by carl wilson

Indie, Class and the Death of Bohemia: 1

Folks (in the Comments) are leaping to misjudgment on what I meant in pointing to Frank Kogan's recent Las Vegas Weekly column in response to Sasha Frere-Jones and my pieces on "indie." (Which I'll assume, if you're bothering to read this, by now, you've already read.)

Frank provides, as always, intelligent syntheses and correctives to ideas from both pieces, eg. on the need to read alterna-cultural gestures dialectically in relation to the mainstream, which is if anything more intensely "miscegenated" than ever. Sasha was trying to say the same with his Snoop/Dre example but got a bit off-track; turning to Justin Timberlake instead, as Frank does (when he's finished re-celebrating the Rolling Stones), is a much clearer point of contrast: The question becomes, why does JT so giddily mimic black styles while "indie" tends to eschew them, and to some degree the question is its own answer. However, to the degree that it's not, I still say that for liberal white kids the entire critique of appropriation that came out of both academia and black nationalist '80s-and-'90s activism has created a taboo, and one of the debates that feels missing in all the response to SFJ's piece is the one I suspect he most wants to have, which is, Should that taboo be respected? (Which in a way is again to ask, what is the value or negative value of "authenticity," "keeping it real," and so forth?) It's his strongest point and I do feel like people keep trying to wish it out of existence, by bringing up exceptions such as TVotR etc. Part of my point was that it's instructive to observe who, socially, respects such a taboo and who doesn't.

My main disagreement with Frank comes when he says: "The class divide that's relevant here isn't, as Carl thinks, between rich and poor but between bohemia and the mainstream. Most indie kids may be middle class, but most of the middle class isn't indie and most salaried professionals aren't part of liberal arts culture."

I agree that we're talking about fractions of the middle class, rather than classes as a whole. (I'd still argue that's part of the problem, that once upon a time the "underground" did have a stronger relationship to bigger social divisions than that, often a vicarious or romanticized relationship but still not this utter indifference.) But I have real trouble with Frank's interchanging use of "bohemia" and "liberal arts culture" here, as precisely my point was that this cluster of musical interests once denoted a membership in a bohemia - in shorthand, a dropout mutual-aid network of alienated dissenters using various parasitic subterfuge to sustain an alternate set of values - and is now semi-professionalized as a liberal-arts activity. I don't think bohemias in the old sense exist much anymore, and certainly indie-rock is not where any remnant or mutant versions are likely to be found.

(... Continued below the fold ...)

The sustenance of a bohemia, I suspect, requires a larger middle-middle class than in this ever-more-polarized economy, in which upper-middle and lower-middle keep getting further apart - which means, for instance, a shortage of the kind of low-commitment day jobs and casual work that support bohemias. It's also for the socio-economic reasons I discussed in the Slate piece, which I'd summarize by saying that many of the values formerly associated with bohemia are, in a "knowledge economy" where graphic designers and programmers and consultants and other ideas-trading entrepreneurs (including many writers) are part of the upper-middle class, now mainstream values. So the fragment of the children of the middle-class who are drawn to that kind of creative discourse are actually among the most potentially upwardly mobile. Having a rock band on your resume is likely to be a plus for those seeking those kinds of professional jobs. At which point the structural oppositionalism of bohemianism - which included an at least vicarious identification and often more extended contact with lower socioeconomic classes due to "voluntary poverty" - vanishes and it is reabsorbed into class dynamics.

But mainly it's a cultural-history thing: For technological, sociological and other reasons, in North America and most of Europe, "bohemia" won the tug-of-war with the cultural conservatives that marked much of the history of art movements in the 20th century. Which, perhaps thankfully, renders bohemia obsolete. What it leaves by default, though is liberal-arts culture. What distinguishes liberal-arts culture from the rest of upper-middle-class/upper-class culture? I would turn - as I do at length in my book - to what Pierre Bourdieu describes as the conflict between portions of the dominant class whose status is primarily staked on economic capital (eg. most people who work in business, financial, sales, industry and such fields) and those whose status is primarily founded on cultural capital (the arts, academics, software, designers, advanced-degree professionals).

