Aaron Copland premiered his "Fanfare for the Common Man" in 1943, a soaring and triumphant tribute in honor of - take your pick - soldiers fighting at that time in Europe and the Pacific, American taxpayers who consented to an early filing deadline that spring, and the poor woman who cleaned his office at night - depending on which music historian is to be believed. Fanfares generally are composed as tributes, or to announce with trumpeted flourish the entrance into the hall of some great individual. Copland's fanfare to the working stiff was deliberately ironic, but the sentiment it expressed has deep roots in American culture. What Charles Taylor has described as "the affirmation of the ordinary" that is commonly found in Western societies - the elevation, that is, of "those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction," i.e., work, marriage, and family - has its point of origin in biblical piety.6 The writings of the Hebrew prophets, the parables of Jesus, Augustine's doctrine of original sin, St Francis of Assisi's memorable embrace of poverty, the trade guilds of medieval Catholic Europe, Martin Luther's declaration of the "priesthood of all believers," and John Calvin's idea that all kinds of labor necessary to the maintenance of human life are divine callings of equal standing with every other - the cumulative effects of these messages of social leveling have slowly eroded the much older aristocratic ethic of honor and glory that justified steeply hierarchical social orders, overcoming them in the modern period with an "innerworldly asceticism," to borrow Max Weber's term, that exalted the lives of hard working farmers, bakers, and merchants. This long simmering social ethic came to America with the Puritans, and has persisted ever since as a strong undercurrent, one that certainly holds sway in popular culture.
Think of the fiction of Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck ("those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God"), or more recently, of John Updike, Sam Shepherd, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley and Dave Eggers, whose novels are all hymns celebrating the nobility of ordinary life, even at its most sordid. Or consider the endorsement of social egalitarianism in these Oscar-winning pictures of the last several years: The Titanic, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, Pretty Woman, Dances with Wolves, and Driving Miss Daisy. A critique of class is often attached to the theme of romance, as can be seen in such classic plays as Romeo and Juliet, Sabrina Fair, and Pygmalion, each of which has transmigrated into popular cinema, invoking the still disruptive theme that true passion is a stronger force than social class. Or, tune into country-western radio, where such perennials of ordinary life as home, family, work, and heartache are celebrated in song, along with simple virtues like sincerity, honesty, and loyalty.
Or consider the broad appeal of Bruce Springsteen, whose lyrics have for 30 years extolled the resilient goodness in the hearts of steel workers, waitresses, migrant farmers, war veterans, circus performers and factory hands, in contrast to the cold and exploitative hearts of corporate executives, company owners, and politicians. In his song "Youngstown," after rehearsing how generations of a family have worked the hot furnaces firing steel, provided for their families, and sent their sons to war, the mill closes, and, Springsteen finishes: "The story's always the same/700 tons of metal a day/Now sir you tell me the world's changed/Once I made you rich enough/Rich enough to forget my name." Behind Springsteen stands a discernible lineage of musicians holding onto the contrarian idea that the last shall be first and the first shall be last: Tom Waits, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Their social ethic and its musical inspiration has its roots in gospel music, and such gospel and soul singers as Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.7
Even the innovations in retail and marketing that have occurred in America, beginning in the nineteenth century, have contained this germ of blasting a fanfare to the common man and woman. In the 1860s in Philadelphia, John Wanamaker pioneered the concept of the department store as a great and elegant public space, open to all comers, where social classes could stand shoulder-to-shoulder consuming his merchandise. He introduced such innovations as the money-back guarantee and the set price, which provided the reassurance to his customers that they were all being charged equally and treated fairly, whatever their socioeconomic status. He developed a training program for his employees based on a principle that has a Kantian echo: "Place yourselves in the customer's place and give such service as you would like to have given you were you buying instead of selling," and with such practical advice in the handling of customers as "never allow an unspoken grumble to appear on your face."8 This customer-friendly approach was not invented by McDonald's; and while it was good for business, it also revolutionized the marketplace in a way that democratized consumption. In theory and to a great extent in practice, customers from the working class were welcomed into the same magnificent marble and glass palaces and treated with the same tone of respect as those from the affluent class. Following Wanamaker's lead, lavish department stores with similar open-door policies had opened in cities across the country by the turn of the century.
While Wanamaker's is out of business now, and many of the old flagship downtown department stores with their multi-storied light wells, mosaic domes, vaulted grand courts and crystal dining rooms have closed, their egalitarian impulse survives - if less elegantly - in the big box stores, shopping malls and Wal-Marts that put them out of business. As if to reify this impression, Wal-Mart has for several years featured Robin Hood and Zorro, two legendary champions of the people, in its advertising. The two dash around the store dropping prices, Robin Hood with his well-aimed quiver of arrows, Zorro with his deft swordsmanship. And while Wal-Mart genuinely is a store of "the people," at least of their customers, this bit of fetishism handily conceals the exploitative treatment of their suppliers and much of their own workforce that has been refined to a science by their corporate managers.
This affirmation of the ordinary in popular culture is also found in the development of tourist sites. Even more than in the practice of religious pilgrimage that preceded it, the emergence of tourism in the last two centuries has thrown people together from different walks of life. The phenomenon of such US tourist attractions as Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, periodic World's Fairs, Coney Island, Las Vegas, and Disneyland is one in which people mingle, overhear each other's family squabbles, stand in lines, and eat alongside one another in a great democratic melee that is uncharacteristic of most other aspects of their lives. These sites have a power of attraction over both the mighty and the humble, enough to draw them onto a common stage that has many of the intangible but lasting effects that Victor Turner described in his reflections on liminality and communitas.
What all of these artifacts attest to is one of the strongest themes that is carried in the anthropology of popular culture: that the common sense and simple virtue of plain-speaking people whose grasp of reality has been shaped by the most mundane pressures of life are more real and praiseworthy than those of the pampered, privileged classes. The grasp of what matters in life is more immediate in their consciousness, more authentic, and therefore truer. This is the triumph of the ordinary, and it has invested the image of the hard working, dutiful citizen with an aura that the different genres of popular culture scramble to imitate and reproduce. Jesus the carpenter, Tom Joad, Mickey Mouse, Rabbit Angstrom,
Marge Simpson, Jack Dawson, Frodo Baggins and Forrest Gump serve in this stream of popular culture as moral exemplars and religious symbols.
In this, the great unwashed replaced the noble aristocracy as the most trustworthy instrument of divine will. Democracy and public schools are institutions that reflect this great shift. We commemorate the shift with Labor Day, a holiday dedicated to the working stiff. As Robert White has argued, "If once God's wisdom was expressed in kingly anointing, now it is expressed in the voice of the majority."9 In the background of this great comic reversal, this message about the humbling of those who exalt themselves and the exalting of those who are humble, is the persistent biblical chorus, summarized by Paul: "Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (I Cor. 1.26-27). The role of such core theological dogmas as original sin, the priesthood of all believers, and Peter's instruction that "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10.34) have survived to do their work in this religion3 track of the exaltation of the ordinary.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.