The pop cognoscenti and the holiday spirit

by Rob Horning

19 December 2006


It’s extremely counterproductive to feel obligated to resist the zeitgeist; when the holidays come this means resenting everything commercial culture dredges up to remind you spend, spend, spend. It means yearning to plug one’s ears with cement to blot out holiday music, and it means taking each Christmas card received as some kind of insult or provocation, rubbing your face in the fact that you haven’t gotten it together to get your own in the mail. Then there’s the contrived gift exchanges and fatuous sentimentality—I’m predisposed to see the worst in all of it because I am prejudiced against whatever appears to be popular and whatever “ordinary” people seem to be doing. No one wants to be ordinary, but growing up I latched on to the “alternative” ruse that one can be distinctive by having esoteric tastes and by advertising one’s contempt for whatever cultural artifacts and rituals have become things that relative strangers can share and bond over. Perversely, I tend to remove those things from my conversational repertoire and as a result spend an awful lot of time blogging to myself. With this strategy, loneliness and alienation become badges of true singularity. Congratulations, no one can relate to you. What an accomplishment.

Anyway, my instinct to sneer at this best-albums roundtable at Slate is what started me thinking about this. What put me off most was the writers’ enthusiasm, which was awkward for me because theoretically that is what I’m afraid consumerism obliterates. I’m always worried we’ll lose the public space in which to express enthusiasm authentically, since it’s usually cynically simulated in ads, devaluing all expressions of it. Perhaps that is what sets me on edge here—I subliminally suspect editorial fluffing, encouraging writers to be more effusive in their praise and hype when its deeply ingrained in me to think that the best things speak for themselves. Of course that’s not true—there’s too much stuff for anything to be noticed on merit alone; everything needs an advocate, needs to be known by someone important (one of the influential operatives Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point) who will spread the word. So what gets recognized and cited in year-end lists like this are the things that have been adopted in chummy networks of the privileged, those who feel entitled to have opinions and blast them out at everyone and can expect to be paid attention to. So the best-of lists are coded maps to these networks of influence, the same ones that keep elite colleges elite and keep media jobs in the family and keep American opinion-mongering ultimately homogenous and subject to observable, bankable trends. In some ways I think the “holiday spirit” can also be mapped to this network of the powerful congratulating themselves for how they have closed ranks—right now that is just a paranoid notion of mine, I think, but something about the oppressiveness of polite conventions seems intended to conserve power. Holiday cheer, the universal zeitgeist, seems a deeply embedded way of endorsing the status quo without apprehending the specifics of what you are affirming. The social machinery that manufactures what should be, what we should feel, what we should value, lumbers into high gear in the holidays, purveying a utopia-lite in lieu of any progress toward true egalitarianism, a synthetic Candyland where everything in our culture is made to seem bountiful, commercial rituals (which stoke capitalism’s creative destruction) reaffirm a specious continuity to social life, and we are invited to swap presents as though it can be achieved with none of the potlatch humiliation and overdogging that gift exchange is rooted in. Critics in the popular press effusing over all the year’s great works constitute one set of gears in that machine.

Seeing a dialogue unfold amongst this cognoscenti network regarding the most democratic of artforms, pop music, about which one can form meaningful aesthetic opinions without any prior training or education, is just extra depressing because you can sense the strain of the writers, who are obvious smart and sincere music lovers, trying not to posture while at the same time laboring to justify their coronation as “working critics”. They try to display their versatility and populism by referencing music from a spectrum of genres, kowtowing to contemporary country like Democrats angling for the NASCAR dad vote. They try to vindicate what is popular, avoiding accusations of elitism or irrelevance, but they slip in enough references to obscure musicians to demonstrate how they are slumming. They need to manufacture authority for their criticism in a field with no traditions for certification other than a lively, compelling voice, and consequently pop-music writing tends to be palpably narcissistic, preoccupied with methodology and metacritique of other critics, always reflecting back on the writer’s own right to speak. Perhaps all writing is this way, at the root of things. Perhaps this is just what it means to have a conversation.

I’m trying to think what I would prefer instead of this critical conversation. As much as I remain unconvinced by anything a music journalist gets paid to write, I actually find year-end lists useful—for though my instinct is to recoil from the popular, my way to overcome this juvenile behavior and try to combat the tendency of getting stuck in the music I listened to at 20, is to download whatever records the cognoscenti have elevated. I don’t like very much of it, but I feel I’ve done my cultural duty and forestalled nostalgia, for a few weeks anyway. If I could come up with a similar strategy for making peace with the holiday spirit, I’d feel even better.

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