You’re Simply the Best!

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You’re Simply the Best!

by Duane Sharrock

Sally Field, misquoted

The historic change in how people perceive success and winning has never become more public nor more dramatic than during 1984’s Oscars Ceremony.

When Sally Field, aka Sally Margaret Field Mahoney, received her Oscar for Best Actress in 1984’s Places in the Heart, she said, “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” She didn’t actually say, “You like me. You  really like me.” That was just the meme that someone generated. The meme quote is the one that sticks.

However, whether you interpret her actual quote or the meme quote, it is clear that the message she has received for winning an Oscar for Best Actress was not that her award was based on quality, nor did she actually acknowledge the legitimacy of those judging her. Instead, she is saying that being the best is a popularity contest. And in her real quote, by saying “right now”, she is noting that this is yet a fleeting moment of popularity and respect.

Maybe this kind of acceptance speech is typical of award shows. Maybe, at  each Oscars Ceremony, winners may make a point of critiquing the judges or the process of judging or the authenticity or validity of the award itself. Ultimately though, the importance of the apparent message in this acceptance speech should be understood as an indication that the modern age is shifting to the postmodern age. This shift may have begun with World War 2, but the dissolution of assumptions and the systematic dismantling and dissection of our society’s “sacred cows” are picking up speed.

Winning the grand prize is not authentic like it was in the good old days of the modern age. There is no “grand prize” in the postmodern era. The two “times” are different: “Where modern thought emphasises direction, order, coherence, stability, simplicity, control, autonomy, and universality, postmodern thought emphasises fragmentation, diversity, discontinuity, contingency, pragmatism, multiplicity, and connections.” This shift in values and metaphysics was just like when the industrial age made itself known by carving suburbs out of rural areas, imposing on the seasonal, diurnal days of the farm, and drawing the farm’s able-bodied workers from the crops to the cities, offering new kinds of work.

The value shifts didn’t happen all at once though. The industrial age had different impacts on the different regions of the United States. It also slowly transformed how we defined success and what it means to win.

We reveal our mindsets with our vocabulary. postmodern ideas and language are moving out of the academic and artistic silos and spreading out from the socially elite into the general public. postmodernism is getting a firm hold on the American mind. It’s values and aesthetics are spreading, increasing in popularity.

But what is postmodernism?

“According to one theorist, postmodernism is the passage from ‘solid’ (stable) times to ‘liquid’ times (Bauman 2007). It is the end of traditional structures and institutions, and the end of what another theorist calls ‘grand narratives’–the big, one-size-fits-all stories of modern thought (Lyotard 1984). There is a loss of faith in the idea of ‘progress’, the idea that we are gradually heading along the one true pathway towards certain universal goals – such as the full picture of knowledge, or equality and justice. Instead, there is an emphasis on multiple pathways and plurality; on diversity and difference; and on the partiality of all knowledge (that is, the idea that we can only have an incomplete picture, and the idea that all knowledge is biased). Change is seen, not as a linear progression, but as a series of networks and flows, connections and reconnections that, because they are always forming and reforming, never have time to solidify.”

from “Postmodernism” on Website “Shifting to 21st Century Thinking in Education and Learning”  http://www.shiftingthinking.org/?page_id=53

This is the language of 21st Century learning as well as the driver of many different education reform initiatives. It is true every time we quote or hear the quote “one-size-DOES-NOT-fit all” or deplore the belief in the universal.

This is why the criticism of “Everybody gets a trophy”, or rather the criticism of the *perception* that “Everybody gets a trophy”, reveals fear and ignorance, fatalism, and indicates the difference between growth mindsets and fixed mindsets.   The growth mindset is part of the postmodernism because it defies limitations and fatalism..

It is the end of an era.

Who’s Simply the Best?

One of the many ideas that confused me as a teenager and young adult was what made a great singer. What are the criteria? I was in chorus, played music on piano and saxophone, so I had some understanding of what it meant to be both a consumer as well as a performer. But the differing critique aesthetics of the singing voice confused me. It still does.

Towards the end of every year, everywhere we go, we can find lists of the best. There are top-10 lists, top 50, top 100. In the United States, on Sundays, I used to tune in to The American Top-40 with Casey Kasem. These lists are generated after crunching numbers. Mainly, the lists are created based on quantity, not quality.

“Here we go with the Top 40 hits of the nation this week on American Top 40, the best-selling and most-played songs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. This is Casey Kasem in Hollywood, and in the next three hours, we’ll count down the 40 most popular hits in the United States this week, hot off the record charts of Billboard magazine”
— Casey Kasem at the beginning of the inaugural AT40 broadcast

When it comes to judging the “best” based on quality though, many people disagree. Some people may argue that certain names or titles should replace others.

There are many different “gate-keepers” who award the title of “best voice”. Not only is “the best voice” described using a variety of synonyms, critics of the different music genres have their own apparent aesthetic qualities. What are the qualities of a great singer of soul music? What makes a great rock and roll singer?

The Rolling Stone does something different as a gate-keeper. If you look at Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers, you will see 100 different descriptions of who makes the list and why. There is no single, set criteria or aesthetic. This marks the writers of this magazine as postmodern. The article includes many.

What do great jazz, blues, country western, and folk singers have in common? This is not clear either. It is similar to comparing apples to oranges. There is no simple definition. Expanding criteria to include the qualities of singers from all over the world further complicates with aesthetic qualifiers. Instead, the list defies the existence of universal values and does not require examples of greatness to fit into some simplified definition of singer greatness.

Elitist impulses are behind the question. Does even elitism belong to the modern era rather than the postmodern? It becomes clear when you begin to search for the experts who get to define the values of a “refined” culture, for opera and classical choral pieces. Looking for these experts, after all, suggests, that there is a rationale. A unified rationale is the same thing as a grand narrative. The grand narrative itself is modern rather than postmodern.

There was a time when what we called “classical music” was popular music, so it is inaccurate to claim that some of the singers have a “leg up” because of the ability to sing classical pieces. I bring this up because I have seen and heard similar connotations that movie actors are more skilled because of their experience rather than for the actual performances. Critics may argue for example that since the actor has performed Shakespeare, this makes them a great actor. TV actors, actors on the “small screen”, were considered lesser skilled simply because they were on television. A movie star who makes appearances on a tv series or sitcom would be considered a “over” as in, that career is over. Maybe this was due to the quality of scripts of the earlier days of television, but now, distinctions are made, again. Nowadays though, Kevin Spacey is thriving on a critically acclaimed small screen series.

There are also more channels. On top of the cable television channels, there are also Internet shows and other formats. The shows sustain the stations with their own fan bases. Actors and other creatives are getting gigs, and whole new markets are opening up. Meanwhile, “undiscovered” actors, scriptwriters, directors, and the other people behind productions are getting the their shots at stardom at a lesser level on YouTube and some other video-based social networks. This is also true for musicians and singers. It’s true for performers of all types belonging to too many genre and art forms to list.

It’s as if everybody wins.