Last week, I went to Austin Music Hall in Texas for a party hosted by the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro. The affair was “Star Wars”-themed, from the paper-based quiz of trivia from the films (somewhat dulled by everyone in the building not only having a smartphone, but being in some way connected to “IT”) to the cocktail selection, which included a “Tatooine Sunset” that was regrettably mostly pineapple juice in a glow-up glass.
With a cover band whirling through slightly dated pop hits from R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (a large costumed Jabba the Hutt even danced to the rock-y rendition of “Wagon Wheel”), the whole scene confirmed what I had felt for years: That the previously “oppressed” geek minority with its fetishistic, once unusual culture – of sci-fi, comic books, computer programming, etc. – had become exceedingly normal, while still maintaining its bygone outsider status as a sort of protective moat around its particular tastes.
The endless sequel trains of Marvel movies and the reboots of seemingly every TV show, video game, and other pop culture franchises are the best evidence of this shift – how long till a “reboot” of “Howard the Duck” smashes the opening weekend box office record? The sequlitis coming to “Star Wars” itself is already depressing enough, especially if you consider that something as offbeat as the first run of “Star Wars” movies (at a time, the 1970s, when blockbuster sci-fi was truly a fiction, a pipe dream) would struggle to even emerge in today’s homogenous cultural stream. But you can get a more visceral sense of how deep-seated and defensive the new geek-driven pop culture has become by discussing music.
A culture dominated by geeks (or nerds or whatever now-empty term, no longer effective as an epithet, you want to throw around) is one that is not easily given to experimentation or the abstract. You see this dissonance between geekdom and the avant-garde in the vast gulf between, say, comic books and non-representational visual art, between the predictable effects of an algorithm and the never-settle questions of a text like William Gaddis’ “JR.” Moreover, the likes of “Game of Thrones,” “Iron Man,” and “World of Warcraft” – I mean, even the stereotypical startup, with it sights set on helping you share photos in yet another way or exploiting some precarious worker’s need for “independent contracting” – are resoundingly concrete, to the point of humorlessness and managerialism.
They are then defended with equally dour moralizing from pop culture critics, who more than anything seem to want to reassure their audiences that what they already like – regardless of whether it is ever challenged – is perfect, as Freddie deBoer has pointed out. But how does any of this affect music?
Since at least the rise of the Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s, pop music has stuck to a largely uniform sound that melds arena rock and R&B. A handful of middle-aged Scandinavian men have penned the bulk of all hits in this mold for the past decade plus, from Britney Spears’s first album to Taylor Swift’s “masterpiece,” “1989.” When the latter came up in one of our conversations in Austin, several people rushed to assure everyone that they didn’t like her – or previous pop scions like Blink-182 – “ironically,” but genuinely.
Why would anyone like music ironically? Is, or was that ever, a thing? As Betty White once said of Facebook, “it seems like a huge waste of time.” Still, I can sketch out the roots of this attitude in my head. There seems to be an assumption among people roughly my age (I was born in the mid 1980s) that there exists some sort of cultural ivory tower, filled with people who spend their days listening to opera, reading Tennyson, and brushing up on their Latin and Greek. These mostly make-believe people, who do not at the very least constitute a coherent cultural body, are then assumed to frown upon things such as pop music, geek culture, and unrestricted technology-enabled capitalism (which makes the former two items so pervasive in the first place).
For me, the avatar of this fiction was the website Pitchfork, which I began reading long enough ago to remember its days as pitchforkmedia.com. I found it one day in 2002 while searching for a review of a Queens of the Stone Age album, which the reviewer liked but only halfheartedly (meanwhile, it was getting raves from Rolling Stone and other print magazines). Pitchfork, despite a relatively modest readership, introduced many people of my ilk – teenagers and twenty something East Coast college kids – to “indie rock.” At the same time, its carefully constructed ignorance of most pop music of the early and mid 2000s – its halcyon days – was commentary enough on its low opinion of the “mainstream.”
Pitchfork and many other e-zines (whoa, outdated term!), some of them now defunct (RIP, Stylus Magazine and Dusted Magazine), created their own parallel canons of lo-fi rock, techno, and folk musics, which didn’t intersect much with the rock critic-driven Great Albums lists put out all the time by print media during those days. All the same, Pitchfork was hardly on the cutting-edge of pop taste or the charts. Its influence felt all-encompassing to a daily reader, but didn’t even exist for billions of other music fans. Yet somehow the myth of the Indie Snob as not only a real archetype for music fandom but the default one lived on.
