What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and Identity

This post is part of a series. Since the posts build upon one another successively, I suggest you start with the first post in the series.


When my family moved from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, I had a pretty hard time of it.

Understatement of my life, but it’ll do. The move began a long period of having the shit kicked out of me, and then struggling to find a way to fit into a youth culture I didn’t really understand. I was almost certainly dealing with PTSD from all the violence; I was definitely emotionally a mess; I was lost and confused about who I was; and my peers were, like all schoolkids, none too sympathetic.

This continued for years, until, at one point, I moved from one school to another, from one neighborhood to another, and I decided that I would rebrand myself. Not that I understood what I was doing in those terms, exactly: I thought of it more as camouflage, as a way of shielding myself from unwanted attention.

I got myself a walkman, and copied some loud, guitar-crammed tapes from a friend of mine named Kyle Thompson. I bought myself a black jean jacket, and a Guns’n’Roses backpatch, and badges. I let my hair get as unruly as my (fairly strict) mother would allow me, and slapped the headphones on when I went out, the music cranked up loud enough for other people to hear the buzz of ambient noise from them. (There were no earbuds in those days, but I wouldn’t have wanted them anyway: the music was more about my newly-crafted identity than about something to listen to anyway, even if it did allow a sort of outlet for my long pent-up rage.)

Lo and behold: it worked. People didn’t approach me like I was wearing a “beat the crap out of me” sign on my forehead. A girl named Melanie with whom I’d gone to elementary school called me one day, after seeing me at the mall with my jacket on, and complimented me on it in such a way as to advertise interest in me. I made friends more easily, at least among people in the subtribe who liked that sort of music. Nobody said anything about my obsession with D&D, or made fun of me for drawing dragons and elven warriors in my spare time, or writing poetry. I was a headbanger.

Consider the final sentence of the preceding paragraph: what does was mean in this context? Was I playing the role of a headbanger, or was I in actual fact one?

It’s a question best left to philosophers, because personally, I cannot answer it definitively. I adopted the identity of a headbanger, of a G’n’R fan. I acted like one, and while my adoption of the role served a social-adaptive purpose, that does not mean there wasn’t an element of role-playing involved. In the city where I undertook this task of self-rebranding, there were three sorts of boys my age: metalheads, hockey players, and nerds who got their asses kicked. I’d simply opted into the the affinity group that invovled the least physical violence being inflicted on me, since after all I had never learned to ice-skate properly.

After my sisters had been taking music lessons for about six months, I think it was, I approached my mother saying that I, too, wanted to learn music. She asked me what instrument I wanted to play, and I told her I wanted to learn electric guitar. She refused, on the grounds that I’d probably join a rock band and start doing drugs (which, though it aggrieved me at the time, I am now thankful for). So I told her I wanted to learn drums, which she also refused because she feared I’d lose my hearing. When, possessed by a fantastical sense of my father’s Scottish heritage, I suggested bagpipes, she told me I’d have to practice outside, which, in Northern Saskatchewan was a non-starter.

So I was watching the film Lost Boys–I can’t remember whether it was just on TV, or I was watching a VHS tape of it (!!!)–when I saw this scene:

That was it. I went to my mom, and told her I wanted to learn saxophone. I was going to be a rock sax player, like Tim Cappello, the “epic Sax Guy” in the Lost Boys scene above. I would have giant muscles and do pelvic thrusts onstage while playing a total of about ten notes on a tenor sax in front a horde of cheering, bedazzled of beautiful young people, including gorgeous young brunettes in white sleeveless tops who would be looking at me that way instead of at Jason Patric’s character.

Then my mom got me an alto sax, and I went to band camp, and reality set in… a little. I didn’t sound like Tim Cappello, for starters. I sounded more like this:

No insult to that kid. That’s pretty good for a month of playing. I was a little more out of tune, and sloppier with the fingering, but about the same. Everyone’s about the same after a month of sax. Mastering this contraption was going to take work: scales, arpeggios, exercises… daily practice.

