Yesterday, my wanderings through the world of Wikipedia led me to a humorous mockumentary called “Yacht Rock”  which lovingly tackles the incestuous soft rock music scene of the late 1970′s and early 1980′s. According to the show’s creator, the series itself was inspired by the close interconnections between musicians, producers, and songwriters, which gave the skeletal framework of fact to hang a ludicrous storyline onto. Some of these themes include the raising of the spirit of a dead producer to scare Michael Jackson into recording the Toto-written soft rock hit “Human Nature” and a humorous explanation of a concussed and kidnapped Michael McDonald providing the smooth hook from “I Keep Forgetting” to give Warren G and Nate Dogg a #2 hit to win a ten year-old bet with Kenny Loggins. For those who appreciate the excellence of Michael McDonald as a background vocalist (starting with Steely Dan and also including work with Toto and Christopher Cross, among many others), the show demonstrates just how small of a community that music is, something I have commented on occasionally in passing .
What “Yacht Rock” so lovingly, if mockingly, demonstrates is the fact that the world of rock & roll music is a community, and a tight one at that. In fact, one may see that anywhere where someone reaches a position of power and influence in any sort of human endeavor, that area of influence tends to become an incestuous community. I have long noted, with my characteristic sardonic humor, about the way that ministerial families in my own religious background have tended to intermarry and cement links between different families of the same ‘class.’ This is due to a variety of reasons, but high among them are the spirit of community that people feel when they are involved in leadership together, and have a similar perspective in life. There is a certain espirit d’corps that results from intense shared experiences, and when this feeling of community is related to a desire to preserve one’s own place and privilege, and to give help to others who are in the same spot, the results are somewhat predictable, whether the people we are dealing with are rock & roll musicians, European dynasts, or Church of God ministry. People are people, regardless of the size or prestige or nature of their elite status.
There is a wide, but mistaken, belief that success in life is or ought to be due to the merit of one’s deeds apart from any sort of schmoozing or networking. Yet this has never been the case at all throughout human history, and we should not expect it to be the case. Rather, what we find consistently is that success requires becoming embedded in some sort of community, where the mutual ties of reciprocal love and respect give someone a legitimate place, and this place gives respect to their insights and to their creations and allows their spread. This is not something we should rail against, but rather a reality of life. What we do and what we accomplish is fairly meaningless so long as we are doing it by and for ourselves alone; it is only when we are a part of a larger community that we are concerned for and about that informs our work and that receives it and values it that our work takes on any kind of significance for the world at large. This community need not be united by time or space; Hebrews 11 presents the entire span of biblical history as containing “so great a cloud of witnesses” to the actions taken by contemporary believers, showing that all believers across space and time are united, through the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within them as part of a community of faith, part of a family of believers with a heavenly father. It is this unity that allows us to transcend the cultural and generational gaps that threaten to divide brethren against each other.
It is entirely to be expected that this universal in-group experience of humanity would lead predictably, even inevitably, to certain behavior. We show our priorities in life by what and whom we love and respect, and the time and energy and passion we give to others and to causes forms intense bonds with others of like mind and like spirit. Every world where human beings find success and achievement is a small world, because the recognition that one receives from success leads one to associate with other successful people who have also passed whatever gatekeepers exist. At that point, our simple self-interest tends to give us plenty of motivation to seek encouragement and support from others whom we recognize as talented and successful and who have mastered the social skills of being gracious and friendly and agreeable sorts of people who are easy to work with. Since the preservation of any social or cultural order requires a great deal of cooperation and mutual effort on a part of elites, who often face the challenging and unrewarding task of preserving their own positions and privileges and rank while also finding it necessary to bend or shift with the times and periodically allow the influx of new blood in order to preserve the vitality of the ruling order  by co-opting potential threats by embedding them within one’s community.
