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Variety shows

It's typical to see media critics discuss how we've "disintegrated" into a niche society recently, from some peak cultural moment of homogeneity twenty or thirty years in the past. Since it's become so cheap to publish and disseminate your own work, since independent and DIY product now competes with industry-built entertainment product, since the sector is now an on-demand rather than an appointment-driven affair, since virtually every entertainment product ever made (along with an ever-widening pool of new material being made by the largest cohort of cultural producers in history) is always available for consumption at any given instant and so on, culture has lost the overarching unity once provided by shared reference points -- say, Johnny Carson. What will we say to each other at the water cooler if we are all lost in our own private maze of references? (Chuck Klosterman had a column in Esquire a few years back making this case.) We'll be trapped in our niches, or we'll have to embrace a new medium for friendship online, where we can filter out people until we hit upon those who share our particular taste peculiarities. Even worse, such a plurality might lead to a widespread relativism that says anything or everything should be tolerated or can be enjoyed or can warrant attention, and this attitude threatens to leak from culture into ethics and "family values."

It was strange to see critics lament this loss, since before so many railed against the soul-stifling horror of conformity and the tyranny of mass culture. Early in the 20th century, doomsaying cultural theorists -- people like Ortega y Gassett, the Leavises, Dwight MacDonald, Adorno, etc. -- were generally dismayed at the rise of mass culture, which seemed inexorable, and each innovation in media technology seemed only to consolidate a centralized grip on society's imagination. The studios, the networks, the big imprints, national magazines, the consortiums of radio stations and newspapers and so on, all of these seemed to have a greater share of the public's attention, and the public itself for the most part was seen as unified in its passivity and willing to be molded by whatever entertainment the industry found it convenient to provide. It seems obvious now that this analysis was backward. Were it to exist, the mass audience would provide an irresistibly desirable target for big business and political propagandists alike, and perhaps seduced by the implications of what a mass audience would mean for them, they argued it into existance. Moral dogmatists in America have always tended to lament the impossibility of imposing a unified national culture from above through a media they control to solidify their grips on the "mass" imagination -- on the "hearts and minds" -- and thus on power. (The conservative mind especially warms to themes that limit choice in the name of social rectitude. Limiting choice is a sure way of maintaining control; only recently have the advantages of a surfeit of choice as a means for social control -- the overconsumption/addiction model -- begun to be explored.) And economies of scale once may have implied a mass audience would be easiest to extract profit from, but the graveyard of failed shows and songs and novels and such demonstrates how fickle and recalcitrant that mass can be. In its beginnings, mass media hadn't the means to diversify in order to reach all the disperate audience blocs that have always naturally existed and fully exploit their commercial potential, yet it longed for an easily manipulable mass audience that could be uniformly gratified by its limited offerings and trained to expect more of the same, once marginal costs were reduced and the same crap with the same talent could be turned out. So a tension between the centralization of the means of entertainment and the inherent tendency of people to generate local scenes, if not wholly personal, individual frames of cultural reference became more and more pronounced as media's reach developed and extended, both undermining and enhancing the power of industry and the consumer alike. One result of this dialectic? The Captain and Tennille show.

I'm not sure I can explain why, but I spent the better part of Saturday night watching highlights from the first season of Captain and Tennille, which aired on ABC in 1976-1977. In case you don't know, the Captain and Tennille were Toni Tennille, a singer from Alabama who looked a little like Karen Carpenter crossed with a chipmunk, and Daryl Dragon, an arranger and synthesizer specialist who prior to becoming famous with Toni worked with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys on his spooky ballads for the Carl and the Passions album. As the Captain and Tennille, they scored a string of hits by taking established songs and giving them a sheen of gizmo electronica -- barf-bag effects and stray oscillator noises mixed in with some light funk arrangements, of such songs as Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around" and Neil Sedaka's "Love Will Keep Us Together." (They also did a version of America's "Muskrat Love," the tenderest ballad about rodent copulation that I know of.) Perhaps envisioning another Sonny and Cher, ABC gave them their own variety show and stocked it with guests from its own sitcoms and musicians from the L.A. soft-rock scene: I saw "performances" by the likes of Englebert Humperdinck, Leo Sayer ("You Make Me Feel Like Dancing"), Bread ("Lost Without Your Love"), and England Dan and John Ford Coley ("Nights are Forever"). Watching the show now, I found it nearly impossible to imagine how anyone could have watched it then (even though I have vague memories of having been subjected to it as a small child), but as an exercise in historical imagination it was pretty compelling.

