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Thursday, Feb 23, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Low Skies
“Levelling” [MP3] from All the Love I Could Find
“You Can’t Help Those People” [MP3] from All the Love I Could Find
“Five’s Gone Quiet” [MP3] from I Have Been to Beautiful Places
“Ready to Be Done” [MP3] from I Have Been to Beautiful Places
“Down Below Him” [MP3] from The Bed
“Sad Hymn” [MP3] from The Bed
“Run Beside the Rhine” [MP3]

“Muscle Cars” [MP3]
“Drop the Pressure” [MP3]

“Murder License” [MP3]
“Zouave’s Blue” [MP3]

“Come, Sing Me a Song” [MP3]

Willie Nile
“Police on My Back” [quicktime]
“Streets of New York” [quicktime]

Secret Machines
“Alone, Jealous, and Stoned” [windows] [quicktime]

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Wednesday, Feb 22, 2006

Any would-be authority must seek to control the sources of social validation and legitimacy; the source of their power stems from being able to grant or withhold that kind of respect. The ceremonial aspects of power—the nomenclature, the rituals and so forth—are not merely ornamental but reinforce that sense that these institutions have control over the spiggot of social capital. In capitalist society, commercial enterprises, regardless of whatever specific thing they sell, must also be in the business of selling validation and legitimacy, or “cool,” which may be considered the source of value in a society ordered by what Veblen calls “invidious comparison”—by positional goods and status displays and so on. Once consumerism moves beyond providing subsistance goods, it shifts into this market of cultural validation, selling the feeling of belonging and of having a place; and its various agencies within the culture (advertisers, retailers, flacks, polticos, lobbyists, journalists—anyone with a stake in the zero-sum economy of cool) do whatever they must to undermine if not destroy any other source that provides those feelings. (Thus “amateur” and “local” things are delegitimized, made to seem irrelevant in comparison to masss society’s reach.) If it can’t destroy them, it will co-opt them, revealing to those parties involved the sort of profits that can be had in selling social recognition.

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Wednesday, Feb 22, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

Arab Strap
“Amante De Una Noche”—Japanese bonus track from Hug & Pint [MP3]
“Fuck-a-Doddle-Don’t”—Japanese bonus track from Hug & Pint [MP3]
“Who Named the Days?”—Monday at the Hug & Pint [MP3]
“Love Detective”—The Red Thread [MP3]
“We Don’t Make Each Other Laugh Anymore”—Quiet Violence [MP3]
PopMatters review

Stacs of Stamina
“For Crying Out Loud (That’s Loud!)” [MP3]

“Take It All Away” [windows]

Slow Runner
“Break Your Mama’s Back” [windows] [real]

Thandiswa from Zabalaza (Escondida)
“Revelation” [real]
““Ndiyahamba (I’m Leaving)” [real]

Pink Mountaintops
“Can You Do That Dance?” [MP3]
“New Drug Queens” [MP3]
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy” [MP3]

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Tuesday, Feb 21, 2006

Everyone hates hipsters, sure. You have to hate hipsters to be a hipster. But Bill Wasik, an editor at Harper’s, decided to use his contempt and make a kind of art out of it. Figuring hipsters to be fundamentally passive joiners who nonetheless have some pretense at being artistic, Wasik knew that he could make art out of hipsters, the same way, he argues, that Milgrim made art out of science projects using humans. Wasik managed to get hipsters to show up at various locations and do vaguely symbolic things in what would be dubbed “flash mobs,” and then he tracked the media response to all this and wrote the whole thing up for this month’s Harper’s. The whole thing is brilliant and far more worth reading than Lapham’s Impeach Bush screed, which is just obvious and depressing because nothing can be done.

Wasik argues that hipsterism threatens the power of branding I was getting all alarmist about in the previous post, because hipsterism is defined by the rapid adoption and then rejection of fads for the sake of adopting and rejecting them, which negates the point of brands, which Wasik sees as concrete manifestations of long-tended and fostered reputations. Hipsters, to Wasik, are a mass of deindividuated drones who exist only to mimic each other in a narcisstic clusterfuck that affirms one another’s significance. The mimicking is perpetual, so it needs new instances to induce the imitative gesture—hence the rapid accumulation of shallow fads. “The hipsters make no pretense to divisions on principle, to forming intellectual or artistic camps; at any given moment, it is the same books, records, films that are judged au courant by all, leading to the curious spectacle of an “alternative” culture more unanimous than the mainstream it ostensibly opposes.” Wasik suggests that the Internet’s instant distribution of diverting ideas makes hipsters into “cultural receptors” rather than an avant-garde that generates ideas. But the ideas they receive ar generated in their midst; they just slip out of control and become too big too soon; they are consumed like flashpaper by the typical Internet surfer, who is looking for nothing more than a moment of capitivated distraction.

