not defending the guy, but…
I get that some people would not like his art; that’s fine. What I don’t get is why there is such a jihad against Kinkade. If these paintings were mine, would anyone be up in arms about it? It’s Kinkade’s supposed influence as a cultural tastemaker that is getting everyone so upset, not his art at all. It’s the fact that he’s made $4 billion on prints sold to “trailer trash” and grandmas that has got everyone’s panties in a bind. His fans are people who are low on the societal totem pole, have low incomes, and aren’t well connected. Oh, and based on their other tastes, they are unqualified to judge art (unlike me, of course!).
We end up with long articles like this one, where people supposedly radiating with class and taste expound on the awfulness of Kinkade by boiling his work down to 16 fairly lame sounding artistic criticisms that prove why he’s so bad. Here’s one little gem:
10. Short focal length. In general, I love a focal plane that favors the center of interest, and allows mid-distance and distant areas to remain blurry. Recommend “stopping down” to shorten focal lengths.
Normally, we’d not really be sure whether short focal length is a good thing or not. But since we know the article is about Kinkade, clearly this attribute is the mark of horribleness in artistry. Gawd, I hate paintings with short focal lengths, don’t you?
I see no reason why a similarly reductivist analysis of Monet seeking to boil down Waterlilies into a semi-organized file of unappealing epithets wouldn’t also work as a withering critique. Oh wait, I do see a reason: because Monet has a priori credibility and Kinkade doesn’t. If you think articles like that one work as takedowns of Kinkade, they do. But it’s not because they are insightful and contain meaningful critiques of Kinkade’s work; it’s because they preach to the choir on a subject that both authors and readers have already been trained to despise and disdain. Aesthetes have already been socialized to take an unwavering stand on Kinkade so arguing that short focal length is bad is presented (and accepted) as axiomatic and self-evident.
It seems to me that the purpose of all the criticisms of Kinkade serve not to illuminate so much as to reaffirm prevailing taste cultures in the social classes that these criticisms stem from. This is philistine art for the tasteless masses, and I’m not a part of that group. I’m part of an educated elite with class and taste. So I must hate this in order to maintain my identity.
I realize that by arguing these points, I sound like 1) I’m defending Kinkade, which I’m actually not, 2) I’m being a contrarian that is deliberately trying to buck social trends in order to subvert expectations (perhaps in order to gain the sort of social capital only available to the artistic renegades). But I’m not. I just think it’s somewhat pointless to create hierarchies of bad art and good art. It’s all contextual, and it’s all based on who you know, your educational background, and who you spend time around. See Bordieau. See Veblen.
Based on the kind of reverse-engineered “arguing backward from a conclusion”- style criticism we see in the above Vanity Fair article, Howard Finster should probably be considered terrible— that is, if you judge the art alone. But of course, his back story is a good one because it so perfectly fulfills the upper class’s taste for mysterious outsider artists who live on the margins of society and operate in a world outside of the commercial. Taste for this guy has nothing to do with the art and everything to do with the cultural contexts, and where the artist is situated in place and time. If he was a rich lawyer from NYC with a right-wing blog, I’m fairly confident that no one would give Howard Finster the time of day.
But saying you like Howard Finster has cultural cachet because of who he is and who likes him (the Talking Heads used one of his works for one of their album covers); it also means that where he’s situated makes you less inclined to take critical views, the same way you rarely hear anyone criticizing Matisse or Cezanne. It’s too risky to say anything even if you do have a divergent view, because expressing it may reflect poorly on you within your social network, which has been trained to feel (or at least say that they feel) the same ways about the same things as you.
Again, NOT defending Kinkade, as this isn’t a commentary on art per se. It just seems quite apparent to me that people who think that Kinkade is bad and think it has nothing to do with their cultural influences and social strata are completely in the dark about how taste cultures work. The level of hate and scorn leveled on the guy completely outstrips his ostensible badness as an artist. The hate has everything to do with social identity, and little to do with art. It has to do with him being a “huckster”, a Republican, a capitalist, a man who sells prints that go in lower-middle class bathrooms. The concept of Kinkade is an affront to people who think of themselves as intelligent. Calling that a defense of Kinkade is be conflating a defense of the man with a critique of the logic. While my intent is not to defend Kinkade, I’m still going to come out and say it:
I think Kinkade is all right; sometimes I like looking at his work. I wouldn’t put him in my top 10, but for certain moods I don’t mind him at all. And guess what? Matisse sucks. I hate Matisse! Give me a Kinkade any day of the week!
you can learn a lot when people hate you
Not too long ago, I went to a party being thrown by Rob, a sociology graduate student and friend of mine in Madison. Soon after I arrived at the party, he introduced me to a fellow sociology grad student “Peter”, who he thought I would like to meet.
Before I could say anything, Rob tried to connect us: “Peter, this is my friend Rahul— he’s a marketer. Rahul, this is Peter. Peter is a socialist.”
A socialist? “You mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice. For the record, what Rob said— quite possibly among the most awkward introductions of all time— was not intended as a joke. Peter actually was a card-carrying socialist.
“Oh, you mean like Barack Obama?” I cracked, trying to break the ice.
Peter did not laugh at my Obama joke, which was intended to point out the ridiculousness of trying to label a US President a socialist when real dyed-in-the-wool socialists see him as nothing of the sort. Instead, Peter tilted his head and gawked at me inquisitively, perhaps as if I had just descended from an alien planet or if I was a bizarre, mythical object he had previously only read about.
I suspect that Peter thought my comment was in earnest. I suspected that despite the fact that we had just met, Peter had a lot of prejudices about me, and I probably had a few about him (though less than he probably thought).
Despite this most auspicious of beginnings, Peter and I didn’t actually talk at all. Though he showed few outward signs of contempt, I knew that there was far too much baggage associated with being a marketer even for normal people, much less for a guy who genuinely believed that the entire capitalist system was perverse and corrupt (or is that just a stereotype of a socialist view of capitalism?). I really wanted to have a chat with the guy, but there was already too much between us, and we melted back into the crowds around us.
Over the years, I’ve had any number of encounters like this. Like:
- The fellow who was buying a bookshelf I was selling, and was about the most chipper man you could ever possibly hope to meet— until I told him I was selling it because I was going away to business school, upon which he morphed into a frothing attack dog whose demeanor literally frightened me. He dropped the price he was offering me from $20 to $5 and growled as he drove away.
- The guy who refused to talk to me like a normal person because I suggested that Wal-Mart was not “evil.” I gave examples of positive things Wal-Mart has done, and gently suggested that consumers are also responsible for American consumption habits. At this point, he basically deemed me a subhuman and just barked out a barrage of anti-corporate warhorses at me without allowing me to respond to them.
I have a lot more stories like this that I’ve compiled over the years, and I sense that these stories are not unusual for people who do what I do, particularly if you run in the circles that I run in. I don’t see this as an entirely bad thing. I try to be an ambassador for the “dark side,” as some have dubbed my line of work. Sometimes you can reach people just by being civil, thoughtful, and responsive to their concerns. Other times, people have already made up their minds and choose not to view you as a human anymore.
Regardless, I value these experiences because time has revealed to me that the world advances not as a monolithic block of people who all think the same thing, but as an evolution of cultural tensions that, while frustrating, keep the world in check and prevents society from changing too radically too quickly. And these tensions from the front line of the culture wars make for good stories too.
What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?
