Fashion As "Consumer Entrepreneurship"

Each turn of the fashion wheel does not wipe the slate clean. People who “bet wrong” on fashion don’t get to start fresh with the same amount of credibility.

A few weeks ago, Tyler Cowen linked to this essay by Jason Potts about fashion, in which he likens fashion cycles to business cycles and argues that fashion is what allows consumers to assume risk the way that entrepreneurs do. It's an interesting read, though for me it mainly sharpened my sense of which assumptions about fashion I accept and which I reject. I agree with this:

fashion seems to be an expression of risk culture on the consumer side, just as entrepreneurship is on the producer side of the economy. Could it be, then, that a rational, open society not only accommodates fashion, but actually requires it as a mechanism of competitive advantage and productivity growth?

But rather than claim that "a rational, open society" needs fashion, I would change that to "consumer-capitalist society." Consumerism requires fashion to sustain growth. If consumers lack the will to "explore new consumer lifestyles" they may fail to spend and begin to save, thus crippling the demand necessary to fuel economic growth. Thus fashion -- consumer risk -- is necessary to make us discontented with what we already have and regard it as obsolescent.

Fashion is the "creative destruction" of our tastes in things. It undermines the cultural capital that exists in the tastes that currently reign, Potts suggests, and puts new cultural capital up for grabs.

When a fashion cycle comes to an end, those who placed unfortunate bets during it are put back on a more nearly equal footing with those who were successfully fashionable. To be fashionable in the next cycle, fashion victor and fashion victim alike must pay the price of tooling up again in line with the latest trends.

That sounds sort of egalitarian, which is not how I would describe the fashion world. Each turn of the fashion wheel does not wipe the slate clean. People who "bet wrong" on fashion don't get to start fresh with the same amount of credibility. It's not a roulette wheel. Fashion mistakes have a cumulative weight; misjudge trends and people will ignore you next time. If you keep changing fashions in an attempt to hit a winning one, you run the increased risk of digging a deeper and deeper hole, like a liar who is trying to maintain earlier lies by piling on new ones.

And people enter the fashion field with different levels of social and cultural capital to begin with; fashion is a means to leverage those differences and make them effective. Fashion allows a status difference to translate into being treated differently, preferentially. The process of making fashion change allows those with the cultural capital to have greater say in what form those changes will take -- they can guarantee that they will suit their strengths in other areas or assure that fashion serves other ends they have, like making a profit. And fashion is programmed; the industry dictates when changes will occur and has professional consultants to determine what those changes will be. They may bubble up from the street or from amateurs, but amateurs cannot validate their innovations culturally. They need to be sanctified by the fashion industry; they need to become sellable.

It is easy to see how makers of fashion-oriented product are taking risks -- people might reject the goods. But consumers shoulder an aspect of the risk involved in fashion as well -- and what is at risk for them is status and, to some degree, self-esteem. Fashion, Potts claims, "a mechanism to periodically liquidate certain elements of a consumer lifestyle, triggering the incentive to learn about new things and to demand new goods." Potts views this "social pressure" as an inherently good thing. As things go out of fashion we are prompted to engage with the world to discover what has become fashionable, thus expanding our "flexibility in consumer lifestyles" and allowing us to experience the "sublime pleasures of risk-taking" -- kind of like what the subprime crisis did for the financial sector.

Potts's bias is clear -- he regards entrepreneurial risk-taking as good and necessary for everyone: "Fashion is part of how economies evolve, not of how they decay. It is another name for consumer entrepreneurship: and the more we have of that, the better." But that assumes people are like businesses (the brand of self) that need to constantly grow, and that analogy is, in my opinion, false. The notion of an ever-expanding, limitless identity is a construct that suits consumerism, but is it not an inherent human capacity. We don't naturally long for an ever-changing, ever-growing self that is perpetually unsatisfied with itself. Identity can and does have limits; recognizing those limits brings peace of mind. Potts argues that "consumers who opt out of social competition for the 'quiet life' fail to develop their ranges of experience and capabilities." Perhaps, but nothing about a "range" of experiences makes it preferable to the experiences themselves, even if they be limited in number. Everything that Potts regards as positive about fashion pressure for the economy is probably not so good for individuals.

Fashion effectively functions as a mechanism to induce and accelerate learning in complex lifestyles, enabling these lifestyles to become more complex still, thus improving their productivity in generating valuable consumption services.... Fashion is good for the economy because it is a mechanism to promote experimentation, learning, and re-coordination.

The valuable consumption services come at we the consumers' expense -- our lives become more "complex". In other words, fashion is the means by which we are exploited for surplus-value extraction as consumers, to complement the way it is extracted when we are wage workers. For consumers, fashion does not "promote experimentation" -- it makes us the subject of experiments. It doesn't promote "learning and re-coordination" so much as anxiety and confusion and disorientation that makes "learning" a desperate necessity.

Fashion tells you that you are a fool to prefer the experiences to the range, and it applies "social pressure" to make you change your view. By following fashion and disseminating its dictates and by innovating on its terms, we create additional value for the retailers of fashion-oriented products -- a description that is coming to embrace virtually everything that can be bought and sold. All we gain for what we have risked is an enlarged but more tenuous sense of self -- it's an identity bubble, with an inflated value that's rooted in a superficial expansion in knowledge of trends. But it could burst at any minute by a blast of existential angst. What does it all mean? Nothing. It means you have to keep changing for the sake of change itself or else confront the emptiness.

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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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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