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Our National Commonalities Continue To Slide

June 29, 2009

One of the themes that gets lamented about on this blog is the continual diminution of our national commonalities.  Those things that unite us as a nation because we all participate in them, and therefore are bonded to some degree as a result, or at least all start more or less with the same reference point.  Be it the splintering of how we educate our kids, the lack of a national newscast (such as Walter Cronkite and the CBS Evening News), and the loss of newspapers.  In the last few days more and more has been written about this trend also impacting the entertainment world.  (See below)

I think it important for the fabric of a nation to have certain foundation points that we all start from with somewhat the same basic understandings and framework.  A truly fragmented and disconnected nation is not a healthy one.   Being unique and having specialized individual interests is fine,and is to be applauded.  But there is a larger need for things that bind the generations one to another, regions of the nation one to another.   It just seems more and more there are less and less of the latter, and more of the former.  That concerns me. 

When will another pop culture figure mean so much to so many that people are moved to assemble, hug and dance?

This is a tribute, of course, to Mr. Jackson’s singular gifts — his voice, songwriting talent, physical grace, and the list goes on and on. But there is the related matter of historical timing. Fame on the level that Mr. Jackson achieved is all but impossible for pop culture heroes today, and quite likely it will never be possible again.

On the most basic level, this is matter of business and math. Michael Jackson has sold an estimated 100 million copies worldwide of the 1982 album “Thriller,” which spent more than 31 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts.

It’s one of those high-water marks that nobody will touch, because record stores are vanishing, and along with them, megahitalbums are vanishing, too. A big week on the Billboard charts is a quarter-million units sold, which is about the number of units the Jonas Brothers moved last week with their latest release, which opened at No. 1. And it’s rare for an album to last even three weeks at the top.

People who buy music tend these days to buy — or steal it — online, a song at time.

But even if nobody achieves album sales on a Jacksonian scale, couldn’t he or she be an artist every bit as popular, every bit as loved, every bit as listened to?

Probably not. The pop-idol field — like every field that can lead to super-fame — is more crowded than it has ever been, and the variety of routes to stardom keep growing. When the Beatles were on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, more than 70 million people watched, that is, more than one-third of the entire population of the United States. Yes, the Beatles were that good. But at the time, there were three networks and the radio. No Facebook, Twitter, video games, movie multiplexes, Sirius radio, malls or a dozen other potential drains on an audience.

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