Much has been made of Web 2.0, and the shifting power structures of the media industry. Suddenly, it’s no longer about the stodgy, old-school mentality of international record companies, or the lumbering media conglomerates; it’s about the punk kid recording albums in his suburban bedroom, and the auteur shooting feature films on his iPhone.
As a society, we are increasingly aware and concerned that media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments”It’s a great narrative. It taps into the increasing anxieties we all have about how much corporate control there is in our lives. As a society, we have become increasingly aware of how media is produced to view and “target” us as “market segments” and to sanitize true artistry to crudely cater to broad demographics.
How many times have we heard the story of an artistic visionary whose irrepressible genius was, er, repressed when a profit-motivated production company/record label/publishing house demanded some unthinkable aesthetic compromise or else!? For me, this story has been repeated so many times and about so many projects, that it’s virtually the most common trope I’ve heard about a “genius” work of art— that it was shelved because corporate accountants voiced concerns at boardroom meetings that these projects were too insular, too weird, too difficult to attract a mainstream audience, and thus had to be dropped.
“What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”
These immortal words, spoken by ersatz police chief Clancy Wiggum to his son Ralph on the long-running television program The Simpsons pretty much sums it up. The fact that you can’t have something means you want it even more. If someone is telling you that you aren’t allowed to hear a record, well, it suddenly becomes important to find out why and what the controversy is.
Sometimes you hear these stories when they leak out through gossip and media reports. Think Nirvana’s In Utero or Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The former was supposedly dubbed so “unlistenable” by Geffen Records that it was demanded that the entire album be scrapped and re-recorded. There’s something so poetically apropo about that story for a band whose roots were so firmly entrenched in the punk ethos. Ironically enough, this type of talk only galvanizes public interest in this suppressed content, most likely unintentionally in this case.
This story has been repeated so many times that it’s virtually the most common trope about a “genius” work of art.For the case of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there is an oft-repeated tale of how crazy and unapproachable this album was upon completion and how record execs were just so stunned with its sounds and experimental nature that they just couldn’t release it, and dropped the band from its roster. This story is especially confounding to me because this album hardly counts as a wacky avant-garde freakout or anything remotely close. In fact, it sounds fairly run-of-the-mill to me, at least in terms of sonic quality, except for some random smatterings of “numbers stations” recordings, which maybe to people raised on Backstreet is a little weird, but the presentation is not so left-field as to create total puzzlement.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that execs actually heard YHF and felt like there was no way this could go through. But this is exactly the story that was spread at the time of release— that this monumental artistic achievement came on the heels of deliberate sabotage by a record company, who was too dense to understand its advanced artistry. Frankly, I think the story was a tremendous help in selling the album, and gave people who wouldn’t have otherwise cared (or even have a reason to be aware of this record) a reason to pay attention. Is it a coincidence that YHF ended up at the very top of year-end critics’ lists? I’m not sure, but I cannot imagine how it could have hurt it.
The Album that the Record Industry Didn’t Want You to Hear
KMD (aka Kausing Much Damage) was a not very famous rap group back in the early 90s that mostly got famous because in 1994 1) their DJ was run over by a car on the Long Island Expressway and died, and 2) that same week, their record company, Elektra, shelved their apparently already-controversial new album Black Bastards before it even came out. The album was supposedly was pulled from release for its shocking cover art, which depicted a race-baiting image of a golliwog being lynched.1
By the time the album was released 7 years later, it was a legendary album with near-mythic status, and was one of the most bootlegged rap albums of all time. This is despite the fact that most who had heard it didn’t seem to think it was particularly good.
When the album finally came out in 2001 courtesy of a small record company that had acquired the rights, it had a big sticker plastered on the front that advised consumers that it has been suppressed by a record company but was now available for the first time! The very fact that the media marketing machine was against it gave it a marketability that it wouldn’t have had on its own.
One can’t help but feel that as a society, we need these stories. We like these tales because they remind us that we’re not numbers. We’re not target markets. We are smarter than the media moguls and corporate marketing jerks think we are, and we have much better taste than they think. They serve as proof, particularly to certain sets of cultural first-adopters (read: hipsters and trendspotters) that these corporate types just don’t get it.
Of course, by stating this I don’t mean to argue the reverse, that they do get it. In fact, they often don’t. And honestly, I don’t have a lot of faith in the aesthetic sensibilities of most marketers or business leaders. Good ones are able to understand how to steal and co-opt genuinely revolutionary or merely very good aesthetic movements and resell them to mainstream audiences, despite the fact that they are risky investments and have no pre-existing markets. And I’d argue that it happens more frequently than we’d like to think. After all, throughout history, there have been few things with more cultural and financial traction than branding the rebellion against mainstream, even if that rebellion eventually becomes the mainstream.
1 One wonders why, however, the record company didn’t just change the artwork if that was the point of contention; Metallica’s first album originally had the charming title Metal Up Your Ass and was accompanied by the even more charming image of a clutched knife emerging from a toilet bowl. Elektra Records did not approve. But instead of abandoning the project from the fledgling metal band (who could have easily been dropped), Elektra simply attached a new title, Kill ‘Em All, to a way classier image, a shadowy hand dropping a bloody hammer.
why the post-millennial youth identity is really about transcending identity
Identity in “The Breakfast Club”
The 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” features a group of genre-fied high school students trapped in a Saturday detention by an autocratic, power-hungry principal. Together these students represent all the major factions of your proverbial high school cliques: there’s the nerd, the popular girl, the burnout, the jock, and the proto-indie rock chick. Over the course of this canonical movie’s 93 minutes, viewers are supposed to reach the startling realization that we need to break free of the stifling prejudices for we have for people unlike ourselves, take more time understanding their worlds, and we need to celebrate the strength we can find in our collective diversity.
A more cynical— and in my opinion a more sober— look at the movie only reinforces some of the ugly realities of how our identities drive us in our public lives. The movie opens with a voiceover of the nerd character (played by brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall) reading from the essay he’s being forced to write by the principal while in detention, an essay in which he has been asked to explain “who you think you are”:
Brian Johnson [the nerd] reads: Dear Mr. Vernon [the principal], we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong…and what we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us… in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
This letter suggests that the characters are not who others think they are— they defy such base categorization and stereotyping. Yet, at the end of the movie, the main characters end up reading a slightly modified, more telling form of the initial letter:
Brian Johnson [the nerd] reads: Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong…but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…
Andrew Clark [the jock]: …and an athlete…
Allison Reynolds [the weird girl]: …and a basket case…
Claire Standish [the prep]: …a princess…
John Bender [the stoner burnout]: …and a criminal…
Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.
In other words, the kids admit that they are the stereotypes they are identified by others as. Indeed, by the end of the movie, the stoner burnout (played by Judd Nelson) remains an anti-social stoner burnout; the preppy pretty girl (Molly Ringwald) only earns the proto-indie rocker (Ally Sheedy) romantic interest from the popular jock (Emilio Estevez) by giving her a mallrat makeover just like her own. And the nerd guy (Anthony Michael Hall) gets stuck with the unpleasant task of writing on behalf of the others the paper they’re all supposed to write individually while in detention. Odd then that this movie achieves status as a canonical bildungsroman that teaches us to be ourselves even if it means bucking society’s conventions, when really it just seems to suggesting something quite different and antithetical— that we can try to shift our identities if we want, but we’re only really what others think we are, or what we can convince others we are.
We’re being given freedom to remix and juxtapose whatever we want to create something entirely new. This unbridled borrowing and recontextualization is the hallmark of the coming era.Symbolism in the Postmodern Theater
In high school, I knew a guy who was a long-haired skater one year, and after summer break suddenly returned as some country-fried cowboy, complete with a drawl. At first, people wondered what happened to the “alternative” dude with the Airwalk shoes, but eventually people just accepted the shift and forgot about “Mike” v1.0. Indeed, one of the tenets of postmodern thought is that the world is a kind of theater that is animated by the market. If you want to be a skater today and a cowboy tomorrow, the market will provide all the accessories necessary for you to make that transition. Whether or not you actually adopt the psychological qualities of the cowboy is no longer all that important, because first and foremost, it’s important to look the part. Why?
Critical theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that the following are ways in which objects acquire value in the world:
1. The functional value of an object – You can think about the functional of the cowboy hat, to protect its user from the scorching heat of the sun.
2. The exchange value of an object – This is an object’s economic worth. You could offer someone $30 and get a a new cowboy hat in exchange for the money.
3. The symbolic value of an object – A cowboy hat might, for example, represent a certain lifestyle that involves herding cattle.
4. The sign value of an object – Its value within a system of objects. A cowboy hat represents a particular philosophical outlook on life, a certain implicit set of priorities and beliefs (e.g. for the cowboy, things like masculinity and self-sufficiency), and a certain position within the socio-economic hierarchy.
When unencumbered by specific contexts, we’re usually seeing number 4 when we look at a person. This is why our wardrobes and personal accoutrements are so important to us. It’s the reason why a person used to dressing like a cowboy would feel so uncomfortable in goth garb, or why an indie-rock kid would never want to wear anything with a Hollister logo on it. We instinctively understand that within our society that the images associated with our clothing says something very specific about our personal characters.
For that reason, when I was younger, I found the kind of metamorphoses that people like Mike were engaging in rather unsettling, and frankly, annoying. I felt like I never really knew anyone because of the apparent ease with which people transformed from one identity to another. There was such a remarkable level of fluidity that it was sometimes hard to gauge whether someone was a “real person” or a character in some elaborate theater. And what made it even more disturbing to me was that these shifts didn’t seem to be limited to radical changes in garb or lifestyle. People seemed to be continually shapeshifting in their priorities, value systems, and who their friends were depending on who was around, whatever Machiavellian goals seemed salient at the moment, and what seemed fashionable at any given time. At the time, I chalked all this up to a high schoolish sense of wanting to find acceptance and the approval of others.
Thinking back, I realize that my views on identity were marked by a remarkable naivete. Not only does this shapeshifting occur at all ages, but in many ways it seems to escalate when the stakes get higher. For example, many businessmen have to play certain buddy-buddy roles in order to secure contracts. And we hear— quite often— about people whose very different public lives and private lives collide in rather unpleasant ways. In fact, our 24-hour news media model seems to partly rely on life-shattering inconsistencies in public and private identities. Think: Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Christine O’Donnell, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, any number of pastors of mega-churches who have been forced out as gay, any number politicians involved in sex scandals. All this because there is a perceived inconsistency in the identities and roles being conveyed in one place (public) versus the identities and roles being conveyed in other places (private). While I am personally troubled by the sorts of moral hypocrisy that follow around the identity disconnects in many political and religious figures, my feelings about identity shifting in the general public has softened considerably over the past few years, particularly after I have spent more time contemplating the drivers of consumption behavior in the postmodern era.
Who are You?
One day in 2003, the popular indie-rock music criticism site Pitchfork Media, which had by then come to be viewed as the central hub for the hipster/indie set, was lambasted by its audience for what was considered a terrible betrayal of trust. What was its transgression? It posted a review of a rap album, Eminem’s “The Eminem Show.” Accusations of selling out were bandied about with a sense of genuine moral outrage.
At first it might appear that this is a story about resentment stemming from a loss of editorial focus, like if Car and Driver started doing reviews of motorboats. But I think that’s only one part of it. True, readers felt that the inclusion of any music that was representative of genres outside of Pitchfork’s hipsterite bread-and-butter was tacit admittance that the site was composed of musical mercenaries. Yes, readers believed that for the site to showcase music criticism for artists that weren’t obscure or semi-obscure was a kowtow to some corporate ideology or commercialism. But another facet of this had much to do with the ideas of propriety and the symbolic value of genre:
If you’re an indie rock kid, you don’t listen to mainstream rap.
In 2011, less than a decade later, a statement like this seems ridiculous, the kind of thing that’s only true for extreme cases. It almost seems like it was never true. But I think we’ve just forgotten how much aesthetic sentiments have changed in the past decade, and how the influx of new media channels like the internet have impacted our receipt and consumption of cultural texts. In the intervening years since this story took place, eclecticism in musical taste has quite remarkably become the hallmark of much youth appreciation of music. Where in the 80s, there was something genuinely unusual about mainstream audiences who claimed to listen to Metallica (thrash metal), the Human League (new wave), and Run DMC (rap)— all of whom have had albums released in the same years (both 1984 and 1986)— now it’s simply expected that basic cultural literacy involves knowledge of and openness to this vast domain.
It’s beyond the idea of cultural literacy though— it’s the idea that few audiophiles now believe that the worlds of rap and metal are so completely alien to each other that they require entirely different philosophical/psychological/cultural backgrounds to enjoy. As a result, shutting oneself off from entire genres is now considered coarse and unfashionable. In fact, most popular music relies entirely on the freeform borrowing of prominent elements of other genres. It is not at all unusual to hear jazz elements in a rock song, or a hip-hop beats in hard rock, or rap song with metal guitar riffs. Or a top 10 hit with some elements of all these genres.
The way media and cultural texts of all different sorts have penetrated the lives of not just tastemakers but average people has ensured that nobody automatically separates genres in the way that we did in the past. Instead, there has been a trend towards legitimizing all cultural texts as long as they can contribute something interesting to the postmodern melting pot. It also helps that bringing undiscovered cultural texts to the table is part of the “coolhunting” phenomena, which means that there’s some level of status-seeking embedded in these deliberate displays of eclecticism.
In this way, we are no longer held hostage, and forced to assume identities simply as a result of our consumption habits. We feel less bound or “entitled” only to a limited palette of styles or genres; instead, we’re being given freedom to remix and juxtapose whatever we want to create something entirely new, to transcend simple views of identity and to embrace complexity. This unbridled borrowing and recontextualization is going to be the hallmark of identity creation for the next era. It’s why Lady Gaga and the avocado wasabi mayonnaise that you find in your grocery store nowadays aren’t all that far apart.
when public enemies hit the mainstream
As I write this, there are massive revolts occurring across the world; in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, and why, even here in Madison, Wisconsin. Indeed, revolution is pretty popular at the moment. But then— rebellion has always been popular, and as far as I can tell, it has always been cool, especially with the youth.
But one of the most interesting aspects of rebellion is how, after some countercultural nuisance spends years enraging, irritating, and aggravating the mainstream, it eventually permeates it. It is at this somewhat perplexing juncture that this formerly toxic social element is repackaged and sold by mainstream entities as perfectly respectable and worthy of celebration. And deserving of our money, of course. This year’s (2011) Super Bowl featured two ads that perfectly illustrate my point.
