It’s the academic megatrend of our time: applying quasi-sophisticated analytical and rhetorical flourishes to trash culture. I couldn’t tell you how or where it started, although the “Shakespeare In Film” courses which popped up mushroom-like in English departments across the country during the Eighties and Nineties probably acted as some sort of gateway drug. Today’s universities have absorbed that rush and now provide the mainline hit of seriously discussing Anime As Global Popular Culture or getting a Harvard Law degree by thoroughly, ahem, “investigating” pornography.
These courses, which offer the sheen of intellectual discourse without the substance of cultural literacy, are so popular that they have begun to affect way we evaluate and criticize human endeavors outside the university. The best example of this is the webzine Pitchfork, which treats the latest productions by Arctic Monkeys, Fleet Foxes, or other musical animals with the same level of rhetorical rigor once reserved for Chaucer or Titian. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that Liz Phair’s spectacularly mis-conceived eponymous album did not, in fact, deserve an ass-beating just as pretentious as the album itself was vile, because it did. Nor am I going to make the claim that criticism has always restricted itself to the finer things in life. Chaucer wrote a whole story about analingus way before it became Gen-Z first-date protocol. As for Shakespeare, I have one thing to say: “Villain, I have done thy mother.” Yesterday’s pop culture is today’s middle-class amusement and tomorrow’s high art. Each generation pushes the boundaries of decency, only to see that boundary pushed again and again within their lifetimes. It is only through the effort of periodic social re-engineerings, such as the one that took place in the Victorian Era, that we have avoided becoming bonobos with airplanes. We’re probably due for another one of those moral resets, which perhaps explains the fascination some Westerners have with Islam at the moment.
Pitchfork’s reviews and thought pieces can be a guilty pleasure even to people who are not familiar with the source material — which is a very good illustration of the idea that criticism competes with the text on which it is based just as much as it reflects upon it. The format reaches its apex with Pitchfork’s commentary on Father John Misty and his work; the immovable-object-irresistible-force event of a critical coterie dedicated to extracting meaning from music and an artist determined to bury every last bit of his meaning beneath a princess-pea plethora of fluffy-mattress deceptions.
Sometimes, however, Pitchfork semi-accidentally deviates into matters of relevance beyond simple pop music, which brings us to the matter of Shiny Happy Prole People.
The article is called How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music. It sounds like the sort of thing you could read in HuffPo or Buzzfeed, a brief litany of inanities sprinkled with sliding images and targeting advertising. In fact, it’s anything but that. It’s, like, totally a serious think piece that feels as if it comes from a universe where Esquire did not degenerate into mere social-justice babbling. It’s recommended without hesitation, largely because it digs into some thorny subjects, the prickliest of which is summarized in this excerpt:
I use the word “slumming” advisedly, since disdain for Auto-Tune is a class reflex that can be indexed to similar attitudes that favor vintage aesthetics, weathered and distressed textures, the handmade and the antique, organic and locavore produce, and the whole realm of heritage and history itself. The further down the class spectrum you go, the more shiny and new things get, whether you’re talking about clothes, furniture, or sound production. Auto-Tune correlates with a lower class attraction to man-made fabrics, spaceship sneakers, box-fresh clothes, and an interior décor aesthetic somewhere between Scarface and “MTV Cribs.”
This is a hugely arch but awfully perceptive paragraph, isn’t it? Largely because it deftly detangles the difference between “class” and “wealth”. You can use the above quote as a lens with which to understand everything from the Rich Kids Of Instagram to the cult status of “R-NATION” fabrics as see in the header photo. When you give low-class people money, they will spend it on shiny things: spaceship fabric, shiny shoes. Give them a lot of money, and they will buy vinyl-wrapped Lamborghinis. Not that Pitchfork is saying anything terribly original; This trope is the basis of everything from “Caddyshack” to Vanity Fair. (The book, not the magazine.) In this case, however, it’s phrased well and used in a context that is both appropriate and meaningful.
Just as importantly, it leads to a fairly obvious question: Why don’t the so-called high-class wealthy like shiny things? Chances are that you already know the answer. The juxtaposition of money and novelty suggests that the money itself is new. This is to be pitied, because the best people have their money through no fault of their own. For some reason, Westerners (and it really is mostly Westerners, which is to say people with the European and Christian traditions) believe that it is better to inherit wealth than to create it.
It follows, therefore, that the oft-used phrase “time is the ultimate luxury” acquires a second meaning, namely: Time of wealth is the ultimate luxury. The longer you’ve had money, the more acceptable and delightful the money is. Which leads to yet another idea: Purchasing the illusion of wealth over time is a luxury, and therefore it is reasonable for people who have money to “mask” that money in illusory time. Let’s take a quick look at two videos.
Alright, kids: Which one of these young fellows has a multi-millionaire old-money father? Is it the loudmouthed yob screeching about the purchase of yet another supercar from his YouTube funds, or the calm and collected fellow #DrivingTastefully in a vintage air-cooler? It has to be my friend Ted, right? Doesn’t he positively vibe with old money compared to the fellow in the red pants?
In this case, however, it’s “Shmee150” whose father funds his lifestyle and lets him pretend to be an Internet mogul, and Ted who has generated his own success. Which seems ridiculous on the face of it. However, if we devote a Pitchfork’s level of critical investigation to this, however, we might start to detect the careless and artless mien of aristocracy in “Shmee” and his ignorant blathering about just how great it is to get yet another supercar, while detecting the laborious craft of the professionally-striving middle class in the editing, the presentation, and the very existence of Ted’s lovely mini-movie. What’s truly interesting about the juxtaposition of these videos is that Shmee clearly wants to be seen as “just a regular guy” who happens to magically own a few million dollars’ worth of cars, while Ted would like to be seen as a tasteful gentlemen descended from a long line of tasteful gentlemen. That’s the fascinating aspect of self-produced videos: you learn a lot more about their subjects than you would from a video made by someone else, simply through the choices of what to present, what to amplify, and what to mute.
Given that you are reading a website that is produced by me while also frequently being about me, what can we learn about my own desire to project a cultivated image? For some reason, the Internet and its many commenters seem to think that I have a huge trust fund or that I don’t work for a living. Have I deliberately failed to contradict that story? I’m afraid so — but allow me to explain. Near the beginning of my writing career, I was subjected to a series of attempts to “no-platform” me by people who called my employers and clients because they didn’t like what I said online. The worst episode of this happened when I criticized two well-known fellows from Motor Trend while I was doing some contract tech work for American Honda. I survived that particular attempt to render me homeless, but after that I became a lot more reticent about how I earn my money. Nowadays I think it’s safe to tell everyone what I do: I work for an insurance company whose owner is perfectly aware of every mistake I’ve ever made and every personal foible I possess. So I no longer worry about being “doxxed” or no-platformed. It’s nice. It leaves me free to be what I am: a classically-educated but trash-culture-obsessed working stiff with obnoxious opinions and the occasional desire for expensive things. I earn my own way. I don’t rely on others. I made a lot of things happen for myself.
Which is exactly what a trust-fund kid who wanted to be just a “regular guy” would say. Confusing, right? Would you accept my explanation more easily if I wore spaceship fabric? If so… do you know where I can get some?