In the aural equivalent of Scooby Doo winning Best in Show at Westminster, the arts’ slide into the bottomless pit of mediocrity reached the point of irreversible early in 2006, with the release of that week’s Billboard magazine album chart. Barry Manilow’s new album had debuted at No. 1. Andrea Bocelli’s entered at No. 3.

This despite my repeated warnings, and those of a serious fellow named John Pitcher, the classical music writer sitting in the cubicle next to me at the time. Our disinterest in these two extraordinarily popular musicians is well documented.

“ ‘Mandy,’ Manilow’s first hit, was as inescapable as a leg-hold trap: You had to chew a limb off to get away from it.”
— Spevak, from an April 4, 2000, review in the Democrat and Chronicle.

“Bocelli’s technical weaknesses are well known. He has a limited palette of vocal colors and a narrow dynamic range. And he moves from his comfortable middle range to his head voice with all the grace of an inexperienced driver stripping gears.”
— Pitcher, from a June 3, 2001, review in the Democrat and Chronicle.

With this news, Pitcher went insane, and is now out in Omaha, Neb. How could we be so wrong? The very titles of the albums by Manilow and Bocelli suggested mediocrity. Manilow’s was The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, a nostalgia-fogged view for anyone who longs for the Eisenhower era. Any collection of great ’50s songs should include Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” although I have a hard time hearing Manilow singing salacious lines like, “Way you wear those dresses, the sun comes shinin’ through. I can’t believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you.”

And Bocelli’s Amore? Italian dinner music. If you’re looking for a collection of exciting classical love songs, how about Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle? Now there’s a guy who liked being married so much, he went through four wives.

As a burgeoning 21st Century Renaissance Man, you must be an esoteric leader. Let me get you started with a little Pink Martini. A shaker of cocktail-jazz-Latin-Japanese noir, the creator of this Portland, Ore., lounge orchestra is Thomas M. Lauderdale, a Harvard-trained pianist who stays awake at night, worrying about the condition of his roof, and the world. While lamenting the world’s troubles during a phone interview, Lauderdale placed our crumbling school systems, the war in Iraq and WalMart at the top of his list.

“I don’t get why people don’t understand that, by going to WalMart, they’re really hurting their neighbors,” he said. “People complain about it, yet they don’t buy local. It seems like basic math.”

It’s more than basic math. Enter any of these vast shopping boxes. Walk among the aisles of pearls-on-swine beauty products, greeting cards expressing lame sentiments that you can’t come up with on your own and women’s lingerie decorated with cartoon characters. Make your way to the music section. And there, elbowing aside true artistry, are No. 1, Barry Manilow, and No. 3, Andrea Bocelli.

Pick one up…. It’s easy.

Even Lauderdale conceded he had once fallen under WalMart’s sway. He lives in a house built in 1878. Late one night, during a torrential rainstorm, his roof began leaking. The only place open, where he could buy tarps, was WalMart.

“I suddenly understood why everybody goes there,” he said. “They had all of this stuff, for cheap. And I wanted all of it.”

The urge passed.

Pink Martini avoids the music of, as we like to joke around here, dead white men. It prefers lively compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos (dead, but Brazilian), Ernesto Lecuona (dead, but Cuban) and Michio Yamagami and Yoichi Suzuki (Japanese, although I’m really not sure how they’re feeling). And on the night that I saw Pink Martini, accompanied by our local orchestra, the largely philharmonic audience in the hall, used to a diet of Shostakovich, Elgar and Mozart (dead, dead, dead), seemed energized by this exotic musical cuisine.

You’ve heard the criticisms of WalMart: That it smothers your town’s family-owned hardware stores. That American manufacturers must increasingly shut down plants in this country and turn to inexpensive labor overseas in order to compete with the cheap wares that WalMart offers.

And whose faces do you see staring from the racks in the WalMart music section? Like garden hose manufactured in China, Manilow and Bocelli signal the decline of our culture. As a 21st Century Renaissance Man, you can fight back in the most-civilized of ways: dim the lights, settle deeply into your music-listening chair, and enjoy a Pink Martini.