The first Super Bowl ad was one featuring Eminem. This ad, by Chrysler, told an elaborate narrative about the auto industry, a story involving strength, conviction, and vision, followed by a subplot about hardship, regrouping, and an eventual Biblical-style resurrection. Chrysler employed two metaphors to develop this tale of the auto industry’s Second Coming. One was somewhat direct: the tale of Detroit, which due to the failures of the auto industry, had undergone at least most of the ad’s described trajectory of riches-to-rags-back-to-riches. The second metaphor employed was more indirect, and told courtesy of one of Detroit’s most famous native sons: Eminem, whose personal life saga has also thematically mirrored the narrative recounted by the ad. Yet, despite this, Eminem is an interesting choice of a mascot for the notoriously conservative American auto industry.
“Ten years ago, Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.”It might be hard to recall, but nary 10 years ago— and as few as 6 years ago— Eminem was being held personally accountable for the downfall of society. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. Countless news sources like CNN, a litany of advocacy groups, and innumerable prominent politicians (including no less than President George W. Bush himself, in fact) described through recurring soundbites Eminem’s personal role in elevating school shootings, teen drug abuse, domestic violence, homophobic hate crimes, and various other signs of declining social order. And now here he is being asked by Chrysler to hawk cars for them.
Many commentators from the public sphere lamented that Eminem had ‘sold out’ by appearing in a car commercial (despite the fact that plenty of Eminem’s close contemporaries and labelmates like Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Dr. Dre had all done it before). But to me, the far more noteworthy element of this story is that a Big Three automaker wanted this erstwhile scourge on society to represent them. But they did, and it seems like few people in the mainstream thought twice about it once they saw the ad. While some questioned whether he was the right candidate for the tone of the ad, there was little controversy about the appearance of a guy who once recorded a jaunty little tune about brutally murdering his ex-wife while his young daughter looked on. Though his Slim Shady persona was jarring and disturbing to the American mainstream in the years of 1997 to 2003, now he’s just another familiar celebrity face.
The same thing has happened to Ozzy Osbourne, our second case-in-point. I wasn’t around for Black Sabbath’s heyday in the early 1970s, but from my understanding, people genuinely though of Ozzy and company as Satanic and poisonous to our childrens’ souls. Their proto-metal featured dark and disturbing imagery, impossibly heavy guitar work, and lyrics about nightmarish and supernatural phenomena. In the 1980s, Ozzy was even sued by some parents for allegedly causing kids to kill themselves (though he was eventually acquitted). And here is Ozzy Osbourne on Super Bowl Sunday, selling us on Best Buy with his good chum, teen heartthrob Justin Bieber (whose popularity, incidentally, is also considered by many to represent a serious decline in American society).
Of course, this ad comes on the heels of many years of Ozzy being in the public spotlight. But it’s still interesting to note that his popular reality TV show did little to cement the idea that Ozzy is a responsible, upstanding individual that represents the paragon of American virtue. Quite the opposite, in fact; it documented in graphic detail just how messed up he still is. But the cycle of the mainstream re-appropriating countercultural values means that America loves Ozzy anyway.
Converse, the Clash, and Metallica
Interestingly, the cases of Eminem and Ozzy are not isolated incidents. Such examples abound. I was recently in a normal, everyday shoe store and saw an entire wall of countercultural icons that had been packaged and sold as rebellious accoutrement by Converse. Look at the bands featured here:
The Clash, AC/DC, the Doors, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix. These bands at one time symbolized a serious rejection of mainstream sensibilities and aesthetics. Two of them were viewed as harbingers of dark, anti-Christian devilry; two more were icons of overt sexuality, drug abuse, and debauchery; and the last represented virulent anti-establishment politics. But here, Converse has commodified their images and symbolism (i.e. the fact that ‘the man’ hates them and views them as a threat to social order), and explicitly resells their names as pre-packaged rebellion in the form of fashion accessories:
Looking at these shoes invites the questions: who is buying these products? What is the demographic, and what is the psychographic?
“One of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.”The first thought that comes to my mind when considering the target consumer for these shoes is of the movie Juno. The protagonist of Juno is an uber-self-aware teenager (played by Ellen Page) whose entire goal in life seems to be to mash as many trendy references into her dialogue and personal consumption patterns as humanly possible. As far as is discernible, however, Juno is not interested in appreciating these references on their own terms (e.g. actually listening to their music); instead, she is far more interested in exploiting them to gain social capital and acceptance from her social network, which she does through incessant name-dropping.
Are people like Juno the target market? Probably. There’s a big pressure in our consumer society these days to not necessarily show that you like anything, but to show that you get all the right references; to demonstrate that you’re hip enough to at least know what good taste is, even if you don’t necessarily have it yourself. And as an added bonus, as the shoe below demonstrates, one of the benefits of having counterculture come pre-packaged is that much of the thinking has already been done for you.
It’s not hard to understand why all this happens: Capitalism knows full well that anything popular enough to get our attention is probably popular enough to sell. And at its heart, marketing is all about meeting untapped consumer desires— even when the untapped desire is to undermine the very system that is providing the raw materials used to fight it. It’s an irony that is most likely lost on the people who end up buying Clash shoes. But hey, if rock’n‘roll is about rebellion, maybe the most rebellious act you can do these days is actually just admit to conforming.
“A Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, 2004.
the implications of popular song in commerce
“I was one the people who reacted violently the first time I saw the  Nike commercial [using the Beatles song “Revolution”]. I think I was in a hotel room somewhere, and I was jumping up and down! I was real pissed off. Goddamnit, I was mad, you know, because when John Lennon wrote that song, he wasn’t doing it for the money. And to be using it for any corporate thing… it made me angry.”
- John Fogerty, quoted in Rolling Stone, December 10, 1987
“For me and my generation, that song I watched John Lennon creating at the Abbey Road studios was an honest statement about social change, really coming out and revealing how he felt. It was the truth— but now it refers to a running shoe.”
- James Taylor, quoted in Musician, April 1988
“The most difficult question is whether you should use songs for commercials. I haven’t made up my mind… Generally, I don’t like it, particularly with the Beatles stuff. When twenty more years have passed, maybe we’ll move into the realm where it’s okay to do it.”
- Paul McCartney, quoted in Musician, February 1988
“If it’s allowed to happen, every Beatles song ever recorded is going to be advertising women’s underwear and sausages. We’ve got to put a stop to it in order to set a precedent. Otherwise, it’s going to be a free-for-all!”
- George Harrison, quoted in Musician, November 1987
“John [Lennon]‘s songs should not be part of a cult of glorified martyrdom. They should be enjoyed by kids today.”
- Yoko Ono, quoted in ENS, May 14, 19871
You Say You Want a Revolution
The Beatles have always been held apart from their contemporaries. They occupy a special space that confers them godlike status; their greatness is woven into the very fabric of our collective history and aspiration. They embody the pure ideals of peace and love, the hope and promise of a better world. Indeed, they transcend the crass realms of commerce. Which is exactly why they have been so successful in commerce.
Of course, since that highly controversial Nike ad aired in 1986, we’ve seen any number of Beatles songs in commercials, to less and less fanfare. From the use of “Getting Better” in a series Philips flat screen television ads that started in 1998, to the use of “Hello Goodbye” in Target Commercials in 2008, and of course the Apple ads hawking the Beatles’ own music in 2010, the Beatles have had immense success in the commercial sphere.