Fast-forward a year, and I was still not sounding like Tim Cappello. I still did not have huge muscles, or long hair, or gorgeous young brunettes making eyes at me. Had I taken up the guitar, by this time I would likely have been in a rock band, but here I was still grinding out scales and arpeggios and etudes on my alto sax. But, as luck would have it, my teacher–a bassoonist and a local band teacher–told my parents that I’d learned everything I could from him, and it was time for me to move on to a proper saxophone instructor.

Which I did. (At no small expense to my family: my weekly lessons were in a city 90 minutes from where we lived, for starters, and my father drove me there every two weeks. That’s dedicated parenting.)

During my first lesson, I told my instructor-to-be that I wanted to play rock sax. A vision of Tim Cappello onstage, of the gorgeous brunettes in the white sleeveless tops, of my soon-to-arrive muscles, danced in my mind, while my teacher…

… laughed. He laughed aloud, and told me that if I could play jazz, then playing rock would be easy, so it would be better to learn jazz.

Then he gave me a cassette tape of Miles Davis tracks. I’ve long since lost the cassette, but it was a compilation LP of various Miles Davis quintet performances, and a who’s who of New York City 1950s jazz musicians: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Max Roach… though I didn’t know who any of these people were, or why I ought to be listening to this old-fashioned crap.

But since it was homework from my sax teacher, and it would help me become achieve this:

greaysaxman

and this:

Star-Jami-Gertz-Lost-Boys

… I listened to it anyway. Once, then twice.

Nothing happened for a while. I didn’t know how to listen to it, or, you know, what purpose the music served. It’s not like I could crank it up to ward off bullies. There were no Miles Davis back patches available at the “music” shop downtown.

And then, at one point, I got it. Something clicked, and I realized: this music wasn’t about backpatches or hairstyles or being cool or not being a loser. It wasn’t about huge muscles or hip thrusts. I still hoped it might be about gorgeous brunettes for a while longer, but otherwise, the scales fell from my eyes when I got it, probably a few months after the tape came into my possession. I understood, finally:

This music wasn’t about any of those things because this music was, first and foremost, about the music.


Rock saxophone is a funny thing to talk about, once you know enough to know why. But maybe I can help you get a handle on it. One way is to compare the work of musicians who have led bifurcated careers, like, for example, Branford Marsalis, who has played both in the popular music realm, and the “pure music” realm.

Here he is with Sting, playing in a pop/rock mode:

(Or the album version, here.)

And here’s what the man can really do:

Or for something a bit gentler:

Whatever you think about jazz music, it’s obvious that Marsalis is doing something more complex, more interesting, and more expressive in the latter tracks, while in his playing on the Sting tune, he’s essentially providing a little ornamentation most of the time.

The funny thing is that this is true of all the musicians in a popular music setting: everything they do essentially adds up to simplistic ornamentation, because the focus of the “music” is not the music, but the singer, the lyrics he or she sings, the narrative they convey.

By the way, here’s what Marsalis says Sting told him:

“It’s not about the songs, even… this is rock star stuff…”

Elsewhere–in another video from this interview session, I think–Marsalis says that at rock concerts, people aren’t there for the music, but because the show is an event, with a lights show and dancers and explosions and so on. People download music, he argues, because the realize it is really a fashion accessory with a limited shelf life.

This, coming from someone who played with for years Sting, who once said he’d idolized Elton John and who speaks positively of Bruce Springsteen in the same video above. Take it from me: Marsalis knows of what he speaks.


I’ve discussed, in earlier posts, what I think big business has done to music; I’ve discussed how I listen to music, and my impression of how people who consume primarily popular music listen to it–and the differences between them.

But I want to go back to that first post in this series. I want to talk about one of the more crucial components of the hybrid form we call the music industry, because if it were simply the case that popular music were merely a hybrid form of performance art, I wouldn’t be so leery about it.

The thing that makes me leery is how big businesses exploit probably our biggest Achilles heel in the modern world, and most especially the Achilles heel of the young modern person: identity.

