The Hipness Equation

This past weekend in Los Angeles, where consumers of popular culture and art probably have more choices than any place in the world except New York City, we had a rematch between Genius and More of the Same, and More of the Same won again. 

At the Jazz Bakery, Mark Murphy, one of the most transcendently original and profound vocalists of the 20th century, did his thing before fewer than 100 mesmerized listeners. At Dodger’s Stadium, an 80s pop rock group entertained 50,000+ with a reiteration of their radio hits. I won’t expend any more energy decrying the debased state of American culture, blah blah, etc. etc., boo-hoo. That seems to me a subject so mundane and obvious it need not be engaged further. But even Murphy, who at 75 still retains both his magical voice and peculiar sense of humor, noted from the stage that, “I’m supposedly one of the greatest singers in the world and I can’t even fill a room.”

He also said, “This is a very intelligent audience. You don’t get many people who like this kind of music who are dumb.”

Which got me thinking about a mathematical theorem that would attempt to express the state of the art. I think Murphy is right: Most people who dig jazz in general and what he does in particular are more intelligent than the average person; most people who attend stadium rock shows are the average person. People who buy tickets for under-publicized documentaries tend to be more intelligent than the average filmgoer; the average filmgoer is watching another cynical “blockbuster” aimed at the demographic middle. People who read “literature” tend to be more intelligent than the average book buyer; the average book buyer gobbles up mysteries and suspense tales that have a chance to be made into movies. All this is not to say that people who attend rock shows and “the #1 movie in America” and “the New York Times best-seller” are stupid people. Indeed, many people far smarter than I enjoy these things.

I am suggesting the inverse: That people who are connoisseurs of entertainment events outside the realm of mass-marketing tend to be of greater intelligence (and blessed with more sharply refined senses of discernment) than the average consumer, whose choices, whether he is aware of it or not, have largely been made for him by the powerful marketing czars of the industry. This is not meant as self-congratulation or a smug assurance that those who don’t revel in Mark Murphy’s artistic accomplishments are in some way retarded. It’s to say that the hipper the art, the more intelligence the art seems to require.

For dying art forms like vocal jazz, poetry, the essay, and most everything else that doesn’t appeal to consumers weaned on the pabulum of prime-time television, this is bad news. But even as the numbers shrink and the audience dwindles into the enthusiastic dozens, the hipness factor is off the charts. Murphy explored Jobim and Freddie Hubbard, and Cole Porter, he introduced us to a Russian wizard who transformed the piano into a symphony, he got lost and found. And he showed us that a ballad sung from someplace deep and true can be an illuminating guide to one small aspect of being alive.

It was very hip.

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