It’s interesting to note that despite the fact that the Beatles are “special” in the musical canon, the prevalent feelings of distaste that punctuated the initial use of “Revolution” wasn’t reserved for the Beatles. For the longest time, any use of popular song in commercials was polarizing. In the late 90s, Burger King used Modern English’s haunting “Melt with You” to sell a double cheeseburger, and the Gap used Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” to promote a fall fashion line.
You Tell Me that It’s Evolution
When the popular song catalog started being mined for commercials, it seemed like the only people who found these ads charming were people who hadn’t heard the original songs before, and thus weren’t attached to them in any personal way. To everyone else, such ads seemed the height of distaste, the grossest expression of corporate scorched-Earth mentality, where the soundtrack of our lives were being exploited thoughtlessly to get people to buy crap.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a noticeable shift in how the public has perceived these ads. Much credit can be given to Volkswagen’s use of Nick Drake’s and other semi- or genuinely obscure artists like Richard Buckner in their ads. Something was less offensive about the use of these less recognizable songs, especially since many of these songs seemed like songs worth hearing, and the ads seemed to focus on the music as much as the products themselves. The ads came off as a genuine artistic statements about abstract concepts like wonder and marching to one’s own beat, rather than contrived attempts to sell people on things. Notably, the music featured in these ads actually generated sales of not only the vehicles, but also the music; in fact, nearly all the success in Nick Drake experienced in his entire career (granted, mostly posthumous) can be traced almost exclusively to Volkswagen ads.
Bob Dylan’s much-discussed entree into the commercial genre came in 2004, when his music and his person were featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad. If you listened very carefully when Dylan’s grizzled face appeared on the screen next to a scantily clad woman wearing racy lingerie, you could faintly hear the ghost of George Harrison groaning. What was Dylan thinking? Here is a man whose influence in the counterculture was incalculable— definitional, even— and here he is part of the corporate machine, veritably spitting on his legacy and the ideals that gave him his status in the first place! In retrospect, it appears Dylan was more clever than it may have initially seemed.
You Tell Me It’s the Institution
Walter Benjamin argued in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the endless copying of a work— like the ubiquitous use of Beatles songs or the plastering of Bob Dylan’s visage everywhere— would destroy its unique value, devaluing the market with a flood of replicas. However, in the intervening years since the publication of Benjamin’s work, we have seen that not only did Benjamin misfire— but he was dead wrong. What Dylan correctly understood was that in the postmodern landscape, the ubiquity of a text radically increases the value of an original. Ergo, the more you see images of Bob Dylan and hear reproductions of his music, the greater the brand equity of Bob Dylan, the more you’ll pay to see him in concert, the more valuable his music becomes.
It’s not hard to see where Benjamin went wrong. His assertion stemmed from an economic assessment of the situation (as a text’s supply increases, its value must decrease because it is easier to acquire). However, what he failed to take into account was how a text’s very ubiquity causes it to be woven directly into the fabric of culture, which undergirds a society’s entire system of perception and values. Though Dylan might have made his mark in non-commercial settings in the 1960s and 70s, his appearance in consumer culture cements his relevance to the present.
Likewise, placing Beatles music in advertising, which might in one sense cheapen the music through decontextualization and reappropriation for nakedly commercial interests, also creates yet another avenue for the music to permeate and influence society. The commercials end up breathing new life into the songs simply by virtue of exposing new audiences to them (or re-exposing old audiences), and by removing them from the cutout bins of decades past and situating them as timeless pieces for any era.
Nowadays, the mark of a real hit song is not where it places on the Billboard charts, but in the number of different mediums it can fully permeate, and ultimately, how inescapable it is. A song that has dozens of YouTube videos dedicated to it, is played on the radio, is shown on MTV, is in commercials, is racking up sales on iTunes, and is featured on a video game like Rock Band— well, that’s a hit song that people are probably going to remember.
1 All quotes taken from “Beatlesongs” by William J. Dowlding, 1989.
on jumping the hurdles on the road of authenticity
I spent last weekend in a place called Door County. People from all over the upper Midwest travel to this area of Northern Wisconsin for its natural beauty, bucolic charm, and for something called “fish boils.” A fish boil is exactly what it sounds like— a dinner consisting primarily of two pieces of boiled whitefish, served alongside a couple boiled potatoes and a couple boiled onions. In the world of Door County, this remarkably simple set of unseasoned (with the exception of salt) ingredients dunked into hot water can run you upwards of $20 per person. What’s more remarkable is that people come in droves, cash in hand, to get a taste of the famous Door County fish boils, which in description does not sound all that appetizing.
It’s hard to understand why people are so eager to shell out what seems like a lot of money for inexpensive food that could easily be prepared at home. After all, it really does not require any level of culinary expertise to boil food. It’s also worth noting that despite the ease with which a total novice cook could boil a dinner, boiling is probably one of the least popular forms of cookery. And, I should add, I’ve met exactly zero people who have confessed that they crave eating whole onions cooked in any manner, much less boiled.
One of the first things people will tell you about fish boils is that it isn’t so much a meal as it is “an experience.” This is hard to dispute on account of the pre-dining ritual that occurs as a central part of the Door County fish boil. A large kettle filled with water is heated by fire as a group of diners stand around and watch. A so-called “boilmaster” ceremoniously dumps onions, potatoes, fish, and salt into the bubbling brew. After 10 minutes of heating, kerosene is thrown onto the fire, causing the fire to momentarily flare up in a visceral and visually arresting manner. The rapid increase in heat causes the mixture in the kettle to boil over. Apparently this flushes the fish of its oils (it’s unclear to me why eliminating the oils is a good thing, but the raging fire is fun to watch). The food is then taken out of the water and served.
When probed about it, an employee at a small town visitor bureau confessed to me that people who live in Door County area don’t eat fish boil, and many have never even tried it once despite the fact that outsiders came from hundreds of miles away to get it. Some locals who have eaten fish boil, I was told, did it under the pretense of “doing that touristy thing” in order to understand what the hubbub was about. These revelations do not come much as a surprise.1 Lots of places have things they are famous for that only outsiders appreciate. When I lived in the Bay Area, I found that hardly anyone who had lived there for any period of time had spent an afternoon riding cable cars, going to Fisherman’s Wharf, or riding the boat to Alcatraz. Consigned to being tourist elements, these things are almost entirely out of the psychic purview of the average Bay Area denizen (except when relatives come into town and want to see them!).
Nevertheless, there are good reasons why certain things become famous. Just as the cable cars of San Francisco are unique, the fish boils of Door County are also unique. And it’s not just that these things are unique; they actually factored into the traditional cultures of these places at one time. They are sold as authentic expressions of regional culture. The fish boil was a tradition of Scandinavian settlers of Northern Wisconsin, and as you might figure from a meal of boiled onions and fish, this tradition was born out of extreme poverty and lack of food availability. It had long fallen out of common practice in the area, except for events like church fundraising dinners (again, a context where frugality was a virtue). It was only after a businessman who owned a place called the Viking Grill decided to package it and market it to tourists in the early 1960s that it gained popularity, and moved from the province of outdated tradition to that of the tourist trap, entirely bypassing the possibility of being a normal food for normal people living in the region.
What is fascinating about all this to me is how easy it is to get people to implicitly believe they can’t have the “real” experience without consuming certain things:
If you didn’t see the Pyramids, you didn’t really go to Egypt. If you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower, you didn’t really go to Paris. If you didn’t experience a fish boil, you didn’t really go to Door County. These sorts of hurdles extend far beyond simple tourism in half-serious cultural truisms that we’ve heard repeatedly. Some examples:
- If you remember the 60s, you weren’t there.
