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In hard times, arts provide realism, escapism

In hard times, entertainment either grinds it out with the rest of us, or it waltzes.During the Depression in the '30s, there were stories about the plight of the nation's unemployed, like John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," alongside the extravagant musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In the '70s, gritty films like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" coincided with disco.As much as people
/ Source: The Associated Press

In hard times, entertainment either grinds it out with the rest of us, or it waltzes.

During the Depression in the '30s, there were stories about the plight of the nation's unemployed, like John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," alongside the extravagant musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In the '70s, gritty films like Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" coincided with disco.

As much as people want to see their experiences mirrored in pop culture, they also want to escape them. A year after the Great Recession began, it's clear that the same historical dichotomy is laced throughout today's movies, TV shows, pop songs, books and plays.

Most art takes time to produce, so it may be another year or two before the economic meltdown is fully ingested into culture. Nothing yet could be called the equivalent of E.Y. Harburg's classic 1931 song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" We have not exactly swapped the Kardashians for the Joads.

But the spirit of Harburg's lyrics is finding its way into our Recession-era entertainment, as artists have begun filtering today's experiences into their work.

"It informs more by osmosis," says Craig Finn of the rock band the Hold Steady. "You walk around, you look at life, you see things. Then you go to write, and the things you see and the things you experience tend to be the things you write about."

For years, Finn has written exuberant anthems about the down and out: characters both broke and heartbroken. As the Hold Steady prepare a new album, Finn says, the many people so close to losing it all "definitely fuels what I've been thinking about."

A song can be written one night and performed the next, making music one of culture's rapid responders. Jenny Lewis, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter, has performed her freshly written "Big Way" this year. Noting she hails from a bankrupt state (California earlier this year had to issue IOUs to vendors) she sings, "They're gonna get you in a big way."

Hip-hop dominated much of the '90s and the '00s with songs about wealth and excess. But you don't see many flashy videos that brandish bling for the camera anymore.

Perhaps the rapper most befitting today's times is Kid Cudi, the ascendant MC and Kanye West protege from Cleveland. His demeanor is more modest, his songs nakedly introspective. On his recent single, "Pursuit of Happiness," he sings: "I know everything that shines ain't always gonna be gold."

While Cudi sings about dreams, "American Idol" — still easily the top TV show in the land, despite a dip in the ratings last year — makes them come true. Stories of second acts and new beginnings are particularly powerful in hard times.

"The thing that links (the escapism and realism) is an interest in ordinary people," says Morris Dickstein, author of "Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression." "In hard times, people identify very intensely with people who do extraordinary exploits."

The Cinderella story of Susan Boyle, Dickstein says, is a "typical Depression kind of thing." The 48-year-old British singer became an overnight, global sensation after singing "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables" on "Britain's Got Talent."

The show's creators, Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin, refer to Drecker as "a $1.50 coffee guy in a $3.50 latte world."

"All the characters are grappling with their economic reality," Burson says. "Each of them are asking, 'What is my worth?' Self-worth connecting to economic worth is one of the axes we operate on."

Television, like many industries in entertainment, is going through a dramatic upheaval not directly connected to the recession. The onset of digital media and the fracturing of the marketplace have been slowly changing — in some cases shrinking — the business.

That's relevant in considering new programming strategies like NBC moving Jay Leno to 10 p.m. A late-night variety show (like reality TV) is cheaper to produce than dramatic programs. Networks were already heading in this direction, but in the low-risk approach of post-meltdown TV, Leno and contest shows like the newly renewed "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" are especially appealing.

Similarly, the economics of the film business are also affecting what does and doesn't get seen. Independent film, in particular, has suffered. Most of the studios have shuttered their boutique divisions, consolidating behind more predictable and bankable blockbusters.

Movie deals were sluggish at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where cautious distributors picked up a handful of titles. Hard times were well represented among the festival's films, which included Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" and Jason Reitman's comic drama "Up in the Air," starring George Clooney as a corporate ax man who travels the country firing people for downsizing companies.

Aside from Moore's new film, the most notable documentary on the meltdown has been Leslie Cockburn's "American Casino," about the real estate bubble. Cockburn began it before the stock market tumbled and has had to update the film's figures throughout the year to keep it current.

Oliver Stone is working on a sequel to his 1987 classic "Wall Street." Steven Soderbergh also quickly shot "The Girlfriend Experience," a film about a call girl who visits distraught financial traders in downtown Manhattan.

"I feel like art should either have total perspective, meaning you're portraying something so far in the past that you really can see all of the moving parts of it," Soderbergh says. "Or it should have no perspective at all, where it's so in the middle of what's going on and there's no attempt to contextualize it."

Hollywood has historically done well in hard times, and 2009 has been no different. Box-office revenue is up nearly 8 percent over last year. The top film? The plainly escapist "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

The studios are rolling out fewer films to hunt for Oscars this fall, instead keeping the focus increasingly on next year's tentpoles, such as the planned "Iron Man" sequel.

In books, the same dynamic is apparent. Dan Brown ("The Lost Symbol") and Stephenie Meyer (the "Twilight" series) rule the charts. There have, of course, been many Wall Street exposes. Occasional recession-oriented novels have gained notice, like Sarah Strohmeyer's "The Penny Pinchers Club" and Jess Walter's "The Financial Lives of the Poets."

Many of the economic-themed plays have thus far landed in the more class-obsessed England. Lucy Prebble's "Enron" opened recently at the Royal Court but will come to Broadway next year. The British playwright David Hare will premiere "The Power of Yes," a play about the financial crisis, at London's National Theatre.

On Broadway, a revival of Harburg's 1947 musical "Finian's Rainbow" premieres in October. In it, a man attempts to bury a stolen pot of gold near Fort Knox and a corrupt Senator meddles. Audiences will surely chuckle at and cheer the musical's biting criticism of bankers.

Other such productions can be expected in the coming year, as stories of common people — as both antidote and catharsis — seep into today's corporate-owned world of entertainment.