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The Daily Tar Heel

Creativity, originality and the tech age

On Jan. 20, the iconic blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll singer Etta James passed away at the age of 73. And to be honest, nobody really said that much.

James lived through a time of transition incomparable to any other in the United States. Born in 1938, James experienced post-war, civil-rights and information-age America.

She moved among music styles because she had to. Her changing sound was a reflection of an American culture that had only one constant: regular upheaval.

In the tumultuous decades of James’ career, America’s zeitgeist changed every 10 years. From the 1920s to the 1980s, each one was characterized by a new cultural concept. Fads, trends and artistic styles came and went with previously unseen speed.

We garnered an incredible variety of art from these mini-eras. But as a result of such great change in so many short periods of time, it seems that now all we can do is reflect and reinterpret — or can we?

In a recent article by cultural critic Kurt Andersen that appeared in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, the writer contends that in the period between the 1990s and today, there has been almost no stylistic or aesthetic change in the cultural world.

The technological boom is indisputably a phenomenon, but it’s all virtual. After such rapid-fire shifts, jumps and ideas, it appears we’ve stalled slightly.

Sure, the mediums and capaciousness for art and style have expanded exponentially, but the actual substance of what is being produced is, well, less than progressive.

According to The New York Times, the top seven box office successes of 2011 were all sequels. Likewise, many of them were technological and visual triumphs; the list included the last “Harry Potter” film, the latest “Transformers” installment and the computer-animated “Cars 2”.

“After all,” writes Andersen, “such a sensibility shift has happened again and again over the last several thousand years, that moment when all great cultures — Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British — slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.”

James didn’t necessarily break molds, but she shifted gears to stay contemporary. She managed to transcend genres, transcend eras, effectively transcend all the other talents who were constantly springing up to compete with her.
For better or for worse, it seems the new age finally got the best of her when Beyonce Knowles, not James, was invited to sing the iconic song, “At Last,” at President Obama’s inauguration.
Knowles did a beautiful job, and she was an appropriate choice given Obama’s themes of energy, newness and change. But in our eagerness to utilize that which is new in our time — technology — have we lost sight of true originality?

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