For the last few days I’ve been unable* to escape the heated discussion about an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times about poptimism, and why it’s bad. Whatever salient points the author may have had are obscured by a bunch of easily deflated arguments, so I won’t go into it. But there’s one thing he talked about that I’ve been thinking about, so I’m going to try to work that out.
In his op-ed, Austerlitz refers to the phenomena of critics feigning poptimism as a form of penance for their early rockist days. As I thought there was no way Jody Rosen could name “Moves Like Jagger” as one of the best singles of the year unless he was taking the piss, I sort of got what he was going for. Then I thought about how many people—writers largely among them—whom I’ve heard made some flippant comment along the lines of, “All guitar music is bad” or “that’s just for white people” (usually spoken by a white person) or “indie rock is boring” or whatever. I have heard this a lot, and it’s usually less a critical judgment—go figure—than a way of playing The Taste Game, where a boisterous statement can overwhelm the thought process it might take to justify a statement. (Philosophers debating the meaning of life we are not.)
The thing is, that’s usually a pose. If you make any kind of counter-argument—”no, not all indie rock is boring”—and hang onto it for 30 seconds, the person you’re talking to will probably admit they’re just having fun. I’ve never met a critic who was actually that dogmatic. Maybe they exist. But they’re definitely not getting paid assignments in real publications, and they’re definitely not making it impossible to write about complex music like Austerlitz implies.
Sure, this can be kind of annoying—the type of ironic detachment that goes into asserting a blanket statement containing a grain of truth (some indie rock is boring, certainly) in order to seem kind of hip and with it. Sometimes it’s done humorously, but sometimes it’s just grasping for low-hanging fruit—like tweeting a photo of those Game of Thrones ads and saying, “All men should die” and waiting for the faves to roll in.
But at the same time, ironic detachment is the default style of expression when the people using it are still in the minority. Saying “all men must die” doesn’t seem so dumb when you remember the aggregate of old white men controlling American politics and driving the country into a ditch. Saying “indie rock is boring” doesn’t seem so officious when you remember that there are still annoying teenagers in dorm rooms judging you for not liking Radiohead. Twitter is a lot of things, but it’s also an illusion of the status quo and a bubble of experience depending on who you surround yourself with. However you think the world is depending on who’s on your timeline is definitely not the way it works… and parts of this op-ed read like Austerlitz just got really tired of reading his timeline.
I’m thinking about Disco Demolition Night, the infamous incident where the Chicago White Sox encouraged fans to bring their disco records to the baseball game and watch them get blown up. I’m going to gloss over this very quickly, but disco in the 70s was black-dominated and gay-friendly and it definitely isn’t unfair to assume that a percentage of the mostly white, obviously rockist crowd was there for bigoted purposes. (How big that percentage is depends on how charitable you’re feeling, but I’ll take the high road and assume that some of them were just garden variety dipshits rather than outright racists and homophobes.)
It was a disaster. And the thing is, you’d never see the opposite, where disco fans would go to a baseball field to destroy as many rock records as they could. You wouldn’t see Disco Demolition Night today, of course, but the fact that something like that could even happen—and the way it happened—is evidence of an undercurrent of expressive rage that just couldn’t exist within genres containing large swaths of non-white, non-male fans. (Which doesn’t mean white men are the only demographic of rock fans, obviously, but that’s the demographic that seems to get loudly up in arms about Real Music and blah blah blah.)
When Austerlitz bemoans the influence of poptimism, he’s taking everything at face value and failing to distinguish between the performance of how people maybe think the world should work (but probably don’t) and how the world definitely works. The world works in a way where commenters on Atlantic articles are still debating whether rap is music. The world works in a way where Drake fans are never going to buy a bunch of Vampire Weekend records and burn them in a football field. The world works in a way where Jack White is still releasing candy-assed blues knockoffs that get five-star Rolling Stone reviews.
Maybe Austerlitz is right about a few things. But those things come at the cost of assuming a larger world that just doesn’t exist, and that’s where he screws up.
* When I’m on the Internet, at least. But why would I want to log off?
I stood beside Yngve, in front of my father. His cheeks were crimson, saturated with blood. It must have got caught in the pores when they tried to wipe it away. And the nose, it was broken. But even though I saw this, I still didn’t see it, for all the detail disappeared into something other and something greater, into both the aura he gave off, which was death and which I had never been close to before, and also what he was to me, a father and all the life that lay therein. — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1
Pieces I’ve enjoyed reading in the last few days:
The Nation’s Michelle Goldberg on when liberal-driven political correctness goes wrong
The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang on the legitimate mindset driving Suey Park to spearhead such an unhelpful “campaign”
To my ears, “ching chong” is less a slur than it is a confirmation that the person using it as one is as basic as dirt. People say “ching chong” when they want to make fun of Chinese—meaning any kind of Asian—people but don’t want to take even the second of effort to come up with something more specific. The last time “ching chong” was a big deal in mainstream culture, I think, was when Shaquille O’Neal spoke to Yao Ming through a beat reporter and said, “Tell him Shaq says ‘Ching chong yang, wah, ah soh.’” Since Shaq on his best day is as good a critical thinker as a sack of flour, it’s not too hard to see why he’d use it. When people got offended, even Yao said—for whatever reason, but let’s take him at face value—that Shaq was just being Shaq.
So this is just Colbert—a parody of a right-wing idiot—being Colbert. Sure, it’s funny and I laughed. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the form this joke would’ve taken were he making it about any other race, and there’s something to be said about defaulting toward Asian people for jokes like these. My own experience growing up in a diverse environment with friends of all colors and creeds taught me that tolerance is most effectively created when people feel comfortable making these kinds of jokes around each other. But it’s undoubtedly difficult to replicate that small-scale intimacy on a national level, and unfortunately I’ve had the recent experience of knowing that not everyone is completely in on the joke when it comes to acknowledging stereotypes and the sensitive ways in which race separates us in 2014. On the other hand, we don’t know how much of Colbert’s audience is made up of that demographic. But at which point is careful too careful?
No Exit (Coktel Vision/Tomahawk - Amiga - 1990)
there was a mood in the Coktel Vision offices to call the sequel “L’Étranger” instead of “No Exit II” but cooler heads prevailed
This is a sick game, it really adheres to Sartre’s vision