Saturday, February 25, 2006

Culture 1, Hipsters 0

Two recent articles, one exclusive to print, worth checking out. The first is in n + 1, a New York journal and is called
Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop and is by Mark Greif.

I think the discussion of Radiohead is sharp, especially when Greif observes that Radiohead found its voice and purpose when it stopped trying to articulate its frustration with modernity through its lyrics (the Fake Plastic Trees of The Bends), and instead found a way to evoke dread and suspicion with the plastic hassle through aural textures. Still, what delights me so much about this article is not the Radiohead analysis (I’m sure a dozen music-crits have already jabbed cigarette burns throughout his musical conjecturing, but that is a game I find both boring and difficult to play) but Greif’s brave and refreshing decision to describe the limitations of pop as it applies to politics. Check this out:

The more I try to categorize why Radiohead’s music works as it does, and by extension how pop works, the more it seems clear that the effect of pop on our beliefs and actions is not really to create either one. Pop does, though, I think, allow you to retain certain things you’ve already thought, without your necessarily having been able to articulate them, and to preserve certain feelings you have only intermittent access to, in a different form, music with lyrics, in which the cognitive and emotional are less divided. I think songs allow you to steel yourself or loosen yourself into certain kinds of actions, though they don’t start anything. And the particular songs and bands you like dictate the beliefs you can preserve and reactivate, and the actions you can prepare – and which songs and careers will shape your inchoate private experience depends on an alchemy of your experience and the art itself. Pop is neither a mirror nor a Rorschach blot, into which you look and see only yourself; nor is it a lecture, an interpretable poem, or an act of simply determinate speech. It teaches something, but only by stimulating and preserving things that you must have had inaugurated elsewhere. Or it prepares the ground for these discoveries elsewhere – often knowledge you might never otherwise have really “known,” except as it could be rehearsed by you, then repeatedly reactivated for you, in this medium.

This was, for me, an incredible blast of oxygen. I don’t care if he is right or wrong, but unlike so many other cultural critics, he actually has the courage to sketch the political boundaries of his object of study. Summarizing Grief’s 17-page article, is tough, so all I can say is find a copy and read it.

The second article can be found in the March edition of Harper’s. Many folks make snoozing sounds when referring to this magazine, and lately I understand why. That said, there is always something good in Harper’s.


In an attempt to prove my point, I ask you to take a look at the first part of Bill Wasik’s article about flash mobs. Wasik, it turns out, invented the flash mob as an experiment in social psychology. His article mocks the conformity of hipsters, the Strokes, and Wasik hammers away at a number of other worthwhile targets, including the Ford Fusion. His inclusion of Howard Dean didn’t quite work, and I started to sigh when he began to discuss the Milgram experiments, until he did something new with the ol’ shock generator by claiming that:

Stanley Milgram deserves recognition, I believe, as one of the crucial artists of the preceding century.

Here is a good tip for any essayist: if you evoke an overused person or idea from the past, please put a new gloss on it. Otherwise I will stop reading. And so will many others.

Finally, I like Wasik’s attack on McSweeney’s:

Like the Strokes, McSweeney’s promised a cultural watershed for hipsters while making no demands on them. Readers accustomed to a choice between low entertainment and serious literature did not, with this journal, have to make such a choice at all. […] Almost none of the young writers could deploy McSweeney’s style to anywhere near the effect that Eggers, a genuinely affecting writer, could; one suspects that most would have been better (if less well known) writers today if the journal had never existed.

Class dismissed. Be sure to have read both articles for next week.