This is a companion piece to the Wed. April 13th episode of Footnotes that streams on WGTB from 9-10pm.
In the last 50 years, the United States’ per capita real GDP has increased almost threefold. The largest factor contributing to this growth has been innovation – new technologies like cell phones and the internet, which have increased output and standards of living by essentially all quantifiable measures. Why then are there so many artistic efforts to depict modernity as a weight on humanity’s back?
One of the themes that runs through much of the Kink’s late 1960s-early 1970s peak is just this, the sense of modernity as destroying a more humane society. The most obvious example is their album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Its title track includes the lines “We are the Sherlock Holmes English Speaking Vernacular. / Help save Fu Manchu, Moriarty and Dracula. / We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity. / God save little shops, china cups and virginity. / We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate. / God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards.” In doing so, they sum up a position of opposition to modernity from the perspective of wishing to protect cherished old ways. While Ray Davies wrote this album with his tongue partly in cheek, he clearly also had developed a sense of nostalgia, which colored other tracks such as “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” and “Victoria.” On the other hand, other Kinks songs such as “Apeman” and “20th Century Man” focused on the worse sides of modernity, with the former focusing on the increased speed of life being generally exhausting, while the latter focused on innovations that had allowed unprecedented state capacity to interfere in citizen’s lives and limit their privacy.
Other artist’s works voice similar concerns. For example, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs featured a handful of tracks with themes that are at least ambiguous in their take on modernity. “I used to write, / I used to write letters I used to sign my name… Now our lives are changing fast. / Hope that something pure can last” sings Win Butler in “We Used to Wait.” Here he adopts the same sense of nostalgia, Ray Davies employs in “The Village Green Preservation Society.” In “Deep Blue,” the concern is more of being as obsolete as the “Last of the Steam Powered Trains.”
Additionally, Defiance, Ohio’s “Chad’s Favorite Song” offers a fantasy about pursuing a Thoreauean life of “build[ing] A-frames in the wood, and just liv[ing] there.” It questions if people were meant to live lives so far removed from nature and, like “Apeman,” offers that modern life and the city bring are too chaotic. “57 Channels” by Bruce Springsteen provides a counterpoint to it – in the regard that it claims that modern sources of entertainment and such offer no comparison to human interaction, instead creating a sense of ennui – “ There’s 57 channels and nothing on.”
To say that all artists create works that decry the flaws of innovation without looking at the benefits and optimism it offers. This was the basis of Donald Fagen’s 1982 solo debut, The Nightfly. Its opening track “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” is all about how innovation makes “The future look bright.” (I.G.Y. is short for International Geophysical Year, which took place over 1957 and 1958, when Fagen was growing up). It includes lines about superfast transatlantic trains, photovoltaic power, and healthcare innovations. Even the album’s track about seducing a girl in a bomb shelter – “New Frontier” – has a sense of optimism about it.
If the comparison between the outlooks the artist proves anything, it is that a godsend in the perception of some might be a terrifying concept to others. This is the case between Fagen’s “I.G.Y. (What a Beautiful World)” and the Kinks’ “20th Century Man.” In the former there is a line looking hopefully forward towards there being “A just machine to make big decisions, / Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision” – a thought that would surely terrify Davies, who already bemoans the loss of privacy that modern society has caused. This shows how innovation and modernization, like everything else, brings both benefits and costs, but I doubt many including the above artists would truly give up the comforts afforded by modernization.
– Robert Kaminski, host of Footnotes, Wednesdays 9-10pm on WGTB