In defence of the box set binge: a global shared culture

Immersing ourselves in hours of television at a time isn't just a new way to absorb great art - it's the best way to keep up with our increasingly-global shared culture.

In David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest, a major conceit is a film so good it reduces any and all who see it into a quivering pulp, physically unable to stop watching, wasting away into utter uselessness in their own excrement, blabbering like babies.

As I tore through the entire season of Netflix’s incredible House of Cards this year, I recalled The Entertainment (as the film in Wallace’s book is called), and felt pangs of guilt. Yet I am an avid defender of popular culture. I renounce the Harold Blooms (he hates Wallace) who elevate some privileged canon above the rest of our culture. I regard it as a terrible mistake to disdain or elevate some part of our current culture above another. There are gems at nearly every level, and sure, there’s lots of dregs.

But of course I worry, queueing up the fourth episode in a row of Game of Thrones, that perhaps we are sliding into some sort of dystopia such as Wallace envisioned, consumed by our own entertainment, stifled, pacified, and ultimately useless. So how can we approach this brave new world of readily available, downloadable, easily consumable multi-season packs of our favorite shows without guilt, without falling prey to The Entertainment? Can we become responsible consumers of popular culture, acknowledge its value, and benefit from this emerging new form of entertainment consumption: the binge? I believe we can.

Accidents of history
It is accidents of history alone that cause us to elevate some culture above others. Is Chaucer high or low culture? Surely he is part of Bloom’s “western canon", but The Canterbury Tales abounds with fart jokes and low humour reminiscent of any episode of South Park. I agree with philosopher John Searle, who argues:

In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed ‘canon’; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Chaucer, or Tom Jones (not the curly-headed singer, but the novel by Fielding – though maybe the singer too), and even Shakespeare mix culture both “high” and “low”, appealing to audiences at various levels of appreciation. It is likely, as in every age, that the vast majority of our popular culture, much of which now comes to us in our living rooms through television, will be forgotten. It will not become part of any canon for serious study in the future, nor will it affect broader culture in any lasting way. But there are surely exceptions. Some will. Some have.

Star Trek was conceived as “Wagon Train in space", an interstellar western that would serve as a vehicle for Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a hopeful future and his commentary on then-current events. It endures to this day, slightly darkened by J.J. Abrams, a current master of pop-cultural entertainment.

But Star Trek is now part of the canon. Spock and Kirk are as familiar as, or more so than, many historical heroes. Everyone everywhere now understands what you mean when you say “beam me up” or suggest moving at warp speed. And this is the most hopeful point. The pop-cultural canon is no longer “western”. Spock and Kirk are known in Asia, and Godzilla and Pokemon are known in Kirk’s home state of Iowa. Popular culture now moves effortlessly across borders, suffusing us with icons and vocabularies that are now common everywhere. This is a great thing. It is a New Canon.

I live and work in a multi-cultural milieu, teaching and living part of the year in The Netherlands, at an international university, surrounded by people from nearly every corner of the world – mostly students. I live the rest of the year in Mexico. Yet everywhere I travel and teach, I can slip in a “they killed Kenny!” reference, or allude to Walter White or Dexter in my discussions of ethics, and everyone (nearly) gets the point - they catch the reference. It is mainly through the popular culture that people of every class and background are able to form some common frame of reference, a vocabulary that can overcome local knowledge and prejudice, and allow ideas to be conveyed more meaningfully and successfully.

Of course, much popular culture still comes from the US, but this is so far mainly because that’s where much of the wealth and tools of production (and intellectual property protection) are. This won’t always be the case. Media production is being democratised by new tools, cheaper HD cameras, and readily available editing suites on PCs. These new technologies are making it possible to enter the popular culture with lower overhead.

In Japan, China, and India, this is already becoming the case and we are already seeing some of these sources of entertainment entering a broader market. The rest of the world will follow. We are all quite addicted to media, everywhere, and the internet now both satisfies and increases demand. This will lead us back to binging, and close up the loop in my argument for responsibly doing so this holiday season.

Saved by the internet
The internet is the medium for our entertainment salvation. Looming as a spectre to the media empires of America’s left coast, it promises to break down the final barriers to the great liberator that popular culture can be, if we let it. Time was, isolated from my ancestral land of 500 cable channels and abundant Walmarts, my access to English language popular culture would have been severely limited. In general, only the blockbusters get to cinema in The Netherlands, and television tends to be limited in its supply of current American shows.

Luckily, downloading a torrent of a season of Weeds in The Netherlands is legal (or tolerated), for personal use … much like the plant after which the show is named. People are able to catch up on shows right up to the present episode, no matter where they are, as long as they have access to the internet. Popular culture has truly been liberated.

Even authors and producers of shows that are frequently pirated realise, as Wilde might have put it, that is it better to be seen than to not be seen, regardless of the “legitimacy” of the avenue of consumption. George R. R. Martin, the author of the books on which the show Game of Thrones is based, has said, “I have nothing against piracy, [the] majority of those people wouldn’t buy it anyway. And there are many pirates who will end up buying Blu-ray release because they want to support us.” His is the most pirated show on earth.

After House of Cards, it was Game of Thrones I devoured, catching up on three seasons, prodded by friends and a peculiar article in The Atlantic. That article noted that the U.S. White House had employed a trick to catch a leaker (@natsecwonk on Twitter), and said trick was the one used by Tyrion Lannister. I was sick of being out of the loop, as most of my friends were already fans of Game of Thrones, and now with the imprimatur of The Atlantic, I had to catch up, and fast. And I could. I exercised my legal prerogative of downloaded all three seasons and binged. I am glad I did.

While in the past, I might have felt trapped by having missed the first three seasons, unlikely to try to lock into the next and begin mid-story, I could quickly come up to speed with something that is clearly now an important part of our culture. The New Canon is both unhindered by geography and unrestrained by time. Binging is a legitimate and sometimes necessary way for us to join the broader culture, engage with fans around the world, and perform a new form of communion.

So as the holidays approach, and going to the cinema becomes too expensive for some families, take solace that your binge-viewing of Arrested Development, or whatever part of the New Canon you want to catch up on, is doing great good. You are building your cultural vocabulary, and joining a larger community bound together by characters, themes, and stories both small and epic, lowbrow and high-concept. We can responsibly consume The Entertainment, and put it to good ends, rather than let it consume us.

David Koepsell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

A Game of Thrones box set. (Photo: Idhren/Flickr)
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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser