by carl wilson

'[Indie] Is Poisoned by the Vanity of Its Audience'

Without directly referring to the discussion here/on Slate/in the NY'er, Matt Perpetua took the whole argument to a grouchier extreme the other day on Fluxblog. He's only half-right, but wow, does he ever nail that half to the wall:

"When it comes to art that is practically defined by it falling on the outskirts of the mainstream, the audience is almost always going to be comprised of people just waiting for the right moment to get into backlash mode. They kid themselves into believing that they sincerely care about the art, but what they really love is the social capital of hipness, and can't afford to put too much of themselves into something that may become unfashionable. This is the real problem, if we're going to be very honest -- at the root level, indie/alternative/college rock/blog rock/whatever you want to call it is poisoned by the vanity of its audience, and as a result, the industry built around it will always be unstable, and the culture around the music will be dominated and debased by swarms of self-styled experts attempting to one-up one another. As a wise man once said: 'This ain't a scene, this is a god damn arms race.' "

(Likewise, viz Clap Clap.)

And Wayne Marshall as always has extremely cogent things to say.

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, October 24 at 2:35 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



It's hard for me to escape the suspicion that "art as social capital" is part of capitalism, period. I know I feel it, and I suspect others here do as well! F'rinstance, I'm feeling left out right now because I ignored that Flash Mob article (Harper's can be soooo haughty; I blame editor Lapham, the haughtiest & most mannered Mandarin of writers himself; Thomas Frank fits right in!); but I'm making peace with my feeling of left-out-ness.

The one-up-personship of culture attainment among hipster/Bohemian/indy-pendants/what-have-yous first (to my knowledge) got diagnosed by Malcolm Cowley in the early '30s, in his wonderful '20s memoir "Exile's Return." Though I'd love to be one-upped and shown an earlier diagnosis! Maybe Alexander Pope wrote about it too; will have to check.

In any case, it appears that all agree that when the quest for one-up-personship swamps other humane values, it's a bummer, dude.

Still to be explored: The extent to which musicmakers have reverted to being "servant class"; the makers of "raw materials" for the "real art" of DJs, who fashion the raw recordings into identity-creating artworks (radio-show-as-mix-tape).

Posted by john on October 25, 2007 7:48 PM



Could I see that too, Carl? I hated that flash mobs article.

Posted by Mike B. on October 25, 2007 3:35 PM



I had a lot of the same problems with Wasik's article, from the smugness to the internal contradictions, but I still found it incredibly enjoyable. The running footnotes describing the Nuclear Option elevate it into something beyond goofing on the vagaries of trying to remain hip (though as a friend pointed out, aren't the footnotes just tapping into the latest round of apocalyptic chic? [then again, has the apocalypse ever *not* gripped the collective imagination post-WW II?]).

The OA piece was also, I feel, a bit more sincere, without the same "Gotcha!" feeling, but then there's other problems, like his statement "Everyone I know listens to indie rock," which, ah, I don't know where to begin. I still look forward to his upcoming book.

I'd love to read a copy of your response to Wasik's Harper piece -- I'm actually making my way through Let's Talk About Love right now, which I'm enjoying immensely.

Posted by Jake on October 25, 2007 2:05 PM



That's interesting. I thought the Flash Mobs article was pretty contemptible. Wasik basically outing himself as having *organized a fun activity that people came and had fun doing* and then yelling "Hah! Got you! I was just trying to prove what idiots you all are all along." To me this just makes him the most hip-obsessed of the lot.

I have criticized the whole anti-"hipster" posture before, the whole concept that there is a "hipster species," and won't go into it again, but Wasik seems to have no framework by which to distinguish sociality and conformism, and his own sense of superiority distorts his vision. He's a talented writer and clearly a smart guy, but what an incredible chip on his shoulder.

For a more complete treatment of the Wasik essay, Jake, remind me and I'll send you a copy of my essay on relational art from the Coach House "uT.O.pia" book.

Posted by zoilus on October 25, 2007 12:58 PM



The author of the OA piece, Bill Wasik, is a senior editor over at Harper's and wrote one of my favorite stories of last year, in which he came forward as the inventor of flash mobs, created as a satire of hipster culture. The article is behind a pay wall unfortunately, but here's a small chunk, describing his seventh flash mob, in which people were instructed to line up outside a church and tell onlookers they were waiting for Strokes tickets:

"I was pointing out that hipsters, our supposed cultural avant-garde, are in fact a transcontinental society of cultural receptors, straining to perceive which shifts to follow. I must hasten to add that this is not entirely their fault: the Internet can propagate any flashy notion, whether it be a style of eyewear or a presidential candidacy, with such instantaneity that a convergence on the "hip" tends now to happen unselfconsciously, as a simplematter of course.

