As I pointed out in Chronicle 777, the opportunity born with the smartphone for everyone, even many of those without electric light or running water, to possess their own screen/scene may well be our age’s most significant cultural transformation. The fascination of the screen is not in itself unhealthy: on the contrary, the screen is a microcosm that connects us to the universe. The down side is that this evolving connection is increasingly able to absorb and outperform the scenic function of human sociality. It may be a boon to communication that Zoom conversations are much easier (and cheaper!) to arrange than bringing individuals physically together, but this boon is by far eclipsed by the fact that solipsistic internet posting and surfing provides the individual with a scene/screen under full control inconceivable in any social interaction.
Thus I am fairly certain that the principal explanation for the unprecedented expulsion from today’s popular music of melody, which is to say, of transmitted reproducibility (singability/hummability/whistlability), begins with the fact that most (young) people now listen to “their” music through an earbud electronically linked to their phone. A song performance used to involve not only the public spectacle of a central performer before a peripheral audience, but the transmission to the audience of a melody that they themselves could reproduce and pass on to others. I still remember the words and music to dozens of old songs from the decades before I was born that my mother used to sing while doing the dishes. Melody links people together in the old-fashioned way, by hearing each other’s voice. And this form of sociality, which until the last decade or two went without saying, has become increasingly incompatible with a world in which people at a dinner party often sit at the table each intent on their own screen.
The same phenomenon is repeated in social-media “conversations.” On examining, say, the comments on an online article on a controversial subject, one will find few that add anything substantive to the original. They are almost always expressions of either approval or disapproval, often spiced with the foul language that has invaded the everyday speech of the screenic era in its role as a perverted form of the sacred (sacrer in French meaning to curse). These exchanges are far less like in-person conversations than like Twitter/X dialogues—with the occasional exception of a deviant using the comments page for impenetrable rants, often several at a time. The solipsism of one’s own scenic unit provides security to the individual whom a worldly scene would expose to open competition for attention and dominance—but also to a possibility of human fraternity.
Of course we know that we are not really “alone” with our cell phone; none of this would be possible without a complex infrastructure. But the scenicity of the phone makes possible the occultation of this infrastructure, which is to say, of the human community. The communal scene is a place of mutual presence; the screen is not. (Interestingly, in 1984 the screen was also a place of surveillance. As we know, our phone is indeed constantly surveilling us in the sense of storing the data of our use for purposes not necessarily benign. But the element of human interaction is blessedly absent from such data collection; and as far as I know, our screens are not recording what they “see” in front of them. However, I read recently of a “sextortion” scheme blackmailing users of online pornography by threatening them with mailing to their online contacts videos of them purportedly made by their computer’s own camera in tandem with the porn they were watching… See https://consumer.ftc.gov/consumer-alerts/2020/04/scam-emails-demand-bitcoin-threaten-blackmail)
Is it not curious that just at the moment when music seems to have lost its function to bring together the human community through the sharing of melody, we encounter the anomaly of a pair of beautiful white women whose popularity, in our victimary age so suspicious of whiteness and lookism, has reached the point that makes possible the above hyperbolically appreciative affirmation?
As one who has always considered female beauty a guarantee of humanity’s harmony with the world, defined not by the “patriarchy” but by the simple fact that none of us would be here in the absence, not merely of sexual attraction, but of desire mediated by deferral, I have written a number of Chronicles about beautiful actresses (e.g., 280, 367, 645), one of which led to my biographical volume Carole Landis (1919-1948): A Most Beautiful Girl (U Mississippi Press, 2007).
Margot Robbie (see Chronicle 645) is an Australian actress whose exceptional beauty can be defined as the extreme degree of prettiness. Barbie seems made in her likeness, and I’m sure that the creators of the recent film never doubted who should play the role. And in the 2022 film Amsterdam, I was surprised to see Robbie joined by Taylor Swift in a bit part where, in a stab at black humor, she is killed early on by falling in front of a moving taxi.
It is Swift whose fame is by far the more remarkable. Her ubiquity is incomparable with that of any other entertainer today, not because of her singing talent or her impressive if not extraordinary physical beauty, but because, in contrast to every indication of the decline of public morality, at a moment when a member of the House of Representatives is asked to leave a theater for making a scene with her partner and when the U S Senate feels obliged to cater to a man whose outfit would not be allowed in a decent restaurant, Swift’s public persona radiates a healthy and unforced image of traditional American values at their most generous and cheerful. Her performances are filled with exuberant energy, yet display no gesture or expression that would deserve other than a G rating.
And we must not forget to mention her positive influence on her fans, the “Swifties,” young girls for whom she shows real personal concern, and who on her example learn to dress neatly and perform services in their communities—taking over in part from the Girl Scouts, who like the Boy Scouts have fallen into the bottomless pit of Wokeness. Beginning (though born in Pennsylvania) as a country music star, Swift is the perfect comeback to descriptions of that music’s audience as composed of bitter clingers (in fact used by Obama in reference to small-town Pennsylvania) and deplorables.