After all, it’s no mistake that popular music targets, and is consumed very energetically by, people in their teen years. Teenagers are casting about for an identity, they are often desperate to fit into society, to have something they can lean on, a functional persona for social living. For me, and for a lot of young people I knew, music was one tool for building that persona… or rather, it was presented to me–and understood by me–as a tool for that purpose.

It wasn’t until I reached Korea that I realized people who listen to a certain kind of music don’t necessarily dress a certain way, or act a certain way. I’ve met, in Seoul, punk rockers who were as polite as my own ever were to me. I’ve met rock drummers who I’d have pegged for D&D nerd chicks back home when I was their age.

The culture industry–the networked businesses that sell us our clothing, our music, our films, our favorite TV shows, our books and magazines–have a vested interest in short-circuiting that process observed by Keats in the following lines, taken from this letter:

Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.

To use the Keatsian term, “soul-making” is a bit like mastering an instrument: it doesn’t come overnight, but rather takes time, takes searching and questioning and investigation. I believe one of the purposes of art is to facilitate this process, by which humans achieve their identity, by which they find out who they are.

In that context, art that facilitates this kind of development and growth–this soul-making–is positive, while art that stifles (along with everything else that stifles it) it is negative.

Which is where my problems with popular music (and a lot of entertainment) begin. For one thing, the simplified narratives necessary in hybrid art forms are one thing, but having worked in a music store for several years as a young man, what I found was that the narratives were incredibly constrained, incredibly hyperdetermined. Love stories came in only a few varieties; conflicts were predictable and ever-familiar in their limited scope. Gender roles, definitions of success… they were all utterly and stiflingly conventional in a myriad of ways, and even the rejection of those conventional narratives took on a predictable, conventional form. (In a word, rebellion.)

I’ve learned a lot of things from reading blogs written, for example, by Asian-Americans and African-Americans commenting on media and entertainment, specifically about what it’s like to live in a world where the media has a ridiculously limited and set number of scripts for people who look like you. (Likewise, trying to imagine what it’s like to grow up as a homosexual in a world where nearly all of the love stories in the mass media (in movies and TV and music) depict heteronormative love stories. My GLBT friends have never talked about it with me, but those friendships led me to imagine.)

But, like I say in Part 3 of this series when I discuss “Gangnam Style,” the hypertrophy of this limitedness (at the cognitive bottleneck of racism) is really just an extreme in terms of degree, not of kind. The fact is that all modern people live enmeshed in a social system where an overwhelmingly limited, constraining range of scripts are available.

This is true in all cultures, of course–every culture has its constraints, and its limitations–but mass media performs its constraining function in a way where culture–the common living property of all human beings within the culture, which can be fought over and changed by people within it–is instead transformed into a product that is mass-distributed for profit. If the world was in the days of Keats the “vale of soul-making,” the vale has been redeveloped into a factory where souls are now mass-produced, and there are a really limited number of models available.

What is most horrifying is that music–something that, in its finest examples and its most exemplary moments–can be a profoundly freeing thing. The music is about the music in the same way that meditation is about meditation, or running a marathon is about running a marathon. By the experience of transcending our social context, traveling into the world of abstraction, challenging ourselves to step beyond the narratives and the identities provided for us–for a given purchase price–we are able to find out who we are outside of the context in which we find ourselves… and thus we are able to reflect on that context, to realize that perhaps that context is not fixed, not absolute. The revolutionary imagination–the mind that insists on betterment, on change, on ceasing in the error of our ways–is absolutely dependent on society-/culture-transcendent experiences, and especially today, when it’s really hard to get out into the woods, music can serve that function.

How immense and terrible is the irony, then, that instead, it has been reduced to a consumer product that inherently–in the narratives that dominate the lyrics of popular music, and its narrative-driven videos, and the personae and meta-narratives of popular music–acts against that kind of experience, reinforcing the status quo and insisting upon the conventional, consumerist mode of achieving identity.

An earlier generation declared that the personal was political; but if the personal–our very identities–are consumer goods, then what does that make the political?