Bourdieu argues that the cultural-capital fractions occupy a "dominated" position within the dominant class, which is part of why they (we) feel like a dissenting group that identifies with the underdog while at the same time are regarded by the majority of the population as a set of snooty elites, a contradiction that Republicans have exploited for political gain over the past 20 years. So there is a separation, as Frank says, but I don't think it's the kind of separation made by bohemians in the old sense.

Indeed, the lines blur dramatically, as has been captured by the otherwise-pretty-useless David Brooks in the phrase "Bobo" - bourgeois bohemian. I'm aware of many, many more upper-middle class architects, lawyers, academics, even accountants who spend their music budgets on "indie"-related music than I can imagine were aware of underground/alternative stuff pre-1995. The Eagles record is sold at Wal-Mart; Feist is sold at Starbucks. And the proportion of high-school and university students who are actively engaged with it, as is reflected on record charts and MuchMusic and many other indicators, is much larger. What's more, one of the dominant more-mainstream musics right now - emo/mall-punk - is only one skip and jump away, and while there's some effort in alternative music to keep a distance from that, it's hardly its driving purpose. Which leads us to the question: Is there a driving purpose?

I'm not saying that purpose should be akin to the outmoded bohemian one. I have to break off here but I'll continue (probably tomorrow) by discussing why and what the other options might be.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, November 08 at 2:51 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (18)

 

COMMENTS

hey.. why your site opening so slow?

Posted by steapeBetle on December 5, 2007 6:12 PM

 

 

Carl, By characterizing new developments as "flaws," you are well within your brief as a critic, but you're also playing a generational role. The reasons you dislike something may be the very reasons that other people like it; in other words, what you experience as flaws may be deliberate and successful -- including successful at alienating the likes of you & me!

Also, the context of this discussion -- "The Trouble With Indie" -- *begs* for generational teasing.

Trouble -- with a capital T and that rhymes with C and that stands for cool. Which is what indie is about, and I ain't it.

Posted by john on November 9, 2007 4:21 PM

 

 

Not a referendum on your work, Carl, just disgruntlement with the mediated weak-sauce state of the art(s).

Posted by Jordan on November 9, 2007 3:59 PM

 

 

Also, John, I don't know that I'm nostalgic for a bohemia that was more politically engaged. First of all, I don't think I've ever really experienced bohemia - maybe heard some last echoes of ones that came before. That said, the thing I thought was useful about, say, early-90s indie-activist culture was that by making people think about class and race they discouraged a certain kind of complacent insularity. However, it also discouraged and censored other kinds of imagination and free thought. It wasn't particularly great as politics. (And don't get me started on the economics!) So again, I bring up those things in contrast but not necessarily because I want them to come back.

Posted by zoilus on November 9, 2007 3:46 PM

 

 

Jordan: I'm interested in talking about social changes as well as in talking about music, and in how the two affect each other. That's all. How does this mean "they won." It's not like I haven't also posted about music this week.

That said, part 2 of this will probably be the last.

Posted by zoilus on November 9, 2007 3:35 PM

 

 

John, I don't know that I do feel excluded by the current music. I found more to like in 2004, say, than in 1995, even if I haven't found as much to like the past year or so. And I have plenty negative to say about the much more conformist, snobbish, posturing and rigid alterna-culture of my 20s. I didn't like west-coast grunge much, for example. In many respects I prefer it now. As far as I'm concered, the question is not "why is alterna-music worse than it used to be" but "how, by looking at its development in the past 20 years, can we understand the nature of the particular flaws going on in the music scene right now." Which is part of my brief as a critic. I don't consider this a "kids these days" conversation.

Posted by zoilus on November 9, 2007 3:30 PM

 

 

Carl, I didn't mean to imply that you are wrong to dislike Decembrists, or I was wrong to find Pavement irritating.

What I'm harping on is this: A change in style is *meant* to exclude the old style. If old guys like you (sorry) or me don't like the new style, than *the new style is doing its job*.

All that said, I don't disagree with your economic analysis -- I've been saying similar things for a long time. There are just many different diagnostics to run, that's all.

Interesting, though, that parallel to this discussion, Jonathan Mayhew on his poetry blog just quoted Robert Bly as saying that the young poets aren't doing their jobs because they aren't denouncing him (not strictly true; lots of younger poets denounce Bly); and Ange Mlinko on *her* poetry blog has been wondering whether the avant-garde even exists.

Bohemia -- dead. Avant-garde-ism -- dead. 'Bye-'bye 20th century!

Kenneth Rexroth criticized the Beats for being apolitical. The Beats aren't thought of as apolitical now because Ginsberg was very politically engaged. But his friends -- Burroughs, Kerouac, Corso -- tended not to be.

Next time you come to Seattle I'll have to play you my record of Rexroth reading "Thou Shalt Not Kill," his lamentation on the death of Dylan Thomas, with his great, bellowed last lines, "You killed him! You killed him! In your goddamn Brooks Brothers suit, you son of a bitch!"

Posted by john on November 9, 2007 1:49 PM

 

 

If there has been a mainstreaming of bohemia, I think it's changed the nature of *why* the bohemians are making a split between themselves and the mainstream in the first place -- I haven't found a satisfying answer to this question myself, except that it's a stupid question and constructing a "mainstream" to define yourself against often does the work for you, provided you don't really bother about what the hell you mean by "mainstream" in the first place. But just because the opposition as confrontation may not be as present doesn't mean the split itself is any less noticeable.

Case in point, maybe: Interesting to hear what happens to, say, R. Kelly's "Ignition" in the hands of Will Oldham ("unironic" fan, featured in a chapter of "Trapped in the Closet" which I has to be some sort of participation in mainstream culture, right?) -- the joy and bounce gets sucked out and it's replaced by this sense of foreboding, as if all car/sex metaphors point to something sinister or violent. So there is a retreat of sorts, from R. Kelly's dumb flirting and the general frivolity of the track to something purposely mean and ugly, but not to reveal anything mean or ugly about the original track. I don't think you could call it a "critique" or something, more likely Oldham just liked it and wanted to cover it -- Oldham found one way he could comfortably "play it straight" in his own twisted way. So there's the split, but it's unclear as to what the split means; like, we can't *use* this stuff, we can't *sound* like R. Kelly (still doesn't answer the question why not, but it is an example of "how"), but we want R. Kelly in there somewhere.

(Oldham is putting out a covers album and the last track is R. Kelly's "World's Greatest.")

Posted by Dave on November 9, 2007 11:42 AM

 

 

Ha, my friend Ian (child of the folk circuit subculture) wrote this in 2004: "Whether or not Devendra Banhart is a part of the next big movement in folk music should eventually prove to be a non-issue -- unfortunately, the folk community will probably not pay much attention to Devendra Banhart, and the indie community, touters of such a premonition, will surely not pay much attention to contemporary folk."

Posted by Dave on November 9, 2007 11:27 AM

 

 

I still think it's generational. I agree with what you've said about the mainstream-ization of bohemia, Carl, but youth indie subculture still exists. And it still functions in the way it always has: Young bohemians like it, and the majority of their peers *and older bohemians* don't.

You're articulate, Carl, which is why you can articulate the reasons *why* you don't particularly like the culture of the younger bohemians, just like I could articulate why I didn't like Pavement, as a bohemian older than you. But that doesn't mean you're right, or that I was. The people who love it are right, as they always have been.

All the stuff on economics is interesting diagnostics, but it also reads as rationalization of why you don't like the culture of the younger bohemians.

You're nostalgic for a bohemia that was more politically engaged, but *lots* of bohemias have been politically disengaged -- in fact, bohemia was *founded* on a misanthropic thrust. If you want politically engaged subculture (which is also very middle class), well, I guess I'll be seeing you at the folk festivals!

Posted by john on November 9, 2007 11:01 AM

 

 

So we all understand and agree that music itself is secondary and these brand/bands are what we're talking about, pure metonyms for our socio-economically-constructed wish-fulfillment selves.

Great.

It's over, go home, they won.

Posted by Jordan on November 9, 2007 10:05 AM

 

 

It's kind of weird that you're asking whether a taboo should be respected, since the whole point of a taboo is that there's not a neutral choice whether or not to observe it. A taboo is a social norm with an extremely strong coercive force behind it, so choosing not to go along with it is to choose to accept a whole raft of penalties. Sasha didn't ask that question because it's not really a question. It would be like sitting in Salem in the 17th century and wondering, "Should the taboo against witchcraft really be respected?" That's not really the question.

A taboo can only be eliminated with another taboo. The anti-miscegnation taboo exists in response to the taboo of blacks as mainstream entertainment stars that existed until the mid-70s. I think the issue here is that Sasha didn't really make it clear why that taboo--which does serve a useful purpose that I think we can all get behind, and if it seems unneeded now that's precisely because it's functioning so well--should be eliminated. If he could do that, if he could provide a strong artistic or social argument for why that taboo is harmful, and replace it with the sort of critical taboo that really does influence bands (i.e. various members of my band were really opposed to recording in digital), then that could make a difference, I think.

More to say but I think my browser just crashed, argh.

Posted by Mike B. on November 9, 2007 9:53 AM

 

 

Carl, meant to tip you off earlier about my piece but have been too frazzled. I wouldn't call it the clearest writing I've ever produced; I give it some elaboration over on my livejournal. As for the state of current bohemianism, I like what I wrote a couple of months ago (The Death Of The Cool).

I'd say the crucial line in last week's column was "I think a lot of indie vocalists aren't hearing a potential voice for themselves except in vocals that seem to be some sort of retreat." If this is true, then it means that indie singers have an uneasy relation to any sources, black or white or Latin or Asian or classical*. And if it's true it has to be explained.

*Notice how I made "classical" an ethnic group.

Posted by Frank Kogan on November 9, 2007 2:11 AM

 

 

("differentiation," not "delineation," I think.)

Posted by Dave on November 8, 2007 10:05 PM

 

 

So the fragment of the children of the middle-class who are drawn to that kind of creative discourse are actually among the most potentially upwardly mobile. Having a rock band on your resume is likely to be a plus for those seeking those kinds of professional jobs. At which point the structural oppositionalism of bohemianism - which included an at least vicarious identification and often more extended contact with lower socioeconomic classes due to "voluntary poverty" - vanishes and it is reabsorbed into class dynamics.

What if "voluntary poverty" isn't so much a *principle* as a *side effect* of bohemianism, which doesn't require poverty to distinguish itself from a mainstream but often leads to it? All bohemianism really needs is a mainstream to define itself against, so that it can be the not-mainstream (I know there's a historical context to the word that you miss out on if you dismiss "voluntary poverty," but I'm not sure if this is a primary characteristic of it, regardless of historical origins/communities; and I imagine plenty of "bohemian" thought comes from upper-middle and upper class people along with the voluntarily poor).

Poverty may not be so much the case, but it doesn't necessarily alter what bohemianism is to the people who are attracted to it, which is a general system of social differentiation -- maybe it's delusional if bohemia is the mainstream, but those within bohemia are clearly defining themselves against one.

Small point, but I can't imagine a single job that would consider being in a rock band as a "plus," exactly -- and I still think that rock bands can easily = oppositional stance to the mainstream culture that you, the member of said rock band, (reluctantly, says you?) have to participate in.

I know a punk singer who's a middle manager in insurance, for instance (with a girlfriend, also in various punk outfits, in a white collar graphic design gig), and there's a clear delineation between "punk band guy" and "middle manager guy," and that distinction is very much related to a sense of bohemianism (even if "intentional poverty" part is opposed to viably paying the rent) and a strong sense of limiting the mainstream involvement that infiltrates their lives. I.e., "well, I have to get my coffee and Starbucks and I have to work a white collar job with an insurance firm, but at least my music isn't mainstream." So if bohemianism is a mode of thought, certain kinds of acceptance in the mainstream (you can be in a punk band and no one bats an eyelash at the insurance company) might actually be an impetus to retreat into whatever bohemianism you can achieve outside of your "mainstream life."

