Standards, People! Standards!!!

I saw this image making the rounds on Facebook this week, and while I chuckled about it upon first viewing, it got me to thinking about something that is more than a little disturbing. Our standards for entertainment have certainly gone downhill over the last century. To use a food metaphor, it’s like we’ve gone from dining at 21 and sipping a ’47 Cheval Blanc to grazing at Golden Corral and chugging box wine. Yeah, I think it’s that bad.

Don’t get me wrong—every decade has horrible music, wretched movies, and positively terrible books. Whether it’s Ishtar, Twilight, “Achy Breaky Heart,” BJ and the Bear, or Sam the Sham, every decade has a veritable cornucopia of artistic endeavors that it wishes had never seen the light of day. Also, each generation also has a few genuine stars whose talent is obvious, even to the least discerning connoisseur of popular culture. I’m not saying that there were no bad actors in the early decades of the twentieth century or that a talented singer can’t be found today, but when you look at the facts, it’s hard to argue that our standards have descended from top shelf to well status. (I know it’s another food metaphor. I can’t help it.)

Since the picture compared Old Blue Eyes and The Bieb (even the former entertainer’s nickname is better!), I thought I’d start with music to see what I could learn from record sales and data. I decided to go with four decades (the 1940s, 1960s, 1980s, and the 2000s) for purposes of comparison. I chose an arbitrary year (the third) from each decade, and took at look at the songs that were number one on the week of my birthday. Here’s what I found.

Number one song on April 21:

1943–“I’ve Heard That Song Before” by Harry James & Helen Forrest

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1963–“I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March

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1983–“Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners

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2003–“In Da Club” by 50 Cent

***

Listen to the first and the fourth and tell me there isn’t a marked difference between them, both in subject matter and style. Actual instruments and the skill it took to play them were required for the former, and the lyrics are delightful.

It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.
It’s from an old familiar score.
I know it well, that melody.

It’s funny how a theme
recalls a favorite dream,
a dream that brought you so close to me.

I know each word because I’ve heard that song before.
The lyrics said, “Forevermore.”
Forevermore’s a memory.

Please have them play it again,
and then I’ll remember just when
I heard that lovely song before.

It’s slightly melancholy, reminiscent of “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca (which also happens to be the film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1943.) It’s nothing fancy, but there is a message to the song, a bit of symbolism and lovely language. Compare that to the first few verses of “In Da Club.”

Go, go, go, go, go, go.

Go shawty, it’s your birthday.
We gonna party like it’s your birthday.
We gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday.
And you know we don’t give a f*** it’s not your birthday.

You can find me in the club, bottle full of bub.
Look mami, I got the ex if you into takin’ drugs.
I’m into havin’ sex; I ain’t into makin’ love.
So come gimme a hug if you’re into gettin’ rubbed.

When I pull up out front, you see the Benz on dubs.
When I roll 20 deep, it’s 20 knives in the club.
N****** heard I f*** with Dre, now they wanna show me love.
When you sell like Eminem, the hos they wanna f***.

So, in sixty years we went from love songs to ones filled with references to sex and drugs as well as foul language. I can say, without hesitation, that 50 Cent’s masterpiece has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, yet he sold 872,000 albums in five days when the album it was on was released.

I have to wonder if music like this sells because we’ve actually fallen so far or because people simply don’t know that something better is out there. Perhaps I’m the anomaly–the freak of nature nowadays–because I was raised by parents who introduced me to classical music, television shows that were funny without relying on anything raunchy, and movies that actually had plots and clever dialogue. Who knows.

***

Since both Sinatra and Bieber have both tried their hands at acting, I thought about comparing the ranks of thespians from the same four eras to see if the same slow decay was working its way through Hollywood. Based on the number of films each made as well as the awards and paychecks they garnered, According to a website called Top Ten Reviews, the following ten actors rank as the top tier in each decade. Their ranking was determined by fan feedback as well as the number of films each made and the awards and paychecks they garnered as a result. They are listed in rank from first to tenth:

1940s–Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunn, Cary Grant, Teresa Wright, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, and James Stewart

1960s–Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Peter O’Toole, Shani Wallace, Natalie Wood, Vincent Price, Sean Connery, Burt Lancaster, and John Wayne

1980s–Harrison Ford, Barbara Hershey, Eddie Murphy, Mia Farrow, Shelly Duvall, Robert De Niro, Kathleen Turner, Woody Allen, Geena Davis, and Kim Griest.

2000s–Kate Blanchette, Emma Watson, George Clooney, Katherine Zeta-Jones, Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johanson, Daniel Radcliff, and Renee Zellwegger

***

There are some oddballs on there. I know Michael Caine made the list this decade for the Batman movies alone (notice he’s right under Christian Bale). And I cannot even begin to explain how Vincent Price ranked above Sean Connery and John Wayne in the 60s. However, by and large, I’ll say that these lists are fairly accurate cross sections of who was hot in a given ten-year period.

People always want to compare George Clooney to Cary Grant, and while I admit that they do look rather similar, I can’t imagine living in a world where I would choose the former over the latter.

Grant was the more versatile leading man. Compare the role of reporter each man played in His Girl Friday and Good Night and Good Luck if you don’t believe me. Grant was also the one with better comedic timing and style, which a quick comparison of Father Goose and O Brother, Where Art Thou? will reveal.

The same is true for leading ladies. Katherine Zeta-Jones (one of the more well-rounded actors in the list) can’t hold a candle to Ingrid Bergman for beauty and style, and if you want sultry, look no further than Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart (her future hubby) instead of Scarlett Johanson in The Black Dahlia.

Just fast forward to about five minutes in and watch the “whistle” section if you don’t believe me. Then compare it to this brief clip. To me, Johanson is like a little girl playing dress up, and her sex appeal feels so forced compared to Bacall’s.

Name me one actor working today who is a legitimate triple threat. (Don’t count Broadway stars. I’ve always felt that theater audiences, for the most part, have more exacting standards.) Honestly, can anyone in Hollywood today hold a candle to Gene Kelly?

How about Julie Andrews?

I don’t go to the movies as much as I used to for a couple of reasons. The cost of an average ticket is $11.00, and I’m not willing to pay that much for sub-par entertainment. Sure, while I do prefer more cerebral fare, I’ll admit that I’m as excited about the upcoming Avengers movie as your average fan girl and truly enjoyed the silliness of The Muppet Movie. However, anyone who tells me One for the Money or Underworld: Awakening are actually worth the cost of admission, I’d have to say, “Baby, baby, baby noooooooo.”

Am I way off base with this? I’d love to hear your thoughts on music, movies, and anything else pop culture!

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14 thoughts on “Standards, People! Standards!!!

  1. Interesting and thought provoking read. Was “yesterday” really better than today?

    Well, I think you have to consider the change in the industry. The maturity of the audience has changed. In the late 40s and early 50s the USA was coming off the urgency and sacrifice of WWII. The purchase power was in the hands of the adult, and by and large the music was made by adults for adults. Now, the purchase power is in the hands of the children: preadolescent girls and adolescent boys. In comparing Bieber and Sinatra, you are comparing cold oatmeal to a silky rich, velvet-like mousse. Bieber is barely 18, but he sings for 12 year olds. Sinatra was in his 20s, but he had to impress a much more discerning population than little girls who still play with Barbie dolls.

    As for movies and movie stars, again it is the audience demanding the pablum produced. The industry serves those willing to pay and again, it is usually children. But, when comparing grown ups and grown up movies, I’d compare Clooney to Spenser Tracey, and Kathryn Hepburn to Charlize Theron, and Johnny Depp to Jimmy Stewart, Myrna Loy to Tilda Swinton, William Holden to Christian Bale, Natalie Wood to Natalie Portman, and I think they stack up well.

    And then there is movie music: Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, Trevor Raburn just to name a few that make movies magical these days. There is no Henry Mancini in the pack, but those guys come mighty close.

    I watched Midnight in Paris a few weeks ago, and it addresses the topic of our inclination to wax poetic on the generations that have come before. In 50 years, the garbage will not be remembered but our cutting edge, complex, deep offerings to the audiovisual world will be the classics, and I think we will be proud of a lot of what our peers have offered up for our consideration and enjoyment. And thankfully, no one will remember Hot Tub Time Machine, but Say Anything will make us proud.

    Plus, I find a brutal adult honesty to a lot of what is available now that one just could not find in decades past. But, these offerings are not for children, so they aren’t at the forefront of pop culture. And I won’t even get started on vampires that day walk, sparkle in the sun and have a conscience. I mean, seriously??!!

    My point is that there is a vast storehouse of grown-up entertainment, meaty, rich, digestible music, movies, books, and magazines for us “adults” and you just have to wade through the marshmallow cream and scrape the gum off your shoes to get to it.

    1. You’re speaking my language. I admitted early on in this post that it’s not a blanket statement to say that the entertainment of the past was perfect and totally superior to ours. There were terrible movies back then as well as great ones, just like now. I just feel like the films that are driving the market today are just too wretched. The percentage of pablum to meaty is heavily slanted to the former nowadays, and I just worry that youth today–because this is all they know–will not continue to demand the level of entertainment we have. I see a day when Twilight will be considered great literature and Hot Tub Time Machine will be Oscar worthy because they are the benchmark of greatness.

  2. “…And I cannot even begin to explain how Vincent Price ranked above Sean Connery and John Wayne in the 60s…”

    I dunno, either.

    However, the inimitable Mr Price WAS in the prime of his horror/terror heyday in the 60s, with great performances in movies such as “Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Raven”, “House of Usher”, “The Oblong Box”, and “Last Man on Earth” (the 1st adaptation of the Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”)…. not to mention several “eggcellent” appearances on the campy “Batman” TV-series as the evil villain Egghead.

    Gotta give “Vinny” the gold for Most Unusual Performer, though. Just take a look at the variety of his TV and film credits and throw in things like “Narrative intro to Alice Cooper’s song “The Black Widow”… If you have a hankering to watch as the weird-torch is passed from one generation to the next, you need only to watch “Edward Scissorhands” to find Vincent Price as the Inventor and Johnny Depp as Edward, his creation.

    Still… I dunno. After all, Sean Connery and John Wayne aren’t exactly cinematic lightweights.

    Overall, I think you’re spot on in your evaluations, Jamie… ~sigh~ …guess this all means I need to step up my research and get my time machine up and running… SOON… before things get worse.

    1. Jim, I have always liked Vincent Price, but I couldn’t figure out how he ranked above Connery, especially when he was at the height of Bond fame!

      I think we can continue to hold high standards and teach kids about the films and music of the past, show them that there is better stuff out there. That’s how we stop the degradation. After all, Hollywood makes what sells. If we don’t keep paying for Transformers movies, they’ll stop making them. *oh please oh please oh please!*

  3. I can’t begin to tell you how much I liked this post.

    Everybody always accuses me of being terribly old-fashioned in my tastes from movies to music to even the way I speak. And you know what? I’m maintaining a shred of dignity even if nobody else will. That’s the key component that’s gone missing these last few decades: dignity. Even the so-called “serious” stars seem to be more concerned with getting on TMZ or clothing designers than actually being adults. Basically I see a gradual dumbing-down of our culture, not to mention a shorter and shorter attention span, and it scares the crap out of me. I sat down and re-watched the original “Twelve Angry Men” from 1957 recently. I can’t imagine a 20something or teenager getting through more than 10 minutes of it without squirming or wondering when a big giant CGI robot would show up. Also watched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Even though it was a movie about playgirls and playboys, they were all just, so, *elegant*. I could say more but you’ve said it well enough, Jamie.

    1. That version of 12 Angry Men is one of my favorites, so true to the original stage play! Breakfast at Tiffany’s has never been one of my favorites, but there is something to be said about the style!

      Some Like It Hot, Cool Hand Luke, Bridge on the River Kwai, Angels With Dirty Faces, Casablanca…so many great films kids might never even want to see. Such a shame.

      Thanks for reading…and for standing in the gap with me! đŸ™‚

  4. Amazing amount of time, work, and thought went into this post. Very impressive.

    Every generation is different and “different” doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse. I agree with you, though, that the standards for talent have waned over the years. With the advent of superlative special effects, actors don’t have to act as well for a movie to seem spectacular. Melodies don’t have to be catchy anymore because we want the lyrics to be edgy or the performers to be flashy. It’s more about the visual effects rather than the artistry. Or so it seems to me.

    Yes, we still have amazing artists in all genres, even if I don’t appreciate their artistry.

    This is a very thought-provoking post and I applaud you for your efforts!

    1. There are some talented folks still out there; Kristen Chenowith, Ray Lamontagne, and a few others come to mind. My biggest concern is that kids won’t know what they’re missing out on if we don’t constantly demand higher quality media. It seems impossible—like defending proper grammar these days.

  5. Wait a minute. What’s wrong with Sam the Sham?? Hmph. Hehehe…I do agree with you, though. I frequently shake my head and bury it in my hands at the state of modern music. There is much that is good, though, still. I find a small amount of solace in the fact that Adele got more Grammies than Kanye. Nevertheless, the fact that Kanye got any at all is still disturbing.

    1. I have to agree with you there. I hate to say this, but I’m actually not a huge Adele fan. I think it’s because they play her on the radio constantly. I’m burned out on her, I suppose. That and she’s terribly foul mouthed…

      1. Yeah, she’s very fond of the F-bomb. Her pipes are pretty impressive, but perhaps it’s the songs she sings that set me off. All of them are about bad breakups and mean men.

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