Accordingly, even now, in 2015, when Pitchfork itself goes out of its way to review a Ryan Adams cover album of “1989,” people feel that they have to let the idea of “ironic” love of a song or artist float in the air for a second when discussing taste, just to put out feelers the mythical High Culture Warriors among us and cultivate momentary solidarity with them. Then, they pop the irony balloon and admit the true default position: liking pop music unironically. It’s the classic iron fist in a velvet glove maneuver, except much more arrogant.
I don’t love pop music, and yet even I will not begrudge someone their affinity for Rihanna, The Weeknd, or anyone else, in public or or private. The taste doesn’t bother me, but the idea of an all-powerful and nonexistent cultural elite (god?) frowning upon the actual elite does. It reminds me of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, when the likes of Jack Welch, Rupert Murdoch, and other GOP donors bemoaned the “Chicago-style politics” and omniscient “paymasters” behind the Obama campaign, when the candidate they supported – Mitt Romeny – was a centimillionaire with the backing of Wall Street and virtually every non-governmental establishment institution in the country!
A similiar thread of fake oppression also comes up in geek-dominated fields such as computer science and electrical engineering. The recent episode with Mohamed Ahmed, a 14 year old student who “built” a “clock” (it seems he took the circuit board out of a commercial one and then put it in a briefcase), is instructive. The left-wing – which I consider myself a part of, though at time its feels oddly unfamiliar on some issues – rushed to the kid’s defense after he was arrested for bringing his concoction to school, citing discrimination against him as a Muslim (perhaps) and as a STEM-oriented “maker” (ugh).
The idea that most Americans (or anyone else) actively dislikes science geeks because they “create” things or fetishize technology is hilarious. We live in a world in which Facebook has more than 1 billion monthly users (although I guess one could dispute that Facebook itself actually “makes” anything other than a container for other people’s unpaid labor; maybe some day it will – in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher’s quip about socialism – run out of other people’s time and effort), in which conversations about college are dominated by talk of (fake) STEM major/skills shortages, and in which tech firms dedicate enormous amounts of PR time and energy to a gender gap while simultaneously pushing the hyper-masculine idea of maker culture; to put “makers” on a pedestal is to demean the care-taking work that holds so much of the world together. Not even the NYC government could quash Uber’s environment-polluting, downward-wage-pressuring ways, lest it be seen as an enemy of “innovation” that is mysteriously in short supply everywhere but the geek-led tech community.
Why do dominant cultural forces feel the need to create a vast fake counterculture that is (impossibly) more elite than it is? I think it is to consciously reinforce their own tastes (and ensure the capitalistic reproduction of those tastes for years to come) and subconsciously to hide some degree of embarrassment. Just as Google’s rebranding as a subsidiary of Alpha may have been driven in large part by the search company’s bashfulness at being essentially a giant ad firm (ads = so 20th century), love of pop music may be felt at some level by a fan as guilt. This necessitates the identification of something obscure and/or vaguely hip, liked by an élite person who in theory would sneer at pop music (I find indifference is the much more common reaction) or go even further and pretend to enjoy it ironically (if the sneer is too much effort, then the full-on ironic facade is a true Herculean labor).
Never mind that the richest, most “successful” members of the music industry aren’t Japanese doom metal peddlers, Finnish techno connoisseurs, or Swahili-speaking folk singers. I mean, just look around: One might have to actually make a conscious effort to actually avoid hearing Taylor Swift or Rihanna, but could live her entire life without ever having to lift a finger to avoid hearing a Pan Sonic tune. Unironic love for this music is by far the norm. Meanwhile, irony itself is often opposed to the capitalism that has made pop music possible. Irony lends itself to satire, humor, and various other attitudes that clash with the managerial, data- and formula-driven ethos of pop (and of neoliberal economics).
So when someone says she like a ubiquitous artist unironically, realize that she is in some way fighting a battle against an overwhelmingly dominant cultural force. She sees the possibility of liking something ironically – with all the “unproductive” hours spent cultivating that attitude at the office or at home that that would entail – and flirts for a moment with that impractical (under capitalism) position, and then moves on to the idea of there being some vast, sneering high cultural elite that loves free jazz and Goa trance. Finding that group unlikeable, she uses the term “unironically” to reinforce her tastes while shutting off alternatives to the mainstream. It’s too bad since while the High Culture elite is a fiction, there is life beyond the Top 40, in other musics that, yes, are sometimes challenging or not a good fit for everyone but which are not defended with anywhere near the nose-turning so characteristic of mainstream culture whenever its sacred cows are targeted for slaughter.