Question: what did guys like the Dictators and the proto-punk-type guys do for a living? Wasn't part of their embrace of junk culture etc. very much related to a certain kind of mainstreamness that they found a way to make bohemian? (Junky TV is mainstream, but not the way we do it?)

Posted by Dave on November 8, 2007 10:01 PM

 

 

Really, really good stuff, Carl. Thanks.

Posted by Richard on November 8, 2007 7:12 PM

 

 

"Also, I am not convinced that aesthetic quality of music (Indie-rock) depends on whether one is a member of a bohemian underground or a future professional upper middle classer."

I'm not either, but I think the conditions are relevant, in ways that I'll discuss more tomorrow. (I'm only delaying for lack of time today.)

I agree that segregation on radio is an issue - not quite so convinced about tv, as music video still seems a point of crossover. Obvs the internet is capable of detouring around divisions - in reference to indie rock, though, it has been slow to really act in that way, as it depends on its users more than its programmers to have that interest.(Pitchfork used to be a prime example but in the past couple of years it's really altered its indie-cloister mentality, covering electronic and hip-hop and other sounds while maintaining its own central aesthetic - I don't think it gets enough credit for that. Most of the mp3 blogs remain pretty narrow though.)

In class terms however the Internet is probably part of the problem - a lot more people have TVs and radios than have broadband Internet.

Posted by zoilus on November 8, 2007 6:48 PM

 

 

I still say that for liberal white kids the entire critique of appropriation that came out of both academia and black nationalist '80s-and-'90s activism has created a taboo, and one of the debates that feels missing in all the response to SFJ's piece is the one I suspect he most wants to have, which is, Should that taboo be respected?-Carl

Are you suggesting that those who are not 'respecting the taboo' (be they rap-rockers, mainstream pop artists, rappers, jambanders, LCD Sound System, groups incorporating afropop, multicultural groups like Extra Golden) are not "liberal white kids"? Also, maybe they do not see what they are doing as "appropriation." As mentioned on the long ILX thread, for better or worse Diplo, and various other djs and party throwers around the US are engaging with African-American music. Now, Sasha would say that that's just another exception that somehow does not take away from his indie-rock band theme. Sasha already gave his answer--he wants bands to challenge the 'taboo'.

Yes there is a sizeable percentage of middle class high-school and university kids buying indie-rock, but isn't there, as Frank has suggested, a sizeable percentage(arguably larger) of middle class high school and university kids buying everything else--major label rock of all styles, pop, rap, etc. It's not just an Eagles at Walmart(working class but the Eagles also appeal to aging middle class boomers also-"Deadhead sticker on a cadillac" lyric) versus Feist at Starbucks, it's Nickelback at Best Buy and whomever via Itunes.

Also, I am not convinced that aesthetic quality of music (Indie-rock) depends on whether one is a member of a bohemian underground or a future professional upper middle classer. The Beatles and Timbaland and a million others have created music of value while having large bank accounts.

Regarding David Brooks, he has suggested that many young people are able to put off starting a professional career after college. You are suggesting that there's a lack of jobs that can sustain a bohemian underground, but clearly some folks are sustaining themselves(snear if you'd like regarding where the money comes from). And again, aesthetically does it matter whether a 60s garage rocker lived at home and knew that he would someday be a professional, or whether he lived in a San Francisco commune (and would someday be a professional)?

Sasha wants miscgenation, and you want class mixing, yet neither of you are addressing the failure of American commercial radio and video channels to allow both indie and mainstream/major label, working class and upper class, and various races to come into contact with one another. On the one hand the internet allows some a means to move beyond insular musical worlds and embrace the world, but it can also be just as confining through individual self-choice as 20th century technology.

Posted by curm on November 8, 2007 6:21 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson