2008: Ashes to Ashes “Only self-bias makes possible the delusion that we are living in a decentered world of personal tastes.”

Funk to Funky

Louis Menand writes that "all push becomes pull someday," and nowhere is this truer than where aesthetics break down by generation. In America, this friction between arbitrary images of popularity produces our most celebrated and spurious ideologies.

The Baby Boomers hated their parents' fictions for being hierarchist; Generation X hated the hippies' fictions for being smarmy; and I read comment pages full of Generation Y kids who hate the nihilism in '90s shows like Seinfeld and Family Guy. They speak enthusiastically of the end of popular irony, and the new aeon that comes after. For my part, when in '06 Joe Massey declared Marxism over and ushered in the Age of Nut Busting, I cheered the death of old religions and made way for the spirit of naked, unironic opportunity.

That wasn't the first time I embraced a ludicrous idea in order to be popular. In '02, I announced in an Amazon review of Interpol that tailored suits in rock expressed a craving for optimism. Saggy jeans, pocket chains, and tribal tattoos -- who outside of the suburbs would think these things were remotely acceptable? In the wide, wide world, the suit means business where saggy jeans mean fat asses. Thanks to me, city councils all over America turned downtowns into New Urban flagstone hells full of designer boutiques, eerily sterile coffee shops, and no parking.

In '04, I joined with Pitchfork consensus in paeans to the New Summer of Disco. I reviewed hundreds of records that year and used the phrase "four-on-the-floor" to describe every single one of them. "Dance is the highest form of musical enjoyment," I wrote. "Music you can't dance to is without exception misogyny in disguise." As every spotty, geekoid virgin with a limbic dysfunction knows, girls love to dance. Each and every girl on the planet, without exception, loves dance music. Hot Chip were ushering in a new era of female empowerment and saving the geeks from themselves!

Throughout this very silly decade, America gave Generation Y far-reaching confidence to fix problems as timeless and complicated as despotic presidents and flagging revenue for middle-class consumer brands. McDonalds, once again salivating for the youth dollar, revamped its corporate face. Lowercase slogans were in. "I'm lovin' it" is textbook post-irony; McDonalds posits a world of coiffed, grinning kids who love their food and aren't ashamed of it.

I thought: finally, someone understands my point of view!


Stuck With A Valuable Friend

In '06, Stereogum declared that indie rock in commercials had lost its stigma. They were right: it's been an accepted thing throughout history for newly-minted kings to immediately do everything the old ones were hated for.

Okay, to be fair, an artist with the skills and dedication to compose beloved songs does own them; who am I to presume on that right? But this answer glosses over ambiguities. For one thing, why would a writer of these beloved songs -- someone who shares something intimate with people -- want to pimp those relics out to an extremely sinister collusion of the imagination? Moreover, are audiences expected to completely banish context every time the song comes up on shuffle? Is that even possible?

The freeding frenzy is everywhere, if you're paying attention: Peter, Bjorn and John reveal that the object of their affection is a Pontiac; Karen O thinks Adidas sneakers are akin to a phenomenon; The Flaming Lips wonder if you realize there's a new Land Rover. Other people who've received checks for the relocation of their art include Band of Horses, Dan Deacon, The Ruby Suns, of Montreal, Kings of Leon, Moldy Peaches, and Devendra Banhart. Plus, McDonald's finally said what everybody was thinking -- Os Mutantes are cool! -- by running "A Minha Menina" over shots of people munching quarter-pounders. Turn on a television today and hear your favorites, not your older brother's! Yeah, we won! We won!

For my part, I was so impressed with how quickly Drane-O gel dissolved my beard shavings that I wrote a caustic noise-rock symphony about it; I'm in negotiations now for the first seriously alt-tuned jingle, and I'm happy to say the system rocks!

One popular argument holds that the internet has dispersed the channels by which people discover music, so there no longer exists a mainstream -- but can that really be true? Yes, the internet makes possible me stealing enough music to be culturally literate. And yes, it turns out radio kind of sucks, so more people are finding their songs in the stats-driven free-for-all online. But it's a huge leap from there to the withering away of the mainstream, which has always weighed heavily in the uses of music that aren't personal -- the majority of its commercial uses, quite possibly the majority of the music we hear. Only self-bias makes possible the delusion that we are living in a decentered world of personal tastes.