- If you’re not drinking Guinness, you aren’t drinking.
- If you don’t have children, you cannot fully experience the joys of life.
Here, specific acts of consumption, through various means (sometimes deliberate acts of marketing, sometimes through more obscure mechanisms), become socially-mandated pre-requisites for entry into an entire category of human experience. At that point, to partake in the consumption category without partaking in the specific consumption pre-requisite almost becomes an act of fraud, or perhaps worse, alarming ignorance.
As denizens of a post-modern world, seeking out authentic experiences is an all-consuming pastime, but what’s truly remarkable is how we’ve been trained to collect proof of our authentic experiences in the form of photographs, souvenirs, and artfully retold stories of our times spent doing things in these exotic environments. If you ask me, the reason why Door County visitors go to fish boils has nothing to do with people wanting to try boiled fish per se; it’s about wanting to experience an authentic tradition, which serves as an insurance policy against the possibility of doubts being raised (possibly by oneself) about whether one actually went to Door County. Not went, really— went went.
1 Something about the way this tradition has been marketed in Door County literature has the feel of a “tourist trap.” For starters, it seems awfully expensive for something that is supposedly a tradition actively practiced by locals— especially when the foods involved are inexpensive and cooked in a manner that should be incredibly cheap. Also the fish boil comes up way too frequently in literature about Door County, as if a concerted effort is being made to hype up the fish boil as something really special, a sort of anachronism whose bygone quality defines Door County as a whole. People talk about San Francisco sourdough and New England clam chowder and New Orleans Po’ Boy sandwiches, but despite the historic import of these foods in regional tradition, they aren’t employed as central metaphors in nearly every single piece of literature about these places. And then there’s the highly ritualistic aspect of the fish boil. The fact that it is an event that diners are specifically asked to make reservations for and told to come 25 minutes early to witness is unusual. It transforms a solitary meal into a community event, just another dinner into a highly photograph-able spectacle, one that is be easy for people to showcase to their friends at home. The roaring fire— itself a genuinely quaint symbol of an authentic retreat from modern life— couldn’t but help in this context.
how the cultural battle of consumers vs. companies is flaring in the marketplace and where it might take us as a society
How the Old Consumer Segmentation Model is Becoming Obsolete
Our society has come to view the marketplace through the lens of a war narrative, where consumers are locked in an epic struggle against producers. Proctor and Gamble, one of the biggest companies in the world, spent $8.6 billion in advertising in Q4 2010. This, as you might notice, is a lot of money. It’s easy to see this sort of expenditure as confirmation of the fact that as a society, we are constantly being inundated with advertising and someone’s always trying to get us to buy something. However, this massive number should also illustrate a more important point that maybe isn’t as obvious, and which culturally, we aren’t attuned to recognizing: advertising doesn’t really work. Perhaps more accurately, advertising as we’ve known it is a ridiculously clumsy tool that requires inordinate amounts of spending for a small level of effectiveness.
Think about the traditional forms of (non-internet) advertising. Companies pay millions of dollars to put on a 30 second ad during a television show— effectively broadcasting their ad to everyone who might be watching it. Or they have a full page ad placed somewhere in a magazine or newspaper. These are not very precise methods of reaching people. They might be able to target certain segments of people by carefully selecting the TV program (ex. viewers of Star Trek, for example, are likely to be very different consumers than viewers of ESPN SportsCenter) or by being selective about the magazine to advertise in (ex. readers of BusinessWeek are likely to be pretty different than readers of Martha Stewart Living), but there’s no doubt that these techniques are crude methods of gaining attention. It has been said, quite accurately, that effective advertising is the art of reaching the right person, at the right place, at the right time, with the right message. The chances of traditional forms of advertising hitting the mark on all of these levels is quite small.
Of course, the reason advertising was always like this was because of clear structural limitations; the options for advertising were few, and effective targeting was not easy given the limitation of options. Companies advertised in this ineffective way because they had to.
Consumer Resistance to the New Information Paradigm
The barriers I described, however, are quickly melting away, and it’s creating what I see as a spectacular and fascinating clash of consumers’ cultural values and those of businesses. Here’s an example:
For some time now, Hulu, the popular internet media site that allows consumers to watch many television programs online, has allowed viewers to choose from a list of advertising that they want to punctuate the programs they choose to watch. More recently, they started to just show ads with a simple question in the upper-righthand corner asking whether the ads shown are relevant or not. Supposedly, as viewers feed the system with more and more information about what kind of ads they think are relevant, the system becomes more and more adept at giving individuals ads that matter to them; that is, it creates an individualized profile for each viewer.
I have found that as I get talking to people about marketing efforts like this, many consumers are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of receiving highly targeted ads. They are even more disturbed by the idea of feeding companies information that might make ads more targeted to them as individuals. Though clearly our media institutions are set up in a way that anyone who spends any time navigating them will definitely see ads in some form or another, many viewer are mortified by the idea of giving away enough information that they might receive relevant ads.
This is an interesting, somewhat curious observation. Again: People apparently would rather see a random smattering of ads than a bunch of specifically targeted ads that address personal interests. Why would anyone rather see things they aren’t interested in than things they are interested in? On the surface, this sentiment defies all logic. It’s only once you understand the fundamental narrative that underlies consumers’ cultural understandings of the marketplace, that this attitude begins to make sense.
The Conflict at the Heart of the New Information Paradigm
Our society has come to implicitly view the marketplace as a sort of warzone. Consumers view themselves locked, via social contract, in an epic conflict against producers. The perception is that companies will do everything in their power to ensnare, enslave, and take advantage of consumers through their business tactics (marketing, data mining, targeted advertising, attacks on privacy, etc), while consumers dutifully resist these machinations, and employ their own tactics in retaliation. In other words, there are two sides, diametrically opposite in mission; companies try to take advantage of consumers, and consumers in turn try to take advantage of companies. But it’s not that simple. Complicating the situation is that while this portrait of dueling archnemeses is going on, consumers and producers are also deeply dependent on one another. In fact, each side could not survive without the other, which means both sides have to limit their aggression and, in effect, make peace in some way.
So here we are, entrenched in a struggle that mirrors an abusive love-hate relationship. Consumers want the television programming, but they don’t want to give the enemy “ammunition” by telling them whether the ads they show are relevant or not. This is in spite of the fact that, rationally speaking, consumers really have nothing to lose (and most likely something to gain) by having more relevant ads.
Many people openly voice concern and outrage about targeted advertising. Google faced a lot of heat when their AdWords system (by far their most profitable enterprise, and the one that keeps their business afloat) was released. This system simply displayed targeted ads based on what users looked up on the Google search engine, and what words appeared in the text of the emails they were looking at in their GMail accounts. This process collected absolutely no information about users as individuals, yet the outcry was sizable.
To the naysayers, the self-described rationale is that It’s about the loss of privacy. It’s about the encroachment of commerce into every sphere of society. It’s about the desanctification and cheapening of life by turning it all into a story about consumerism. It’s about how corporations, through advertising, create of societal anxieties and pervasive feelings of inadequacy.
