Culture

Facebook and Cobain's Dilemma; Or, Reliving the Years That Punk Broke

You end up ruining all the cool things you thought you wanted to share with the world because you can't share them without tainting them with shameful self-importance.

I'm enjoying these AV Club essays by Steve Hyden about early-90s alternative rock (via mefi). I can't relate to regarding Pearl Jam (the poor man's Bad Company) as an important band at all, but revisiting Nirvana's emergence and the epochal break it signaled at the time seems worthwhile. It is easy to forget how "revolutionary" the concept of Nirvana on regular rock radio was back then, especially since Nirvana has been played side by side with Skynrd on classic-rock radio for more than a decade now. At the time, it didn't seem like Nirvana was supposed to be popular; it seemed that something had gone shockingly wrong with the usually smooth workings of the culture industry's demographic programming. Right or wrong, lots of music geeks suddenly felt a new responsibility for what was popular, because suddenly anything seemed possible. This didn't feel so great; no one is more invested in the established rules of musical taste than the connoisseurs who marginalize themselves through them.

What I'll always remember is being dragged to an apartment party full of frat-guy types early in 1992, and as was typical of the era, the Steve Miller Band's greatest hits album was playing. (This was a period in which the worldly-wise sophomores at the dorm I lived in as a freshman told me that if I wanted to get laid, I'd better have some Journey or Chicago tapes at the ready.) Then the disc player changed to Nevermind, and no one at the party even noticed. I felt instinctively and instantaneously that something horrible had happened while I wasn't paying attention, that the ground had been cut out from beneath me, and I'd need a whole new place to stand in order to feel smugly superior in my tastes. I never experienced co-optation in real time before, and I was young enough and naive enough until then to believe I never would.

After the initial shock passed, I tried to see the upside, tried to glory in what I thought of as "my" music triumphing. I had the idea that I would get newfound respect from the people who had ignored me before for having been into that kind of music all along. Of course, I was grossly mistaken -- the newcomers to Nirvana hadn't changed their attitude toward music at all; they had just embraced the new thing that had come along. It wasn't like they were going to turn to the likes of me and start taking dictation as I pontificated about all the other great bands I was into. It remained true that no magic combination of musical tastes was going to make social anxiety magically disappear. There would be no vindication, no recognition beyond the friendships I'd already made. Nobody, but nobody, cares who "discovered" the good music, and most laugh at the people who think it was themselves. I sort of learned that the hard way, and responded by retreating from contemporary music altogether for years. (Fortunately for me, this was right around the time that tons of fabled albums from the 1960s started to be reissued on CD, and it felt avant-garde to be into the Zombies.)

Hyden's second essay contrasts Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain, who apparently had a feud, despite being pretty similar.

Both men hated the press for spreading “lies” that often turned out to be true, and both were drawn to complicated women who created as much misery as ecstasy in their lives. Both men saw fame as a double-edged sword; it gave them the attention they craved after a lifetime of being ignored, and yet it also seemed to intensify their feelings of self-loathing.

Is it ridiculous to think that the problems of fame Hyden describes, once reserved for reflexive rock stars, now potentially afflict us all? Does microfame yield macro shame? My experience with Facebook has been double-edged in that way: It seemed I had a chance to redeem all that time I felt ignored, when I was one of the first to be into Nirvana and no one gave a damn. But I only rediscovered the same disgust with myself for wallowing in that miserable egomania, as Facebook forced me to recognize yet again that my tastes aren't really my own, because I still want so badly for people to applaud me for them.

Was this Cobain's dilemma, only writ small? You end up ruining all the cool things you thought you wanted to share with the world because you can't share them without tainting them with shameful self-importance. But you never feel important because self-worth is totally bound up with connoisseurship, with having the cool things that you want to share acknowledged. The trap seems even harder to escape now that the pressure and the means to share everything online is ubiquitous, and we're constantly appraised of how our wise deliberations are entirely ignored, at least by somebody.

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