It makes it for sale, like everything else in this world of ours. But the price we pay is not merely monetary… as usual. I believe that the steamrollering and jettisoning of culture on the large scale–what I discussed in part 1 of this post–is mirrored on the personal scale. The prefab identities sold to us as integrally formed around the music we listen to, the clothing we wear, the foods we eat, the car we drive, the beverages we drink (or aspire to let ourselves be seen drinking) all are part of this.

And it leaves me unsure of what can be done, what is to be done. The companies have been hard at work on creating this situation, for decades now, and their influence has infiltrated every nook and cranny of modern civilization. Even if we wanted to throw off the shackles they have crafted for us, we wouldn’t know where to start–since, after all, most of us eat TV dinners in most aspects of our lives.

Which is why it’s possible to be a jazz fan, and read Dan Brown and wear sweatshop clothing; it’s possible to be a foodie and yet never listen to anything besides popular music. It’s not only possible: it’s something that’s integral to the design of our entertainment and popular culture system. Even if one crosses the lines drawn on the pavement in one category of one’s consumer life, it’s rare for someone to cross the lines in all categories, because who has time?

So one is guaranteed to be consuming inhibitive, debased, corporate garbage–the stuff that runs counter to Keatsian soul-making–in most areas of one’s life, no matter what.

For all the benefits of modern consumer society, this leaves me wondering how much we’ve lost from human nature, what the cost has been… and when and if we will ever finally recover from it. It’s heartbreaking when the sordid mess stands before you in the clear light of day.

Heartbreak often leads to other emotions. Which is why I often get emotional about this stuff: because to me, it’s not just the arts that have been strangled to death sometime in the last century: it’s also us, all of us, on some level we haven’t realized yet, and may never do.

Consider this an addendum to what I wrote in Part 1… a special case of the observations made toward the end of that post, I suppose. Or perhaps, a rallying cry, or a crying out in the wilderness. I’m not sure which. But it’s late, and I need to end this post now.

One more installment, tomorrow… maybe. (Unless there’s call for a sixth, but five is all I have lined up, and so the last post is in the chamber, for now. Would be nice if those reading commented: this series has taken me weeks to write, and has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to write for this blog… and it seems to be getting very little notice, unfortunately.)

Series Navigation<< What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 3 — HybridityWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 5 — What I Listen to When I Listen to Popular Music >>

13 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Music: Part 4 — Music and Identity

  1. I would have commented last night, but it seems I’ve come down with the flu.

    At the high school I went to, at the beginning of this millenium, there were cliques in a broad sense, but those were more a reflection of our respective real-world socioeconomic classes than a declaration of our fantastical future aspirations: there were the white kids, who divided themselves up into jocks and stoners and what have you. Then you had the kids who, it was a given, would attend the top-tier universities. And then there were the Mexicans and poor Southeast Asian immigrants who really didn’t have hope of a life beyond menial labor. There was some overlap, especially between the first two groups, but in our leisure time, we were separate. We even inhabited entirely different sections of the school, geographically speaking.

    What else is interesting about my old school was that the nerd’s dream of using their intellectual prowess to come out on top in the end was a near reality. Even the jocks, who knew doing well on the field alone wasn’t any longer enough to get them into a good school, busted their asses to make it into the honors classes. Likewise, a lot of geeks joined the sports teams (and some of them did really well) because the top-tier colleges increasingly want “well-rounded” students. Most notable were the kids shooting for a high-ranking career in the military… you had a lot of otherwise stereotypical jocks who were also tech geeks. So the jocks and nerds were on polite terms, even though at the end of the day they were basically oil and water.

    Really, it was an idyllic state of being for middle-class and up adolescents with ambition or intellectual aspirations, more so because you weren’t necessarily confined to just playing sports or just reading your ass off or just playing video games. It also probably helped that the high school in question was on the West Coast.

    All this to say, I don’t have a heartfelt understanding of exactly how painful your coming-of-age was (and a lot of people’s, I’m aware… Daria is one of my favorite shows, and there’s plenty in there about that. Daria was the nineties though, and what with gentrification and blue-collar jobs increasingly being sourced overseas, I think more and more high schools will be moving in the direction my school did.) And I know, even if this knowledge is only in my mind, how lucky I am for that. I left high school with a mental map of the world (at least on paper) that, while flawed, was fairly comprehensive: a decent grasp of the natural sciences, mathematics, and social sciences, an appreciation (tinged by envy, because I’m not an artist no matter how much I’d like the believe the contrary) for the arts. Most of all, thanks to teachers who praised me and encouraged me to experiment, I discovered my one ability that I am completely confident in and that I love doing: language, and especially writing.

    But at the same time, my exposure to PEOPLE (as in all the diversity of modern society) was very limited. The kids I hung out with were almost always raised by affluent parents with extensive education themselves, and I guess kids with that kind of background aspired to… if not soul-making, then at least a higher class of consumerism. Cheap crap (like the gangster rap beloved by a devout Catholic girl I knew) was okay… but only if you were properly ironic about it. No one beat you up for how you chose to spend your money and time, but it was the orchestra kids, the debate team kids, the journalism kids were the ones that got the accolades, the teachers’ favor, and being “mundane” meant you were excluded in certain ways, however subtle. There was definitely a hierarchy based on, to put it bluntly, how likely you were to enter the upper-class in the future, and this encompassed both inclinations of talent and inclinations of taste. I had friends who would carry around The Divine Comedy and Tchaikovsky CD’s without really reading or listening to either, just to fit in.

    It took me a long time, probably longer than other similar types who are surrounded by more blatant idiocy, that this kind of environment was not only unhealthily insulating, but was only a different type of branding, people buying into a more expensive stereotype. The kids who carried around Ariel, Also Sprach Zarathustra, The Wasteland, Paradise Lost, I would hazard that many of us (including me, the Sylvia Plath and Nietzsche were mine) didn’t really understand what it was all about, and applied to our interpretations of these venerable works the same adolescent tedium that leads other, more maligned teens to latch onto, say, Twilight. I don’t think most of us learned all that much more about critical thinking than the guys in the non-honors classes. Most of our education was, eventually, geared towards taking tests or looking impressive on a resume, and that was also what the social milieu was about. Not much more conducive to soul-making, in the end.

    1. I would have commented last night, but it seems I’ve come down with the flu.

      Yikes! Feel better!

      At the high school I went to, at the beginning of this millenium, there were cliques in a broad sense, but those were more a reflection of our respective real-world socioeconomic classes than a declaration of our fantastical future aspirations: there were the white kids, who divided themselves up into jocks and stoners and what have you. Then you had the kids who, it was a given, would attend the top-tier universities. And then there were the Mexicans and poor Southeast Asian immigrants who really didn’t have hope of a life beyond menial labor. There was some overlap, especially between the first two groups, but in our leisure time, we were separate. We even inhabited entirely different sections of the school, geographically speaking.

      What else is interesting about my old school was that the nerd’s dream of using their intellectual prowess to come out on top in the end was a near reality. Even the jocks, who knew doing well on the field alone wasn’t any longer enough to get them into a good school, busted their asses to make it into the honors classes.

      Wow… that sounds completely alien to me. The funny thing is that I’ve heard the public school down the street was less like my experience, and more like yours. But the Catholic schools I attended from mid-elementary school were all pretty much the same in this way.

      Or maybe it’s just that I was pretty much the same most of the way through, and the differences that I attribute to my own clever self-rebranding (that continued, in other ways) had less to do with it than changes in the environment. I was, I should confess, dealing with prodigious numbers of problems due to a move from an idyllic, quiet, peaceful part of Canada to a mind-jarringly violent one. It took a while to get a handle on things, to be blunt.

      Or we could just blame the Church. That always works. :)

      Likewise, a lot of geeks joined the sports teams (and some of them did really well) because the top-tier colleges increasingly want “well-rounded” students. Most notable were the kids shooting for a high-ranking career in the military… you had a lot of otherwise stereotypical jocks who were also tech geeks. So the jocks and nerds were on polite terms, even though at the end of the day they were basically oil and water.

      Really, it was an idyllic state of being for middle-class and up adolescents with ambition or intellectual aspirations, more so because you weren’t necessarily confined to just playing sports or just reading your ass off or just playing video games. It also probably helped that the high school in question was on the West Coast.

      Yeah, probably. See the jocks in my high school pretty much sought out the nerds and tormented them. I escaped much of that in high school by being a music geek–a story I don’t really tell in the above, though it’s relevant. Music geeks had shelter, while geeks over other kinds, especially RPG fans and drama geeks and A/V club geeks–basically were more isolated and more prone to experiencing total shit. They survived when they found ways of short-circuiting the social process, like the drama geek/RPG nut friend of mine who would go into Mr. Furley mode (from Three’s Company), mixed with a little “pu-pu-put ’em up!” and waving his fists goofily while boxer-dancing around the jock attacking him, so that it attracted enough attention in the hall that the jocks would back down. Even the relentless Colin Melrose, biggest asshat in the school, left him alone after Rob did that a few times.

      Yes, I’m still a little bitter, decades later. In part because certain teachers–especially those who coached specific teams–let some pretty outrageous shit slide in class. Jocks bullying non-jocks to cut in line. Jocks setting someone’s shirt on fire–yeah, mine. Jocks disrupting class and mocking classmates loudly. Shit that should have had them booted into the hall, and after a month, booted from the school so some learning could go on… except I found some of the teachers were just as much bullies as their favored jocks. There were good teachers, but only a few. Which was one reason University was such a shock to me, in a good way: it was like, “Finally, I’m somewhere that people actually WANT to read books, and learn things, and discuss ideas logically AND passionately!”

      (I later discovered many of the jocks were in the Education program at the same university, but by then I was laughing at them. The Department of Music shared a cafeteria with the Education Department and their moronic conversations always got us howling with amused disdain.)

      All this to say, I don’t have a heartfelt understanding of exactly how painful your coming-of-age was (and a lot of people’s, I’m aware… Daria is one of my favorite shows, and there’s plenty in there about that. Daria was the nineties though, and what with gentrification and blue-collar jobs increasingly being sourced overseas, I think more and more high schools will be moving in the direction my school did.) And I know, even if this knowledge is only in my mind, how lucky I am for that. I left high school with a mental map of the world (at least on paper) that, while flawed, was fairly comprehensive: a decent grasp of the natural sciences, mathematics, and social sciences, an appreciation (tinged by envy, because I’m not an artist no matter how much I’d like the believe the contrary) for the arts. Most of all, thanks to teachers who praised me and encouraged me to experiment, I discovered my one ability that I am completely confident in and that I love doing: language, and especially writing.

      Yeah. You can tell. And it reminds me a little of how my friend Jack and I once confessed to each other, after a few months of circling one another carefully in a course we took together in grad school, that we were intimidated by one another not out of fear that the other was smarter, but that the other had just read more, was more cultured, like that. I think when one grows up going to a shitty local public school where the social warfare dominates any kind of academic or cultural learning, that the bright kids are acutely aware of how hobbled they’ve been by their mediocre introduction into the world of letters.

      When you talk about that class hierarchy, I can’t help but think that some of the reactions I’ve discussed getting from people might be in part a sort of unconscious punitive action for advertising myself as “better” than my middle-class background, or “better” than them. I know young people who read stuff like Sylvia Plath and Nietzsche in high school, but not at my school: they were mostly in schools in bigger cities, and again, I think that is likely a factor. Certainly the biggest city I lived in as a kid was much less violent, and kids were much more open to their peers being “into” things (like philosophy books, or jazz music, or whatever) than the smaller towns.

