Spears or Mozart: Have Our Memes Failed Them?

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Spears or Mozart: Have Our Memes Failed Them?

Erin Daly

_"Consider, for instance, one of Mozart's compositions, one that is retained stably in our concert repertoire... The persistence with which a Mozart symphony reappears in our concert programmes is solely a consequence of its high selection value. In order for this to retain the effect, the work must be played again and again, the public must take note of it, and it must be continually re-evaluated in competition with other compositions."
(Dennett, 348)

_The first thought to develop in my mind after digesting the above passage was this: Mozart achieved notability and longevity in the field of music, and so did pop queen Britney Spears. The thought continued to plague me. Use of the phrase "concert repertoire" is easily applicable to Britney. She performs music in a concert to an audience that adores her. They may be twelve-year-old girls and infatuated boys, but she keeps them as fans as her career progresses. Is this "solely a consequence of high selection value?" Britney's public continues to "take note" of her, a requirement for "persistence." The radio ensures that the work is repeatedly played to obtain the desired effect of inebriation and subsequently enforced pleasure.
_According to Dennett, permanency is acquired when "human conservators" prevent a piece of culture from a fate that means, "to dissolve in time." We all long for immortality, do we not? If a genie appeared and informed us we had three wishes, would not one of them be for something like fame, fortune, or immortality? Mozart has been conserved because of his selection value, because people have enjoyed his music and continue to enjoy it and deem it worthy of reputable celebrity. Britney Spears has achieved a similar preservation because her public has deemed her in possession of a high selection value, but does she warrant the reputable celebrity we give to Mozart?
_Once her public turns away from her, Spears will dissolve in the mind's eye. The same could someday occur to Mozart. Can we study Mozart and Spears under the same lens with the same rules? Dennett believes we have "competitions that rage through a human mind (359)." Competitions take place to achieve a high selection value, to gain longevity. There are memes that fight to occupy our attention, and somewhere inside of us there is something pulling on us to decide what we like or do not like, what we strive for or do not strive for.
_A "public" might consist of multiple individuals. A public decides what becomes popular. Each of the individuals within a public has an individual mind with an individual mind's eye that determines what cultural objects will or will not gain attention and will or will not maintain a cultural impact. The term "fifteen minutes of fame," which we use so widely to describe those seeking quick and effortless celebrity, can be reduced in scientific exposition to the competition occurring within our minds for control of what we find culturally important to us.
_The function of a meme, then, is to behave like gladiators in wrestling suits fighting for what Dennett describes as the "driver's seat" of our identities. This, in my opinion, is how we become adept at certain things and fail in others. I cannot compose music like Mozart, or dance on a stage like Spears, because my Mozart meme and my Spears meme were lost in the struggle. I can, however, write fairly well. I have the writing meme, but I do not have what Dennett claims to be the "musical meme." I do possess the memes that choose whether or not to enjoy both Mozart and Spears.
_"We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators (366)." Perhaps we have numerous on and off switches attached to our machines, and we can pull them on or off as we please. Does this mean that I cannot achieve certain ambitions because of my memes, or because of a personal resistance? Dennett believes "autonomy" is "just another fancy term for 'self-control'. (366)." We can control our "vessels." Britney has the self-control to put more clothes on in performances. She could become a goodie-goodie. That is not what we want from her. In our minds' eyes, we want her to be a sexual icon. Thus, in order to prevent her from dissolving in time, she must be the sex symbol she has become. Her theatrics are a result of what we desire in a performer, and in a way we have failed her. In a way, our memes have failed her.
_"Our selves have been created out of the interplay of memes exploiting and redirecting the machinery Mother Nature has given us (367)." I agree with this to a certain extent, but it is also troublesome in this particular argument. We use people who are predominant in our culture to fit our necessities, and sometimes we turn away and let them dissolve.
_What will happen to Martha Stewart when she goes to prison? To gain a public, she had to fit an image of the crafty housewife. In reality, she was a crafty businesswoman, but the two images did not coincide. When she overstepped her bounds and it came to light that as a crafty businesswoman she was less than perfect, far from it, she was punished accordingly, and now she cannot even manage her own business. What we see or do not see has everything to do with what we want to see or what we do not want to see. Our selves are subject to the influence of the interplay of other memes from other people. We create our own realities. It is a matter of what we would like to control.
_In deciding that Mozart is a brilliant composer whose music is a cultural artifact worthy of preservation, we have decided that many other composers before or after him were less than worthy, simply because he was selected to be our valuable piece of culture. In deciding that Spears is a sexy pop star whose music is a cultural artifact worthy of preservation, we have decided that many other girls before or after her will attempt to replicate the same success and will either fail or surpass expectations, simply because of what Spears has established as a framework of success. We allow only certain people to achieve permanency through cultural preservation, but we have memes that are guiding us to the decisions of what is valuable and what is needed to be dissolved.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolutions and the Meaning of Life. Simon & Schuster. New York, NY. 1995.

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