Ultimately, beauty, and exemplarily, women’s beauty, is an element of order. It is not simply conductive to reproduction; of all visible human traits, it embodies sacrality at its most evident. It attracts a desire that more than any other makes evident desire’s paradoxical origin in deferral. Feminists like to complain about the “sexism” of such judgments, but equality of the sexes does not require the disavowal of a cultural heritage involving the sacralization of the female as the recipient of desire in her physical being, ultimately founded on her role in childbearing—the source of the “patriarchal” phrase “women and children first,” perhaps last heard on the Titanic. The admiration for female beauty is the opposite of degrading; it is akin to religious feeling. Much of the appeal of the Catholic church came from the cult of Mary, which grew throughout the Middle Ages.
Of course most women have not been “sacralized,” and many have been abused; but the very fact that we have female beauty is the result of a genetic selection that emphasizes not just health and fertility, but beauty in its esthetic sense, to be deferred and admired rather than simply used for sexual pleasure.
And all the Wokism in the world cannot change the fact that the quote that heads this section could not conceivably apply to two men. That such things can still be said in our victimary era—perhaps now more than ever—is a supplementary demonstration that the world of entertainment, however much it bends to the wokeness of the times, has a foundation in cultural truth. Robbie and Swift are beautiful women squarely in the center of the canon of Western beauty; their selection for the above headline owes nothing to the DEI department.
It is notable that headlines of this sort and the discussions that surround them are not found in organs of even middlebrow culture: they are in gossip columns and Tik-Tok videos and entertainment websites reacting to the $5B purportedly generated by Swift’s recent Eras tour and the Barbie film’s $1.36B gross. I was in the Kansas City area in July when Swift’s tour landed there; for several days prior on network TV her upcoming performance was the frequent subject of chryons and referred to repeatedly during such things as weather broadcasts—what if it rains? I can’t recall any comparable event being given such extravagant free publicity. And again during the Sunday September 15 NFL game between the KC Chiefs and the Chicago Bears, my wife tells me that the announcers could barely talk of anything else than Swift, who was visiting the KC dugout as (for the moment at least) the girlfriend of tight end Travis Kelce. And in that role, her photo appeared on the front page of the September 26 Wall Street Journal.
Having forced myself to watch one of Swift’s music videos, (Taylor Swift – Shake It Off – YouTube), where she was accompanied by an athletic group of dancers whose skills more than hers were on display, I was impressed by her energy and positivity; musically, however, the performance was anything but memorable, and there was certainly no melody to whistle, nor even any lyrics to remember. This suggests that Swift’s extraordinary success embodies “music” only in its most basic scenic function, as an invitation to an intuitive quasi-physical togetherness. The act is not really participatory in the sense that we are expected to dance along with the performers, but its very banality allows the spectators to “get in the mood.” The latter don’t need or want a tune they can remember and whistle at home; they want to be part of a crowd being cheerfully entertained at the lowest common denominator.
For an intelligent if slightly jaundiced analysis of the Swift phenomenon, I recommend “The Averageness of Taylor Swift” by Abigail Anthony in the September 19 National Review, (https://www.nationalreview.com/2023/09/the-averageness-of-taylor-swift/). Anthony points out that Swift is not a particularly talented singer or dancer, and for that very reason her fans find her approachable in a way that other performers are not. (Compare her singing with, for example, the delicacy of Joni Mitchell in “Both Sides Now,” or the melodiousness of Mama Cass’ “California Dreamin’.”)
Is this so terrible? I wouldn’t go to a Swift concert, let alone pay $1000+ for the best seats, but many educated adults find it worthwhile to do so. In an age when churches are rarely full, this is a spiffed-up version of an all-American spirituality that we should not disdain. That it has regrettably replaced the far more inventive vein of popular music that had accompanied the transition from adult to adolescent orientation throughout the postwar era, from Elvis and the Beatles to punk rock and heavy metal, should not blind us to the fact that Swift’s commercial and professional success (see the impressive list at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_awards_and_nominations_received_by_Taylor_Swift ) reflects her ability to fulfill our society’s need to affirm in these troubled times what Durkheim called its “solidarity.” In this year of the death of Tony Bennett, the last of the great crooners, Swift’s tour is a rare exhibition of optimistic American unity in a cultural landscape dominated by just the opposite.
As for Margot Robbie, if her physique makes her the ideal incarnation of Barbie’s plastic charms, no one can deny her thespian ability, as illustrated by a variety of roles that are far from sharing the Barbie personality, including problematic ice skater Tonya Harding, (I, Tonya), the wife of A. A. Milne (Goodbye, Christopher Robin), and the sexy journalist in Whisky Tango Foxtrot. Nonetheless, it is no accident that the Barbie movie, whose plot in this context is unimportant, shares the above headline with Swift’s triumph. It is less the storyline than the exhibition of Robbie’s uncanny Barbieness that puts her on a par with Swift. The simple perfection of her image makes her the closest thing to an idol in whose angelic presence no harm could possibly come to us.
The success of these two not-so-young women, born a few months apart and now nearing their mid-thirties, demonstrates that American popular culture, for all its deficiencies, is still able to bring us together in something like a nationwide celebration. It is no mere coincidence that Swift’s record-breaking tour coincides with the release of a film that, independently of the details of the plot, serves as counterpoint to Swift’s promise of universal participation. For although we can’t all look like Barbie, or have her for a girlfriend, we can all possess our own Barbie doll as our personal icon of sweetness and light.
As to whether this coincidence signals a renewal of our tired civilization or is but a brief vacation from its decadence, that is a question to which neither of these ladies owes us an answer.