      But I get what you mean about most of the copies of Plath and Nietzsche being carried around by kids perhaps being, you know… props. Like my G’n’R backpatch, just camouflage for a very different environment. In the end, I still end up thinking schools are part of the poisoning system: they’re predicated on the mass-manufacture of souls, and that implies regularization, which is toxic to human joy, human innovation, and, fundamentally, even to human honesty.

  2. In fact, this post brings to mind nothing so much as Thoreau’s rants in Walden, where he basically calls most of humanity pigs, for going about their lives mindlessly and shallowly. He advocates the monastic, the contemplative life, but it’s notable that he excuses from censure the Alexander-the-Great types with larger-than-life ambitions, or the hedonists who take deep, almost meditative pleasure in the sensual life : that is to say, he acknowledges that all three modes of living require conscious effort to transcend the limits of habit, and that it is that consciousness, that effort that is valuable.

    I’m sure Thoreau would be aghast to find out how we live today, MOST ESPECIALLY the kind of people who aspire to look deep and intelligent and cultured. It’s like you say, at least the ignorant boors have an excuse, and what we upper-class twits do is worse than what they do: in the act of treating art and wisdom as a brain-dead socialite treats the latest “it-bag”, we are cheapening something precious and beautiful.

    What puts the cherry on top of the sundae is that this very division of the same formless, interchangeable shit into so-called “high brow” and “low brow” makes worse the corporate monopoly on the world’s resources. The New York publishing scene is famous for being obsessed with concerns that have nothing to do with (thank god) the way 99.99% of the world lives… these being the big-city pretensions that you speak of. And the peons they look down on rightly resent that they are treated as a lesser class of human just by virtue of not being exposed to, from silver spoon-fed cradle, Anais Nin, or carpaccio, or 18th century rococo earpicks, whatever.

    And as in all these matters, everyone loses out, and the corporations benefit, with one hand feeding the masses overprocessed junk matched to the lowest common denominator in an effort to lull their inferiority complexes into complacency, and with the other feeding those who wish to break into the upper class (who, due to their education and idealism, do pose a threat to the status quo, however small) with equally overprocessed but repackaged and more expensive junk to isolate them from the rest of the world and thus be trapped in their own little worlds, a threat to no one.

    Pierre Bourdieu said this much better than I did.

    1. Rococo earpicks. Ha!

      Yeah, I should reread Walden, and other Thoreau stuff. Now that I have a Kindle, I don’t even need to dig out a copy or anything. Thoreau was right, though: there must be multiple ways to do a thing, but consciousness of effort seems as good a criterion as any… and I agree Thoreau would look at how much of us live now in horror. I share the horror in some ways, though… you know, the new computer I’m writing this on?

      I kind of feel like Thoreau would probably be doing now what I am: working only a little, living on the cheap in some distant place, and trying to know beans.

      And yes, the corporate interests: their use of both low and high brow for their own ends… can we hope that the internet is the revolutionary tool that will break that? I wish I could believe it, but most people I know, instead of self-publishing quality work or starting venues for excellent non-label music or new venues for quality fiction, use it to download A Game of Thrones. Don’t get me wrong, I love the show, but sitting at home ain’t conducive to fixing the mess we’re in.

      Where did Pierre Bordieu say that? I don’t know ‘im from Adam…

        1. Looks like, though with the interesting wrinkle that in a culture like the USA, there’s also chunk of the middle-/lower-class of people (especially young, disaffected, or frustrated ones, and most especially idealists who’ve given up, I’d argue) who like to wear crassness, tastelessness, and vulgarity as a badge of honor, and there’s a whole chunk of Hollywood’s movie output geared towards putting those asses in theater seats too.

          1. With some Americans, there does seem to be a pronounced tendency to shock for the sake of shocking, to display bad taste just because you can, to say anything crass and demeaning and call “1st amendment rights”. I certainly haven’t seen that particular kind of bullshit anywhere else. And I really don’t get it, can’t imagine what kind of satisfaction you’d get out of that except a particularly juvenile one.

          2. Well, the thrill of shocking those with more delicate sensibilities. But also the glee of throwing their own self-limitation in their faces. I remember a Christian evangelical who once told me–didn’t ask, he commanded, in the imperative–that I not “curse in the office.” I’d said the word “bullshit” which I neither regard as a curse, nor felt was inappropriate for the situation. And honestly, I regret not saying, “Bullshit, bullshit. bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”

            I think the pleasure is repudiating those who think they have the right to speak to other adults in the imperative because of whatever moral superiority they feel themselves to have… because it really is very, very insulting.

            But on the level of making films that cost actual money to make, or whole narratives where I don’t get it either. There may be a generational thing going on. (I am tempted to name a specific actor who seems to typify what I’m talking about, but I’ll just say I’ve noticed it more and more lately.)

          3. Yeah, that is the kind of thing I’m thinking of. It reminds me of the woman I worked with at a bookstore once, who’d never cracked a book, who was constantly complaining about “fucking Chinese drivers” (all Asians were Chinese in her mind), and who said, I shit you not, “Well if this Gandhi guy was so important, wouldn’t I have heard of him by now?” That, after gushing about beautiful Priscilla Presley looked in some magazine or other. (She read lots of magazines–or at least looked at the pictures–but I swear, she never bought a single book in my presence, or even signed out (under borrowing privs) even a single book at work. I know because one day I was curious and looked at the logs. Nothing. Why she decided to work in a bookstore, I’ll never know. But she was constantly going on about how fun it was to get drunk.

            I always feel a little sad when this or that experience of drunkenness is someone’s best story from the old days. I feel like I’m watching a famine relief appeal or something… the emaciation is somehow more painful than it is fascinating. Except of course that this emaciation is usually unknowing and almost always self-imposed.

  3. This also ties into what you mentioned, however briefly, about Koreans not identifying with their interests, which I find to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, yes Koreans don’t feel the need to tie themselves into a predetermined narrative that circumscribes their cultural experiences… well not surprising, when you consider that Korean kids are already molded into a SINGLE narrative, with no room for individual deviation. At least American kids get to choose which limited mold to shove themselves into.

    Yet I do have some kind of hope for Koreans. Namely, that they will be able to move straight into the seeking of transcendental experiences of the type you speak of without having to do the thing Japan does and create a bunch of subcultures that within themselves are just as proscriptive as the larger society. I’m not sure how that would work out though, or whether it’s even possible.

    1. It is a mixed blessing: I’ve seen kids in Korea (especially in small local club concerts) who were playing instruments in bands–rock bands, even–who would never have been let in the door where I was growing up. The nerdy looking fat girl who was drumming up a storm, or the dorky-looking, rail thin effeminate guy who was leading a metal band. Likewise, the one Korean punk I met was among the nicest of strangers I ever ran across in a live music club in Hongdae… I’d half-expected him to spit in my face and call me a fucking colonialist or something… I agree that American kids get to choose. I also think what’s important is the degree to which the kids get to choose and their parents let them. My folks were puzzled when I suddenly was a metalhead and a G’n’R fan: they didn’t grasp that I was doing what they’d asked me to do–find a way to fend off the bullies–but they didn’t take the jacket and walkman away, didn’t force me to study harder instead, didn’t threaten me that my whole future would go down the tubes.

      (All I really remember was them insisting I practice if I wanted saxophone lessons, which was fair enough, really.)

      I have hope that Korean young people will eventually diversify the range of identities and molds available to them. I don’t necessarily think that the Japanese subculture proscriptivity is any more pronounced than the American one, though… and I suspect that porscriptivity is to some degree related to evolutionary wiring: every “subculture” is proscriptive in some way, because human beings are gregarious and part of our cognitive equipment necessarily involves proscriptive functions.

      Hmm. And now, I must go down to the kitchen. Like Thoreau, I have resolved to know beans… though in my case, it’s because I’m making my first vegetarian gumbo for the house. (I mean, Saigon is lousy with okra, so I might as well!) Gonna slow cook it all day tomorrow, but that meant the beans had to be precooked as the slow cooker wouldn’t really do the job…

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