We watched the film Ray the other day, and a few things struck me. [BIOGRAPHICAL SPOILERS BELOW]
1. The life of Ray Charles bore many striking similarities to the life of Johnny Cash – at least as presented in the respective films Ray and Walk the Line, which I generally understand to have portrayed most of the fundamental historical events correctly.
Ray Charles lived 1930 to 2004 and Ray released in 2004. Johnny Cash lived 1932 to 2003 and Walk the Line was released in 2005. Both men lost a brother at a young age. Both men married young. Both men began successful touring music careers in their respective genres, partly by combining sounds in new ways. Both men had affairs and became addicted to drugs while touring. And both men more or less recovered and continued to make music into their seventies until they died. They had different skin colors and different genres, but they led remarkably similar lives.
2. At the height of his career, Ray Charles is portrayed as an immensely popular musician (again, just like Johnny Cash). I wonder if the future will hold such iconic superstars the way that the past did. For awhile now I’ve seen how technology is leading to an increasing “fracturing” of culture. On the supply side, the barriers to entry for producing a record or a movie for much lower now, and more people can do it than just the few that get lucky enough to get the big dollars and promotions. Thus, on the demand side, people can consume any niche of content that they want, as opposed to just the few songs that got played on the radio. (There are positive and negative arguments about the consequences of this fracturing – right now I’m just observing that it’s happening.) There used to be a few TV shows that a large percentage of Americans would watch and talk about; now there are dozens or even hundreds and it’s a big deal if a show gets a few million of America’s three hundred million to watch it. I had a college professor say that there’s no single book or movie she can reference anymore as a metaphor for explaining some concept – not everyone has seen Star Wars these days.
I don’t think modern music has any single artist that is big enough to captivate the nation, or the world, like Ray Charles or Johnny Cash – and certainly not The Beatles, who are famous for having singles that did not reach #1 for the sole reason that three or four other Beatles songs were topping the charts at the same time. Mumford & Sons are no Bob Dylan. Katy Perry and Lady GaGa are no Michael Jackson. Justin Bieber is no Elvis Presley. (Or do you think there’s a bit of selection bias going on? If I keep pointing out a bunch of old artists that used to be “super big” – what about The Beach Boys – how big could any one of them have really been? Two decades from now what will be saying about the 90’s and 00’s? “Nirvana captured the heart of the nation…”)
3. I was struck by the swiftness at which society can change. In 1961, blacks were still separated from whites at concerts and forced to watch from the “back of the bus,” so to speak. Ray Charles refused to play a segregated show in Georgia and was actually banned from playing in the state. Only eighteen years later, the Georgia legislature held a ceremony officially apologizing for the past as a “symbol of reconciliation” – and I suspect that this formal apology was following a societal shift that occurred even sooner. This has implications not only for another heavy subject of Ray’s film and life – the use of illegal drugs – but for many other things as well. In general I think it gives me a reason to be perpetually optimistic about society; no matter how bad you think things are getting it could turn around very fast.
Have you seen Ray or read elsewhere on the life of Ray Charles? What does it make you think about?