Sometimes this can be as lighthearted as having Jeff Porcaro (drummer for Toto)  or Michael McDonald or any other number of musicians in one’s studio work. I am no stranger to this, being a session musician of sorts in my local congregation, member of our choir, youth choir, smaller ensemble groups, and occasional solo work, all of which manage to keep me pretty busy on many Sabbaths and at times throughout the rest of the week as well. At times, though, this can be a matter of life or death. Many of the problems of Thai political instability, for example , result from a very simple refusal, or inability, on the part of a Bangkok-based political elite of allowing the rising and ambitious leaders of the North and Northeastern sections of the country into positions of full honor and respect. In the United States, we see similar regional tendencies where certain parts of the country (like the Southeast, Greater Appalachia, and parts of the West and Northwest) largely are seen as the butt of jokes for cultural elites based in California and the Northern and Mid-Atlantic states, which creates a regional tension that can result in massive cultural conflict when certain people perpetually are treated and feel like outsiders and even outcasts in their own nation. Most people strongly resent constantly being made fun of or being perpetually outsiders, and when this happens over and over again, the results can be deeply unpleasant and occasionally violent.
How then does one deal with this reality, given the dangers that exist and the vulnerabilities and insecurities felt by all sides? On the part of those who are ambitious strivers, there needs to be a recognition of what success in one’s chosen fields requires. It is not only narrow technical competence (though this is very important), but also competence in working well with others and being a productive and encouraging member of a community that tends to be required. Not only must ambitious commoners tend to have to pay a lot of dues, but they have to prove themselves to be the sort of people who are not threatening to others and whose efforts serve the community at large in order to receive the respect and honor and love of that community of which they seek to be a part. It is not difficult to be loved by a community where one has always belonged and where one has beneficial family ties that can provide additional legitimacy, but it can be a greater challenge to establish a good reputation and a good name if one is a stranger. At its heart, gaining entrance into communities is a matter of trust, and people have to show themselves trustworthy, which is not always an easy or a straightforward task.
On the part of cultural elites, the task is a tricky one as well. Cultural elites wish to preserve their own relevance and legitimacy in the eyes of those they lead and govern, and this relevance requires a sensitivity to the concerns and needs and longings of that larger society as well. Generally, the means by which elites preserve their legitimacy is by co-opting the most active and creative and ambitious people that exist within a given society into their elite community, which serves to harness that energy and ambition for larger goals that serve the interests of that community rather than fight against it. When elites are unable and unwilling to integrate others whose talents and abilities and ambitions merit elite status, the resulting conflict between rival elites for dominance can lead to great problems for the larger society, as is frequently the case in civil wars. At the most basic level of survival, the endurance of elites require that they be sound gatekeepers , able to properly vet and mentor prospective elites and allow enough people in to preserve the peace of the larger society while also preserving the desire of those existing elites for a continuance of their place of respect and honor. This is an unenviable task, fraught with many dangers and insecurities, and also requires a great deal of trust, yet it is the essential task of elites in preserving their status in the face of continual threats and dangers. Yet, the benefits of embedding energetic and striving people within the system instead of seeing them as outsiders are great, in that the energy and ambition of others can be changed from threats to opportunities for renewed energy and unity and achievement for elite communities that can have the tendency to grow old and stale if they are not revitalized by fresh faces and new blood.
In some says, the incestuousness of elite communities is inevitable. It is inevitable that people who know and trust each other and that wish for each others’ success will seek to help each other out, whether it is in providing backing vocals or session instrument work on each others’ albums, or whether it is in seeking reciprocal binds of friendship and marriage within their close-knit communities, so that eventually everyone in that community is connected with everyone else in some fashion. Such connections are, ultimately, not such a bad thing after all. Instead of condemning such tendencies, or merely seeing them as the occasion for dark and sarcastic humor, let us seek to understand the value of such intra-elite cooperation as providing incentive to admit new elites who show themselves to be friendly and talented, and to harness energies that could be used to create strife and drama to instead create beautiful art and lead to the flourishing of our families and communities and societies when that energy and ability is instead harnessed to serve. For, in the end, all of our striving and all of our creations are only of worth if they serve a larger community which in turn nourishes us and fulfills the passionate and intense longings of our hearts.
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