Bored New World: How the Zach Braff Prototype Is Slowly Killing American Music

[25 October 2009]

By Chris Milam

“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

Turn on the TV at any given moment and you’ll see a Buick ad accompanied by 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 as Johnny Folk Hero, uninspired girls 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—sings along in the plaintive falsetto of their privileged 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 listening.

Welcome to the Art of Self-Entitlement.

I first noticed this trend a few years ago, new to the Nashville music scene myself while discovering my own identity as an artist and performer. I grew 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 making love happen all over his guitar. I watched Eddie Vedder diving off balconies, Kurt 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. 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 grew 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. These kids sang like they have nothing to prove, and something to lose, and crowds contentedly humored them.

A few years later, Natalie Portman popped headphones onto Zach Braff’s head and said flatly, “This song will change your life.” The resulting 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 soundtracked by the supposedly self-aware acoustic stylings of Joe Latte. Percussion and humor are nowhere to be found. Neither is a pulse. 

Social critics write increasingly about the “Two Americas”, and they’re partially right: the greater American populace has perhaps never been more separate from the wealthiest one percent. The richest minority (Beverly Hills, South Beach and Manhattan), have become the trendsetters for the other 99 percent in Birmingham, Springfield, Boise or Winston-Salem. To a degree, this has always been the case. Cities with the largest media outlets have always contributed the most to pop culture climate.

But while Tommy NewYorkBigwig used to pimp people’s art from everywhere else, now he’s only 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 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: coffee shops, love, cigarettes, or feeling like you’re in a movie), or sitting next to them, the underlying (and most offensive) premise is inescapable: all of this is happening because all of the people involved feel entitled to an audience instead of earning one. Of course people want to know about your relationship for two hours while Death Cab rings in the background—why wouldn’t they?

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 “recession”, “Afghanistan”, and “Lamar Odom’s new wife”. But here’s the point: 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 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 canceled 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 nothing in any of it coming out of the silver tongued kid onstage, singing like he’d rather be somewhere else.

Maybe the most troubling aspect of this entire phenomenon is not even the art itself, but instead its newly adopted audience (people who can’t relate to self-meditation, but want to). In our current climate, if you have access to a Facebook page, you have access to creating the World of You. Also available 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 that 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. Then everything’s smooth and dull and gravy. Why buy into your own life when you can buy into the natural privilege 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?

While these questions and a million others go unanswered on the radio waves and split-screens and message boards and blogs 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, hungry 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.

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