David Brooks’ column yesterday in the N.Y. Times, “Lord of the Memes?” In it, he cynically describes the state of modern cultural development as follows:
You must remember that there have been three epochs of intellectual affectation. The first, lasting from approximately 1400 to 1965, was the great age of snobbery. Cultural artifacts existed in a hierarchy, with opera and fine art at the top, and stripping at the bottom. . . This code died sometime in the late 1960s and was replaced by the code of the Higher Eclectica. The old hierarchy of the arts was dismissed as hopelessly reactionary. Instead, any cultural artifact produced by a member of a colonially oppressed out-group was deemed artistically and intellectually superior. . . . But on or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.
The purpose of the column is to expose (and reduce) modern culture into one based on what he refers to as “one-upsmanship.” He criticizes, inter alia, “[w]eb sites like Pitchfork for music” as merely “tastemakers [who] surf the obscure niches of the culture market bringing back fashion-forward nuggets of coolness for their throngs of grateful disciples.”
Actually, I’m not doing the column justice. It’s not David Brooks who writes the above admittedly funny but miserably inaccurate account. It’s Kierkegaard. Actually, it’s Brooks writing as Kierkegaard. As if Brooks were even half as insightful as the legendary Danish theologian.
Kierkegaard was all about power-to-the-people culture. He was against the thought-controlling Church of his time, and believed that individuals had as much authority to interpret God’s word as anyone else. Which is why it’s likely that Mr. K would be thrilled by very events that Brooks seems to snort down upon with all the disdain of an old fart who never nodded his head to Black Flag.
Blogs like this one encourage individual bands to plug away, giving them an international platform, as opposed to playing in the back yard to their sister’s fat (but in a cute way) friends. Contrary to what it may look like to an outsider, most reputable music review sites do not scrub around in dark corners looking for some grimy accumulation that nobody’s heard of, just to prove how cool they are. Well, maybe Pitchfork does this. But I have news for David Brooks: Pitchfork hasn’t been a tastemaker since they trashed the Travis album. They just managed to put together a really cool, professional-looking sites and they write reviews with obtuse words that have more letters than “Kierkegaard.” So they seem smart. Actually, they seem like the pseudo-intellectuals that Mr. Brooks claims don’t have sway anymore. To paraphrase Eminem: They don’t have to curse to make a point, but I do. So fuck them.
On the other hand, most organic blogs, like mine, like most of the ones that I put in my blogroll, are about trying to help artists get their work out there. Many of them will even promote artists on major labels, who can hardly be describe as obscure. (Although, with the state of the music industry today, I suppose I could be wrong about that point.)
So let me say here, today, right now, that nothing I write or do is about one-upping everyone else. Sure, I’m excited when a band I’ve never heard of, or seen on Hype Machine, crosses my desk and makes my eardrums bleed loving drips of eargasm juice. But I’m excited not because I get to “break” the news about them. I’m hardly egotistical enough to think that my little site matters in the grand scheme of life. I’m excited because the music is new, and in some small way I get to help the artist move forward and reach my readers. The great thing about modern music is that it’s like the sunrise: It’s full of new, vibrant things, and you can approach it, but you will never be able to capture it. No matter how fast you run towards it, it keeps moving away. What other time in history has been like this? None that I can think of. Certainly no time in the past 100 years. During the 1950s, 60s, and especially the 1970s-90s, each decade had a “sound” associated with it. What’s the sound of the double-zeros? Is it Southern Hip Hop? Is it the indie rock of Arcade Fire? Is it mash-ups? It is twee? Is it Chi-town backpacker rap? Glitzy arena country pop? American Idol? The correct answer is (e), none of the above. And (f), all of the above.
Brooks, and many others like him, disdainfully criticize the aggregator culture while fondly reminiscing about the good old days. But how good was it when the only band you could hear was The Beatles? How good was it when Bob Dylan got shunned and lambasted for playing electric guitar? Today, if I want to listen to music, I can go to eMusic or my local C.D. Cellar and find a wide variety of genre-busting music. As a test, I just put my iPod 2008 playlist on shuffle and here’s the first three names that came up: Nas, Frightened Rabbit, and Noah and the Whale. I can pick something that will challenge me to listen differently, or I can pick up something that sounds familiar enough to make me nod my head, but different enough that it’s still fresh. And if I’m not sure what to do, I can check out Aquarian Drunkard, Can You See the Sunset, or I Guess I'm Floating, or any of the other great cites on my sidebar to get some ideas. Remember ideas, Brooks? They’re what you get when you get your head out of the past and keep chasing the horizon.