Culture

Social capital and the Facebook movie

I still haven't seen The Social Network: Does this enhance or harm my credibility to be avoiding it at this point? Am I on the vanguard of the backlash? Am I above the fray?

Regardless, I believe my ignorance of the actual film has allowed me to enjoy reading reviews and responses to it much more. Via @rortybomb, this essay by Joseph Kugelmass uses the movie to make some excellent points about Facebook and how it codifies social capital, pushing the protocols of networking (in several senses of the word) deeper into our everyday lives and friendships.

Kugelmass notices how the film elides the fact that the girl who dumped Zuckerberg in the beginning of the film has herself signed up for Facebook by the end:

This is the most outrageous action undertaken by any character in the film, and frankly I’m surprised that a caption didn’t appear to the effect of “Erica Albright also reached a settlement agreement with Zuckerberg whereby she would join his Facebook site when 63% of her friends had created profiles.” After all, Facebook represents everything, as a social technology, that Erica criticizes Zuckerberg for in person. Whether or not she accepts his friend request is irrelevant — even by not accepting his friend request, she is making an established move within the system that Facebook uses for ascribing social value to persons.

This is the real message of The Social Network. What matters is not whether you are an asshole, but how much symbolic social value you are capable of creating.

Facebook is a kind of social scoreboard, and none of the gestures it captures can remain innocent, for their own sake. It's a manifestation of Marcusean "one-dimensionality" or of what Baudrillard called "the code" with regard to consumerism, in which everything is homogenized into a signification of identity. The alienation from self is made total, as identity is detached from consciousness and becomes a brand to be managed. Our social network is literalized as the brand power of our collected friends, of the value of their power to signify, to make useful, redistributable meaning, to be "like"-able.

Friends are investments, then -- inescapably instrumentalized in Facebookland. Kugelmass points out that status updates are "your way of knowing how your stocks are doing. The precedent for the 'Facebook feed' is the old chattering spool of ticker tape, and most of the updates there will be attempts by Facebook users to assure you that your investment is doing well." He offers this example:

In other words, the subtext of an update like “Made sixteen cubes of mint-infused butter brickle today. Yum! Excited to serve at the party tonight” is usually something like this: “Fun little informal gatherings are always going on around here. I have enough leisure for demanding cooking projects, and I’m a bit of a homebody, in a delightful and comforting way. I also am not immune to pleasure, and can appreciate the orgasms implicit in a well-made dessert.”

Such considerations as these paralyze me and keep me from sharing anything on Facebook for the most part. But I think that my fatal strategy of silence will not hold up for much longer and will soon be a signifer of its own -- like not seeing the movie.

Upon noticing that someone has defriended him, Kugelmass writes that "the only way to think about his move is as a cancellation, by him, of his investment in me, and a surrender of whatever dividends that investment might ultimately pay. This enables him to put more of his attention elsewhere." I like the way that sews things up -- Facebook makes us all brands; we strategize ways for maximizing value in the form of attention -- which can be known and measured especially in the traces that Facebook (and the internet generally) enables, i.e. the liking and the sharing and the links and page views and so forth. Facebook makes attention into currency at the same time as it furthers our transformation into brands; the attention economy runs on internet metrics, not actual attention, which is ephemeral and eludes quantification.

I also love how Kugelmass concludes with a snippet of "Baby You're a Rich Man" -- the flip side of Lennon's "All You Need Is Love," which I argue is a sort of global anthem of one-dimensionality. His point seems to be that Facebook militates against interiority because it makes it clear how little it pays. We have incentive to externalize our internal weirdnesses and watch them evaporate into little niches of like-mindedness. This may seem like the cure for loneliness, but it's also the end of our lived-in sense of our uniqueness. Would anybody bother to say of their Facebook page what Dickens has David Copperfield declare in that novel's first line: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show"? We have already decided the question for the latter merely by participating.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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