I do not entirely discount these fears as overblown or paranoid fantasies. These are very real and very legitimate concerns. It is not hard to see how the encroachment of commerce has, in the past, scarred the physical landscape of many formerly beautiful spaces through the addition of strip malls, chain restaurants, and giant illuminated billboards; it’s no stretch to think that the psychological landscape could be tainted in a similar fashion through invasions of privacy, the cluttering of the information environment, and the subtle integration of commerce into every activity known to man.
The perception is that companies will do everything in their power to ensnare, enslave, and take advantage of consumers through business tactics while consumers resist, and employ their own tactics in retaliation.In the past, it was easy to cordon ourselves off from marketing messages; for example, you couldn’t receive an ad if you weren’t watching TV. But as technology changes, we find companies like Foursquare ramping up, using our cell phones to determine our current locations and targeting us for couponing and other forms of marketing that capitalize on the sorts of dynamic information that TV and magazines simply cannot make use of. Our entire lives then become transformed into a marketing landscape, a sort of augmented reality in which specific information about us and our environments are mined, processed, and returned to us in the form of new layers of information and messages that follow us everywhere we go. If you subscribe to the mainstream view of the consumer marketplace that I described above, this sounds like a very disturbing, Orwellian vision of the future.
However, that’s only one side of the equation. It’s also important, though many deliberately avoid considering it, to acknowledge how consumers’ voluntary offering of information to marketers could actually benefit those same consumers. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if you were thinking of buying something, and you’d get a coupon for $20 off right before you bought it? This is just one example, but it’s exactly what a lot of marketers want to do: send you a customized message exactly when you might want it. On one hand, it’s got all the “big brother” overtones of constant monitoring, but on the other, it seems like legitimate value is being conveyed in this process. As a consumer, you’ve been given a special deal on something you were thinking of doing anyway, and you still have the option to ignore the message and move on with your life; no one is forcing you to do or buy anything. So what’s wrong with this?
Well, if you think back to the nature of this consumer struggle against corporations, the resistance makes more sense. Consumers have been culturally trained to believe that when producers offer discounts and deals, which on the surface appear to be helpful and valuable, it is actually a case of producers gladly forfeiting the battle in order to win a larger war. Here’s an example of how this perception plays out in real life.
All the major grocery store chains offer loyalty cards. Loyalty cards typically offer consumers discounts on various products from week to week. All you have to do is present your card and you’ll save a lot of money. It seems like a no-brainer to carry a loyalty card then. But many people simply will not use them because it violates a sense of propriety with regards to consumers’ own roles in the consumer-producer struggle. Using a loyalty card would be tantamount to handing power over to the grocery store; to use the loyalty card is tacit acceptance that one is willing to sell out the greater cause (consumer rights in the face of corporate hegemony) for some small discount. It is offering information to be data mined, and licensing a company to use the very same data to later exploit the consumer— and indeed all consumers again and again in the future.
Another part of this that can’t be overlooked is the cultural attitude we have towards the twin concepts of materialism and consumerism. These words lack a clear definition in the public consciousness, but it’s quite clear that no one wants to be viewed as representing those ideas, nor does anyone want to be viewed (even by themselves) as possibly promoting those values in any way. Talk to people about targeted ads and inevitably the concern comes up that people need to be protected from themselves. Yes, it’s true that advertising doesn’t force anyone to buy anything, but people (other people, never the person you’re talking to, mind you) are unduly influenced by advertising, and will consume recklessly. This is highly detrimental to our society and must be prevented. Better not to feed people with targeted ads that may lower their sales resistance.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you were thinking of buying something, and you’d get a coupon for $20 off right before you bought it? For these reasons, highly targeted ads are viewed as dangerous exercises that threaten to undermine the very foundations of a civil society, turning it into an uncentered, amoral sphere controlled by corporations. How well founded these fears are is anyone’s guess. However, my own opinion is that as a society, we have perennial fears about corporations and concerns about how they accumulate and wield power; the form that these fears take is constantly in flux, but at its root, the fears are always the same: the very nature of society is at stake. Historically speaking though, one thing is certain: new technology is almost always met with serious concerns about its impacts on society. Introductions of any new system in which consumer information is collected and used is always decried as taking things too far. As information becomes increasingly easy to collect, transfer, and utilize, these fears too escalate in proportion. But what also seems to happen is that these systems don’t really go away; instead, after the initial furor dies down, we eventually as a society become comfortable with them as a constant presence, and we get used to having them around. They become integrated into consumer culture, and people begin to view them as institutions and even as valuable pieces of social currency, even if they don’t necessarily come out and say it or even think about them consciously in that way.
But by then, consumers are looking at new corporate inventions and thinking about how the implications are going to destroy society.
how categorization holds us hostage
Sometimes the post-modern world is a weird place to be. The things we do are so pregnant with symbolism that it’s hard to do anything that doesn’t appear to say more about you than you’d mean for it to. My girlfriend Huan-Hua’s birthday was a couple months ago and we held a very enjoyable party at our house, where about 20 people showed up. What typically happens in situations like this is that I’m expected to be in charge of the music. I can’t stand being in charge of the music.
There’s too much scrutiny and expectation associated with that job, too much anxiety associated with failing to match the playlist with the crowd’s prevailing sense of aesthetics, or matching the music to the crowd’s mood. Some people love doing this because they can showcase their impeccable tastes and impress people with their musical knowledge. I envy these people for the unabashed way in which they are able to share their tastes without a neurotic fear of judgment. However, I am unfortunately not in this camp.
Ideally, what I’d like is to just put something on and walk away without having to worry about it. In a world of musical diversity and genre-fication, I feel that the act of putting on a track by [artist X] will have a symbolic social value that is necessarily greater than the value that I personally ascribe to the act of putting on [artist X]. For example, if I am playing DJ at a party, and I happen to put on something by, say, New Order (not a bad selection for a party, in my opinion) I see this act as primarily fulfilling a functional purpose— filling the air with something that is tonally aligned with a festive event. It will serve as suitable background music, and won’t get attract too much attention to itself. But in this post-modern era, a New Order song is not just music. It is part of a genre. That genre is attached to many symbolic meanings. Those symbolic meanings are then attached to the DJ. The DJ then is responsible for the “statement” that these meanings make.
On more than one occasion, I put on an album by John Zorn, who is one of my favorite jazz musicians. His band Masada makes music that is alternately pleasant Middle-Eastern/Klezmer-inflected jazz music and less frequently, crazy, off-the-wall free jazz that perhaps encapsulates the most ridiculous negative stereotypes of what jazz music is (e.g. “It’s just a bunch of people playing random noises without a beat! I could do that!”). When it’s the former, it’s very good, energetic, organic, and sophisticated party music. When it’s the latter, it’s chaotic, unnerving, and immensely distracting. I try to delete songs with avante-garde instrumental wailing from my playlists. Of course, one night I failed, and I felt rather sheepish amidst a crowd of befuddled 20- and 30-somethings being sonically battered by cacophonous screeches of atonal, arrhythmic saxophone. This, for having made a bizarre public statement that I had actually studiously avoided making.
My friend Tim suggests that the best way to avoid this problem is to divest control: put on a radio station. But even then the selection of the station itself is an editorial process that could reflect back on you. Short of dumping the DJ job on someone else, it seems there are few escapes— though I can think of at least two ways out of it; 1) at the start of the party, choose a radio station through a transparently randomized process, or 2) profess total ignorance about anything related to music.
