Word Bands in the early 80's, mostly rock-style with a performance poet in the lead, proliferated for a few years & wilted in the shadow of Rap's popularity.
the many stages of mix & mic
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There are many definitions for the term Postmodern describing the economic, political atmosphere of the 1970's into the 90's. It can be understood as a social psychological trend set forth by the Me, My, I Generation as they recovered from the post-traumatic stress around Vietnam. Maybe it is just a way to describe the popular reaction that took place in America because of the overwhelming pace of a new, hi-tec, atomic world and a new, high-powered style of American capitalism— multi-national mass consumerism. Life in America was starting to feel very impersonal, very absurd, meaningless to some.
Young artists were taking a cynical attitude. Literary academia needed a term to describe a wave of rebel writers. Rules had been broken before, back with the Beat Generation and the trippy writers of the 60's, but the dark & quirky 70's breed were really disturbing as they turned their backs on dreamy utopian visions. They were asking: Is there even a future worth dreaming about?
The new art, creative writing & intellectualizing expressed a strong skepticism and self-consciousness. What to call this cynical, self-absorbed tone that would define a whole generation of artists? These artists were using their talents to cope with a mega-modern world— massive amounts of information & the looming threat of nuclear disaster. They would be named Postmodernists.
The feminist movement made use of this label too. There was a fresh surge of feminism dissecting the "grand narrative" of America— the belief that this country had perfected a type of democracy that was ideal for everyone, a one-way to universal human happiness. Feminists asked, "But what about the 'mini-narratives', the personal stories of individual lives, tales of the common person's reality?" Things were not that grand for everyone, especially not for women.
The first women's movement, remember, was Susan B's right to vote. Spoken Word was (wo)manifested in the rousing Oratory of that earlier time. In the 70's, women got focused on equal rights in all arenas for all people, women and men. Sounds utopian (as in Modernism), but postmodern feminism said that a better world can only be achieved if every woman has the freedom to define herself outside of the old patriarchal framework. The recipe for achieving full human potential was first to actualize your Self, then, figure out what was going on with the local scene. Grassroots is where real change happens, "think globally, but act locally". Know how you feel, but scrutinize. Be logical, scientific and trust your Self.
With women waving the banner to challenge the old truths, the task then became a crusade to collect the new truths. But things had to be dismantled; things had to be broken down, examined, parts exposed. Consequently, things started looking a bit "edge-y", jumbled, fragmented. This, apparently, is what happens when Subjectivity and Skepticism go searching for Truth!
Postmodern youth were aptly called the I Generation, especially when writers joked about how everyone was a First Person now and (boo-hoo) all the old Third Persons were dead. It was a nice change really— A First Person is more genuine & has juicier tales to confess.
A new American humor was born. It was quirky & playful, yet harbored undertones of criticism, irony. Postmodernism often glared with painful intimacy. Pop culture came to define "cool" as distrusting of authority, living an honest, self-centric lifestyle, and all the while, staying up on current political issues. Everybody started "doing their own thing" and the best-selling bumpersticker said, "Personal is political".
Specific to the Spoken Arts, the trend was to record or produce performances of stories about the common person's perspective, as told in their own words. Oral histories had previously resided under the broader category of Storytelling until the trend got going in the 70's to document personal stories on audio, film & stage. This was largely spearheaded by feminist documentary artists who coined the label Oral Herstory. These candid testimonies of women's voices told of a unique perspective— here was Woman's view quite different from Man's view(!) and these documentaries validated the realities of "the other" gender.
The public's interest in Oral Herstory was widespread. Other Spoken Arts genres also expressed this straight-forward focus which so successfully exposed the myth of "democracy for all." Confrontational, street drama called Guerrilla Theatre became a popular grassroots tactic and served to increase public awareness around political issues. Improv Theatre (Improvisational) provided an expression of spontaneity for actors and experimental, independent theatre troupes flourished during this time. Improv typically consists of a series of outrageously off-beat skits employing audience participation. Actors invite ideas from the crowd for creating on-the-spot material.
Also, the Postmodern Era saw numerous solo, spoken word artists enjoying wide, fan-based support. Some performers, often academically trained actors, were on the small theatre circuit (touring) with minimalist stage productions called MonologueShows.These performances were often terribly intellectual, avant-garde in style and emotionally intense— a sort of mixed-bag power-play of oral history, minimalist theatre & co-counseling!
Comedy monologues were a blast for theatre go-er and grew into a multi-million dollar industry. A highly organized network of Stand-up comedy clubs sprouted overnight it seemed, and the mainstream general public was turning out in droves for a well delivered spoken joke.
Most notably, a new genre of poetry caught on, a sound & rhythm based form called Performance Poetry. It was becoming very clear that a live, oral performance of poetry (lyrical or prose-style) seemed to have more impact on an audience when it was coming at them directly— the writer in person, using heart-felt, natural movement, inflection and emotion. Poets became more concerned with how to convey the message than with the old literary rules of the message itself. This was stage poetry upstaging page poetry!
During this time, a handful of poets sprang up attempting to communicate a message without using any poetry at all! The Sound Poet uses sound only— no words (or at least none from any officially recognized world language). A Sound Poet creates a pseudo-language— a language known only to that poet by using "words" comprised of acoustics, electronics or vocalizations. Silence is an important component of this poetry. Can this really be considered a Spoken Art when no real words are spoken? Maybe this is the point— to raise questions about how people communicate, to ask ourselves if words really matter. And, how should we define language? Is what is not spoken as powerful as what is?
Technology. Here is what really drove the Postmodern Spoken Arts Era. Oh, the infinite potential for transmitting the words! The invention of the silicon chip (and the resulting affordable & specialized sound equipment that followed) opened up all kinds of possibilities for artists to play with sound and words. The new toys were effects processors, recorders, flanges, echo boxes, pitch changers and midi keyboards that housed an endless bank of sampled sounds. Two new spoken word genres born out of the electronic trend were Todd Swift's Canadian Fusion and Zoa Smith's Northwest Talkapella™. Both are word/sound genres heavy on homemade instrumentation and moody, emotive, electronic effects to enhance the poet's message.
Academia, high art curators and critics praised a development they dubbed "mixed media." This was described as art which drew on two (otherwise separate) artistic disciplines or artists of different disciplines working together to create a single work of art. For instance, mixed media describes a performer who is a dancer but is experimenting with text (words) in combination with movement— Kinetic Word. Or, mixed media might describe a number of artists from different disciplines (a poet, a dancer & a musician) combining their talents into a single performance or piece of art, and this is called Colab (a collaboration of artists).
Also, art galleries hosted mixed media visual art shows called Sound Installations. An example would be a visual piece (sculpture, relief, or physical installation) which was "wired for sound." As the viewer approaches the work, the artwork speaks directly to the viewer (literally & figuratively the artist hopes). Here are the first experimentations with the concept of interactive art. Later, in the 80's, this idea would be expanded on the web and become an essential educational & promotional tool.
There is no question that computer technology furthered the pace of artistic experimentation. The internet made it easier for people to share ideas. Niches of performers in previously isolated locales found out about each other. In turn, a wider audience found out about the niches. It was a heck of a lot easier to organize events, from local to large. People in the city learned about the rich cultural heritage of storytelling in rural America and people in less populated areas heard about the realities of street culture. The web spread wildfires of Urban Myth. Local literary groups organized strong regional & national Readers Series contributing to the success of otherwise unknown or fringe writers. A Readers Series event often allows time for open mic so local poets can share the spotlight with nationally acclaimed writers.
Even the business world zeroed in on the popularity of Spoken Word and borrowed performance secrets from the theatrically inclined. CEOs conceived a massive industry of public speaking experts called Motivational.
Geeky poets started downloading & uploading Spoken Word files to international audiences via Cyber-Stage. Now performance poets didn't have to worry so much about the difficulty of translating sound-based words to the page. Forget finding a book publisher. The new poets were far too busy dubbing copies of audio poetry to CDs & accommodating a new on-line listening audience.
One of the most profound moments of the Postmodern Spoken Word Era occurred when the art of Slam was embraced so thoroughly by the masses. (Is Slam perhaps the precursor to the current American Idol mania with audience members voting for favorite talent?) The success and attention that Slam events enjoy has been criticized, celebrated, and pondered as a socio-psychological mystery. One thing is for sure, it may be the most "democratic" art form in history, and it does seem to show that Americans really love a down & dirty competition, even if the gladiators are only wielding words.
The conventions that define Spoken Word rely on rhythm, pace, pitch and other musical concepts. It is more fully enjoyed in the auditory sense. We can envision Spoken Word teetering on a tightrope that joins literature with musical performance. It is no wonder Spoken Word lends itself so well to music collaboration. This fusion of word performance and music performance can be traced back through long-lived genres like Ballads, Jazz Poetry and Dancehall DeeJays, to name a few.
Dancehall music has long been a showcase for the popular music-based spoken poetry of Canadian Dub. Dub is rooted in French-colonial island Reggae and has enjoyed a huge audience in Canada even preceding the 60's. Also in the 70's, many a poet (non-rapper) in the US dreamed of heading up their own Word Band. Some pulled it off, some saw the poetry drowned out by a bad mix, but most got booed off stage by drunks who thought the "singer" was suck-y.
We all know what did fly—Rap— a fast-paced, lyrical, rhythm-n-rhyme driven word form that lends itself perfectly to a loud, bass-boosted beat. Rap played to a substantially large, black, east coast subculture in the beginning, but "who let the dogs out" was the US multi-billion dollar record industry. Hip-hop lifestyle and rap music became recognized, promoted & propagated worldwide with phenomenal success like no other school of music since Rock & Roll.
Because of the significance of Rap's influence on cultures worldwide and both its incredible appeal & continuing controversies, we give Rap its own broad category on the SpokenOak Genre Tree. Is Rap more a music genre than a spoken word form? Ah, in the Spoken Arts, sometimes it is as hard to define the line as it is to balance yourself upon it.
Finally, it's fun to imagine performance poets in the future looking back on the Postmodern Era. How will they perceive the history of Spoken Arts from the apex we call Futurwurds? Will they define Postmodern as an age when spoken genres were officially spotlighted, when word performers founded a global community of artists? Will they see a time when words rang true from living, real people.
Employing advanced sound technology, their voices might be able to echo back, soaring through the ages on some sonic-powered, time-bending, mega phonic device: "Praise to you, Po-mo friends! We value the digital relics from your time. Praise Po-mo, when the wurder's experience was first named— Spoken Word!"
|What came before Post Modern?|