Recently, as I was doing my extensive research for these little excursions, I was on my way to the refrigerator for another bottle of inspiration when I happened to overhear a report that stated pop music accounted for only 9% of all record sales. Frankly, I was stunned. All of the fawning media attention given to pop stars and their wares, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of pop music in every facet of American life, it all seemed a little excessive for less than a dime's worth of the American record-buying dollar.
Though I stopped listening to top forty radio when I got too old to pick up high school girls, and I haven't watched MTV since the M actually stood for music and not marketing, I've still managed to hear at least snippets of pop tunes. Despite my best attempts to the contrary, I know that little Spears girl apparently did it again, some fellow known as Nelly (what the hell?) has a hard time keeping his clothes on, and a funny white guy named after a hard-shell candy gets nervous in front of people.
So I got to thinking.
If pop, with only 9% of total record sales, can command such obsessive cultural saturation, what would it take for jazz to do the same? After all, jazz fans certainly have a greater command of disposable income than the average 15 year-old girl that pop music seems to be of, by and for. Mobilizing the kind of resources the average jazz listener can bring to bear might very quickly place our music back in the prime and in the process, make this country a wider, happier place in which to live.
Now, I know what you're thinking. You're also thinking that, in order to reclaim jazz's rightful prominence in the American cultural main, some compromises may be required. We'd have to dumb down the music, tart up our women, and require our men to tattoo every visible inch of their bodies and speak in a mixture of indecipherable colloquialisms and profanity. Eventually, one of us would be required to marry Jennifer Lopez.
I remind you, however, that one of the defining characteristics of pop culture is transience. Fifteen years ago, I sported a then-fashionable mullet and wore my skintight Levi 501 jeans tucked into my Reebok hi-toppers. While you can still see this look in Wal-Marts and on Dairy Queen parking lots throughout this fine land, it is nowhere near as chic as it was back in 1988. A few years from now tattoos will be embarrassing relics, the brand of a bygone herd; and closed-over piercing holes will be explained away as acne scars.
For pop culture to survive, it must be in a constant state of flux. The things that make a teenaged girl delirious at fifteen make her roll her eyes and sigh with the practiced ennui of a liberal arts major at twenty. The trick is to catch on at the right time, and adapt as we go. Jazz has never been afraid to reinvent itself, at one point going from good-time dance music to an atonal lab experiment in music for intellectuals not to get laid by within the span of a generation. If jazz could go from Benny Goodman to Pharaoh Sanders in twenty short years, then shoring up the gap between boy bands and Bebop should be no problem.
One potential problem, however, is the disparity in skill levels required between jazz and pop. Jazz requires a high level of technical ability augmented by years of practice and, in most cases, formal training. Pop requires secondary sexual characteristics and good hair. At one time, pop required at least the ability to sing or play an instrument. Now, most pop stars couldn't sing "Happy Birthday" without an effects processor the size of an industrial freezer or oversinging to the point of yodeling. And they couldn't play "Pop Goes the Weasel" on comb-and-tissue-paper. Rap asks nothing more than the ability to swear quickly over top of someone else's music and look menacing even while dressed like a rodeo clown who hit the lottery. Electronica is nothing that couldn't be achieved by a group of 12 year-olds playing with a demo Casio keyboard in K-Mart.
What I mean is that part of pop's appeal is in its eenie-meenie-meinie-mo path to stardom. Since any semblance of talent or ability has been eliminated as a requirement for pop success, anyone has a reasonable chance of making it big. Just look at American Idol. Can you imagine a television show where random people are taken off the street, given instruments, and expected to riff a few choruses? Or even asked what in the hell "riff" and "chorus" mean? While Wynton Marsalis assails them unmercifully for not swinging it like Louis did?
Note to creatively bankrupt TV programmers: I was being facetious, not brainstorming. I'd rather see another fatuous, unfunny sitcom or pretentious, "quirky" drama than another tired-joke high concept reality program. Not that I actually watch any of it. I've got cable, and I'd rather watch a two-hour Discovery channel documentary about corn than anything you network dry holes are pulling out of your collective primetime slots these days.