But hipsters, after becoming aware of this very dynamic, have responded in a curious and counterintuitive way. Even as they might decry this drive toward unanimity, they continually embrace it and re-embrace it in an enthusiastic, almost ecstatic fashion. No phenomenon of recent years illustrated this point as clearly as the aforementioned Strokes, who for most of 2002 held the top-band spot in hipsterdom. This was a band that, albeit enjoyable and skilled, had been clearly manufactured precisely for hipster delectation. Moreover, the hipsters were well aware of this fact, and they complained about it incessantly even as they cued up the record at parties and danced with special abandon. Indeed,one could perceive something palpably different, something animal,in the hipster species when the Strokes came over the speakers; and it was, I think, the reckless, self-abnegating joy of this simple unanimity, of oneness for its own sake."

Wasik has a book coming out from Viking about Internet culture that I'm very amped to read.

Posted by Jake on October 25, 2007 12:08 PM



And I wonder how he'll feel about his band's sophomore album!

Posted by john on October 25, 2007 8:41 AM



More news on John Richards in today's "Stranger."

He plays records by a band he manages on his radio show more than he plays records by comparably popular bands.

I laughed out loud. Media consolidation!

Posted by john on October 25, 2007 8:39 AM



FWIW, Matthew said he was responding to the post-CMJ Black Kids post on Idolator, which is itself of course responding to the OA and SFJ and CW articles.

Posted by Mike B. on October 24, 2007 9:40 PM



Scott, I quoted the same bit in the OA article in a blog post the same day you did! Small world.

Carl, Yes, I'm aware that Richards worries about the sophomore slump, which is why I gave the hypothetical that even if a sophomore album were better than the debut, and so on. Richards needs no defending. He's very good at what he does and he's very well compensated for it. I applaud him for his frankness.

Social capital and music . . . Is that same as being in a band in order to get laid?

At one point in his career, John Berger argued that a large chunk of Western Art is exactly about social capital, that social capital -- and real wealth -- is its actual subject. I've seen the same argument made about modern abstract-art-as-bank-lobby decor, which I don't deplore because I *like* modern abstract art.

Lots to munch on.

Posted by john on October 24, 2007 9:26 PM



John, I talked about that exact aspect of the OA article (Bill Wasik was the author) a week or two ago -

Posted by scott pgwo on October 24, 2007 5:44 PM



I feel like the OA piece and SFJ's and mine all have overlapping territory, in that they're all about something being amiss in the social context of indiemacallit rock. Certainly the possibility that this music often serves as social capital first and actual art experience second relates to my question about the class issues involved. (Eg., taste is always heavily bound up with social capital but according to the sociological research, that becomes more sharply true in higher class brackets.)

On John Richards: Just to balance that anecdote a little, he also says that the problem with second albums is that they are usually relatively rushed compared with first albums, which is a syndrome (the sophomore slump) we're all familiar with. So that's one of the reasons he says he dreads follow-up albums. However, he also says it for the reason you cite, and that is indeed very grim.

Posted by zoilus on October 24, 2007 5:40 PM



Matt Perpetua's thang seems more like an elaboration of the piece in Oxford American on the band called Annuals than it seems a response to Mr. Frere-Jones or you. I found the OA piece chilling, for exactly the reasons that Mr. Perpetua gets into. My local college rock radio morning DJ, John Richards of KEXP, is quoted somewhat extensively. He is shown to feel the following, both of which blow my mind:
1. He actively hopes that hot new bands don't have follow-up albums.
2. Whatever he's excited about now, 6 months from now it won't be worth mentioning.

The writer of the OA piece (whose name is escaping me) praises Richards's "bulletproof taste," so, clearly, Richards cares about the music. But only to a degree: If Annuals' follow-up album were to be better than their debut, Richards says he wouldn't be very excited about it. You may ask John Richards, Why? And he answered: Because they wouldn't be new, and he wouldn't be discovering them.

Perpetua's accusation -- "what they really love is the social capital of hipness" -- is dead on.

Why bands want to put themselves into that chew-'em-up-and-poop-'em-out machine is completely beyond me.

Posted by john on October 24, 2007 5:31 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson