Saturday, November 20, 2010

Comfaboy, Jota Mario, and popular art

In the past few months my wife and I have had a lot of routine doctor appointments and things like that to prepare for the upcoming birth of our son. Some of these prenatal obligations have taken us to Comfaboy, which is a Caja de Compensacion Familiar, whose best translation is something like a collective welfare fund. Such funds used to be common, almost universal, in Colombia. Most workers belonged to a collective welfare fund, to which they contributed a part of every paycheck. The really unique thing is that employers also contributed to these funds. They were thus a rare collaboration between workers and employers for the common good. Your membership in a collective welfare fund gave you access to medical care, a cooperative supermarket, vaccinations, classes for you and your kids, a savings and credit union, and cheap vacation destinations managed by the fund. It's sort of amazing to think about--it was like a responsible European welfare state, but managed between workers and employers. For someone like me who has grown up in a neoliberal, dog-eat-dog world of private HMOs, failed pensions, 401ks, and brutal individualism, this vision of a collective effort to promote people's welfare is bizarre and exotic.

Today common welfare funds still exist, but not as many people belong to them. This is in part due to mismanagement by a few corrupt individuals that took cuts from the contributions of members. But I think a more important factor is that at some point labor laws changed in Colombia, so employers were no longer obligated to contribute to common welfare funds. Perhaps even more importantly, companies weren't even obligated to hire people as employees. Now companies mainly hire people as contractors, even if they are essentially full-time, long-term employees. Today Colombia's labor force has a lot of contractors who have to hustle to find and maintain jobs, and are usually paid insultingly late by their "temporary" employers. Even my wife and I, who are relatively well-off, have no permanent employer that contributes to our pension, medical insurance, and certainly not to a fund so we can get discounts on groceries, vaccinations, or vacations!

On our frequent visits to places like Comfaboy, sonogram clinics, or doctors' offices, we are often obliged to watch the television set that adorns most public waiting rooms. More often than not the TV is turned to Muy Buenos Dias, an awful program that runs from like 7am to noon every weekday in Colombia. It's set up like many frivolous morning programs in other countries, with viewer call-ins and occasional interviews with boring second-rate celebrities and the like. The difference is that a good deal of Muy Buenos Dias is basically a live-action commercial. Companies pay to have the three hosts promote their products through inane comic skits, many of which consist in bad sex innuendos and the fat, old, bald, ugly main host, Jota Mario, wearing silly wigs and acting like a jackass. Jota Mario is accompanied by two beautiful but brainless young women who laugh a lot and nod concernedly when listeners call in and describe their unremarkable lives. I don't think any of the three hosts has read a book in his or her life, though apparently Jota Mario has written a few tomes on guardian angels and spirit channeling. I'm not making this up.

There is one thing I actually like about Muy Buenos Dias. They have this dance instructor that does a few numbers every show, maybe one every half-hour. He is really funny-looking, like Tiger Woods mixed with a fish, and with long, flowing, wavy hair. But his dance moves are great. However, he is followed by a group of like ten buffoons who are supposedly following his choreography, and they do an awful job. I mean, think of ten fat blue-collar Southwest-Side Chicagoans picked up off the street and thrown into the Muy Buenos Dias studio and told to dance salsa, following the instructor's manic, ever-changing steps. That's about what it looks like. I crack up every time I see it. Initially I thought maybe it was in fact a group of regular people from the show's audience that got the "honor" of dancing live on the show. But it's the same guys every time, and my wife thinks at least one of them is an actor from a Saturday night comedy sketch program. So it seems that they are paid to make fools of themselves stumbling about arhythmically a few times a day, every day. In my current job situation, I might take up such an offer!

The worst thing about Muy Buenos Dias is that a lot of people in Colombia watch it and love it. Indeed, Jota Mario, a man with no discernible talent whatsoever, is sort of a folk hero, beloved by the masses. What irks me about this is that here is an unthinking, untalented, bourgeois idiot who surely earns much more than most Colombians. Meanwhile, we have something like four million people in our country who have been driven from their homes by the war, many of whom are living on the streets or trying to earn a living selling plastic trinkets. Why isn't some displaced guy from Putumayo department getting paid lots of money to host Muy Buenos Dias? Surely there are millions of people in Colombia who would be able to do just as good a job as Jota Mario.

The mediocrity of much modern art, and the unfairness that untalented stars get paid exorbitant amounts of money, are themes that I've been thinking about a lot recently. If Walter Kronkite got paid a lot of money for his reporting and work as an anchorman, I wouldn't object. He was someone who had worked and excelled in his field of reporting, and was thus compensated for his talent. If Meryl Streep gets paid a lot for starring in movies, I don't object. She's an excellent actor, and does her job in a way other people couldn't. But when Jota Mario gets money and fame for his mediocre show, or Shia LaBoeuf gets paid like a king for woodenly reciting lines in a crappy movie like Wall Street 2, or T-Pain sings boring songs, his vocal shortcomings compensated by the Autotune computer program, I am incensed for two reasons. First off, why are these people and those who fund them putting out such awful products? I mean, Hollywood and the entertainment sector in general have lots of money to throw around, so why not use it to produce quality work? I'm not talking about esoteric experimental stuff like a Lars von Trier movie, just decent, well-made art that maybe employs just a bit more craft and challenges the audience just a little bit more than, say, Cats and Dogs 2. The second reason the prevalent mediocrity in popular art pisses me off is that untalented people like Cameron Diaz or Daddy Yankee earn so much money for doing something just about any idiot off the street could do.

In this line of thinking, I want to make a special condemnation of Autotune. This is a computer program that musicians can use to correct their voices if they sing a note slightly off-pitch. This use already seems shady and mediocre to me, but another thing you can do with Autotune is drastically bend your voice electronically, so it sounds like a robot is singing through a Wurlitzer organ. I guess this effect might have its place once in a while. Indeed, a few years ago Cher used it in her song "Life after Love", and I think Metallica used it in a few songs, and it was an interesting change from other things one heard back then. But now a huge proportion of pop music uses this bent Wurlitzer robot effect for entire songs, and I think it's awful. Not only is the sound disagreeable, but all the songs that use the effect sound the same. Worst of all, it enables even more mediocre people who can't sing a true note to pump out large quantities of singles.

Anyway, I guess what I want to get at with this post is that I'm concerned about the state of popular art. If art becomes something involving neither craft nor content nor even talent, then what is its value? I worry that music and movies are becoming uninteresting, uninspired, uniform drivel. Yet at the same time the economic polarization of our society and the increasing budgets of media companies means that even such mediocre fare is beyond the reach of normal people to produce. Yes, the Internet has the potential to democratize the making and disseminating of art, but I feel the proliferation of amateur artists at the bottom of the economic ladder, and the rising heights of capital needed to distribute art to large audiences, mean that most of us will continue having access mainly to awful, heartless caricatures of art.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up a lot of stuff in this post. I'll try to hit a few of my thoughts.

    'Good music' is all relative. There's nothing that says someone's response to a Katy Perry tune is inherently less valid than my response to a Brahms symphony. While I can argue til I'm blue in the face that California Girls is insipid and brain-deadening, and Brahms' 2nd is brimming with negative entropy (i.e. novel information) and soulful feeling, you would also be correct in saying 'Well it's not exactly good club music.' Katy Perry's music actually has much more efficacy for most people today. The weird thing to me is that there is plenty of dance music with real soul in it (like James Brown) but Lady Gaga is on the radio every 5 minutes. But then, what is radio music for? It’s not used for art. It’s for background noise.

    I think most people are content with insipid pop music because it's catchy, it has a beat simple enough that they can dance to it even if they are shit dancers, and they don't have to think about the music or lyrics at all. It's good background music; music to not pay attention to. This is antithetical to the function of art. Art is, as its most basic level, putting a frame around something, in order to communicate…something. It generally involves inducing/provoking feeling & thought, and of inspiring attention. Well most music isn’t used as art; it’s used as wallpaper. And wallpaper isn’t supposed to provoke you or make you think.

    I'm sure someone could do a fascinating study of how and why people like the things they like. For now that's my basic hypothesis (pop music is wallpaper music). I’m sure a lot of it also has to do with the way that music is legitimized for tribal consumption by its perceived popularity, and a lot of that perception is due to monopolized corporate distribution. Hopefully the internet will eventually bust up the whole paradigm. And in a long view of things, I hope policy-makers will come around to the value of music education. But if all that policy-makers know is wallpaper music…?

    Also, many jobs are jobs that most anyone could perform. Running a hedge fund or hosting a talk show doesn't require as much talent as the people who have these jobs think it does. And I wonder if that’s part of the appeal of the talk show, being able to imagine yourself in Mario’s Chair yukking it up with beautiful women every day.

    Best wishes to you & your family. Keep writing :)
    - Alan