Culture Frozen by Technology

I may have written about this idea before, but I want to revisit it because it still fascinates me. Modern culture appears to be frozen in time, and I believe it is modern technology that is preserving it.

For this post, I will talking about American culture, because it is the only one I’m qualified to talk about. Mostly I will be talking about music, movies, and books. To a degree, I’m just talking about pop culture, the music and media primarily broadcast at a younger audience, but I think this idea has broader application.

Find a young person. Someone in their teens or early twenties. Don’t be creepy, though. I’m not advocating that you go and stalk high schools. Just casually strike up a conversation with a young person that happens to be behind you in line, or maybe someone at a drive-thru that has been told to “engage with the customers” and is doing their best.

Ask this young person if they know the song “Take on Me.” You know the song. It’s by A-Ha, in case you didn’t know. It had a video where a young girl falls in love with a pencil drawn singer that breaks out of his comic book by thrashing against the walls of her hallway.

Whoever you ask, young or old, will know that song. They might even go into falsetto to prove it. It’s a part of our pop culture.

That song came out in 1985, nearly 40 years ago. To put that into perspective, it would be like a teenager in the 80s bopping around to Doo-Wop. Sure, there were some teenage music geeks listening to older music back then, but for the most part they were busy listening to the stuff being invented that decade. Even disco, which had been popular 10 years earlier, was considered gauche in the 80s.

Compare that to Cee Lo Green’s “Crazy.” I might be wrong, but I believe it’s still a well loved song that is familiar. It seems like it came out just a few years ago, right? It came out in 2006. That’s 15 years.

It could be a matter of perspective. That is, I’m naming songs that I grew up with, so maybe I just think other people know these songs. My kids know these songs, and it seems like they could have heard them from me, right?

That’s not generally been the direction of musical discovery, though. For the most part, I learn songs from them. I’m always hungry for new music, and Bryanna is an amazing source. Also, I’ve talked with my kids’ friends, and they also seem to know all this music.

Some of it is because of movies. Studios choose these songs as backdrops in scenes, and to change the feel of a teaser or a trailer. Some of these songs are fuel for memes. Everyone knows “Never Gonna Give You Up” because Rick Rolling is an indelible part of our culture now. That song came out 35 years ago.

Memes and movies provide an introduction, but technology serves to preserve the media in perfect fidelity. A person might have watched Watchmen and got Hallelujah stuck in their head. If they wanted to, they could look it up online and listen to it in perfect digital quality immediately. Hallelujah originally came out in 1984.

Technology preserves the quality of the images and music for all time, and it makes the media available on your cell phone whenever you want it. Also, it simplifies the means of production. Instruments and autotuning, recording and enhancing, packaging and marketing. It’s easier than ever to make music or art and put it out in the world. With the ease comes a homogenization of tools and patterns, which means the music made 10 years ago has similar sound and production value as music made today. That’s why Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” can fit easily in the same play list as Ava Max’s “Kings & Queens.”

I’m making a lot of assertions without much proof. As a means of verifying some of my claims, let me ask this: What did music sound like in the 60s? The 70s? The 80s? Even the 90s? These decades have distinctive sounds to them, right? The internet and digital media bloomed in the mid to late 90s. What does the music sound like in the 00s? The 2010s? The 2020s? Popular music in the last 30 years has homogenized.

This is not me saying that modern music isn’t good. I listen to lots of new music and I love it! It just seems like the evolution has slowed down as the shelf life of songs has grown longer and longer.

Michael pointed me towards a quote from Plato:

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.

If music is the soul of culture, what does it mean when the music slows in its shifting into newer forms, lingering longer in our hearts and minds well after the musician has put down their instruments and left the stage?