lowbrow/highbrow/bullshit

So, I’d like to reminisce a little more about my days as an angry alternateen. When I first started listening to the mid-’90s alt-rock and punk that defined my adolescence, I was stoked because I’d finally found a subculture that grumpy little me could relate to. It’s OK to be surly, little Helen! Rejoice! But because I was an insecure teenager, I couldn’t just be happy that I’d discovered something I liked. I had to believe it made me better that everyone else. My old zines and journals are peppered with “blah blah, popular music is a tool for brainwashing the masses, why doesn’t everyone listen to the bands on Kill Rock Stars, no one appreciates Sonic Youth and Sisters of Mercy in this horrible backwater I live in, etc. etc.” And yeah, it does kind of suck when no one around you shares an interest in something you think is super cool. That’s why I get so jazzed whenever I make a new metalhead friend (most of my pals are punks or indie rockers, and they’re all great people, obviously, but I can’t talk about music with them very much). But god, I am totally over asserting my superiority through my cultural tastes.

Something I neglected to think about when composing my anti-pop-culture ravings was that songs don’t have a fixed meaning for everyone. Songs that I might dismiss as pointless and superficial are perfectly capable of having personal, circumstantial importance. For example, it might have been some saccharine pop anthem that played while you held your friend’s hand as she cried over a shitty breakup, or it may have been a fluffy dance tune that played as you left town to move to another state. One of my college roommates played Christina Aguilera to keep her spirits up as she went through a grueling grad-school application process. My point is that listening to a song about partying in the club doesn’t automatically make people think “oh hell yeah, I wanna party in the club, I wish I had a Benz and an endless supply of Cristal.” Maybe they associate it with a past experience that’s meaningful to them. Or maybe they’re disregarding the words entirely, and just appreciating how the mood of the music itself makes them feel. (My main man Robert Walser touches on this in Running With The Devil, which is reason #12938 you should read it right now.)

I would also like to talk about the idea of authenticity, and how deeply annoyed I get with peoples’ hand-wringing over popular culture. Again, Lady Gaga has prompted this. (Oh, Gaga! Loved the Doom patch on your leather jacket, by the way. I bet you listen to “Police Bastard” all the time.) Since that dratted “Telephone” video came out, I’ve seen a few of my acquaintances making noise about “blah blah, pop culture has fallen so far,” and “blab blare, this is so meaningless, we truly live in a dystopian future,” etc. To which I say: get over yourself. We aren’t living in a William Gibson novel because pop music is substanceless. Silly popular song has existed ever since the fucking invention of music. I mean, listen to some of these wax cylinder recordings. My favorite from that collection is “The Morning After The Night Before,” and what is it? Just a song about drinking stupid amounts and being hung the fuck over. (Not that I can relate to that. Ahem.) Gaga and Beyonce’s lyrics about not wanting to answer phone calls from an annoyingly clingy boyfriend are no more or less vapid than the vast majority of pop music. Having a bit more vocoder in something hardly makes it the fucking embodiment of the apocalypse. This is not to say that popular music is beyond criticism, but that kind of melodramatic, context-less criticism makes my eyes roll so hard I look like a human slot machine.

Another thing I dislike about that school of criticism is the people bloviating about the apocalyptic meaninglessness of popular culture usually are holding up the bands/artists they like as more “real.” For instance, I used to say stuff along the lines of “don’t listen to Britney, there’s other great female singers out there, like Kathleen Hanna,” and there’s some fellow on the Youtube who goes around leaving comments on every single Lady Gaga video about how her music is shallow and everyone should listen to Alanis Morrissette instead. (Shudder.) Which ignores the fact that every single famous person picks and chooses the traits they show to the public – once you reach a certain level of recognition, I think that there’s a corresponding level of calculation in how you present yourself. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself – you can’t really expect to learn about the whole sprawling, contradictory mess that is your average human being just through songs and interviews and such. And I don’t mean to say that all famous folks’ public personas are completely at odds with how they live their personal lives, or that those personas are immune to criticism because they’re calculated. I just think it’s a fool’s game to say that “so and so is a faker, but this other person is the real deal!” Unless you know them both personally, how can you know for sure? I just try to keep things on the level of “I find the way this person presents themselves to be tremendously [annoying/adorable/exciting/bland/whatever].”

Also: I just learned this song (with assistance from Ubergenius Guitarist Pal). It’s not too exciting as far as developing my musical prowess, since it’s pretty simple, but it is fucking badass so I’m happy anyway:

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~ by Smellen on March 16, 2010.

3 Responses to “lowbrow/highbrow/bullshit”

  1. Glad you noticed Gaga’s DOOM patch. Amen, sister.

    And I’d give a shout out to any song encouraging people to hang up their phone and dance. Even a band as small (?) as World Inferno has a crowd of people standing there taking pictures and texting their friends. Hang up and enjoy the show.

    • Yeah, I don’t understand taking cell phone pictures of bands. Well, maybe if you have some fancypants thing like an iphone that actually works reasonably well as a camera. But your average cell phone camera just makes it look like you took a bunch of pictures of a dirty aquarium.

      Especially World/Inferno! Jeezies, why would you not be dancing to that?

  2. Hi Helen, thanks for the thoughtful post. Ben Apatoff makes a similar point on Apatoff For Destruction:
    http://benapatoff.blogspot.com/
    I had a hard time approaching Liz Phair’s self-titled/revamped persona album a few years back. I felt like she was making a deliberate decision to sound less like herself, and less good. The songs were slick, bland and intended to reach a wider audience. But I always have to remember she snuck the bukkake anthem HWC onto the album. She was staying true to herself on some level, and for that I continue to respect her and enjoy most of her body of work.

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