Not long ago, on the way home from work my Zen randomly played “Eat Junk Become Junk” by Six By Seven. While I listened I studied the subway ad in front of me. It was an ad for an MTV reality show. I couldn’t help but make the connection.
“Eat junk become junk” is just another way of saying “you are what you eat”, something we’ve all heard since we were kids. No one really doubts that the badness of what we eat affects our overall health. It’s not the sole determining factor, obviously, but it does matter. Doctors, medical studies, common sense…they all tell us so.
So why doesn’t the adage apply to music? Why not books? Why not movies or television? Aren’t the worst of these just empty calories, the Twinkies and triple-bacon cheeseburgers of culture? Aren’t people just jamming the same crap into a different orifice? I would think we would consider these toxic materials as harmful to the mind as we consider toxic food harmful to the body.
And yet, we hear people describe the benefit of vanilla TV (Two and a Half Men, anyone?) being that they don’t have to think, they can just have a laugh. They describe “beach books” the same way…something you just read but don’t have to think about. Worse yet, “reality tv” deliberately misleads viewers, making them think these shows are actually happening unscripted, trying to warp the viewer’s idea of reality rather than try to find entertaining reality to film. Music so banal and oversampled there’s no shred of musical innovation or feeling left at the heart of it. Movies slapped together to lampoon scene after 30-second scene of fleeting pop-cultural references funny mainly, and especially, to those whose news-gathering begins and ends with TMZ. At best these are vapid space-fillers; at worst, mind-numbing distortions. Alone they do not make you stupid. But they certainly lean that way.
Let me preempt the usual cry: that I’m arguing against fun. That’s a weak case, unless you would suggest “fun” can only equal “stupid”. Millions of things are fun, and funny without being weakly, patronizingly so.
Let’s maybe try showing this graphically. FlowingData recently posted a chart titled “Music that makes you dumb” courtesy of a CalTech grad student. It doesn’t show that listening to crap music makes you dumber. It just shows that people who listen to music like Lil’ Wayne, Carrie Underwood and Taking Back Sunday do worse on their SATs than those who listen to stuff like Radiohead, Bob Dylan and Beethoven.
Look, I’m not saying people should stop watching American Idol or listening to Nickelback any more than I’m saying they should avoid eating at Carl’s Jr. three times a day. I’m just saying that everyone knows they shouldn’t eat at Carl’s Jr. three times a day. For some reason they just haven’t figured out that it’s harmful to put other kinds of junk in their bodies too.