Magazine | June 25, 2012, Issue

Gradus ad Narcissum

‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice.” It’s an old line, and perhaps an obsolescent one. I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone use it. Americans don’t seem to want to get to Carnegie Hall, not if American Idol is auditioning round the block. And practice is one of those things, like math, the education system seems to have ceded to the Asians. These days, China not only makes most of the pianos, but plays them. David Goldman (the Internet’s “Spengler”) likes to point out the correlation between the study of Western classical music and success in science. “There’s a difference,” he writes, “between an engineer and an engineer who plays Bach.” Whenever he makes his case, even those of a conservative disposition fill up the comments section with objections: There’s nothing wrong with an engineer who likes rock-’n’-roll, or country, or thrash metal or gangsta rap or grunge . . .

Be that as it may, music has fled our schools: In California and New Jersey, you can reach twelfth grade without having heard a note of Mozart. At the school concert I attended this month, the students contented themselves with insipid group karaoke from the current hit parade:

’Cause, baby, you’re a firework!

Come on, show ’em what you’re worth

Make ’em go oh-oh-oh

As you shoot across the sky . . . 

Nobody shot across the sky. The performance barely shot across the footlights. But at the end the parents whooped noisily. A song about how uniquely extraordinary you are is given a pedestrian performance but showered with extravagant praise anyway. To my ears, there’s a sad desperation about these numbers, but I seem to be in a minority. And the principal alternative to songs about how extraordinarily extraordinary your sweetheart is are songs about how extraordinarily extraordinary you yourself are:

Yeah, yeah, when I walk on by

Girls be lookin’ like, “Damn, he fly” . . . 

I’ve got me under my skin. I believe I’ve noted previously, a propos what a recent survey of contemporary pop lyrics called the “narcissism epidemic,” Beyoncé’s song about how hot she looks when she’s dancing. I wouldn’t say she looks that hot, not in the sense of Dame Margot Fonteyn dancing Romeo and Juliet with Nureyev. But, as the late Whitney Houston observed, learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. And, if not the greatest, certainly a lot easier.

#page#Ease is the dominant characteristic of our pop culture. The other day, I took my daughter to see Snow White and the Huntsman. On balance, I’d have preferred Snow White and Jon Huntsman. In the snows of New Hampshire, the latter had way tougher odds than Snow White faces up against a supposedly evil queen of unlimited powers. The New York Times critic thought the new film “tries to recapture some of the menace” of old-time fairy tales, but Snow White, having been walled up in the tower for the best part of 20 years, makes her escape and in nothing flat is transformed into a kick-ass heroine à la Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean. She doesn’t need a kiss — and, indeed, when she’s poisoned by the apple, the prince’s kiss fails to wake her. He’s firing blanks, like so many chaps in our unmanned culture.

The huntsman chap — Chris Hemsworth — turns up in another blockbuster of the moment, The Avengers. Different movie poster, same pose, but, instead of an axe, he has a hammer. He’s the mighty Thor. I read Marvel Comics as a boy, and loved them, but Hollywood’s dependence on the superhero movie is as sad as those overinflated love songs. The Avengers is pretty typical. Thor’s evil brother has come to Earth to conquer it, and to do that he has to steal a thingamajig that he hopes to connect to a whatchamacallit that will open up a portal to something or other. The point is, before you know it, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the rest of the gang are zipping around Manhattan trying to prevent the supervillains reducing it to rubble. Humanity is confined to the non-speaking parts in the crowd scenes: “Heroism” is what people who’ve been bitten by radioactive spiders or born a shape-shifting mutant do. Until that happens to you, best to steer clear. And so a world of superheroes leads to a world without non-super heroes. A world, that is, without heroes.

The stories a society tells itself are not unimportant. Today, we have superhero movies but no westerns with beleaguered loners trying to live up to moral codes against the odds, and few films with amateur adventurers who find themselves caught up in something and forced to see it through because they understand that honor requires it. Perhaps this is because the ever more unreal computer effects require ever more unreal characters. Meanwhile, the supposedly unreal musical is as dead as the western, in part because it requires real human talent and, like Carnegie Hall, practice. The old-timey actors came with specialized skills: James Cagney and Bob Hope were both great dancers — and, as my old pal Sammy Cahn liked to say, that’s not even what they do. By comparison, what can Brad Pitt or Leonardo DiCaprio do? I notice a big dance solo seems to be about the only effect you can’t fake in CGI: If you can’t do it, you can’t do it, and the computers can’t help you.

So instead we have superheroes and vampires and kick-ass fairy-tale characters. We sing pop songs to each other congratulating ourselves on how just being who we are right now is so totally awesome why bother trying anything difficult? And we go to movies that, as the critic James Bowman put it, “isolate and quarantine heroism in fantasy-land.” So again, why bother?

Is a culture that communicates complacency and inertia likely to raise a generation of non-super heroes willing to make the sacrifices to, say, roll back our multi-trillion-dollar debt or reform Medicare? At Carnegie Hall and beyond, we are way out of practice.

– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (

Mark Steyn — Mark Steyn is an international bestselling author, a Top 41 recording artist, and a leading Canadian human-rights activist. That’s to say, his latest book, After America (2011), is a top-five bestseller in ...

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