Of course, it's surprisingly easy to forget the mainstream when it's not actively competing for your attention. It's harder when the mainstream decides you're its best friend and starts playing your favorite songs to talk up lifestyle shops, branded fruit drinks, and other confidence scams. Yes, the youth dollar -- now the bemused center of a fantastic sales blitz in a seizure-inducing media bazaar -- is courted by advertisers and hated by virtually everybody else, who now have a perfect image of this cretin in their minds.

Soon, he's getting beaten with purses in ads aimed at everybody else -- particularly after the moment has passed, when he's an easy target.


The Shrieking of Nothing

Douglas Haddow, writing for Adbusters, calls today's hipsters "the dead end of Western civilization" and blames them for the annihilation of culture itself. Yes, the generation derided by many, on one hand, as "the best-behaved yet" are nonetheless on schedule to cause a complete social meltdown. Begging the question until it begs for mercy, Haddow claims that all the formerly dominant streams of counterculture have merged into a "melting pot" of styles, tastes, and behavior. He then cites skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses, and the keffiyeh as exemplary of what you get when postmodernism eats the entire history of counterculture.

Some things can be reliably expected of human beings, whatever the caprices of history. Middle-aged Americans, their limelight years over in a society that worships sex appeal, will freak out over what's set to replace them. I don't know if Doug Haddow is middle-aged (because I don't do any research, ever), but if so it would fit the profile for the complaint. People are recalcitrant about change, especially people trained to anticipate obsolescence. The Boomers are only now willing to see forty-somethings in their aspirational programming. Generation X can be expected to snark at their successors' spurious optimism, sincerity, and naiveté. And it is totally spurious -- obviously. The question is one of casting the first stone, or rather whether there's any point in stoning people at all.

It's a strange and illogical thing how time does by ideas and aesthetics. Once upon a time, people loved saggy-jeans metal for its bite and sense of risk; both qualities were atropic in post-grunge pop like Stone Temple Pilots. So, guided by a focus group of tenth-graders, nu-metal swallowed the mainstream and threw up a deluge of terrible exploitation movies. Eventually, people hated it for the same reasons it got popular, but viewed through the lens of familiarity. Tomorrow's audiences will resent whatever was popular before they were. They won't care about the dreck it replaced; they'll be angry that yesterday's heroes are still around congratulating themselves.

Many things deserve hate, and for many reasons -- but don't confuse it with fear. That you detest something is no indicator that it's eroding civilization, destroying culture, causing a semiotic singularity, or any of the other things Haddow says magical hipsters are doing.

What's happening to indie kids is only what always happens: our doxa are becoming doctrine, our fashions are becoming clichés, and our heroes are becoming mortals. When one day TV On The Radio drop a total stinker, it won't be a shock because the path will have been well-prepared by time, which is always the best preparer of paths. When it dawns on fleet aesthetes that many of our favorite bands are just New Pop in a different cultural wrapper, we will be distracted by something else. Some of us already are.

In fact, to help the hipsters of today, I've drafted a list of doxa for the new decade. Read them carefully, because each one will have the force of inviolate law. These are things you will be required to agree with before anyone will give you directions or not beat you with pieces of rebar:

- gangsta rap is the voice of working-class authenticity
- extreme metal is the new hardcore
- beauty is the new punk, so there's nothing better than huge, watery arrangements
- also, there is nothing more fundamentally romantic than "world" fusion pop
- and also, Tom Jones is actually really, really, really good.

In the meantime, steer clear of the predictable hysteria that accompanies everything meaningless in our society. Change is eternal and reaction is its eternal, bittersweet company. Like a desperate hipster willing to imagine any passing Hyundai as a bandwagon, the hysteric sees only what he wants to see, and you can be sure nothing is learned.

Let's keep learning things, though. Even if they're all lies, it's more fun.

Click [here to return to the 2008 Year-End Image Map]

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