Hipster deindviduation flies in the face of postmodern theories that repudiate the notion of identity, and posit the self as a construct. Such theories suggest one would elude conformism and collaboration with the System if one shook off the notion of identity rooted in gender, nationality, religion, class, etc., and remained elusive, undefinable, escaping focus groups and marketing demographics. By ridding oneself of the subjectvity that the prevailing oppressive institutions interpolate into bodies (i.e. the Ideolgical State Apparatuses and the “hailing” activities that Althusser posits), we elude the way the system means to categorize us and keep us in predictable boundaries. But instead of escaping to the margins, and presumably more authentic and spontaneous individuality and life, such people seem instead to become whimsical joiners, willing to perform these pseudo-artistic pointless “flash mob” acts just to have the opportunity to be an insider. Hipsters don’t want to escape the mainstream really; they don’t want ever to be outsiders, certainly not the semiabject outsider you’d have to be to truly exist at the cultural margin. True outsiders experince scorn and repudiation when they make contact with the mainstream, who sees such people as derilict. Japan’s hikkikomori would be better examples of cultural outsiders (if they weren’t busy netowrking socially by computer, perhaps?). By eluding the grasp of the Man, hipsters escape not to some paradise of authenticity and freedom but to something that threatens to be worse than mainstream quotidian life, a desperate vulnerability that has one turning anywhere for validation. Turning to one’s peers for mutual support, again, sounds like a good thing, but in practice we see what it amounts to—conformism, elitism, rituals of inclusion and exclusion, ostracism, vapidity, morbid self-preoccupation, disengagement, political quietism. (Just look how quickly I rejected the idea of clamoring for impeachment.) If Wasik is right, such flights to the margin implied by hipsterist rejections of the mainstream are actually mating calls enticing the mainstream and its commercial institutions to come clamboring after them, flattering them for their uniqueness and their rebellious attitude all the way.

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Tuesday, Feb 21, 2006

At the end of Rob Walker’s column about Cheerios in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, we finally start to see what’s at stake in his account of how brands like Cheerios apparently develop personalities that marketers then try to assess and describe to the brands’ owners so they may exploit that character. This leads to the creation of a job called “brand manager” whose role, according to the marketer Walker interviewed, is to ask and answer the somewhat surreal question, “If the brand were a character, what would it want?” The answer in the case of Cheerios: “I think the brand actually wants to enable family connection.”

Actually? Actually, the brand doesn’t want a thing, because it is a concept, not a sentient entity. Have these people lost their minds? Maybe I lack the imagination required to be a marketer (or maybe if I had a sense of the money at stake in these pretend games I could develop some imagination pretty quick) but this all seems like typical adman hucksterism, a pitch gull clients on route to gulling consumers. However, that is when the final spin comes—the admen are merely facillitators, taking the dreams and aspirations of the actual customer-enthusiasts of the brand and making them more tangible. The dopey ad Walker cites is inspired by letters written by actual consumers describing actual emotional experiences spurred by Cheerios. Thus Walker endorses the fundamental pitch: “It’s not what marketers can imagine their product doing, but what customers apparently believe.”

I suspect he supports this because he wants to ratify the claims that customers are not the tools of advertising and big business, and that the autonomy of consumption and the “off-label” uses and unexpected evolution of how products are used by consumers means that the options provided by a consumer society really are fulfilling and gratifying rather than demeaning and fraught with anxiety. It seems to confirm that favorite line of defense for industry, that they are giving people what they want, responding to their needs rather than dictating needs to them, as the more-paranoid purveyors of The Matrix-type cosmologies customarily invoke (We are made to beleive we really want what the System requires us to consume).

But even if this is a case of industry following the tune called by the consumer, it’s still creepy. The idea that customers write letters to celebrate brands suggests not so much gratitude for their existence but a recognition that brands have what society seems most to validate and treasure: fame, celebrity, universal recognition. This grants them the power that customers and marketers alike feel obliged to personalize. We can’t accept that fame at such scale wouldn’t take on a human guise, so we start to supply it. And then we seek eagerly to associate ourselves with it, to tap into the fame ourselves, get a piece of it. Hey, I know that brand too, we think, have know it for years—the way we might if a hgh-school friend was on the news or got a part on Days of Our Lives. When we pretend Cheerios is a part of the family, it’s not because it has brought family members together, but because it’s like having cousin become famous, it’s like having a family member of whom we can be proud, and about whom we can write celebratory letters. The brands become good sons and daughters, well-liked, successful.

We want to live vicariously through brands because they are our conduit to existence on the mass scale, and without them we feel bereft, unable to see ourselves as actors on that grand, international scale. Brands,  like ads, confer a kind of legitimacy, and remind us that any legitimacy we try to sustain independent of the world produced by consumer goods is suspect, not endorsed by the democratic masses, and thus something we should not really be taking comfort in. Brands are corrosive to the whole idea of intimacy; they bring the crowds with them wherever they go, and they are always reminding us that the crowd is more significant, more alluring, more powerful than we are, and anything we do without them is a little beside the point.

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