It seems important to remember that the show would have been one of essentially three choices viewers would have had for TV watching -- there were no VCRs, no cable channels; you watched what was on the networks or you didn't watch at all. Networks couldn't cater to niches -- they wanted the largest audience possible to choose TV (people may have been less inclined to watch it by default then, have it on as an constant companion, as happens now). Hence the variety show: some singing and dancing, some comedy, and some showcases for performers trying to break out to a larger audience. It's tempting to see the lack of any alternative as leading to TV-production decadence; writers were sloppy, settling for half-baked ideas; costumers seemed to evaluate their work by the budget it required; guest stars acted as though unpreparedness would always come off as breezy charm; musicians faked their way through lip-synched performances; everyone was presumably high out of their mind on coke. But there was a kind of desperation to it as well, a striving for an impossible synthesis that no amount of money or writing or casting could ever supply. Captain and Tennille seemed especially ill-suited to the format -- they were no Donny and Marie, that's for sure. Tennille tried hard to manufacture cheerfulness and commit herself unflinchingly to the unbelievably hackneyed material, but Dragon -- at times indifferent, half-hearted, and palpably uncomfortable wih the contrived aspects of the show, barely bothering to mime his parts on the stack of keyboards he was typically parked behind -- looked like he was pioneering a kind of contemptuous irony about 15 years too early for popular audiences. The show's producers labored hard to build him a palatable personality, giving him an ersatz trademark (his variety of captain's hats, about which he was forced to make unfunny "hat jokes" in one running segment ) and trying to pitch him as a lovable curmudgeon, but he seemed to delight too much in the stubborness scripted for him. The show's formula tried to give a little something for everyone in a family -- dopey comedy for kids (an awful, awful segment called "Masterjoke Theater" that reeked of lazy writing); a sultry number from Tennille, often accompanied by a troupe of ludicrously costumed dancers; a rendition of a song from the current pop charts; some celebrity appearances; something old-timey, like a song with tack piano or a big-band arrangement; all stitched together with weak banter meant to convey the couple's chemistry and comfort with each other.

In short, it was a miscellaneous mess that has to feel pretty misguided to any modern audience, accustomed to shows that target their audience much more minutely. Slipping into moralist mode, I wondered if such shows taught those watching a useful kind of tolerance, a patience, a willingness to be exposed to material meant for others and take it in stride. I wondered if these shows could actually have brought families together (it was late, and I had been drinking). Perhaps it modeled respect for traditional culture, for practiced skills (like singing and dancing, like performing qua performing) whereas now all of that respect has been supplanted with a preoccupation with trend spotting and intentionally disposable youth culture. This line of thinking smacks a bit of technophobia similar to what this Economist editorial identifies, where new forms of entertainment such as video games are demonized simply because they are novel. In their own way, variety shows struggled with the legitimacy of novelty for its own sake: Not only did they attempt to balance mass and heterogeneous culture, the shows tried to tame novelty with a rigorous format and familiar show-biz routines. But the most striking thing about the Captain and Tennille was how it seemed blithely ignorant of youth culture and treated AOR as though it were hegemonic. It made me weirdly envious those who were adults in the 1970s, the last time culture at large respected them. Now 30- and 40-year-olds are expected to try to hang on and keep up with stuff made for teenagers, to pretend or fantasize about being forever 21. Otherwise they must retreat entirely into whatever specific niche they've marked out for themselves. Is it better to be in a culturally irrelevant niche than to belong to a dominant but moribund mass culture? Which is more responsible for the extinguishing of local scenes? Mass culture of the big-three-networks variety or hyperindividualistic culture that renders community activities irksome?

I don't know. I do know that I never again want to see a braless Toni Tennille wearing a satin pant suit and singing "Boogie Fever."

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