The first of these options, you have to admit, is pretty ridiculous. The statement that would result from you making a spectacle of randomly selecting a radio station is very likely more damaging to your image than you putting on a station representing any particular genre (though putting on a smooth jazz station— aka “quiet storm”— would be one genre that could potentially be even worse).
Professing total ignorance is a route that I’ve seen a lot of people do in the past. It’s a good escape hatch to use when necessary. The typical sophisticate has a strange tendency to want to be knowledgeable about everything. Or at least appear like they are, even if they’re not. It seems important to maintain one’s currency in certain matters (popular television programming, movies, music, politics, alcohol, current events, etc.); It keeps you in the conversation and demonstrates that your tastes mirror those of others— very important for maintaining social standing. However, sometimes the trump card is admitting ignorance.
Admitting ignorance basically does one of two things: either it suggests that the ignorant person is above the fray, or it suggests that they are an outsider who can be schooled. The first of these two leaves someone open for assault on their tastes since it implies that categorical dismissal of a topic (e.g. music) is the result of a selection of something else that’s superior (e.g. film). However, the second leaves one unassailable on grounds of taste. After all, how can you criticize someone’s consumption habits if they come clean upfront that they really don’t know what they’re talking about? Not even the most callous of record store employees would criticize on those grounds.
Playing ignorant is a great strategy to use if it’s true. But on the other hand, pleading ignorance can also be a dishonest way of preemptively truncating any line of questioning that might legitimately address issues of taste. That is, someone who actually knows something about music might, when questioned, demur on grounds that actually, er, they don’t know anything, huh huh. It’s almost a sort of nuclear war of cultural capital where you talk a good game until you see the stockpile of weapons the other guy has, and then you back down and pretend that you weren’t really planning to fight for real. It’s actually this strategy that I’ve seen a lot of. No matter how hollow it might ring to me, somehow I always find it kind of a charming tack.
One way that marketers have cracked the puzzle is not by defying the tenets of post-modernism through a refusal to play the game, but by actively embracing it. Take diversity to an extreme level. Jack radio has done pretty much this. Stations with this format don’t commit to a genre at all. They just play, in their words, “what we want,” which apparently means that they don’t pay particular attention to genre, they don’t pay attention to era. Everything is just thrown together into a blender and spat out over the radio. Jack radio has been gaining popularity since it started a few years back, and for good reason: kids of this generation are not as committed to genre as they once were. A couple decades ago, metal kids listened to metal, punk kids listened to punk, and rap kids listened to rap. I can remember a few years ago when the definitive “indie” music review site Pitchfork reviewed an Eminem album; it was the first non-indie album the site ever reviewed. The backlash was fierce. Its readers were incredibly upset that this site, which was ostensibly a champion of indie music was now reviewing a mainstream rap album. Accusations of selling-out were bandied around and emailed to the site with alarming frequency. It’s hard to imagine this happening now; indie rock kids now brag about listening to both indie music and top 40 radio. Many simply don’t make a hard distinction about the two. Music is music.
A Jack station might be a convenient ‘out’ for the situation I was describing. It both offloads the DJ’ing onto someone else (the station), and it’s hard to criticize on genre grounds. It would have been a good solution. But here’s the one I went with: I didn’t play music at all.
why we do what we don’t want to because we’re supposed to
I’ve taken a recent interest in how we’re driven by life scripts to behave in certain ways that we normally wouldn’t, simply because we’re “supposed to.” Take for example this story that my friend Liz was telling me (some details have been changed because to protect identities):
Liz had some friends who were getting married. As is the ritual in the United States, the groom attended a bachelor party held in his honor. Often these take place in seedy topless joints or private rooms where a stripper titillates the bachelor and his friends. The part that was odd is that none of the participants of this bachelor party had ever been to a strip joint, and none was particularly comfortable with the idea of doing this. But they did it anyway because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It was a bachelor party, after all.
Perhaps here, this bachelor party script, even taken as a semi-comical trope that has been the subject of many bad (but highly profitable) “buddy” movies, is rather revealing about our latent attitudes as a society. Viewed on an symbolic level, this would suggest that Americans— particularly men— perceive marriage vows (perhaps humorously, perhaps not) as a set of shackles and chains that essentially prevent them from engaging in philandering, sex romps, and various other fun sexual indiscretions. This is while simultaneously enjoining and celebrating the view of marriage as a sacrosanct state that we should all cherish and take enormous comfort in.
But I found the behavior of these bachelor party participants exceedingly curious. Why would a large leaderless group of individuals engage in behavior that none of them really wanted to (apparently not even the groom, who the party was being held for)? Why would they not just design an event that would be more meaningful and entertaining to them on the level they thought more appropriate given their values and states of mind?
Perhaps it is because this situational life script (more charitably described as a “custom”) told them that if they didn’t do this strip joint thing, they weren’t having a “real” bachelor party. This script promised an authentic bachelor party experience (the kind seen in the movies!)— an experience that apparently none of them particularly wanted or felt comfortable with, but also didn’t want to feel like they were robbed of later, perhaps because saying they’d been to one could offer some social currency or sensation of a life well-lived in the future.
I’ve noticed these recurring scripts as well:
- At the end of a rock concert, the band members put their instruments down, thank everyone for coming out, and walk offstage. Normally, this would be a pretty strong signal that the show is over, and you should go home. But that’s not what happens. What happens instead is that people in the audience cheer and scream and clap for several minutes until the band comes back onstage to do another song.
Moral: You, as an audience member, came to a rock show put on by this well-known band and thus are supposed to play the role of the adoring fan. The band came a long way to be in… wait, what city are they in again? Anyway, they came a ways to play their songs, and you know, they’re really tired… but they really want to show the fans how much their love and adoration means to them, so even though the show was supposed to end, they’re gonna deviate from their normal routine just this once, and play another song for the true-blue fans out there. Yeah, yeah, they do it at every show, but don’t question the encore. Just follow the script.
- If you watch people as they pose for photos, you see that often they begin doing something they weren’t doing before, because it conforms to the expectations of a social gathering, and the photograph is a form of proof that the gathering occurred. For example, last week, I happened to witness a wedding party down at a local landmark. At a certain point in time, the groomsmen and bridesmaids all jumped in the air simultaneously and the photographer shot a photo of this. Apparently, it didn’t come out right, so they did it again. Would these people have done the jumping without the camera? Most likely not.
Script: You’re supposed to have fun at parties. We must be able to provide proof that we were there and we did have fun. Synthesize the fun into a ball of symbolic activity and capture it on film. Follow the script.
- You’re watching a sitcom on television. After every third sentence, canned laughter occurs. You laugh along with it, or at least understand that there is supposed to be humor value in this program, an understanding that may not have been conveyed without the canned laughter.
Script: You are being given a signal that this show contains jokes. You may not have noticed this on your own, so just laugh when everyone else does, or you won’t be able to enjoy the program. Just follow the script.
- Someone who doesn’t listen to much hip-hop music throws a party where he does not know a lot of the attendees very well. Instead of playing the rock’n‘roll music he normally listens to, he plays all hip-hop music at a volume he would normally be uncomfortable with.
Script: You’re supposed to play loud hip-hop at parties. If you don’t, it isn’t a good party. Follow the script.
Scripts seem to be part of the social contract we sign when we join this earth, or more accurately, join certain groups. We are supposed to act a certain way and do certain things that conform to certain expectations at certain times. Even if you don’t want to do it, even if no one wants to do it. Don’t rock the boat. Just follow the script.