Suspicion of intellectualism
In his fine piece on cultural blind spots yesterday, our own Jason Bailey noted that these days, any semblance of intellectualism — or any divergence from popular opinion, for that matter — tends to get you labelled a “hipster.” The message is clear: hipsters are pretentious and think they’re smarter than you, and we can’t be having that, can we?
This is symptomatic of the general anti-intellectualism that seems to have infected US culture over the past several decades — we’re increasingly suspicious of clever people, it seems, perhaps because of the constant diet of determinedly idiotic political discourse we’ve been fed since the Reagan administration. Whatever the case, we’re left with a culture where both intellectualism and its attendant polemicism are largely absent. People marveled at PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake this year because it actually said something — but it was very much the exception to the rule. Which brings us onto the next point…
Laziness as credibility
It’s much easier to not care about anything, isn’t it? You don’t have to worry about people calling you out on your opinions if you don’t have any — you can make a career out of giggling about how stoned you are and tossing off half-finished songs that are half-finished because, like, you’re way too cool to actually finish them. This idea that not caring is cooler than caring has infected popular culture since the days of James Dean, and it perhaps reached its nadir in the 1990s and 2000s, when few musicians seemed to say anything without placing their statement in inverted commas — but it’s still a pox on the world of music today. Isn’t it, Wavves?
It’s also a pox on the world of music criticism and consumption. Let’s be clear here: skepticism is good. Shit, without healthy skepticism indie wouldn’t exist in the first place — the entire existence of indie labels is predicated on the idea of rejecting what you’re force-fed and deciding you could do better yourself. But, having said that, the air of embittered cynicism that seems to have enveloped music criticism over the last decade is pretty depressing. Look at the comment section of just about any music blog you can find — therein you’ll find the same people, complaining about other people’s taste in music, complaining about musicians, complaining about everything. It’s fine to have strong opinions. But as Morrissey once said, “It’s so easy to laugh/ It’s so easy to hate/ It takes strength to be gentle and kind.” True, that.
Dullness as credibility
Elsewhere, there’s also the strange notion that credibility consists of “keeping it real.” This idea is most commonly associated with hip-hop, but it also manifests in the world of white dudes with guitars, albeit in a slightly different manner. In the world of indie, it emerges in the strangely conservative and increasingly pernicious idea that correlates a band’s rootsy credibility with its degree of chronic dullness. If you play tedious lumpenfolk that uses acoustic guitars and olde worlde charme, you’re somehow viewed as inherently credible, which is presumably the reason behind the otherwise inexplicable critical adulation handed out to the insufferably dull likes of Mumford and Sons, Stornoway, etc.
Suspicion of ambition
“Selling out” as an accusation has been around for as long as selling out has actually been a possibility. While in the occasional case — The Black Eyed Peas, for instance, or Kings of Leon’s post-Because of the Times left turn towards AOR tedium — it’s justified, it’s largely a load of piffle. We all understand the strange feeling of loss when your favorite band suddenly crosses over into the public consciousness, and they’re not your secret any more. But people have to eat. These days, there seems to be an abiding suspicion of any band that maintains any sort of ambition, be it commercial or artistic. This ties back into the notion that it’s not cool to care about anything; of course, this is fine if you happen to have a heap of money in the bank anyway. If not, however…
A couple of months back, our friends at The Quietus published a quite fantastic opinion piece by Wyndham Wallace, which argued that the music industry’s continued insistence on trying to pursue file-sharers and maintain outdated business models is ultimately only hurting musicians and thus culture in general. The article makes many excellent points, but for our purposes, there’s one key passage wherein Wallace points out that in a climate of decreasing financial returns, “the first people to give up [on music] will be those with the least money. This, some argue, will sort the wheat out from the chaff: serious musicians don’t give up that easily. But this is clearly nonsense. Serious musicians might not give up, and some may thrive – if the cliché is true – because they have suffered. But if they can’t afford to tour, record, build a website, and pay those required to supervise their business, let alone pay their rent, then they won’t make music their priority and potential stars will be lost to us.”
And before you jump into the comments section to write something along the lines of “Boo fucking hoo, we all have to work, etc”, consider this — the result of all this, as Wallace argues, is that “the majority that succeed will be those well connected enough to receive funding, or those from financially comfortable backgrounds.” You may well argue that a trip to Williamsburg confirms that this is already happening in NYC, at least — you simply can’t afford to be a musician here. Do we really want to live in a world where music is made as a hobby by Dov Charney-clothed dilettantes?
Indie as fashion statement
And now we come to… Lana Del Rey. As the Village Voice‘s Maura Johnston points out in this gloriously coruscating article about Del Rey, the sudden wash of coverage on the new princess of Pitchfork hype has little, if anything, to do with her music. This is something that’s been going on in the world of pop music for ever, of course — look at Lady Gaga, whose entire career is based on standing in the middle of a room and shouting “Look at meeeeeeeeee!” And yes, there have been many style-over-substance indie artists over the years.
But even so, there’s something depressing and unedifying about the spectacle of someone making such an obvious play for mysteriously bankrolled, image-driven blogosphere success. Del Rey has the vaguely exotic name (much more interesting than plain old Lizzy Grant, which is what her parents call her, and what she called herself during her first, abortive attempt at stardom), the vintage-y press shots, the risibly contrived image. Perhaps the most depressing thing about it all is that there was surely no possibility that she wouldn’t get “found out” — she just didn’t care, and saw indie-dom as nothing more than another potential image to tick off in the search for stardom. Is this how you “succeed” in 2011? God hates us all.
And while we’re on contrived imagery, let’s note that it extends way further than our Lana. You can choose your poison here, really — on the Y chromosome side, there’s the testoterone-stinkin’ likes of Black Lips frontman Jared Swilley and brief NME next big things Viva Brother, while in the X chromosome corner, there’s manic pixie dream girl types like Oh Land or, yes, Lana Del Rey. Either way, they’re artists who seem to be doing their level best to play up to conceptions of what’s apparently expected of their gender — you’re either a man’s man, spouting nonsense to the press about how your band’s the best ever, or you’re a slightly-neurotic-but-ever-so-lovable-and-talented-and-cute girl who even the guys like!!! It’d really be lovely if everyone’d stop trying so hard to be what they’re supposed to be, and just be themselves.
The homogenization of mainstream music
But this brings us onto our next point — who gets to be themselves these days? Once upon a time, way back in the 1980s, there was a little band out of Athens, Georgia, who released a string of rather good but under-appreciated albums on a local indie label. Eventually, over a decade after they released their first EP, they had a hit, and it catapulted them to global stardom. Soon after, they signed a record-breaking $80 million deal with Warners, and today they’re comfortable elder statesmen whose influence is felt throughout the world of music. Their name? R.E.M.
In 2011, the R.E.M. scenario simply doesn’t happen. No one, not even indie labels, are going to fund a loss-making band for a decade just because they like the music. And if you’re on a major label, forget it — if your first record’s not a hit, you’re out the door. The result of all this is a culture that’s hugely biased towards making safe variations of successful formulas. You can see this most clearly in Hollywood, with its endless sequels, remakes, and comic book movies. But it’s happening in the world of music, too, and the result is a production line of tediously homogenized pop stars. And the more the public gets fed this shit, the more shit they expect. If you’re an indie band, what are your chances of getting on the commercial gravy train in this climate? Yeah, not very high.
And this brings us to our last point: revivalism. We laugh at Hollywood, but there are plenty of musical equivalents of Transformers 3. (Take, for example, ’90s throwbacks Yuck, pictured above.) Sure, you can argue that there’s nothing new since the Greeks, but honestly, it’s not true. Musicians have always looked to the past for inspiration — it’s no coincidence that music revivals tend to move in 20-25 year cycles (in addition to the power of nostalgia, what you’re seeing is new generations discovering sounds made before they were born). But, having said all that, there’s something a wee bit depressing about the predictability of how easy it’s becoming to predict the next revival due, and how the revivalists are increasingly failing to make the jump from simple pastiche into using the past to create something new. We suspect that record companies have cottoned onto the idea, too, judging by the glut of vaguely postmodern ’80s revivalists we’ve had shunted on us over the last few years. As Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.” Sigh.