Thursday, October 11, 2007

WHY YOU DON'T HAVE TO CARE ABOUT MICHAEL JACKSON

Sam Smith
2002

MEDIA BIAS is not limited to bad politics; it includes bad math, typically manifested in an inability to count above the number two. According to the mass media, our world is one giant 'Crossfire' show divided into pro and anti, liberal and conservative, war and appeasement, free market and socialism. When such bifurcation fails because of the number of participants - as in sports, Democratic primaries, or reality shows - the media solves the problem by ultimately reducing the number to one, with everyone else a loser.

This is a form of semiotic suppression as bad in its own way as political propaganda for it steals opportunities, options and subtleties from us, turning us into either cheering sycophants or worthless outsiders. It also is the playing field on which we learn mindless acceptance of the minimal choices that the media offers us in the political and economic realms.

We are, for example, supposed at this moment to be obsessed with football, especially if one is a virile male. In fact, however, only about a half of American males are interested in football. A 2002 poll found that only 28% of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, with 16% preferring basketball and 12% baseball. Add them all together and you are still left with nearly half of America having something better to do. But you would never guess it from the media.

The same is true with popular music. Michael Jackson, the latest media fetish, is a not atypical example. If you only followed the "news" you would have to be wondering what was wrong with you if you did not find the fate of Jackson of concern or, worse, never liked him or his music in the first place.

Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The ABC News poll is unusual in that it gave actual percentages. Normally, such surveys only list rank, leaving the reader who prefers number six on the list feeling out of it and leaving all readers badly misinformed.

One way to create more honesty in such surveys would be not only to use actual percentages but also instant runoff voting in which second and third place votes would be factored in. These celebrity surveys instead use the same misguided principle that distorts our politics, confusing whoever is first past the post with the consensus choice.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."
One of the reasons the media doesn't tell you things like this is that it would be too embarrassing. Far better to using rankings that obscure the fact, for example, that you could fit the entire American audience of CNN into a place the size of Washington DC.

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.

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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Here are a few tracks:

SAM SMITH'S DECOLAND BAND

'SHINE' 

JELLY ROLL

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND

APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal