Monday, January 28, 2008

A Million White Kids Strumming

Or, "Why Zach Braff Might Be Killing America"

"I don't necessarily think 26-year-old white guys are that interesting. So why would I want to make another movie about their coffee shops and romantic pratfalls?" --David Gordon Green, writer/director, All the Real Girls

"I want everyone to be quiet for this next song. It's a really personal song to me and--no, I'm serious--I want everyone to be quiet." --Un-named Nashville singer/songwriter

Go 'head on and start the crucifixion, Interworld, cause I'll come out and say it:

You don't deserve an audience.

Well, maybe not you specifically. The proverbial You. Them. They. Those People. Let me back up...

Turn on the TV at any given moment and you'll watch a Buick ad with an acoustic soundtrack as turtleneck-clad, neutered adults exchange wet glances at each other, car coasting into the snowy twilight of this, their American future. Falsetto abounds. In coffeehouses across America skinny-jeaned lads talk about themselves talking about themselves and trade IPods in this, their own personal Cameron Crowe dramedy. Myspace cyber-hocks chubby prep schoolers from New England as "Johnny Folk Hero" and cheesy girls everywhere rejoice and countless mix-tapes are drafted for kids who don't love each other back, while everyone everywhere who has nothing better to do--and the means to do it--sing along in this, the plaintive falsetto of their priveleged soul. And I'm here, in the back of the room, in a smokeless Nashville concert hall, wondering why the guy onstage is singing into his guitar lifelessly and, even more so, why everyone else in the room is actually listening.

Welcome to the Art of Self-Entitlement.

I first noticed this trend a few years ago, new to the Nashville music scene myself, and discovering my own identity as an artist and performer. I had come up in Memphis, accustomed to the manic energy and bizarre fearlessness of the local artists there. I also grew up watching old clips of Elvis, turning the world with every shake of his hips, or Lennon, snarling at a royal crowd to "rattle their jewelry," or Hendrix literally making love happen all over his guitar, or Vedder diving off balconies, Cobain into drumsets, Sid Vicious marred in blood, Otis Redding sweating gallons in front of a field-full of panicked hippies, and on, and on, all reflected in the earliest concerts I saw locally. The same hunger, vitality, and naked desperation of those seminal artists showed in even the least noteworthy local bands--Lucero, even before they were Lucero, sweat through their shirts every set. The same vein that bulged out of Roger Daltrey's neck protruded from Cory Branan in the first raw performances of "Girl Named Go." I came up thinking that's how artists perform.

But I saw something different in Nashville, and I saw it more and more: soft-spoken singer-songwriters mumbling timidly into their guitar as dozens and dozens of hipsters listened and nodded. Kids singing like they have nothing to prove, and something to lose, and crowds contentedly humoring them. I couldn't account for the difference at the time.

A few years later, Natalie Portman popped an earbud into Zach Braff's head and said flatly, "This song will change your life," and the reverberating sound was not only that of carefully composed dullness (thank you, Shins!), but of a million wealthy white kids investing in dull acoustic music to soundtrack their own romantic melodrama. Youth culture is now practically sponsored by ITunes and Starbucks, and if that's not a class statement, I don't know what is. Every commercial features acoustic meanderings with a whispering, confessional androgynous voice. Entire movies are necessarily soundtracked by the self-aware acoustic stylings of Ricky Falsetto. Percussion and humor are nowhere to be found. Neither is irony; or a pulse, for that matter. And I can't help but think that American pop culture has never been...well, whiter.

Social critics write increasingly about Two Americas, and they're partially right: the greater American populous has maybe never been more separate from the wealthiest 1%. The richest minority, from Westwood and Southbeach and Manhattan, become the taste-and-trendsetters for the other 99% in Birmingham or Springfield or Boise or Winston-Salem. And, to a degree, this has always been the case: cities with the largest media outlets have always contributed the most to affecting the pop cultural climate. But while Tommy NewYorkBigwig used to pimp the art of people from everywhere, now more than ever he's invested in the kids down the street. The music sounds like it has nothing to prove because the kids making it have nothing to prove. It enacts leisure because its authors come from a background of leisure. And the kids performing onstage don't care about earning your attention or respect because they're not accustomed to earning anything. It's an entire artistic movement of, for, and about the bourgeoisie at a time when everyone Out in America is living anything but the lifestyle of the rich, famous, and bored.

And whether you're watching one of their movies (about coffee-house melodrama, droopy-eyed protagonists, and overlong meta-dialogue), or listening to their music (plaintive, boring mumblings about, you guessed it, coffeeshops, love, cigarettes, or feeling like you're in a movie), or sitting next to them while 1) in a coffeeshop 2) at a movie 3) downloading one of their songs or movies or sharing them while falling in and out of love in a coffeeshop over unironic meta-talk and cigarettes, or 4) reading one of their def poetry Myspace blog-slams** composed within the confines of, you guessed it, a coffeehouse, about acoustic music, romantic melodrama and, yes, cigarettes, the underlying (and most offensive) premise is inescapable: all of this is happening because all of the people involved feel entitled to their audience. Of course people want to know about your relationship for two hours while Death Cab rings in the background--why wouldn't they? You, after all, are YOU. And it's that fact--and only that fact--that matters.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans have a million different reasons to be anything but bored. I won't enumerate them here--I'll stop at the words "Iraq," "upcoming election," and "Britney's custody battle," in case any of those blow your hair back. But the point is this: say your school doesn't have central heat, say your grandma's dying, say your cousin just got deployed, say your dad works in the automotive industry, or your mother just got remarried, say your stomach hurts, or your car just broke down, or you just paid $65 for a tank of gas, or your city's only sports team just lost by 45, or your wife is cheating on you, or you hate your job, say you love your job, or your girlfriend is wonderful, say you just cancelled cable and it was the best decision you've made all year, say you slept soundly for the first time in months; say anything, say everything, say none of it and all of it you feel fit to say...there's just nothing in any of it coming out of the silver tongue onstage, singing like he'd rather be somewhere else.

Maybe the most troubling aspect of the entire phenomenon is not the art itself, which (depending on the individual artist) might not be entirely disposable or thoughtless, or the art's natural audience (affluent white kids with enough time on their hands to draft their own daily melodramas), but its newly adopted audience (people who technically can't relate to this level of priveleged self-meditation, but want to). In the current climate, if you have access to a Myspace page, you have access to creating the World of You. And this is the soundtrack to The World of You. And even if you have better things to do, or other things to worry about, or generally more fruitful endeavors to pursue, the newest escapist fashion requires you lie in your bed, windows drawn, pop in your IPod, cue up Snow Patrol or the Navel Gazers, or the Weeping Gentlemen, or whoever, and "change your life" with Natalie Portman. And then everything's smooth and dull and gravy. And why buy into your own actual life when you can buy into the natural privelege and self-entitlement of someone else's? Where the American dream was once to actually become something from nothing, it's now to imagine being something instead of nothing. Why make things better when you can just pretend they are?

And while these questions--and a million others--go unanswered in the radiowaves and splitscreens and messageboards and interblogs and Top 40 countdowns of this Bored New World, I'm still in the back of a smokeless room, waiting for someone, anyone with a kick drum and an amp, a vein in their neck and a thorn in their side, starving and desperate and raw, to step up and sing something with a heartbeat from the Other America, where there's something to prove and nothing to lose.

From way out here,

**I know, I know. I'm throwing fastball rocks inside the glass house I type in. Bear with me?

P.S. I posted the third new demo to Myspace. It's a song called "Don't Give Up On Me Now." It's about high school, and how much I love the Beatles, and getting laid at prom. Enjoy!


anonygirl said...

Sweet Hey-soos, I read that twice and it took even more of my breath the second time.

ross k. said...

Chris, that's why you've got to start doing some vo-kills. I've got a double-bass pedal and a china cymbal; we could make it happen. Play metal and you will shut the hipsters DOWN.

Hey, I slept soundly Sunday night for the first time in months. I was fortunate to see the only film that matters right now, There Will Be Blood. I don't want to explain it. The next time you're up for a movie, just get it done.

Michael said...

Tellin' it like it is.

Please fix it.

yes I did said...


If I wasn't already in love with you, I'd be now.

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