed him. He did it the next night, and the next, and soon the four bars were expanding to 16, 32. He eventually transformed himself from a fiddler into something of a musical “variety act”. Perhaps this is what is meant by “staying abreast of the market”.

I recall seeing at San Diego another “roots” singer, a coal miner from the South, being led about the country from festival to festival by a middle class interlocutor (or, perhaps, contract negotiator), standing, not yet falling-down-drunk, at nine in the morning, selling his record and showing would-be purchasers his coal “tattoos”. I remember seeing from behind the half-acre sound stage at Wolf Trap, Virginia, an old Newfoundland singer, forlorn amidst sound and video monitors, who’d lost a line of a song, and no-one could help him.

At a big folk festival in Nova Scotia, I saw an Acadian woman singing a sensitive ballad before a crowd of a thousand nasty drunks who were looking forward to boogeying with the next band up. I recall seeing at a festival at Yellowknife some Netsilik throat singers, a sound so eerie and inhuman, and the prolonged yowling from an audience made up nine-tenths of southerners.

Wherever two cultures cross, something is lost. When the consumer society meets a non-consumer society, it takes what it wants and discards the rest, and often the non-consumer society is killed in the process. Consumer societies are ever changing: they scour the globe endlessly for newness – they can do nothing else. As a German philosopher once said of the process, “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”

But we are beginning to see around us the return. It is beginning in the restoration of a central place for spirituality, the recognition of the centrality of culture. We hear the demands for the return of potlatch impedimenta, stolen from the bands with the outlawing of the potlatch, and now locked away in New York museum basements. We see it in native peoples such as the Cree astutely using New York advertising campaigns and New York environmental concerns to close down Quebec City’s Great Whale project.

We need to make our own return, too. Though we cannot go back to our past, we must think of our own musics and our relationship to them. As we are concerned about the “using up” of the physical world (non-renewable resources, tree farms instead of forests), so we should equally concern ourselves with our addiction to “using up” our own and everybody else’s culture. We need cultural attitudes consonant with ecological responsibility. Folk music, properly so called, is profoundly “ecological”. Its themes, though often couched in terms ossified in earlier cultures, speak to us still. Its forms, open and democratic, allow both for individual creativity and the genius of group selection – so that the best, while constantly in change, is always with us. It allows us to transcend the fetishistic world of producers and consumers, to abolish the notion of “audience” and to find the synthesis where we become participants – equally makers and sharers of our culture, fully human beings, subjects rather than objects.